Why Join a Writing Group?

What are the Benefits?

It depends.  The most complete answers I give my clients in my day job as an online optimization consultant often start with, “it depends.”  What you want out of your writing has a lot to do with what you’ll gain by joining a writing group.

Do you write for fun, as a creative outlet?  Or do you want to get published?

Writing for Enjoyment

If you write strictly for the enjoyment of it, one benefit you’ll find in a writer’s group is friendship among others with similar interests.  Hobbyists, from photographers to sports fans enjoy getting together with those who like the same things, and writing is no exception.  You’ll share books you like and writing you’re doing with those like you.  That alone may be enough reason for you to join a writing group.

Keeping You Motivated

We’re lazy.  Humans, left to lounge in our comfort zone, seldom achieve much.  Life happens.  The dishes need washing.  Kids need tending.  And your favorite TV show won’t watch itself, now will it?  Both time wasters and good things alike get in the way of writing.  Some can’t or shouldn’t be avoided.  But if you want the motivation to carve out even a half hour here and there when you have time, a writing group can help you spend the time writing.  You encourage each other.  If you know you’ll need to account for whether you wrote or not, or if you are scheduled to read something to the group that you wrote, this positive “peer pressure” can motivate you to make the time for writing.

And you will need to make the time for writing, if it’s important to you.  When I tell my friends that I’m a writer, I often hear, “Oh, I could never find the time to write.”  Few of us find the time to write.  We make the time to write.

Improving Your Work

If you’re serious about making your work the best it can be, with the goal of getting published, a critique group is critical.  Why?  Simple.  You’re often too close to your work to have an unbiased viewpoint of your work.  If something doesn’t make sense, you may not discover it, because you know far more about the story than your reader, and you may not have clearly conveyed it on paper the way you understand it in your mind.

Different writers have different strengths.  Some will be great at plotting, others at finding inconsistencies, while others know grammar rules like a school teacher.  Each writer in a group brings their own unique talents, background, and life lessons.  You can benefit from all of these.  For example, in our writer’s group, we have a man who serves part-time in the National Guard.  He can find problems with out stories related to military issues, such as chain of command, that the rest of us would not.

Increase Your Chances of Getting Published

Studies show that if you regularly participate in an active critique group, you have a much greater chance of getting published than if you’re going it alone.  Famous writers such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were well-known for making their work better by bouncing their work off of other writers, but we can find more modern examples as well.

For example, Brandon Sanderson broke out as a writer along with others from his writing group, such as Dan Wells, Robison Wells, and Howard Taylor.  Simply put, you grow your skills as a group far better than you could do so on your own.

Finding a Writing Group

So, where do you find a writing group?  If you’re taking a creative writing class, just ask your classmates if they’re part of a writing group.  If not, see if others in the class are interested and start your own.

Writing conventions are another good place to seek other writers who want to improve their work.  Some conventions will even have classes dedicated to running a good writing group, and you can often find others seeking to get together with other writers.

Do a quick search online, and you’ll find local writing groups.  You’ll also find many opportunities to join a remote writing group, where you use technology like Google Hangouts to conference not only by voice, but also with video.

You’ll find many options out there to work with other writers to improve your work and to motivate you to keep writing.  Just make sure that before you sign up, you know what you’re trying to accomplish and find a group with similar goals who are willing to make and keep a commitment to dedicate time to honing their craft.

 

Showing Emotion: Annoyance

You get annoyed, and so do your characters. When they’re peeved, how will they act? Will they hide their annoyance, or let it show. What’s going on inside their head?

Learn How your Characters Can Better Show their Annoyance

Showing Emotion: Anger

Actions Reveal Anger

When anger bubbles just below the surface, how do your characters act?  Will they slam doors and rage, or will they take a defensive position and hold their tongues?

Thoughts and Feeling

What goes on in your character’s mind when they feel anger?  Do they think of revenge, or just feel hurt?  Will anger lead to depression or feelings of helplessness?

Click the link below to explore different ways your characters might react to feelings of anger and how they reveal their anger without saying a word.

Effectively Show Your Characters’ Anger

The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting

As a writer, you hear it everywhere.  “Show, don’t tell.”  Don’t tell me that it was a beautiful sunset.  Describe the colors, the chill of the air, scents, and let me hear the crickets chirp.  Most of us get that, and work the senses our characters experience into our writing.

Strong Characters Should Communicate Without Saying a Word

I write contemporary, and one of the things I enjoy most about the genre is describing interesting people, things, and places.  But when it came to showing emotion, I struggled.  My characters seemed to shrug and nod a lot.  They just didn’t know how to act, so before my readers boo’ed them off the stage, I took action.

I realized that the reason my characters didn’t express outwardly what they experienced on the inside stemmed from one thing.  I don’t pay enough attention to the body language of those around me.

Assumptions and Biases – Sometimes Good Things

Why?  It’s simple.  Your mind does a lot of pattern matching in the background.  You don’t think, “That person lowered their head, so maybe they’re sad.”  Your brain picks up on signals it has noticed before, and makes a lot of assumptions based on the “tells” of those around you.  And most of the time, the pattern matching proves correct, so the mind confirms the assumptions, helping you pick up on more and more subtle cues as you learn and develop.

This saves a lot of thinking and helps us to deal with the barrage of data with which our mind must cope, without suffering from information overload.

However, for writers, since so much of this processing happens at the subconscious level, this can prevent us from accurately describing body language, tone of voice, and other ways in which we pick up on what others feel and think.  Those around us communicate an incredible amount of information, all without saying a word.  Some body language experts estimate that as much of 80% of all communication happens non-verbally.

To cope with my own deficiencies in describing non-verbal cues, I researched how to “show, not tell” how my characters might let you, the reader know what they’re thinking and feeling, from a variety of sources, including body language experts and authorities on effective public speaking.

I have compiled this research into 50+ categories of emotion, from love to hate, from confidence to fear.  I will release these emotion-specific articles frequently, until you have them all.  These entries include body language, broken down by parts of the body.  Beyond this, they also describe common reactions to emotion, how they affect how we interact with those around us, as well as thoughts and feelings that often accompany the core emotion.  We also cross-reference related emotions and words one frequently associates with the emotion.

Begin to Teach Your Characters How to Project Their Thoughts and Emotions

Get started by visiting The Fictional Character’s Guide to Acting or go directly to the first emotion we’ll explore – Amusement.

Writing Style – Asset or Liability?

In a recent Writer’s Digest magazine, one expert said the following: “Novels – and especially screenplays – don’t sell because of writing voice.  But they do get rejected because of writing voice.  What sells are great stories, told well.”

While I have never been an editor, I have certainly been a reader.  What I can tell you is that for me, novels get set aside most often because their style is boring.  Maybe I’m not a typical reader, but I’m one who samples.  A lot.  In a typical trip to the library, I’ll pick up 5-10 books, with the best of intentions to read them all, cover to cover.

However, out of a pile of books, at most one in five keeps my interest. It’s not that the story doesn’t grab me, though that’s often the case.  Nor is it that the story has poor grammar or spelling, or any of the other things that make a manuscript “wrong.”  It’s just that there’s not enough that’s “right” about the books to get me to keep reading.

I mostly read contemporary and high fantasy, with some science fiction thrown in.  Since a typical epic fantasy can easily weigh in at 200,000 words or more, when I decide to read one of these monsters, it’s a big commitment.  After all, every hour I spend reading one book is an hour I can’t spend reading another.  It’s 60 minutes during which I’m not writing, spending time with my children, keeping up with my friends on Facebook, and so on.

As a kid, I recall getting bored easily.  Okay, I would never admit this to my parents, who saw an admission of boredom as an invitation for them to assign me more chores, but I would complain about boredom to myself, anyway.  During my free time for the last twenty years, I can’t remember getting bored too often.  There’s just so much to do.  So many things demand my attention.  It’s like walking through a carnival and hearing dozens of barkers calling out to you to try your luck at this or that game.

Reading isn’t like that.  It beacons quietly, usually without demand or timeline, and perhaps that’s its charm.  It’s an invitation to slow down and leave the world to itself for a few hours (it will get along fine without you for a little while).  It’s a golden ticket to enter another world where you suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride.  You accept made-up characters and even find yourself caring about them.  We worry that something bad is going to happen to these people that never were, and if their struggles are without purpose, we might just pitch the book across the room, never to open it again.

So, why do we do it?  For me, it’s the entire experience.  And a big part of that for me is the voice in which the book is told.  I’m not talking about an actual narrator’s voice here.  I’m talking about the soul of the book that leaks from the mind of the writer onto the pages and into my mind and heart.  It sets a mood, but most importantly, it sets my mood while I read.

Again, I’m probably not a typical reader, but I want someone to tell me a tale with the flair of a skilled showman.  I want unexpected turns of phrase, quotable lines, and words put together in creative ways that prevent me from skimming, for fear of what I might miss.

To me, those things are what I consider the style and voice of the book.  It is what makes me buy books written by the same author again and again.  It’s also what makes me avoid works by authors if their style just doesn’t call out to me in a voice that’s all its own.  I know it’s not fair, but if an author’s style doesn’t excite me, I probably won’t pick up another by the same author.

So whose style has grabbed me lately?  I have really enjoyed “Return to Exile” by E. J. Patten, a middle school book that catches me off guard with interesting word combinations I find myself wishing I had created.  Another author that I enjoy is P. R. Frost, whose style is fresh and spunky (did I really just use the word “spunky”?)

While some Writer’s Digest contributors may claim that a unique voice or style is a downside, just two pages later in the same magazine, another author, Steven Harper, said the following.

“Almost every set of submission guidelines from agents and editors says they’re looking for authors with a strong voice, a unique voice or a powerful voice. …  And publishing pros of all sorts are fond of advising writers that a good voice will grab their eye above anything else.  …  A fascinating voice can get the reader to overlook other problems, or even fail to notice things like cliches entirely.  The unique voice overcomes the tired archetypes.”

So, it seems that even writing experts don’t agree on the importance of voice and style.  Mr. Harper’s statement rang true to me, making me more likely to read his articles in the future, and creating a readership is what sells books and pays the bills for professional writers everywhere.

“This is not my story”

One of my favorite movies is Sucker Punch.  One of my favorite scenes in the movie (spoiler alert) is when the main character turns to the her fellow inmate and says, “This was never my story, it’s yours. Now don’t screw it up ok?”  It changed the entire perspective of the movie for me.

That’s exactly the same perspective vertigo I underwent when I read the following from writer E. J. Patten:

“The antagonist determines plot. If you’re having a hard time figuring out your plot, look at it from the eyes of your antagonist. Your antagonist wants something and the protagonist is getting in their way. The story starts when the antagonist makes their first move … The protagonist reacts … The antagonist makes another move … The protagonist reacts … and on and on until the protagonist takes the initiative, forces the antagonist to react, and saves the day.”

I have struggled with one aspect of the novel I’m writing.  I felt like the protagonist was being too passive and needed stronger motives to push the plot forward.  In the past, I have mostly considered the story from the perspective of the protagonist, using the antagonist as a means to drive the story forward, but not looking at the antagonist as the primary motivator driving the plot.  The antagonist was more of a “plot device” than the primary plot driver.

Sure, I considered what the antagonist wanted, but my perspective was always viewed through the protagonist’s eyes.  This makes sense, since that is the point of view of the third person limited narrative of my novel.  However, it paints the “bad guy” in tones that are not as vibrant as the ones you probably use to render your “good guys.”  And that’s a problem because, for me at least, the most memorable books are the ones with the most dynamic, quirky, and driven antagonists.

By not truly putting myself in my antagonist’s shoes other than for the scenes in which they were the point of view character, I was selling my story short.  When I thought of the plot arc of the entire story from the viewpoint of the antagonist, with the protagonists as pesky “do-gooders” that were the ones frustrating their well-laid plans, a whole new world opened up for me.  My story deepened, broadened, and became stronger.

Now, when I get to a point in the plot that feels like it has begun to sag, I picture my antagonist pointing to my protagonist and saying, “This is not your story.  It never was.”  Then I imagine the story from the antagonist’s perspective.  Give it a try and let me know if this works for you as well as it has for me.

Start Off Smart Writer’s Blog

Hello,

My name is Steve Myers.  I am an aspiring writer on a journey to publish my first book, then to springboard this into a writing career.  And why not me?  Why not you, for that matter?  I have had the chance to hang out with famous authors like Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells.  When they describe how they got started writing, they weren’t so different from where I am now, likely where you are as well.

I refuse to believe that becoming a published writer is something that one with sufficient drive, consistent effort to refine their craft, and a little luck can’t achieve.  And don’t bother to tell me I’m wrong, because you’ll just see me putting my fingers in my ears and saying, “La! La! La!”  You see, when I was 17 years old, I wanted to be a writer more than anything.  I didn’t want to be an astronaut, engineer, or lawyer.  I wanted to wrangle words for a living.

A lot of well-meaning people just didn’t want to see me disappointed.  They warned me that there are a lot of people who never get published, that you can put in years of effort and never reap what you sow.  But you see, it wasn’t their fault that I didn’t follow my dream.  It was mine, because I listened to their advice.  That was the better part of 30 years ago.  Since then, I got a degree in electronics (a “good, reliable job”), learned to program, taught myself web development and graphics, and finally learned online marketing.

A big part of selling online has to do with creating effective sales copy.  And “copy” is just another way of saying “writing.”  So I have come full circle, through several solid, dependable jobs back to my first love, writing.  I rediscovered that I love to hear the clickety-clack of fingers on the keyboard and dreaming up what I’m going to say next.  I also found that I made those who employed me a lot of money, but for some reason, they didn’t want to share it with me.

So how did that take me the final step to writing a novel?  Well, I’m going to credit my geometry teacher for that.  I don’t even recall his name, but the way he droned on and on in a monotone voice taught me the one thing I hadn’t really learned up to that time, how to daydream.  One particular daydream kept coming back and refused to let me brush it aside, a story about a regular teenage boy who learned that magic existed for real.  Then one day, a guy my daughter was dating (later to become my son-in-law) told me that he had published a book.  He encouraged me to do the same, and that was the final push I needed to begin.

I began by typing “Chapter 1” and then something strange happened.  The words flowed.  My character became real.  His mom, girlfriend, and even his cat named “Kritters” came to life in my mind.  What’s more, I learned that I loved the process.  But most of all, I found that friends, family, colleagues, and even a professional writer liked what I created.

So that gave me the license, the excuse to call myself a writer.  If you write, you too are a writer.  A publisher doesn’t give you the title by crowning you with laurels.  A monarch won’t touch your shoulders with a sword and name you, “Sir Scribbles.”  You get the title of writer if you’re dedicated to the craft of spinning tales, dreaming out loud, with the ultimate goal of writing stories that keep your readers up way past their bedtimes.

As I said at the beginning, this is one writer’s journey.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride, slaying your own personal dragons of doubt along the way and joining this fellowship.  But I get to be Samwise Gamgee, because Frodo was kind of a whiner at times.

This blog will detail what I learn along the way.  It will stand as a log of my stumbles, challenges, little successes, and ultimately of reaching my goal of becoming a published author.  Because you see, I’m just too stubborn to give up.  And in the words of Han Solo, “Never tell me the odds.”  I get to believe what I want to, and to the nay-sayers, I can only point out the door and say, “Get out of my dream!”  Let the journey begin…