The Benefit of Writing Groups

Back in March, I decided I wanted to return to the commitment I made last year to write every day. My NaNoWriMo critique group started up again in February, and I put up an accountability calendar in March. I wanted to ensure that I would have a visual incentive and reminder at my desk. But I was feeling the urge to connect with other independent professionals more often.

Initially, I organized a weekly video meeting with a former coworker of mine. I envisioned that we would be a support for each other, since my former coworker runs her own business. The arrangement worked for about a month, and then became untenable. We were unable to continue, and I felt bummed.

Then I realized that what I needed was to get support and connect with other writers. While it was great to work with my former coworker again, I needed something more relevant to my work. Since I have had trouble doing work in my house, I thought it would be a good time to start getting out of the house once a week to do work in New York City. I’d just go in, find a cafe, write for the afternoon, and then go home.

April was Camp NaNoWriMo; it’s similar to NaNoWriMo, except you set your own writing goals. I decided to work on the memoir I started in March. I went into NYC three or four times to write for Camp NaNo write-ins. I decided to reach out to my NaNo writer’s critique group and find out if anyone wanted to join me. I knew that at least one person who might have time to meet, and others might be looking for the same thing.

I sent out an email to the group, and a few people answered. With the exception of this week, I have been going on Wednesdays. Two to three other writers join. We sit down, and write for a few hours. We chat about writing and non-writing topics. We get to see each other on a regular basis.

One of the other writers is a group facilitator who started her own business called WIP Squared: Women in Process with Works in Progress – a community for women writers. Since she was starting up a new group, I decided to join. In addition to weekly call-ins, we have a Facebook group where we can post to both give and get support. We’re already half-way done, but it’s added another level of support that I’ve needed.

By having several groups, I have more opportunities to meet writers who are on the same path. We are all trying to keep to to our work schedules, deal with personal and professional obstacles, and have someone (multiple someones) on our side, cheering us on. I’ve felt much less isolated, have met writers along varying points in their careers, and have already had opportunities to share what I’ve learned as well as learn from others. The benefits of writers groups flows both into and out of a writer, no matter who or where they are in their writing careers.

April is CampNaNoWriMo Month!

Do writers need an excuse to write? The answer seems to be yes.

Not satisfied with attempting to write 50,000 words every November for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), the NaNo creators responded to demand and created Camp NaNoWriMo.

The great part of Camp NaNoWriMo is that you set your own word goals. The minimum word count goal for April is 10,000. Just like in November, the regional NYC NaNoWriMo liaisons have regularly schedule write-ins. These are kind of like sit-ins, but we don’t protest except amongst ourselves about how slow and difficult (or not at all) the writing is going.

CampNaNo started off with a bang: our very first write-in at Argo Tea on 7th Avenue and 26th Street. Argo Tea is a fantastic spot for anyone who needs to do computer work. They have many outlets built into the bottom of the booths and along the edges of the tables. You can buy yummy food and tea that earns you a code for two hours of wireless service, or you buy access to the internet for hours or the day.

Five people showed up, and we wrote and talked writing shop. I had a great time and decided to stay after the event was over. I wrote 3,300 words for my first day of writing, bringing my total to just over 10,000 words. My goal was 10,000, but that was before I learned how many words go into the average memoir.

My plan is to write a memoir with the theme of my illnesses and how they have affected my life. Maybe I won’t end up doing anything with it, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to write something worthy of publication.

Surprisingly, memoirs contain around 65,000 words. When I wrote my six-part series of blog posts on my illnesses, I amassed around 6,600 words. When I found out I have to write 65,000, I felt overwhelmed. I somehow had hoped that it would be a lot less. Those zeros after the numbers sure look impossible at the beginning. I’m not sure how many words I’ll end up with, but I’m hoping I can get at least half of it written this month.

That’s how it felt when faced with getting my college degree, my IT certifications, and then my gradate degree after I was accepted but before I started. All the work, look at the time, and how hard it all must be! But I performed my work diligently, consistently, and with the intent of producing quailty work. If I’ve done it before, I’m kind sure and hoping that I can do it again.

Accountability and Writing*

I made it through the first 10 days of NaNoWriMo. The story is about a teen wizard who blows himself apart into 3 separate people, one of whom is insane and out to destroy the other two. Who will be victorious?

When writing in NaNoWriMo this year, I was a “pantser” – someone who wrote by the seat of their pants without regard to structure. The point is to start writing and keep writing. I made it to 10,057 words out of a 50,000 word goal this month. Then my auntie passed away on Monday, and I gave up.

I also “pantsed” it the first time I did NaNoWriMo in 2008. I put a lot of thoughts that were into my head onto paper. A lot of it I knew was terrible, but I just needed to keep going.

This year, I struggled writing every word. I wanted to give up, but kept pushing. And I probably would have kept going, maybe, if my auntie hadn’t passed away. My mind was elsewhere and not onto my writing. I considered reverting to my still unfinished 2008 NaNo story rewrite, but even that couldn’t get me going.

In the week before my aunt passed, I reconnected with a friend online and over the phone. Both of us work independently. In the course of our discussion, I suggested that we talk on a regular basis to support each other through our challenges. My friend A suggested once weekly, and we talked again this week as well.

One significant challenge I have had is keeping up the enthusiasm and commitments to myself. By committing to talking to a friend who, although she is in a different line of work, can both give and receive advice, we both benefit. A and I met at a mutual place of employment, so we are already know we work well together. We both work hard, try to give the best service we can, and want to spread our wings instead of working under someone else.

My friend has been far more successful than I, which is why it is extremely important for me to connect with someone that I respect and that I have a weekly meeting to discuss work. I feel accountable to both my friend and myself. I have to do some work so I have something to discuss.

Unfortunately, this week is shot. However, on Monday, I will restart my rewrite of my 2008 NaNo story that I had throw out about half of the words because they were rambling and did not fit the characters.

For now, I start the beginning of saying my final good-byes to my auntie.

* I apologize for not writing my post yesterday as my aunt’s death has occupied much of my thinking as of late. 

Negative Feedback Smackdown

I was disappointed when H, a writer whom I have admired for his insights, did not attend my short story critique. I knew I would get his pointed comments, and I looked forward to what he had to say.

Several days later, I received an early morning email from H with an attachment. I knew what lay inside that little paperclip. I let it sit tight so that I could meditate and do yoga in peace. Right upon waking up is not usually the best time to deal with harsh words. Later that morning, I emailed H just to thank him for providing feedback.

I had to ready myself before I began reading H’s comments. H had warned me ahead of time that his feedback would be brutal. I was a little shocked. His questions, frustrations, and admonitions littered the pages . As I read, my tummy jumped and turned as if I was on a rocky boat. I laughed nervously, but I made it out alive.

One curious thing was that his comments abruptly stopped. In some ways, I was relieved that I only had 11 pages of his comments instead of the full 29 pages! Although I was curious why the comments stopped mid-story, I was hesitant to ask H about it. I reasoned that it was for personal reasons that he was unable to finish giving me feedback on the full story.

I also I realized that not one of his comments was positive – not the character, the gist of the story, a word written here or there. Nothing. As part of our critique group feedback rules, people are required to talk about things they liked as well as point out issues with the story. Because of this, I decided I could ask him whether he liked anything at all.

Emails traveled back and forth. H pointed out a line that he liked and commented on. I couldn’t find it. At this point, I asked him if there was a reason that he stopped on page 11. I let him know it was totally cool with me if he couldn’t comment on it all.

Apparently, the commenting program he uses put in an extra page so he thought that was the end of the story. No wonder he was frustrated! H read the 11 page version three times hoping to see if he could glean some insight from additional reads. I felt honored that he would so take the time to try and understand a work which so clearly frustrated him. On the plus side, he said he was excited that he had more to read.

After the exchange, I reflected on what happened internally during this time. I feared his feedback. When I read it, I felt uneasy. And then I realized that reading through his commentary wasn’t in reality all that bad. More than that, I had survived pointed criticism on one of my stories. Furthermore, I knew that I could use H’s feedback to better my work.

In one of H’s final emails, he said he would be even more restrained in his feedback in the future and point out a couple of magnificent (!) lines. I told him:

And don’t change your feedback on my account – you can be you, and I can wipe the sweat off my forehead and be glad I made it. You know, it’s really OK. It will help my story in the end, which in turn will help me be a better writer. This was my first ever story I wrote beginning to end with the intent to write a story in my adult life. So there are going to be problems with it. Suggestions large and small are welcome.

I consider this a personal triumph that will allow me to continue moving forward in my creative life. Hurray!

NYC Writer’s Group 1st 2014 Critique Session

Yesterday I attended the first critique session of the NYC writers group that I joined late last month. A longstanding group member, who I will call TS, had shared two chapters of a romance story. I read the story twice and decided to make “big picture” comments, which is what I tend to notice when giving feedback. This is one of the reasons that being an editor has appeal for me.

Approximately 30 people showed up today to give TS feedback on the story. We started by stating our names, our preferred genres, and our writing goals. At least five people said that their goal was to “finish something” by the end of the year. I was so happy to hear that I am not alone.

Each person had two minutes to give one positive and one constructive comment to the writer. In addition to the written feedback that each person contributed, TS wrote as she heard our feedback. A few pauses were needed. Almost everyone kept under the two minutes. And then the floor was opened up for discussion.

Wooo-whee!! Was that ever intense!? And I’m not even the writer! I was surprised at how many people, including myself, felt so passionately about making TS’s story work. TS did a great job of explaining her reasons. The story and characters are well rounded, for the most part, and the dialog worked very well. Two intense hours later, the session finished. I was a bit worried that I would be in tears when my time to share came.

However, I left with somewhat excited feeling that I have a lot of work to do on my Butterfly Wings rom-com story that I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2008. BW is my “to do” that needs to become “to done” for 2014.

Writing can be improved. Dialog can be made believable. Characters can be flawed human beings without being too stiff or stereotypical. I can see that, in the frenzy of writing 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo, a lot of extra words made their way into the story as I was figuring out where to go with it.

I have to keep trying. To keep trying is to keep writing is to keep improving is to keep living. I can not imagine my life without writing being a part of it, whether it is this blog, fiction, or in a journal.

Can you?

Under Consideration: NYC Writers’ Group

I recently signed back into my NaNoWriMo account after a few years because I decided to edit my novel for publication in 2014. The information about my 2008 novel had been removed, and I added it back. Through getting reacquainted with NaNo site, I discovered that a NYC writers’ group was looking for members.

I went to the initial meeting at the Whole Foods cafe in Tribeca on Greenwich Street. The four group leaders expected about 10 people to show. One hundred and twenty-five people signed up, and about 40 attended. Despite the raging noise all around, the leaders seemed to do a good job explaining the format, expectations, what kind of feedback to give, and the schedule.

The group format is meet every other week from February through the end of September on one of three days. You send your draft of 6,000-10,000 words to the group email at least one week in advance so that readers have a weekend to review what you send. At your scheduled meeting, critics bring their notes and give you verbal positive and constructive criticisms while you keep your mouth shut and listen. When all the critics have done, then you can ask questions of the group.

Getting feedback, we are told, requires thick skin and the bravery on par with mountaineering up K2. I am not sure how we as writers have come to view our writing as deeply personal extensions of ourselves. I tend to be sensitive to criticism, so I am going to take this opportunity to learn how to live with it and, more importantly, improve my writing and editing abilities.

After I wrote Butterfly Wings in 2008, I tried to edit the story. However, my own pessimism and internal critic depressed me until I gave up. When I have given up on endeavors, especially artistic ones, this is how it happened. I used to believe that a thick skin could be grown. Through therapy and exposure to new situations, I have tried to thicken that skin more times than I can remember. After over 20 years of lessons like these, I think I have been going about it all wrong.

To grow a thick skin would be to dull my sensitivity to other people’s words, actions, and feelings. Even if it were possible, I think that a more useful ability is to tolerate the personal pain of criticism and judgments in order to become better at one’s craft. The question should not be, “How can I grow a thick skin”? Instead, the questions should be: “Is there anything useful in what I hear?” and, if so, “How can use it to improve what I do?” If I were to grow a thick skin, then I would become something and someone else that I would rather not be: a closed person who is insensitive to others and, ultimately, closed to personal growth.

The first meeting is on February 8th. I ask the Universe (and my friends) to guide me in the direction of growth, change, and challenge.

Butterfly Wings: My 2008 NaNoWriMo Story Revisited

For those of you who do not know, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which occurs every November. The goal is to write a 50,000 word story in 30 days. No editing, just from the creative part of your brain, without editing or backspacing or anything (Not that I was actually able to not do any of that). It is easier than it sounds.

When you spend time writing a story, you find it hard to forget about it. Even if you try via a life dedicated to procrastination, some things just will not leave your mind. Writing a story is one of those things.

I started off writing about some feelings and ended up writing a romance novel about a Boston librarian who is trying to get her dating life in order after a nasty divorce, but her parents and ex-husband have other plans. Hilarity ensues. I’m not sure how good that premise is, but that’s what I wrote. It started pouring out of my brain, and I just ran with it.

Writing a story makes you want to do something with it instead of simply looking at file sized 317kb dated November 30, 2008 and remembering that you wrote something. You don’t want it to sit there like an animal that has been left on the side of the road to die. You want to rescue it, apply first aid, and get to the doctor’s office right away.

For starters, I printed out my first draft last night. This is what 3/4″ of single-sided, double-spaced, left-justified story typed in Times New Roman 12pt. looks like printed out in all its raw glory:

Image

First, I will reread the story from beginning to end without lifting a critical pen. More than four years is quite a long time to let a story sit in your computer basement. I will remake my acquaintance with Butterfly Wings (the working title), before I start marring her beautiful white dress with my editor’s blue ink.

After I get to know her better, I will go through my draft again and draw an outline so I can get an idea of the flow and understand where gaps and boring prose may be lurking before I turn on the editing side of my brain and have at it.

As I am beginning a technical writing business, editing my story will help give me more structure to actually being the writer I want to be. Even if all I do is self-publish and sell 20 copies of this story to my friends, I will have accomplished something concrete with my words, which is another way of saying I will get an acknowledgement for the words I speak. This is all I have ever wanted.

Once soon after I wrote Butterfly Wings, I tried to follow the ideas at the end of NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM! by Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo. Except for school work, I have never been able to look back at what I have written in stories or poems and analyze them without considerable anxiety. When I sat down to do the steps in Baty’s book, I only went so far and then I had to abandon my editing. The fear overwhelmed me, and I ran away, per usual.

As I have said before, 2014 is about embracing what I have learned through meditation and therapy: breathing when fear arises, waiting until it passes, and then moving forward anyway. The old amygdala is trying to save me from pain, but it also has been saving me from joy. Time to learn to deal with one so I can experience the other, too. A life driven by fear-avoidance is a poor one. I know that only far too well.