Monday, May 26, 2014

Group think...

Are you a member of a writers' group? Everybody seems to be a member of a writers' group these days. Even the books on writing laud the institution of writers' groups and their positive impact on learning writers.

Well, I've been a member of several writers' groups and, to be honest, I've found them to be a hit-and-miss proposition.

At its best, a writers' group brings you in contact with other creative, talented and committed writers who can give you helpful criticism of your work and exposure to other ways of thinking, working and writing.

At their worst, writers' groups are merely collections of untalented, lazy and lonely people who come together on a regular basis to gossip and complain, people who scribble a paragraph down on the back of a grocery receipt an hour before the meeting just so that they meet the minimum qualifications of the group.

At one such group, I encountered the horrifying proposition of having one writer bring scene after scene of the most banal but explicit erotica, just so that she could get her kicks by "reading" her dialogue aloud in a dramatic format with a particularly handsome male member of the group. When he expressed his discomfort to some of the us after one particularly awful meeting, we tried to suggest to the writer that she might benefit from having "other voices" act out her work.

She threw a tantrum.

I dropped that group right after that.

On the other hand, I've been in groups that have been massively helpful to my writing. I've worked with very talented, committed writers who worked hard on their own work between meetings and gave excellent, insightful comments on my writing at the meetings.

I still keep in touch with many of those writers and am pretty delighted when I see them get their stuff published, as several have.

Is there a moral to this story? I'm not sure. Maybe it's this: find a writers' group that looks like it would be helpful and then be a hard working, committed member of it; take a moment to review your membership of the group about three months in and dump it quick if you find you're getting little or nothing out of it.

There is another lesson I've learned: never be afraid to try to recruit the talented, hard-working, intelligent members of a writers' group you have quit to join you in a new, better group. A bit mercenary and perhaps a trifle cruel, true, but that strategy has worked very well for me on a couple of occasions.

My two best writers' groups sprang from the wreckage of some very poor ones.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Sometimes it's nice to get some feedback...

From the isn't-it-nice-to-be-a-writer file.

I was in a coffee shop the other day, standing in line to pay, when an acquaintance approached to say hello. She is a teacher at a local school, a school at which I had recently made an appearance, presenting to a grade six class on the topic of stories, history and my Abigail Massey books.

My acquaintance and I chatted for a second, then she called one of her colleagues over to introduce us. It turns out that her colleague was the teacher who had originally invited me to speak at the school in the first place. Unfortunately, as a result of scheduling issues, the teacher had not been able to be there for my presentation.

So this was the first time we'd actually met.

"I've heard wonderful things about your presentation," the teacher told me, smiling broadly. "The children were very excited and told me all about it the next day."

I thanked her for her kind words and remembered how good I had felt coming out of the presentation. I thought it had gone well and that the kids, mostly 10 and 11 year olds, seemed to have had fun. At least they paid attention the whole time!

"It's hard to get children interested at that age," the teacher said, "and to keep them focused for any period of time. So I was really pleased to hear how well it went."

Talk about your nice feelings inside! As I mentioned to this teacher and my acquaintance, I have absolutely no problem standing up in front of large groups of adults and giving a talk. I've presented to groups as large as 100 or more people and never suffered even an ounce of nerves.

But children? Yikes. As Phoebe said on Friends, "Kids are different: they actually listen."

I have always felt that one of the hardest things about being a writer, especially a small-time privately-published writer like me, is the lack of feedback, positive or negative. Nobody reviews you in the newspaper; you don't have a long list of comments on GoodReads or at your website.

So it's a great feeling once in a while to get this kind of positive response. To be told, in effect, "you done good." Especially with reference to a situation like that where I really felt nervous going in to the classroom.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

That "Holy Crap" moment for a reader...

Sometimes you pick up a book, start reading and think: "Holy crap, this guy can write."

And then you think, "I can really learn something from this writer."

And then, "I don't need to go back to work today, do I?"

That's how I felt today an lunch when I found a used copy of Truman Capote's 1965 docu-drama In Cold Blood in the sale bin at my local library.

I had heard a lot about this book, and about the Holcomb murders that spawned it, but had never been able to find a copy at a price I was willing to pay. So, when I found the Vintage International paperback version for just a buck, I didn't hesitate.

I started reading Chapter 1 on the short walk back to the office and that's when the "Holy crap" exclamation leapt to mind.

I walked right on past the building in which I work, found a park bench and permitted myself the five extra minutes necessary to finish reading that first chapter. Then, and only then, could I force myself back to work.

Capote spends this brief first chapter introducing his reader to the town of Holcomb and, instead of producing a boring recitation of facts and figures, he paints a picture so vivid you can almost taste the Kansas community. To borrow one of his own phrases, Capote's writing is "desert-clear" and rivetting, his diction perfect, his metaphors and similes inventive and satisfying, and his construction of the chapter to culminate in the introduction of the horrific crime that will be his focus ingenious.

The final paragraph of the chapter, a long, climbing passage from the introduction of the key date to the impact it would have on the sleeping town, is in itself a masterpiece of writing.

My favourite sentence n that final para begins at about the mid-point: "But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises -- on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles."

Awesome. The casual insertion of a key detail ("a Sunday morning"), the purposed introduction of the first discordant word in the entire para ("foreign"), the word both connoting and identifying difference, the clever use of alliteration ("normal nightly Holcomb noises", "scrape of scuttling", "racing, receding") to remind us that Holcomb was a close-knit, closely-related community of like-minded people, all combine to create an astonishingly effective sentence in which every word works.

I expect In Cold Blood to be a rivetting read and I don't expect myself to be able to force myself to read it slowly enough the first time through to savour in detail the quality of Capote's writing. So that means multiple readings. And, if that first chapter is any indication, I will deeply enjoy every one of those readings.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

There's a lot more to writing...

Writing is not just writing.

Unless you are one of those people who write for yourself, scribble away in a personal journal or lock your creations away in your desk for no one else to see, there is a lot more to writing than simply putting words down on paper.

Sometimes I think there is so much more to writing than just writing that a real writer never actually gets time to write.


Here it is, a cool, rainy Saturday morning and I have some time to myself. My dog has been walked, my partner is still asleep and the world isn't about to come knocking on my door at this hour.

Time to write, right?

Well... It depends on what you mean by "write". If you mean, catch up on my blogs, those catchy little ditties that I have to put out on a regular basis to keep up my readership and to maintain the public profile all of those "How to be a Successful Writer" books and websites tell me I have to maintain in order to be a published author someday, then yes, I'm writing.

But it certainly doesn't mean I'm writing the actual book I'm hoping to sell to a publisher so that I can add the "published" part to the dream designation of "published author".

I haven't looked at that book in weeks.

Being a writer also includes reviewing and editing, recording pod casts, maintaining websites and social media accounts, acting as my own publicist and manager and accountant, and then becoming my own publisher when all else fails.

Being a writer is a full-time job, even if you never get around to the writing.

Amazingly, it's also a lot of fun! And quite rewarding. And, no matter how much I rant on a Saturday morning, you do eventually get down to writing the thing you really hoped to write in the first place.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The art of giving feedback

Have you ever noticed how many people who ask you for feedback on their writing really don't want feedback on their writing?

They thrust it so willingly into your hesitant hands: "Be honest," they say. "Be brutal. I need to know the truth!"

But then you look into their excited face, read the expression in their avid eyes and think: "Like hell! You're not ready for honesty, not to mention brutality; you just want me to tell you it's great."

Giving feedback on a person's work is as much about reading them as about reading their writing. You have to be able to tell what they are prepared to hear from you and you usually can't get that from the words they say when they ask for your feedback.

It's worse when the person is a friend or co-worker, a person with whom you plan to continue to have a relationship, even after your feedback is delivered.

If you see any fear in their eyes, you know they can't handle the truth. If they are totally amped and excited when they hand the manuscript over, you know they simply want you to confirm for them how wonderful their writing is and that the agent they sent it to the day before is just going to love it.

Sure, you can still be honest with them. You can read over their manuscript and send them back forty pages of notes and suggestions. But they are going to be crushed and they likely won't speak to you for a long, long time afterward.

I've done it. I've received that manuscript; I've seen the fear and excitement in the person's face; I've understood that they've already formatted it for submission and had fifty copies made to send out far and wide.

And I've come back to them with a fair but honest critique: the plot makes no sense; the main character is flat and unlikeable; the secondary characters lack depth; and the climactic scene manages both to be confusing and to move at a glacial pace.

Even the spelling and grammar is problematic.

And I've watched the excitement turn to disappointment, the fear turn to anger, and the relationship turn to dust.

These people just want to be told how wonderful their writing is. They want their own excitement to be confirmed. The last thing they want when they ask for an honest critique is an honest critique.

That's why I try to refuse whenever someone asks me to review their work. Or, at the very least, I try to establish exactly what they want from me and what they're prepared to accept.

It's great when they really want to hear the truth. When they are looking for honest but constructive feedback and they have the time and inclination to do something with it. That's fun. That's exciting. That can be an incredibly rewarding process, for both parties.

But, unfortunately, those situations are few and far between. So proceed with caution. Be only as honest as the person can handle.

It's not really lying. It's simply being strategic with the amount of truth you tell.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sometimes being a writer doesn't involve writing...

What a strange week for this writer.

I have gotten absolutely nothing done on my own writing projects and yet, when I look back, the week was filled with writing.

First, a colleague at work approached me to ask if I could read over and provide suggestions on a narrative children's poem she's been working on with her mom. The goal is to find an illustrator and get the poem published as a book.

Neat idea. And, because I really like this colleague and appreciate her sometimes warped sense of humour, I'm quite excited to give this poem a read. I'm hoping it crackles with the author's joyful nuttiness. If it does, it's sure to be a winner.

But that's a big "if". I've met a lot of wannabe writers who tell a great tale when you're sitting around with a drink in your hand but then, when they try to put it down on the printed page, the story loses something. A lot of things, in fact.

There is something about the act of writing that makes most people incredibly self-conscious. The verve, the colour they bring to the spoken word can often get lost in the translation to the page. I hate seeing that.

And I don't think it's restricted just to creative writing. I don't know how many times I've been handed a work-related document to review only to find that it makes absolutely no sense.

So I go to the writer and I say, "Tell me verbally: what are you trying to say here?"

And they sit back, think for a moment, then rhyme off a perfect, concise, often artfully phrased explanation of what they intended to write in the document.

"Okay, go back and type exactly what you just said," I tell them. "Don't even think about the act of writing: just type it exactly as you spoke it out loud."

"But... but...."

"We can clean it up later. Just go and type it."

Works almost every time.

Of course, my colleague in this case has written a poem -- a children's poem -- so that might be even more difficult. We'll have to see.

Second (you forgot there was more than one element to this, didn't you?), I dropped by a charity book sale at the local mall yesterday and found, much to my surprise, not one but two books by people I know.

Wade Hemsworth is an old and dear friend who used to work in newspapers. His Killing Time is an exceptionally good true crime book about a murder that took place 20 years ago in Ontario. I think it was the first time anyone I knew got a book published by a real publishing house.

The book sale offered a copy of Killing Time that had once been a part of the collection of a public library out here on Canada's east coast. Weird. And cool. I'm pleased to report the book was in pretty battered condition, meaning it had been read often while at the library. I'll have to report that to Wade.

And then I found, at that same sale, a paperback copy of Cathy Vasas-Brown's crime thriller Every Wickedness. I first met Cathy after she had written and published this novel with a major American house when, for some reason I still don't understand, she decided to enroll as a student in a mystery writing course I was teaching in Hamilton.

I have to admit, it was weird for me to be teaching a class on writing to a person who had already achieved the ultimate in the business but it turned out to be a fun experience.

And finally, to round out my writing week, I was contacted by a member of my family who also happens to be a judge. He wants me to review and edit an article he's written that will be published in a book next year.

How cool is that? This man is one of the smartest, and best, people I know and he's an absolute expert in his field. I have no doubt that the article will be both interesting and enjoyable. Whethere I can contribute anything of value is yet to be seen, however.

Not a bad week, I must say, even if I accomplished nothing with regard to my own writing projects.