Twelve things a good writing group should give you.

Hat-tip the Big Green Bookshop Writing Group

Company. Writing is often lonely, and non-writers don’t always understand.  Attending a group gives the sense of shared endeavor , a place to vent your frustrations, and a place to share little triumphs that non-writers may not get.  It should be enjoyable!

Welcome.  People are interested in you and what you are reading and writing.  They explain the rules, introduce themselves by name and try to remember yours.  They make it clear that socialising afterwards is open to all.

Generosity of spirit.  Good groups are open to new people, new ideas, and new approaches.  Your personal goals are respected. They applaud your successes and mourn your disappointments.  They encourage you back on the horse.  In time, individuals offer to read your novel in draft, they sometimes drop you a line suggesting a helpful blogpost.

A safe space.  They accept who you are and where you come from, and within any publicly stated terms of reference, support you in terms of what you want to read.  They have clear rules on what is appropriate to share when.  If you are wanting to read sexual violence, torture, etc, ask the facilitator first beforehand. I can close my eyes in the cinema, and mute the sound on TV.  I can put down a book which goes darkly violent.  In a reading, you can’t moderate the material.

Some group discipline.  There is clear facilitating AND the group understands the boundaries.  Quieter voices are heard, discussion is focused but not military, friendly but not meandering.

It’s kind about how things are said, but honest about what is said.  

Critical skills. A good group encourages you to read and listen to other people’s stuff and develop your own critical abilities.  It is often easier to see and understand strengths and weaknesses in other people’s work, before realising the relevance to yourself.  It should encourage you to learn from reading published work.

Both valid and invalid criticism!  Hearing criticism of your work is hard to take.  Being a writer will mean criticism before, during and after the publication process. (If you didn’t like reading to a group, oh boy, wait until you get edited!)  I strongly believe you need not to defend the work line by line, you need to learn the art of taking in the comments, processing them, and deciding if they are valid/helpful.  Anyone who cannot take in criticism and learn what to do with it, won’t progress as a writer.  You need elephant ears but a rhino hide.

Focused feedback.  Criticism should be primarily about the craft of the work – factual accuracy should be flagged briefly for the author to check outside the meeting.  Don’t suggest making the main character a vampire or writing it in iambic pentameter, unless the author clearly signalled they wanted radical suggestions.

Accountability. A good group encourages you to keep writing, it will understand those periods when you are blocked or unhappy, but it will kindly push you in the right way.  Not every writer improves with practice, but no writer can improve without it.

A quest for competence.  The group share news about where you can hear industry professionals speak, they try to get that writer or that agent to come to a meeting.  They share what courses and books did for them.  They understand you can read too much advice and not do enough writing.

A mix of knowledge.  For Our Child of the Stars, I got to try out early chapters on men and women, on British people and Americans, on parents and non-parents, on people who have been in love with science fiction forever, and people who avoid it.

 

The thirteen point is perhaps a good method.  That’s a contentious matter for another post.

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All I want for Christmas…

Well, working on the Second Book, of which more later. I am at the stage of looking a vast pile of words which I am now looking to see if it is a polished train of narrative or just a heap of rusty wreckage.  This is an interesting point in the process.

I am in a Debut Authors group, which by the way of things is mostly full of Lovely Americans. Lovely Americans are lovely. Wouldn’t it be good if I got a US+Canada deal for Our Child of the Stars…

Being a debut author is interesting. The Quercus publishers team are working hard. Two months from Official Hardback Publication and you know, launches, articles, blogposts to write.  All of which is less stress than writing the second book.

Online reviews have been supportive and insightful.  I just need as ever the entire world to see buy the book, like it, and review it.

And to write the second book, so signing off now.

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How to help any new author

There are five easy things you can do to help an author that require no specific training or equipment.

Please buy and read the book! The main thing the author wants is for you to enjoy it.

Feel free to buy it as a print book, an e-book, or an audio-book. A smart author wants all readers.

If you like it, please, please talk about it – online and face to face.  Personal recommendations count.  If you’re a social media person, you know what to do.  You can help authors you like.

Please think about rating and reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads.  It’s easy – giving a star rating takes less than a minute.  Reviews do help readers decide; also, more reviews make the book more visible online.  A review never has to be an English Literature essay.  A few quick lines would be great.

Libraries and charity shops serve the broader purpose of promoting literacy. Most authors use them and encourage them.

Here are five things NOT to do when an author has a book out

Please don’t worry if you haven’t time or energy.

Don’t send bad reviews.  They’ve seen it.  You’re rubbing their face in it.

Don’t tell them their book is not being stocked in any particular shop. No shop can stock more than a minority of titles, and 99% of the time there is nothing the author can do.

Don’t be rude to booksellers or anyone else; don’t move their books in the shop.

Forget to buy it.

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NaNoWriMo Yes or No?

NaNoWriMo – national write a novel month – has been running for years.  It’s a writing challenge, where you pledge to write say 50,000 words in the month of November.  You can set a lower target if you like. You ‘win’ NaNo by completing it.

50,000 words is not a full-length novel, and it’s accepted by anyone who knows anything that what you write under these conditions is likely to be a rough first draft.  Rougher than a billy goat’s bum.

As I grow older, raining on other people’s parades pleases me less and less. I want to be really sure before I tell people not to do something. And I’ve never done the challenge, although I have often sat down and tried to write a very large number of words over a very small number of weeks.

NaNo generates almost cult-like enthusiasm, with my Debut Authors Facebook group full of good published authors ready to do it. My writing group loves it.  And yet, there are people in those groups who are silent, and some serious writers online warning it doesn’t work for everyone.

Here’s the case for NaNo

People may not start a novel because they are boggled by the number of words.   Write 50,000 and that kills the idea you can’t write a novel-length text.

A rough draft no matter how shonky is something to work with and improve.  Vast amounts of writing a book are in the endless editing anyway.

You may find pace and energy because you must write.  You may feel the story come alive in your hands and that gives you the taste for writing.  For me no plan lives until I am writing it.

There’s a supportive community, people share tips and encouragement, no one is rude to you for falling behind.

Writing more normally, a great many people endlessly cycle back to the start of the novel to change it.  NaNo whatever else it does, stops you doing that.  It is inherently better to finish and then fix even major changes in the first edit.  We see people in the writing group spending forever on the first third of the book, Groundhog Day.

Smart NaNo people spend October planning, researching, getting characters sorted etc.  You might write a book in a month starting from a prompt.  Wouldn’t necessarily advise it.

Here’s the case against

So, I know smart people who say that it has helped them as a writer.  Self published and traditionally published writers who still do it – although they are a) prolific and b) plan beforehand so they are not starting from scratch.

But then if NaNo was a vast effort, and what it led you to do was start again and rewrite from scratch in a fresh document… did NaNo help you?  If it gives you months of block, was it really that good?

In almost every field of life, getting nervous newcomers to set an impossible target and then fail is a bad strategy.

The writer @TimClarePoet who does an interesting podcast did an episode on NaNo.  He is flatly against.  If I can summarise his argument:

  • Tim says, if writing is presented as a tough, daily, grim challenge, it will feel like it. If you have trouble with your writing enthusiasm, it may crush it.
  • He cites many writers who take a two or three month writing break post NaNo.  Bluntly they burn out.  They could therefore try a much lower daily total or even ignore the daily total, and be further ahead in the same time.
  • Tim believes in trying to make the writing a joy. Try to write every day without bludgeoning yourself with a total.

Where am I?  Sceptical.  Partly for me, I know I could churn out 50,000 of word product, but not if in full time work.  I just don’t know what I would have on 1st Dec would be worth working on. If your difficulty is plotting and structure and focus, as mine has been, just getting words down might not be helpful.

I have seen claims of the liberating power of NaNo that are clearly ‘very optimistic’, although not every writing coach, agent or editor is hostile.  I wouldn’t argue anyone out of it but I wouldn’t advocate it either.

I think one of my most treasured learnings is that you can learn from different and contradictory writing processes.  Too many writers extol a Golden Path which is different from the next writers.  Be clear on your aims, be clear NaNo need not be your usual process.  Treat it like a particular challenge that does not have to be your life.

What I’m doing in November is committing myself to write or edit every day come what may, to finish the rough first draft of Sekret Second Book.  That’s because that’s where I am and deadlines. Not NaNo.

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Pompous letter to Society of Authors magazine

Our hero got annoyed at articles in the SoA magazine referring to wooden books as ‘real books’.  They published this…

Those of us who wish to write in the new reality should distinguish between personal taste and a universal moral law.  Printed books, e-books, and audiobooks are all ‘books’.

I like the physicality of a printed book, and of browsing a bookshop.  I read a lot on computer screens for my day-job and I don’t enjoy novels on a Kindle. I think I skim more on screen [1].  I loathe the idea that, like my daughter, I should read novels on a smartphone.  I don’t listen to audiobooks.  As a reader, I have a preference.

However, as a writer, I wish to get my story into the heads of the reader without dilution or intermediary.  All these means of delivering a story are fine by me.  I have no intention of lecturing complete strangers with different tastes, if they will buy and consume my book.

Those who like the cheaper e-book are in my experience, prolific readers and given to online reviews and discussion of the books they read. 

I suggest the Society of Authors adopt a house-style under which ‘books’ refers to any of these delivery methods, and then run a competition for the best term for the traditional version.  I vote for ‘dead tree books’, which to be clear, are one of the truest loves of my life.

The Society of Authors offers excellent advice and support, grants and networks.  It’s a bone fide trade union for authors.

[1] I think I skim more reading novels on screen.  I edit my books on screen and I am not sure I notice the same effect

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In praise of the crappy first draft

Some writers craft each sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter as if they are a Swiss watchmaker.  And when they get to the end, a quick polish and the book might be ready to be shown to someone else.  Hey, if that works for you, great.

I’m not like that. Writing a book explores how your characters react to each other and the world.  Writing a plot tests it for coherence, probability, and interest.  Writing your ideas may shift how much you want to emphasise one thing or another, or begin to strengthen and draw out themes that were not explicit in any plan.

I think that would be true even if you plan chapter by chapter in advance.

There is every reason to believe your first draft will need at least one major revision, at the level of character and structure.  Probably more than one.  So it feels to me that aiming for it to be perfect as you go is a mistake.

I am 30,000 words into Mysterious Second Book, and already I have lists of things I want to add, strengthen and possibly remove.  I have a choice, to go back and redo what I’ve already done, or keep ploughing on, taking notes.  I’m also leaving scenes that aren’t working to come back to them.

If I must be happy with everything I have written, and I must write everything I need up to this point, I could hover for months endlessly refining.  I could get stuck on a scene I may decide in the end I don’t need.  Better to have the whole thing done, however patchy in places, and then know what you are working with.

So, when someone says the first draft can be crappy, they don’t mean that bad writing is good, that everything in it ought to aim to be crappy.  They don’t mean, in my experience, that they don’t read each chapter over and fix or annotate obvious issues.  They’re saying, they have let go of what they have written first off needing to good enough to show.  It will be the second or third draft, perhaps, that might be fit to be let into the light.

The most important writing advice is probably read a lot.  The second might be, don’t do what Famous Author says they do just because they say so.  Understand why they do it.  Maybe, you should try it, maybe you should accept it, maybe it is the best advice for you ever.  Maybe, you will end up like other authors who don’t do that.

What you don’t need is a folder full of the first thirds of several different novels, each polished to gleam and yet abandoned.

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I Will Write You A Short Story

Authorsforfamilies.org is a group of literary people mostly from the US who got together on Facebook, to support immigrant children separated from their families.

Ripping children away from their families in tears and locking them up in cages, and no-one speaking the kids’ languages… and no paperwork… no easy way to connect a kid and their parents … we have this crazy idea that this is a Very Bad Thing. ***

So, we are fundraising to help, and we’re doing an auction.  There are lots of books, critiques, and advice things to bid on.

I’ve offered to write you a new, original short story.  Yes YOU, if you bid the most.  Cool, huh?

Here are the details.

It will be a story for age 16 + but without excessive sex and gore.  It will be between 1000 and 10000 words.  It will probably have some science fiction or fantasy take, but probably not vampires, werewolves, or zombies.  At the moment, I try to write things which end with hope.

It will take how long it takes.  I’d be surprised if I didn’t get you a draft within a couple of months, but what I will promise is fortnightly updates.

When I send you a draft, I’ll listen carefully to comments, but I won’t be planning a major rewrite.   I have a book deadline.

Will you like it?  I hope so, but there’s no realistic way I can write this unless we’re grown-ups, and accept that you might not.  I’d have to grill you about your taste for hours, and it would still be incredibly difficult to produce something you liked.  It may annoy you.  I hope not, but let’s accept the possibility.

We speak by email.  You give me four prompts.

  1. A name
  2. An object
  3. Something about style or setting or genre
  4. A line (poem, song, book, play) or a visual image but not of the object

I will try to use three of these, and it may be central or tangential, literal or figurative.

Of course, it’s fine to throw in some personal comments ‘Stories with aliens in give me hives’ and I may listen to those.

My decision as to whether I have delivered to you a story within the above parameters is final and no refunds will be given.

OK legal bit, as it has my name on it I keep the copyright and will publish it on my website.  The story will always be used with the line ‘Written for [you] after their kind donation to support Authors For Families.’  Unless you want to remain anonymous. You can put it on your website and send it to people in your Christmas letter, and we should talk about anything else you want to do with it.

It will come to you in British English, or a sort of weird hybrid I write when I set things in America.

An odd collection of my stuff is here.  I hope you enjoy it.

Bid early, bid often.

***You don’t think it is a Very Bad Thing?  Convo over, mate.  Educate yourself.

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The Seven Deadly Habits of Ineffective Writing Groups

Even a terrible writing group can spur you to write more.  But having sampled many groups over the years, here are some real problem areas.  Even a good group can drift into these problems from time to time.

(tongue in cheek)

Unwillingness to be critical.  You could read the telephone directory and get a chorus of ‘Oh, that’s lovely.’  If people won’t or can’t give constructive feedback, just buy a dog instead.   Dogs give unconditional approval and you can think about story ideas when walking them.

Ignorance.  The one person who sold a short story once (to Wee Scottish Fluff) dominates discussion of the market, even when they are wildly wrong.   There’s uncritical recycling of unattributed stuff. Spreading myths about writing, agenting, self-publishing when clear, reliable and disinterested information is available.

Lack of ambition.  No-one talks about personal goals, or cares if you are meeting yours.  After a while you realise people don’t act on feedback.  But ambition should be personally decided and owned.  To me, ‘I just want to finish this memoir for my grandkids’ is as worthy an ambition as ‘I want to win the Booker.’

Poor discipline.  The loudest voice dominates.  People are interrupted. The first to leap in sets the tone of the subsequent discussion, no matter how ill-considered their comments.  People talk about the content of the writing, not the writing.

Brutality.  People are destructive, personal, and unpleasant in their comments.  Maybe they are frightened of new people, or worried other people are better than they are, or they are just horrible people.  They don’t understand the difference between ‘I’m sorry, for me this paragraph came across as racist’ – about the writing -and ‘You are a racist’.

Mine is the One True Way-ism. People should offer freely what worked for them and what didn’t, but step back if you are doing it differently.  In turn, be open minded about what they say works for them.

Unsafe.  Some groups are bigoted, or unwilling to protect individuals from inappropriate comments or readings.  The group has no clear rules about what can be read, and any necessary warnings.  Your working assumption must be if you read about sexual violence, at least one person in the room has direct personal experience. In here I throw the usual unfortunate dynamics: men talk more than women, and interrupt more.  Regulars may dominate newcomers.

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