Category Archives: Writing

The Productivity, Practicality, and Camaraderie of Writers Groups

Monday night was the most recent meeting of the Mysterious Galaxy Writers Group. It is a support group that I have been a member of since its inception and one that credit for a substantial amount of growth as a writer.

Writers groups are not for everyone but I think that when they work they are tremendous tools for many writers. Ours runs on a fairly informal basis and focuses on live readings and immediate critiques. At each meeting anywhere from three to five of our members will read about 1200-1500 words of their material and then in round-robin everyone else will give their feedback. It’s roughly the Milford Method in that the author says nothing, except answering direct questions from the others, and there is very limited ‘open discussion’ among the others. Each person gives their feedback, usually taking just two or so minutes and then on to the next.

The benefits of such a groups really come down to three main areas.

Learning to give and take critiques. It’s an old saying but a very true one that the value of critiques is not the ones you get back but the ones you give out. Of course getting feedback on a piece can be powerfully useful. We all have blind spots about our material and those alternate viewpoints help. But learning to see what doesn’t work in other stories makes it easier to spot those same flaws in your own.

Being a member of a writers group can help make you more productive. In addition to the positive feedback when people like your work there is also the expectation game. If others are expecting more of a story then you are more likely to work your way though the rough patches instead of giving up and getting distracted by the next shiny idea. Truly I feel the most important skill any writer needs to master is the ability to get to the end of the tale.

And not least important is the friendship. Writing can be a lonely craft and one that is not easily understood by those who do not feel the call of the muse. Spending time with others who suffer the same troubles, doubts, and joys can be invigorating. Never underestimate the importance of morale, to an army and to a person, especially your own. The friendships I have forged through my group are powerful and I hope I have been as big as help to them as they have been to me.

If you form a writers group here are a few bits of advise I think you may find helpful.

Be collaborative, with the work and how the group functions.

Be Supportive, and if there are members who enjoy tearing down others’ work, do not suffer them. These things work much better if the member is there to help each other and not satisfy their own ego.

Find something praise in every critique. It’s hard hearing the bad stuff, make it easier with compliments on what did work.

Avoid saying that ‘this is wrong.’ and ‘that’s a mistake.’ Rather phrase things what did and did not work for you. This is art not physics.

And most of all, have fun, enjoy the process.

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Is The Doctor still The Doctor?

Toady the new lead actor for the BBC’s long running fantasy series Doctor Who was announced and for the first time a woman will be playing the eccentric Time Lord; Jodie Whittaker will be replacing Peter Capaldi. I have very little impression of Ms. Whittaker and so I will be approaching her performance free of expectations. (I was a Capaldi fan before he became The Doctor and knew he was going to give it a terribly good twist. He will be missed.) Given that every time The Doctor ‘regenerates’ into their new form it carries with it a new personality for the Time Lord, and that we have seen Time Lords flip sexes before, I have no issue with this coming incarnation. I am more excited by the change in show-runners. Moffitt has also been hot and cold for me and I am hoping that the new series will be more consistent in what I want from the show.

This new casting has brought to mind an age-old question about writing. Are men and women so distinctly different as to be two utterly separate types of people?

I know people, smart talented people, who insist that no man can adequately writing a woman’s character. The underlying premise in that view is that men and women are distinctly different, existing as unique categories. That is not my opinion but it is one held by a great many people and as a matter of opinion it is not subject to proof and objective truth.

However, if you believe that women and men are so different that they might as well be alien to one another and that their characteristics do not overlap, then when a Time Lord flips sexes they must cease to be the person that they were before. This is not a minor alteration in the matrix of their personality. Not a matter of being a little more silly, a little more jaded, a little more deceitful, a little more noble or any of that, but a change of a foundational nature as to make them alien to their previous self.

So, Is the Doctor still the Doctor or do we have a person with The Doctor’s talents, memories, and skills calling themselves by that title but is in fact an impersonation?

I think women can write men and men can write women and as such while the person may change somewhat, this is still the Doctor, but I wonder how someone with that other world-view reconciles the new Doctor against the Old.

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Fiction and Reality

A number of decades ago I first conceived my nationalized space setting. In this fiction future history the United States takes a wrong turn during the 21st century and begin its slid from being a world power to being a third rate power. In part this was inspired by the decline of previous empires, because eventually that is the fate of all great empires and nations, and it was also inspired by a hope that we might avoid such a turn of events.

Two years ago a publisher passed the first Seth Jackson novel set in this future history. That’s fine, as I have said in other essays, Rejection is part of the game, don’t play if you can’t handle getting the rejections and the dislikes. My agent has moved it on and another publishers is now giving the material a look. It’s strange to be consider more books in the series as I watch the current events around me.

The fiction was not about our current president. Hell, all throughout the election last year I was as certain as anyone else we would not end up where we have in fact landed. (And it a slim reed of hope to note that it was the greatest election misfire in history to produced this outcome.) As I continue to work in my fictional future I avoid making reference to current events, even though I do believe that the misfortune of today’s political climate will reverberate for a very long time. I think it is best to not date the material with too many current references and being too specific, particularly in SF, can be a self-inflicted wound, but it has me thinking about this nation’s future.

Is this what it is like to live through an empire decline?

I fear the answer may be yes. As a people we seem to be coming apart at the seems and as a nation we seem to be turning away from the exterior focusing on our selves to exclusions of the world. The ridiculous ‘border wall’ is such a symptom. It’s not about actually solving a problem. It’s about literally walling ourselves off and proclaiming that which is beyond the wall is unimportant. That didn’t work for Hadrian and it will not work for us. Our loss of ‘soft power,’ influence, and respect are attributes that cannot be rebuilt with a change of administrations. Nations are working around this presidency and discovery that perhaps the United States no longer is indispensible.

China is rising and perhaps the future of the world is the Yuan as the Reserve Currency.

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Rejection is not Failure

This year was the first time I applied for the Viable Paradise writers workshop. There were a number of factors that held me back from submitting in years past, primarily the financial aspects. A week off, a cross-country trip, the tuition, and room and board expenses were all great enough to present a considerable challenge. This year things are looking well enough that those considerations were now manageable.

Yesterday, while I was home nursing a minor sinus cold, the email came in letting me know that I had not been accepted into the Workshop. I was informed that there are only 24 students and the competition had been unusually tough and the number of applications high. The rejection did also say that the readers had enjoyed my sample writing and that it showed promise but had not won a consensus to get that coveted slot.

Of course not getting in provoked sadness. I wanted in. Even with all the expenses and the anxiety I had applied in hopes of winning, but this is the nature of the beast. Attempted traditional publishing means not just courting rejection, but marrying the old girl and living with her forever. However, rejection is not failure.

Failure is not attempting.

Failure is not learning.

Failure is not dreaming.

Rejections are reality and it is a harsh one. Even harsher is that acceptance does not preclude rejections it merely changes the nature of it. A manuscript is accepted by the agent, but still rejected by a publisher. A manuscript is accepted by a publisher, but rejected by award committees. A book is sold but rejected by readers. A book fails to gain a second printing. The list is nearly endless.

There will also be someone rejecting your work, even if it is just the one star reviews on Amazon. (That’s if you get reviews, and form of rejection, no one even bothers to comment.) Live with the rejection, embrace it, learn from it, but never let it stop you.

To my fellow writers who made the cut and are going to spend a week on Martha’s Vineyard, all my best to you; have fun, learn a lot, and do not let the fear of rejection ever stop you.

I will continue working, sending material to my agents, and if conditions are right next year, I will try again.

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Can I Switch it Off?

Last night I started reading a new novel. Now, this is not a beta read for a friend, or an ARC (Advance Review Copy) but a published and successful novel by a writer I enjoy and follow on social media.

Of late, and by that mean the last two years, my pleasure reading has been rather limited. After signing with the Virginia Kidd Agency I pretty much devoted all the time I could spare to working on my writing to the detriment of past time reading.

A side note here: back in the early days of this blog you can find book reviews; I have decided to not do those anymore. I think there is a question of conflict in striving to be both a writer and reviewer. As I have friends who are professional writer it would be difficult to avoid the issue of bias and there is always the potential to poison working relationships with fellow writers, editors, and so on. If I discuss a book by title and author here it will be positive because it’s something I thoroughly enjoyed and want to share. I will not be posting critiques or criticisms of those titles that do not work for me.

Anyway, back to the subject. So here I was reading this book, enjoying the story, but damn it I could not stop the impulse to look at the prose and want to change it around. I could not stop the desire to ‘fix’ it.

People in my writing group have said that there is a distinct style or voice to my writing, but I have always had a hard time seeing it. I think I can see vague outlines of my voice now. It’s certainly there in sentence construction and how I think they are best assembled for dramatic effect. This is what I was doing with the novel. Looking at a sentence and saying to myself, ‘oh, that would be better with those clauses reversed.’ This inner editor voice is making it difficult for me to drop into the story and forget myself. It is also making me doubt my feedback to writers in my critique group.

How much of what I am saying is good critique and how much is just me trying to force my voice on things?

Dang, I don’t think anyone warned me of this when i set out to write.

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Not Very Productive

Between migraines and software issues today has been a day where I have gotten very little accomplished. No blog posts of note, no editing on the novel in progress.

The good news is that the headache appears to have responded to mediation and after 23 hours has broken. The software now looks to be backing up properly so maybe later today I can get back to work.

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Mostly over Submission Anxiety

Well, it has been nearly a week since I submitted my application to the current class of Viable Paradise and I think my emotional state if almost back to baseline.

I will admit that yesterday did not feel good, but I had a mild migraine start up while I was at the day-job and it turns out the supply of medication I kept in my desk had been exhausted. I suffered through the entire shift finally making it home to grab the needed pills to banish the pain.

Given the level of pain, enough to disrupt my thinking but not severe enough to send me home, I was unable to compose new text for my novel in progress but I did manage to edit two chapters so work has progressed.

Here’s hoping that today will be a more productive day.

 

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This is Different

I was going to do a political posting but last night changed my mind.

What happened last night? I finally put together all the materials needed and submitted to the Viable Paradise Writers Workshop.

I have written about the workshop before but for those who do not know what it is here’s a quick run down. Viable Paradise is a week-long workshop taught my industry professionals. That have 24 slots so getting into the workshop is a competitive processed where prospective students are judged on submitted writing samples. If selected you go to Martha’s Vineyard, the same island where JAWS was filmed, and spend a week in the hotel with the others students and the instructors. In addition to making through the selection process there is also a matter of tuition and hotel expenses. After watching the process for years I am finally in a position to hopefully go.

The writing sample, the application letter, and the entry fee were all paid last night and as soon as I hit that submit button, man I love electronic submissions, my heart raced. Unlike submitting stories to a magazine, a novel to a publisher, or samples to an agency, this has gotten me unsettled and nervous.

Scoring a posting into the workshop will be a good thing for me and my writing, I believe that, but it is also frightening. There are a number of factors feeding into my fears.

Social Anxiety – Put me on a panel or even by myself in front of a room of people to do a presentation and I am just fine. The sort of public speaking and presenting that many find terrifying does not bother me. However, one on one and in small social situations I lock up and I suffer anxiety. I have been described as a shy extrovert and there’s quite a bit of truth to that. At the workshop it’ll be a small group of people and while i know I can adjust there’s the fear I will not.

Performance Anxiety – Oh, The idea that I am not as good, or talented as the other students is not an anxiety that is just mine. I know that most people in the situation would be feeling the same thing, but it still grip my heart and powers my doubts.

Separation Anxiety – I have a deep support network of friends and of course my sweetie-wife. We do not take separate vacations and our day-job do not require us to go on trips away from each other. If selected for the workshop it will mean a week away from my friends and from my sweetie-wife. This too fuels my anxiety.

And despite all this anxiety I am excited and hopeful. It will be a nerve racking two weeks as I wait to find out if I am selected and then the nerves will continue if I am.

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Working Weekend

My routine in approach to my fiction writing is to work Monday through Friday, treating the output like a normal job. I then take the weekend off, while my brain can’t be shut down and will continue to turn over characters, scenes, and plots, I do not edit or compose on Saturday and Sunday allowing myself a rest.

It is during the weekend that I’ll spend time playing games with my friends and my sweetie-wife, or on the computer, go out to the movies, and just make some popcorn and watch a film late at night. These work free times are critical to my productivity.

This weekend was the exception to the rule. While I certain spent time with friends and my wife, I also spent a number of hours working on the current novel in progress. The deadline for applying to the Viable Paradise Writers Workshop is the 15ths and part of the application process is a writing sample. I decided on submitted chapters from one of my novels, but now the question becomes which one.

There are two contenders since the sample can’t be from a piece that is currently under consideration for publication. One novel is finished; it’s just down to catching the typos and the like. That one has gotten a strong positive reaction for its first chapter from my agent. The problem is that should I be accepted to the program by the time I fly out to join the workshop and get feedback on the piece submitted, it will already be long finished and in my agent’s hands, making feedback a little pointless. (Though always useful for future projects.)

The work is progress is new. (Albeit a sequel to the novel my agent is currently shopping.) I spent the weekend giving it a close edit, taking it from a rough draft to polished. If I submit that by the time October rolls around I should be close to and eve just finishing the project, a perfect time to get feedback. But is this piece strong enough to win me admission? It is untested. I haven’t even read a single scene to my local writing group.

I am handing the edited chapters of the work in progress to my wife so she can review for typos and grammar, plus having worked on both she can give me her opinion on which is stronger.

However, the decision is mine and I need to make it tonight so I can submit tomorrow.

 

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A Roadmap not Train Tracks

I work from an outline and my current Work in Progress has the most detailed outline I have yet produced for a novel, 85 pages. I also work from an act structure. I used to be a three act sort of writer, Establishment, Conflict, Resolution because it tracked so easily onto western narratives but fairly recently I became a fan of the five act method. (Establishment, Rising Action, Point of No Return, Spiral out of Control, Resolution.) Between those two elements of pre-writing you might think that when it come time to put it all together the process would be fixed, and for some writers that is true, but my process still remains fluid.

My acts and my outlines do not put me on a set of narrow gage railroad tracks carrying inexorably towards a fixed destination. Rather they act like roadmaps, giving me the ability to peer ahead and navigate the terrain to reach my destination. Sometimes I even find that the basic structure as originally envision is in error.

Last night as I worked and neared completion of Act one for the new novel I stumbled across the realization that what I had conceived as the end of Act one simply had nothing to do with the actual organic structure of the act.

Act one started with the characters central story dilemma, the thing that is at the heart of is problem, and it ended with him taking command of the starship that will be the setting for the rest of the story. That taking of command is a very dramatic moment in the character’s life, representing an achievement that he has sacrificed much to achieve, and it has nothing to do with the story or plot structure. It would happen even if the character sat back and did nothing for the entire first act. His earning of the command has been laid out and paid for with the first book in this series.

What the character has been driving for and fighting for in the story so far is the obtain a particular mission for himself and his first command. A mission that he thinks will bring him a resolution to certain problems but in fact will only add to his physical and psychological dangers. It is when he gets the mission, when he thinks he has achieved a goal but instead has actually raised the stakes that the story transitions from Act 1, Establishment, to Act II, Rising Action.

You can spend weeks writing an outline, months thinking on structure, but when you actually start writing there are plenty of elements still to discover.

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