WRITERS WORKSHOP: Your Writing Support Group

This is the outline for the last session of the NaNoWriMo Prep Workshop series we did at the library last Saturday. Apologies for the wonky format. WordPress changes the Harvard outline format to just numbers.

For more articles on prepping for National Novel Writing Month, start here.

For other general writing articles, click on “Writing” under the drop-down menu in the Category field to the right, or one of the writing tags in the tag cloud.

 photo Self-Censorship is lose-lose_zps3a9ym6hu.jpg
Compromise is part of every relationship, but a writers group that works for you won’t limit your creative expression.
    1. What is a writers group
      1. It’s a group of writers who meet together to improve their craft.
      2. Hopefully, it’s a group of writers with a good balance of similarities and differences.
    2. Similarities:
      1. You all have similar end goals:
        1. Having similar goals doesn’t create competition, it creates a network. You can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. I’m not talking about a specific goal like you all want to be traditionally published or you all want to be Amazon bestsellers within a year, but similar goals like you all would like to be published in some way, within a year of finishing a specific story.
        2. Not having similar goals can lead to some writers feeling resentment at other writers for having deadlines or not having deadlines. Successes might not mean as much to the group. Personal failures might be harder to get over if no one cares or understands or cares to understand.
      2. You have similar comfort thresholds:
        1. It’s very difficult to talk about a horror scene or a sex scene with a flinch-free writer (flinch-free is a category of stories that are comparable to PG-13 movies; no sex, no cussing, no violence). As much as you want to be super welcoming and all encompassing, it’s a lose-lose situation to have to censor yourself when talking about subjects that are important to you and relevant to your story (ie, trauma, abuse, revolutionary violence, sexual awakening). Censorship is a writer’s kryptonite.
        2. On the other hand, flinch-free stories fill an important need for people who enjoy reading but may have religious restrictions or other personal reasons.
        3. This also pertains to cussing. Some people feel like cussing is terrible and people who cuss are lazy and cussing in writing is lazy writing. Other people feel like it’s part of who they are. Again, a lose-lose situation to try and combine a group of people who need to explore such subjects and use such language with a group of people who avoid such things.
      3. You have similar schedules:
        1. This is up to you and it dovetails with the “similar goals” topic: If you want to make writing a career, you have to treat it like a job. And writers groups are like team meetings or meetings with other department heads. If you meet too often, you’ll have less time to get your own things done. If you don’t meet often enough, you lose momentum, accountability. You lose your way.
        2. It will depend on your personality, but there has to be some discipline. For example, I need a writer’s group that meets twice a month. That’s my sweet spot. And because I have a busy schedule, it needs to be anchored better than “we’ll meet some time in the next few weeks”.
        3. In a group, look for people who are willing to anchor a time and place but have some flexibility and compassion if emergencies arise.
 photo Not the same genre_zpskpywqdmy.jpg
Every genre can teach you something, but everyone has a preference, and everyone has their limits. Steer clear of members who are too dismissive or condescending about genres they don’t write.
  1. Differences
    1. You don’t all have to write the same genre.
      1. In fact, I prefer groups with a good mix. No genre is pure and the best stories are sprinkled with tropes from all of them. (However, genres *do* exist for a reason: so readers can find the type of stories they want to read.
      2. Once you’re in a writers group, it’s helpful to remember what genre the story is supposed to be, and approach critiquing in that manner. IE, the emphasis of developing a Love Interest is stronger in Romance than in Horror.)
    2. You don’t all have to have the same skill.
      1. That’s like only hiring people who have at least five years of experience. New people need guidance. And the thing I like to say to people who think they’re too good to hang out with “beginners” is, until you can explain something to a beginner, you can’t call yourself a master at it.
      2. Also, beginner writers are as close to pure readers as you’re going to get. Hopefully, they’ll have a fresher viewpoint of what makes sense vs what doesn’t make sense FROM A READER’S point of view. They see things from an “innocent” point of view, and with experience in seeing how a story gets put together, that innocence fades.
      3. CAVEAT: You will grow more if you’re challenged by someone at your skill level, or higher. If you join a group with a lot of beginners and you’re more advanced or maybe even the most advanced, you might end up spending most of your time teaching the same things repeateadly rather then improving.
    3. You don’t all need to have the same opinions about writing techniques, favorite authors, etc.
      1. It’s more interesting and helpful to work with someone who can teach you something new and challenge you with something you don’t agree with. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” – Lots of famous people.

  2. Size and Experience

    1. Some caveats:
      1. Size:
        1. The size of the writing group: In this instance, choose a size that fills your needs but there are pros and cons to the extremes.
        2. If the writing group is very small, say 3 to 5 people, the pro is that you get a lot of time and focus on your own piece. The con is that if one or two members can’t regularly make it to meetings, you won’t meet as regularly. You’ll also get more variety in experience and critiques.
        3. If a writing group is large, about ten people or more, you have a higher chance of meeting more regularly, but you might not get as much focus on your work. You’ll either have only a few minutes of critiquing or go several meetings without getting personal help.
        4. In really big groups that call themselves writers groups, they might have events where you just read your work but get no criticism, or events where you all go out to dinner some place and just talk about writing in general, or you have speakers come to talk to you about the writing industry. This can be helpful, but it’s more like a group of friends doing things together rather than the intensive work you can be doing for each other.
        5. Example: a 4-member writing group that meets for 2 hours can devote about half an hour to each member, per session. A 10-member group meeting for the same amount of time can only devote about 10-12 minutes to each member, or each member takes turns with some writers not getting any feedback for weeks/months a time.
    2. Experience:
      1. If you get a mostly-beginners group, you could end up having a teacher-pupil relationship in which you do most of the critiquing but you don’t get challenged. Or if you’re part of the beginners crowd, you could end up being dependent on one “teacher.”
      2. If you get into a mostly everyone-has-been-published-somewhere group, it’s a good place to network, and your writing could improve by leaps and bounds, but you might have to deal with egos or impatience.

  3. Are the criticisms helping you, or taking advantage of your vulnerabilities?

    1. How to know when it’s not the right fit:
      1. People. Are. Mean.
        1. I’m not talking about criticism that’s hard to hear. That kind of criticism is difficult to hear because you know deep down in your heart that they’re right about that 30k word prologue, or the suggestion that you might not be using a word correctly, or a character is too unbelievable. It might hurt because it’s true and it requires a HUGE effort to fix.
        2. But there *are* mean people who give feedback that’s designed not to help you but to take advantage of your inexperience or to make themselves feel good.
        3. (This is a major difference between a writers group in real life and getting critiques in writers forums. IRL, you hear intonation and see facial expressions; you can know someone’s intent beyond the words they use. Online, critiques can be misread, and they’re delivered without the softening influence of an encouraging smile or quick inside joke.)
      2. People think YOU are mean.
        1. If your criticisms are constantly being questioned, the people you’re working with might not be ready for that next level of writing, which is the level where you actually show your writing to people other than your mom or best friend.
      3. Going along with this and the “common goals” criterion above:
        1. There are two rough categories of writers: those who write for the public, and those who write for themselves.
        2. Those who write for the public will respond better to critiques. Those who write “for themselves” as in, therapeutically, or they don’t know if they want to publish it, might not want or respond to feedback. It’s possible, but difficult, to have both types in a small group.
      4. Another sign it’s not the right fit – People are condescending about your skill level or your genre. This is an indication of their own limited dealing with the writing world. There is value in all points of view, wisdom to be learned in every experience, and the boundaries between genres are and should be fluid and dynamic.
      5. The feedback isn’t challenging anyone. — If it’s a new group, people might be getting a feel for everyone’s comfort level. But if they’v been meeting for a while, this could be an indication that this is an Atta-group, as in Atta-Boy! or Atta-Girl! It’s great for fragile egos and tender souls, but your work needs to be put through a cleansing fire, not a lukewarm bath.
      6. The criticisms are designed to make you write like they do.
        1. This is insidious and egotistical and it will eventually kill your voice if you don’t catch it in time. The most obvious sign is if someone says “I would do it differently”. The less obvious sign is overuse of the word “should” as in, “you should make that scene longer” or “you should write about X instead in that scene.”
        2. “Should” is helpful if it protects you, like preventing you from accidentally looking like a misogynist, as in “you should have more female characters that aren’t just girlfriends he has to rescue.”

  4.  photo Writers Responsibilities_zpsccd7spy2.jpg
    If you want writing to be your career, you have to treat it like your job. Respect the skills you need to learn in order to accomplish your goals.

    On your end, how can you tell if you are ready for a group:

    1. You can differentiate between giving an explanation to be understood and giving an explanation because you feel defensive.
      1. For example, someone says that a scene seems unrealistic.
      2. There’s a difference between “I need to have a scene like this because it foreshadows the climax and highlights the growing tension between A and B.”
      3. Versus: “In the chapter I gave out last week, I put in a lot of clues that this was going to happen. It’s the cornerstone of this whole section in my book which I’ve been giving you guys for weeks.”
    2. You go in with the attitude “I don’t do rewrites.”
      1. Don’t. Just…don’t.
    3. You take everything personally. You might not be ready for a group dynamic, and maybe some one-on-one time can help you grow a thicker skin.
  5. How to give critique:
    1. When in doubt, use PCP
      1. Praise
      2. Criticism
      3. Praise
    2. Example: The apple pie in the first scene helped introduce the theme of innocence. But in the third scene, Aunt Marge seemed to act out of character – I suggest using more foreshadowing to hint at her possible reactions. By the end of the chapter, I like how you tied up some loose ends but left me wanting to know what really happened to that pie.
    3. If it’s your first time getting feedback and criticism, remember this idea: “I am a mass of photosynthetic cells. Criticism is like sunlight. It may burn sometimes but it will help me grow.”

This, above all: it’s not about you, it’s about the story.

When you’re ready for one-on-one help:

  1. Alpha Reader

    1. You don’t pay an Alpha Reader
    2. You don’t need one, but they’re helpful
    3. You find them by asking a friend (doesn’t necessarily have to be a writer) to be your idea bounce-board/ look at drafts as you write them; you can also ask a friend (another writer) to be your Critique Partner.
    4. A Critique Partner is another writer who can look at the writing aspects of your outline/rough draft/notes, working with you through the literal creation of the first draft.
    5. This person is the first person you show your story to.
      1. An Alpha can provide feedback before you even write the story.
      2. An Alpha can take a look at the roughest first draft as you write each chapter or
      3. An Alpha can look at a complete rough draft.
    6. They look at the big picture and offer first impressions like:
      1. What “works” and what “doesn’t work”
      2. Huge gaping plot holes
      3. Confusing things
      4. When you lose their interest
      5. Unbelievability
      6. Truly repellant characters
      7. Etc.
    7. What they don’t look at or do (What you should not expect from them):
      1. Don’t expect them to correct small details like grammar/spelling throughout a complete rough draft. You might need to change large chunks, and this will be a waste of time and energy for both of you.
      2. Don’t expect them to solve your plot holes or tell you what happens next. It’s *your* job to create the story.
    8. Caveats: You might not be ready for this kind of relationship if
      1. You don’t really have a story, just a concept or world or character.
      2. You don’t know anyone who can provide you with the feedback you’re looking for (writing level, level of maturity, professionalism, willingness to be honest about their opinions, etc.)
      3. You don’t like people watching you work, and you only like showing people something complete and as polished as you can make it.

  1. Beta Reader

    1. You don’t pay Beta Readers.
    2. You need at least one.
    3. You can find one through your writers group, social network, or forums. But just because someone offers to Beta for you, it doesn’t mean they’ll actually read your story. There are people who offer to Beta just so they can read things for free. Be careful in choosing – ask around, ask for referrals, etc.
    4. A Beta Reader is a person who reads your complete story AFTER you’ve self-edited it to the best of your ability, BEFORE you’ve submitted it to agents, publishing houses, or independently published it anywhere. (They are Beta-Testing your product to find flaws before it goes to mass market.)
    5. A Beta can tell you if you’re successful in communicating your story to the reader by looking at:
      1. Plot development
      2. Character development/inconsistencies
      3. Detail continuity (John has blue eyes in chapter 1, brown eyes in chapter 10)
      4. Theme development
      5. Pacing
    6. Caveats: (Same as with Alpha Reader), PLUS:
      1. There are many different kinds of Beta Readers, at different levels of writing skills. Some might not even be writers, but they’re *expert* readers overall or in specific genres.
      2. What one Beta might consider a “flaw” could be another Beta’s “ground-breaking experimental structure by the literary genius of our time.”
      3. Since they’re not getting paid, they’re under no obligation to actually do anything more than tell you, in a few sentences, how a story made them feel. If you need more feedback than that, you need to find a Beta who wants to or can give the feedback you need/want. (It might benefit you to have a few casual Beta Readers and hire editors for the heavy lifting.)
    7. Guidelines for choosing a Beta: Know your Beta. This isn’t about trusting them with you and your muse’s love child. This is about understanding your Beta’s talents and limits. Asking these questions up front will lead to an easier relationship down the road.
      1. How do you prefer making notes? Some blessed souls do Line-By-Line (LBL) notes in which they’ll literally look at each line for detailed ways to improve it. Others will give you a paragraph or two per chapter. Some will just give you a few sentences at the end of the story.
      2. Do you read my genre? 
        1. If you pick a Beta who hasn’t read your genre or doesn’t read it enough, they may question why your focus seems to be on the romance blooming between Peter and Prescott, when obvi they should be focused on X, Y, or Z instead.
        2. Or they’ll look for elements they’re familiar with and lament the fact that there’s actually no dragons in the entire story. (I once gave a self-proclaimed fantasy-expert friend a fantasy story and he said he didn’t like it because it had no nudity, sex, or dragons, like his favorite show, “Game of Thrones”)
        3. Does this mean you must pigeonhole yourself into genre-specific Betas? Absolutely not. Take what help you can get but be conscious of their background and apply your knowledge to what they make comments about.
        4. A reader of historical fiction may question the evolution of magic in your world, which could mean that something rings false and you need to include more worldbuilding elements. A Beta who reads mostly YA may ask why your younger characters talk and act like adults. A Beta who reads mysteries may point out that a lot of your details seem purposely misleading.
      3. Agree on a Finish date.
      4. Ask if you can Beta for them either now, or for a future project.
    8. A good Beta will help your current story. A great Beta will help your writing career. Their comments and critiques should challenge you. Swap samples first. If most of their comments make you feel like your story is bulletproof, you might need a Beta with more experience.
      1. A Beta is not your WIP’s housekeeper; do not expect them to fix your mistakes. It is your responsibility as a writer to have a firm grasp on your craft’s tools.
  • This includes knowledge of:
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Dialogue Punctuation
  • Manuscript format for your chosen method of publication
  • Spelling
  • Genre elements
  • Betas should receive a WIP that is as close to perfect as you can make it so they can find the flaws you couldn’t catch.
      1. Respect each other’s boundaries; Betas will not rewrite scenes, chapters, your entire book for you, nor should you expect that of them.
      2. Respect each other in public: If the Beta finds a flaw or suggests a change, reflect on their comment and either implement or ignore. A comment advertised out of context can make you or your Beta look bad.
      3. Be honest and curious, not defensive. You can scream “So and so doesn’t know what he/she’s talking about!” to your dog as long and often as you want, but it’s unprofessional to do so to the Beta, especially in public. Betas work for free, remember? And whatever the critique, there was a reason for it. If you don’t see it or disagree, ask. A good Beta will tell you why they have that critique. A great Beta will listen to you explain yourself and may even offer suggestions on how to achieve what you were trying to do.
      4. Thank them, often and honestly.

  1. Sensitivity Reader

    1. You don’t pay a Sensitivity Reader
    2. It’s usually part of a Beta Reader but sometimes it’s a separate deal on its own.
    3. Sensitivity Readers don’t have to be writers.
    4. What they look for is a specific thing you’re concerned about being *sensitive* to, like
      1. You’re writing about a controversial topic, and you’re concerned about giving a fair voice to all sides of an argument, though you personally believe strongly in favor or against a side.
      2. You have characters from cultures or subcultures that don’t form a majority of your identity (ethnicity, nationality, sexual preference, gender identification, religious background, etc.).
 photo Explaining vs defensiveness_zpswfrweoo8.jpg
Be honest with yourself and everyone else about whether or not you’re ready to show your work to other people. Find a writers group who can give you the kind of encouragement/challenges you need. Becoming discouraged doesn’t help you, and no one should ever make you feel hopeless.

Going Pro: Editors you hire if you’re independently-publishing.

Developmental Editor

  1. You pay Developmental Editors. Consider it as part of “going pro” with your writing. You pay because they should have some kind of degree or proof that they’ve trained to do this job, and they have skills you don’t. A good one will help your story; a great one will help your career.
  2. Find one through networking: ask writer friends; check out who edited the stories of some successful, independently-published writers; ask for referrals.
  3. You’ll get the best bang for your buck if you’ve passed your story through at least a Beta reader and polished your story using the best of your abilities. This leaves the Developmental Editor free to focus on the advanced nuts and bolts of writing, like:
    1. Chapter-by-chapter plot development/plot holes
    2. Development of every character, including inter-character relationships
    3. Detail continuity
    4. Themes and symbols
    5. Pacing
    6. Foreshadowing/Sideshadowing
    7. POV breaches
    8. Tense changes
    9. Stereotypes
    10. Tropes/cliches.
    11. Etc.
  4. Caveats:
    1. This will (and should) cost you money. It may seem strange to pay money for a creative service but keep in mind you’re asking people to pay you for your book. Every editor will have different rates, but the usual is between $40-$100/hour. Or $0.016/word. Some people charge per page. This should be obvious up front on their website. It might be indicative of shady dealings if it’s not listed somewhere obvious.
    2. If they don’t provide a contract (that should put you on yellow alert), ask for one and read through it carefully.
    3. Like with Betas, Developmental Editors come with different skill sets, different strengths and weaknesses.
      1. Some might be very strict about technical things like plot structure.
      2. Some might be better at spotting character continuity.
      3. etc.
    4. Like with any major investment, doing some research can help you avoid Lemons.
      1. Check if they have any credits or books to their name in Amazon.
      2. Contact writers they’ve worked with.
      3. Check out the books they’ve worked on to see if your book falls within their area of interest. (The quality of the published books may not necessarily reflect their skills – writers are free to implement or ignore their suggestions.)
      4. Ask if they’ll do a sample edit to see if they’re editing style fits with your personality/readiness for their kind of feedback.
      5. Membership in an association isn’t always indicative of quality. Some associations only require someone to pay a yearly fee in order to join.
      6. Check out their reputation on social networks, follow them on Twitter and Facebook, to see if your personalities will mesh in a working relationship.

Copy Editor 

  1. (We had a co-speaker for this but she couldn’t make it. I presented this part on the fly, but here’s the info:)
  2. You pay a Copy Editor because, like a Developmental Editor, they’ve been trained to do this job. They know where commas are supposed to go, when to use lay/lie/laid, and they can spell better than the spell check on your computer.
  3. You find copy editors through networking, asking other writers who they use, and writing forums.
  4. Ideally, you’ll want to have your story go through a Developmental Editor, who might point out some necessary but drastically large rewrites, before paying a Copy Editor to go in to look at the fine details. You don’t want to pay someone to find comma placement mistakes, spelling errors, grammar errors, etc, in pages or a chapter you need to remove.
  5. Some Copy Editors will do fact checking, but this might cost extra.
  6. Some Copy Editors will do the formatting for your choice of publishing platform but again, this might cost extra.
  7. Has the same caveats as the Developmental Editor.

I. Lastly, here’s a flow chart that shows where your story goes after you’ve written it.
 photo Reader and Editor Flow chart_zpskke9dykz.jpg

Have questions?

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For fans of Self-Rescuing Heroines, Science Fiction, Fantasy, SciFi-Fantasy hybrids (Science Fantasy), Sword and Sorcery, Arthurian legends, and Female Protagonists, check out my novella series, Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
 Part 1 of the series. “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” Anne Dwarding discovers her mom’s secret job, secret life, secret mission.

 Part 2 of the series. “A Mile in My Shoes” Anne must earn her keep by retrieving DNA from Cinderella’s slippers.

Hang out in my mental playground! For cheaper than a Pumpkin Spice Latte, my highly-rated short stories are available on Amazon, Fresh Cuts: Breaking Volume and Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning Volume. #Fantasy #SciFi #Horror #Fables #Fairytales #SelfRescuingHeroines #DiverseBooks.

 Fresh Cuts 2: Skinning has been reviewed as “Smart” “Fresh” “Disturbing” and “the part of Wonderland people don’t talk about”!

 Fresh Cuts: Breaking has been reviewed as “Twisted” “Hilarious” and a “Delightfully perverse collection”!
 photo 24C Teaser Ad_zpsoeqz1uv8.jpg My next standalone horror novella is coming soon!


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