Is a Writing Group a Waste of Your Time?

friendEditors

Quick answer: they can be. Or not. Depends.

Don’t you love answers like those?!?

But seriously. Much does depend on what the group’s purpose and who’s attending it.

Purpose

Though types of writing groups vary, two primary categories are critique groups and creative groups.

Critique Groups

There’s no one way to organize such groups, but the members should all have one thing in common: improving their writing, which means being willing to hear honest (though polite) feedback on their writing. Some groups include a variety of writing types while others are specific to fiction or articles or poetry. It’s up to the group, but important to have enough experience among the members to avoid ending up with the blind leading the blind. If only one poet meets in a group of magazine article writers, that poet isn’t likely to get helpful critique.

Creative Groups

More free-flowing, these groups focus on getting together to flex their writing muscles, without necessarily having the goal of publishing, and without criticism. In the latter case, this type of group is 180-degrees from a critique group. Often patterned after Natalie Goldberg’s guideline of ten-minute segments of free writing, the group can use a variety of prompts, focus on any type (or all types) of writing, and include the option of reading what’s writting to the rest of the group. The important things here are to keep things positive: no critique, no judgment, no gossiping outside the group about what was written so everyone can feel free to write whatever pops into their heads.

Which is Better?

Each group has its benefits. Accustomed to many years of critique groups, I was a little out of my element in a creative group at first. I wondered if my Wednesday mornings might have been better spent “doing my own writing” rather than meeting with the group. What I discovered was the group’s insistence on taking a prompt and following it wherever it led opened up my writing heart to possibilities in ways it hadn’t in many years. While drafting my recent novel, “Pea Body,” I found myself “riffing” (as musicians might say) — heading down paths I probably wouldn’t have followed before being part of the creative group. I would have censored my ideas before they even had a chance to express themselves. As a result, writing the book was much more fluid than any other book has been for me, and much more enjoyable. The creative group demonstrated to me how easy it was to trust my writing instincts, and how well it could pay off when I did.

Critique groups have also benefited me, but in more predictable ways: I found more boo-boos, got harder on myself when I was tempted to give my plot or characters the easy way out.

But there’s an underlying advantage to critique groups that many people miss. More on that next time!

A View of Self-Publishing from Canadian Author Lin Weich

On our journey to Alaska this past summer, we traveled through much of British Columbia, Canada, and were rewarded with amazing food, great shops, and wonderful people. At a farmer’s market in Quesnel, we paused to peruse the booth set by the local writers’ group. A novel caught my eye, and a conversation began. Lin Weich has had a fascinating life and now writes stories born of her experiences, which she self-publishes.

LinWeich1

What compelled you to start writing fiction? Have you always written or made up stories? Was there a particular incident that got the writing momentum going for you? If so, what was it?
On a trip to Prince Rupert [BC] shortly after I retired early from teaching, I passed the sign on the highway that warned girls not to hitchhike on the highway of tears; then while on a mothership kayaking tour I asked the captain of the vessel if he’d ever run across any smuggling…one thing lead to another and I wondered if I could actually write a book. The story just came together (Strength of an Eagle). My second novel Half-Truths, Total Lies was basically started by a dream. My third book (Alone) is one of several running around in my head. Now I can’t stop writing! Previous to this I had no interest in writing.

How has your real life influenced your writing?
Writers write what they know and research and embellish the rest. I live a very outdoor life, have taught for many years, am intrigued by self-sufficient lifestyles, travel both in Canada and abroad. Couple those influences with the belief that everyone you meet has a story hidden inside them just waiting for me to tweak out…

Why did you decide to self-publish your books? Did you seek a traditional publisher or an agent first, or plunge right into self-publishing?
I spent two years trying to “sell” my books to both agents and publishers rarely getting past the gatekeepers. Publishers are not interested in new talent as they simply can’t afford to take a chance on unknown writers. Vanity press (self-publishing) has evolved into a now reputable option and with the advent of e-book publishing I decided to go the self-publishing route via a known company. Some writers might consider print on demand and doing their own e-book formatting but I do not have enough technical knowledge for that route.

How did you choose your printer? Cover designer?
I chose Friesen Press after doing a lot of research. It is more expensive but it is a Canadian company based out of Victoria, BC. Part of the package included cover design. There were also modules on selling your books, deciding your focus and goals etc. I purchased editing services from another company before I chose my publishing company.

Do you take your the cover photos? If not, how do you choose them?
The cover image for Strength of an Eagle is my photo. Half-Truths, Total Lies and Alone use stock photos available from various websites. Initially I wanted to use another of my photos for Strength of an Eagle but the pixels were not sufficient for a good quality cover.

What’s been most challenging for you as writer and publisher?
Waiting for other people to do their jobs, the selling/marketing aspect, although you would have the same problems with traditional publishers because authors must do their own marketing.

What rewards have you reaped by self-publishing?
Moderate success re- selling, people read and like my books, which is the best reward.

Would you consider traditional publishing?
The jury is out on this one…I wouldn’t say no if they came knocking but I like the complete control you have with self-publishing.

How has being a member of a writing group helped?
My writing group affords some opportunities for selling books and perhaps some moral support. I have a very supportive friend who also writes and have beta readers who are quite skillful. I need to reach out to more writers and online groups.

If you could give an aspiring writer advice about whether to self-publish or seek publication via traditional routes, what would you say?
Know yourself and your goals, have a good manuscript ready and edited, consider how much time you have to devote to seeking agents and publishers, do you homework about what traditional publishers want regarding queries etc., do your homework about self-publishing companies…compare the packages…It is very expensive. Know how much control you need to have over your final product, develop an ability to take constructive criticism, know how long you want to try with traditional publishers…it truly is like winning a lottery. Most importantly, if you self-publish, have a good product if you expect to get anywhere. Do not go with a company that is willing to publish anything just to get your money. Self-publishing is coming into its own but only if the novel reflects quality work.

Thanks, Lin!

To learn more about Lin’s work, visit her web site at www.linweich.com; contact Lin directly by accessing her site, then clicking the “Contact Us” link.

Lin Weich, a retired teacher, writes suspense thrillers, enjoys freelance writing and photography. She grew up in West Africa and has lived in various places in both eastern and western Canada. She lives in Quesnel, British Columbia with her husband Brian. Her kayaking adventures, teaching experiences, outdoor activities and travels have influenced the substance and voice of her stories and photography. When she isn’t busy creating stories, she enjoys travelling both in Canada and abroad. Lin has published two novels Strength of an Eagle and Half-Truths, Total Lies. She has also published articles in Our Canada, More of Our Canada, Postscript, Rocky Mountaineer brochure, and Royal Photographic Society (Canada) on-line magazine.

Semi-Cozy?

You’d think something is cozy or not, but semi-cozy? Is that like a quilt that’s just a little too short? Or a cabin in the woods with just a few too many drafts? A fire in the hearth that burns a little too low?

I’m making my case for why my newest novel, Pea Body, is a semi-cozy mystery. “Cozies” — like any genre — have fairly specific conventions their writers are supposed to follow. Pea Body follows most of them, but not all, and fudges on a few. Of course I think that makes it a better novel than if I’d followed all the rules, or I would have toed the line.

For example, most cozies feature a single woman as its main character (MC). She generally has at least one a male love interest who’s connected to law enforcement in some way. This is not only to capture a bit of romantic intrigue, but to give the MC/amateur sleuth a sounding board for her theories and often an “in” with whatever investigation she’s found herself involved with.

Cozies eschew overt sex and four-letter words, so they tend to be the shy stepsisters of the more violent and gritty hard-boiled mysteries. You can tell by their covers — usually cartoons of women (or domestic pets) in a bright setting that only suggests something terrible is happening. They’re a light read.

I’ve read dozens of these books, mostly to learn the genre, and I still can’t swallow the idea that murder should be a light read.

So like any great cook, I added a few things to the cozy recipe, substituted others, and omitted the ingredients that just didn’t fit the new mix. That “cozy” taste is still there, but it’s been layered with some other flavored nuances.

Pea Body features a couple — Walt and Betty Rollin — who’ve been married many years, and have been living what’s called the “full-time RV lifestyle.” They sold their house and travel full-time in their RV.

Can you see how my premise defies the cozy convention at it’s most basic level? The series features a couple rather than a single woman, though the story is told first person from Betty’s point of view.

Another convention I couldn’t swallow was how often people in the same little cozy communities kill each other. Or get killed by some nasty outsider. Putting Walt and Betty on the road all the time means I’ll get to write about various places we’ve spent time. It’s also more credible that the same people keep running into bad circumstances — the more neighborhoods you visit, the more likely you’ll run into bad situations and awful people (trust me on this).

There are allusions to sex (Walt and Betty are happily married; why not?) and though an occasional four-letter word pops out, it’s usually from a secondary character. I see avoiding bad language as a wonderful opportunity for word play. Giving Betty and Walt substitutions for swearing makes writing their dialogue (spoken and interior) much more fun.

Does my grand experiment work? We’ll find out.

I just know a few things from this experience:

1. I learned what I was supposed to do before I chose an alternative. This way I consciously weighed the convention — and reader’s expectations — against the choices I faced.

2. I wrote the book true to the characters and to the readers I imagine would most enjoy reading about them.

3. I accepted — embraced, actually — that writing a “semi-cozy” meant I would be best served publishing my book myself rather than hunting down an agent who would (most likely) want me to change things to fit the convention.

4. I’m happy with what I wrote. In another year I might not feel this way, but for now… it’s all good.

🙂

Found Prompts

Prompts are everywhere. We just have to be able to spot them and know how to use them. Take receipts, for instance.

receipts

Ever pick up a random receipt someone left in a shopping cart or tossed away and give it a close look? You should.

What did this stranger buy? What time of day or night was it? Did they pay cash or charge it?

For a writing group prompt, I collected receipts from all sorts of places — grocery and department stores, bookstores, gas stations…. then handed them out randomly to members of the writing group, set the timer for ten minutes and bam! Away we went, writing whateverthe receipts brought to mind. And the results were — as usual with this group — amazing.

You don’t need a writing group to do this — just gather receipts when you find them in good condition (ignore the ones in parking lots that have been trampled over… nobody wants cooties…!), stuff them in a pocket for writing time, then pull one out to get your creativity flowing.

Stuck in a current project? Wondering what move a character should make next? Use that receipt as a way to get your brain moving in another direction: What if the character goes someplace where they’d get this receipt?

*What did they purchase? Why?
*Is this part of a normal routine? If so, did they vary the routine? Why?
*Was it a good idea for them to do this? Why or why not?
*Did they make any other stops? What were they? why did they make those stops?
*Did they bump into anybody at this place or somewhere along the way? If so, did that person influence what they bought? In what way? Why?

Can you see how this can lead you in a lot of directions?

Well? What are you waiting for! Go find a receipt! Okay… here are a couple to get you started….

receipt1 receipt2 receipt3 receipt5