Should you join a writing group?

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I’ve been a member of my current writing group for 4 1/2 years now. I say current because I tried another couple of groups that didn’t work out. I’ve almost pulled out of this group too, but now I believe that sticking with it is one of the best things I’ve done for my writing.

Which group is right for you?

There are many kinds of writing groups and you’ll need to consider which one suits you best. Are you looking for a group:

  • that critiques, providing constructive feedback for existing work
  • that takes you through writing exercises aimed at improving your craft
  • that cheers you on, offering mutual encouragement
  • is in-person, online or offers both options
  • where you share a space with other writers and work on your own pieces simultaneously
  • that’s casual or requires consistent attendance?

I’ve joined the first kind of group through my local writers’ centre because I wanted to improve my manuscript. Members are serious about getting published—and some of us have been. We meet weekly with each person reading out 2k words for which we receive feedback. Many of us find the act of reading out loud a good starting point because we often hear our own mistakes first. People seem to have their strengths and together we make a formidable team even though our genres are diverse, including historical fiction, chick lit, crime and science fiction. One person tends to comment on structure, another grammar and voice, another character development or story line and so on.

What are the benefits of joining a writing group?

  1. Critique and/or support – When you find a good group you get free critiquing or support that would otherwise cost 3 cents per word and upwards. It’s not quite like having your own editor, but it’s the next best thing. In some ways it’s better because of the diversity of opinion you receive.
  2. Motivation – Some members in my group find the weekly commitment of 2k words a strong motivator, saying they might otherwise struggle to commit writing time.
  3. Support – A couple of times I’ve reached out to members when I’ve hit lows. They’ve reminded me that my story is strong, important and worth the effort. Recently they told me enough finessing, it’s time to finish my manuscript and put it out there. In short, they’ve bolstered me and given me perspective when I’ve most needed it.
  4. Being with fellow writers – As much as your friends or family might think it’s great (or not) that you write, no one can understand your writing glories and struggles like fellow writers. Writing is an otherwise solitary act so it’s great to share.
  5. Brainstorming – Sometimes members get stuck and we brainstorm ideas. The ending of my book wasn’t quite right, but now it’s formidable thanks to one member’s suggestion. Others have changed point of view or added in magical realism elements to overcome challenges. More heads can be better than one.

What are any negatives of joining a writing group?

  1. Lack of safety – In one group I joined, a member turned vicious if she didn’t like your work. Unfortunately, others copied her negative tone. I was once lampooned an entire season for having a prologue. This kind of experience is destructive. Avoid. Writing is exposition of your deepest self. The critiquing environment must be safe and encourage constructive, dissuading destructive participation. There are always positives.
  2. Poor organisation and leadership – There must be agreed and enforced rules for writing groups to be effective and rewarding. For example, for long prose groups, a quorum who attend regularly is critical. Other questions to ask are does your organiser take into account others’ views on potential new members? Are they a good time manager keeping members within their allotment? And are they willing to reign people in if they step out of bounds or remove members who don’t fit in?
  3. Wrong genre – Are you a short story writer but you’re in a long story group? Do you need a group of fellow biographers but you’re in a fiction group? Do you write science fiction but you’re in a romance group and they don’t get concepts such as world building? Make sure you know what you need and search for the appropriate group or you’ll risk feeling alienated and disheartened.
  4. Group mentality – Even in the best of groups, people can get carried away. I recall my group telling me they didn’t care about my main character. Whoa! I got the point, which was valid and important, but I didn’t need to have it repeated for half an hour. You may need to firmly but gently steer your fellow writers back towards their more diplomatic, positive selves.

How to find the right group for you

There are many options, including:

  • Online groups where you trade feedback. These can be genre specific
  • Writer’s centres in your area or state that offer many kinds of groups
  • MeetUp
  • Start your own group, perhaps finding members through your local library, your existing network, at writers’ festivals or even Gumtree.

Trust your judgement. If a group doesn’t feel right, then it’s not for you.

Above all, be open, but also listen to yourself.

 

Finding [Making] Time to Write

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I’ve recently started a small business. I’m also managing the planning process for a house renovation and am undertaking a technical two-year course sandwiched into nine months. To top it off, I’ve set myself a 3-month deadline to finish the final edit of my novel, Gunfire Lullabies, because ENOUGH NOW (time to move on)! In short, I’m extremely busy.

Guess what’s fallen by the wayside these last two months? Was it study or the renovation? No. Was it my novel? Yes! Yet not writing much was causing me stress to the point I was getting physical symptoms. Studies show that when people and animals lose control of their lives, this is the most stressful situation they can be in. I was caught in a vicious cycle of stress making me less productive, which resulted in even less time for my writing.

What to do about this? Make a plan, I thought, even though I’m not good at sticking to them. But writing is extremely important to me so I decided I’d commit. Here are my tips on how to make time to write:

  1. Prioritise – Are you trying to achieve too much? List your key annual goals and number them from most to least important. If writing is high on your list, move other tasks down the list. If it isn’t as important as you thought, accept that. Perhaps now isn’t the right time. This way you take the stress out of trying to do it all. I’ve decided to go slower on the social media side of my business, setting a strict time allowance for each session and limiting it to every second day. It’s working!
  2. Commit time – For me it’s critical that I write for my sanity, creativity, happiness, self-worth, health, wellbeing, identity and more. So I’ve committed to writing for at least one hour, six days per week before I work, study, do chores and so on. I also schedule my writing time, and just like any other appointment, I don’t let myself down any more than I would my best friend or doctor. Interestingly, I find that I pack much more into my writing time than I once did. By following through on my commitment to myself, I also feel I’m telling the world I’m serious about writing. What can you commit to? How serious are you?
  3. Be realistic – But don’t make unrealistic plans. If two hours per day is untenable, but regardless you’re determined to do it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Plan instead to write for an hour or thirty minutes. Smaller, regular writing sessions are better than no writing sessions! Could you get up an hour earlier four weekday mornings, spend half an hour of your lunch time writing, write before bedtime, write on the train to work or devote every Saturday morning to writing? Be creative and find what works for you without adding more stress into your life. And stick to it! Remember, this is about regaining control and writing more.
  4. Unplug – When you make time to write, ensure you don’t fritter it away by ‘just checking that important email’ or ‘taking this phone call’. I’ve gone hardline and turn everything off while I write. Mobile phones have Do Not Disturb options and there are apps for computers that turn off email and so on. Maximise your productivity during your writing time by focusing. It feels great when you achieve this.
  5. Clear your mind – Turn off the TV and go for a walk in a park, do yoga or pranayama, meditate (there are some great free apps), exercise or use an app like these to calm the mind. When we’re in a state of stress, we don’t breathe properly, meaning our brain is deprived of oxygen and can’t function optimally. When we’re calm, the opposite is true. It may sound counterintuitive, but by finding the time to achieve calm you’ll gain greater control and be more productive during your precious writing time (as well as in all other areas of your life).

All the best. You CAN do it (if you want to badly enough).

 

How to get your [debut] novel published

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‘There has never been a tougher time to be a debut novelist.’
Kate Kellaway

‘Publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we had to read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.’ 
Kate Saunders on reading for the Orange Prize

So you’ve written a novel. What a feat! First, congratulate yourself. What do you do with it now?

Make sure it’s the best you can make it. Take it through a writing group, editor, beta readers and refine it ad nauseam. Writing is mostly rewriting. Remember that with agents or publishers you usually only get one chance per manuscript.

Then how do you get published in the current environment, which is saturated with good writing and where writing has been devalued (by Amazon – thanks!) many other forms of entertainment are on offer and publishers are by nature conservative?

As you ponder which method to try first, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How important is artistic control to you?
  • How much do you value acceptance and prestige?
  • What’s your financial situation?
  • How important are royalties and advances to you?
  • How much time do you have?
  • What’s your tolerance for risk?
  • Are you a multitasker, entrepreneur and social creature?
  • Do you hope to make a living from writing?

1. Get an agent

Find an agent who’s interested in your genre and approach them. Some are on twitter and put call outs for specific kinds of work, some check writing groups on Facebook (so always behave professionally), and others can be found through website searches. Their websites will tell you if they’re looking and what they’re looking for. Don’t be restricted to your country if someone overseas specialises in your type of work.

Going down the agent route can be time consuming as they have lists to manage. The minimum wait to hear back is at least six months. But agents can work well for authors. I have two friends who write sci-fi and have been published this way.

2. Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing is for books aimed at a general audience. Often they’re published by multinational or larger independent publishers who have minimum sales targets. In Australia, a very small market, this means around 10,000 books. But with overseas and other rights, possibly more.

Publishing new authors is always a risk and publishers must be confident they’ll achieve commercial success now and in the future. Publishing a book takes around 18 months of work, so the decision to go with a new author isn’t taken lightly.

Check websites to see if a publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts (meaning you haven’t been published before and don’t have an agent) and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. A few offer one day a week when they’ll look at a small sample of work and contact you if they want more. Sometimes approaching a publisher, even if they’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, can work too. But you’ll need to have a great hook to peak their interest so they read your synopsis. Make sure you’ve refined these along with your bio and similar books list to perfection. First impressions are everything. 

3. Independent publishers

These publishers almost always specialise in certain kinds of books that appeal to niche audiences. Often, you can approach them directly, which is a bonus. But as a result, it can take a while for them to consider your work. Check writers’ centres websites and manuals of independent publishers in your country. Again, make sure you satisfy their submission requirements and your approach is professional.

Be aware that independent publishers have limited resources, which will mean more work for you in terms of building your brand on social media etc. to generate sales. ON the other hand, they go outside traditional boundaries and in Australia are wining major prizes.

4. Self-publishing

Some people are avoiding the long wait of traditional publishing routes and self publishing. The many advantages include that you have full control, enjoy direct access to your audience, earn a bigger chunk of the retail dollar of your book and you can publish fast. It can be especially useful if your novel falls outside the bounds of typical publishing because of its nice audience, regionality, it’s experimental, has an unusual theme and so on.

But you’ll need to be the type of person who’s happy to drive the process deciding everything from the cover, editing, branding, what format to use (online only, if so with whom, or print to order etc.). Remember, you won’t be able to submit your self-published work into established prizes, although smaller self-publishing awards exist.

Genre books tend to do better than literary novels with self publishing. I have a friend who makes a living this way. She’s a fast commercial writer, highly disciplined and writes in the urban fantasy and chick lit areas.

5. Hybrid publishing

This is the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. Usually this means the author pays up front to some extent.

Partnership publishing models offer authors willing to pay access to expertise, distribution, review sites and selling into the marketplace under a publishing banner that has a good reputation with booksellers. The manuscript will be vetted before being accepted or rejected, and will be subjected to the usual processes such as editing. This model is financially risky as the author’s investment may not be recouped. Publishers mostly don’t earn out their investments on books they acquire and partnership publishing is no different.

Alternatively, there’s vanity publishing, closely akin to self publishing, where an author pays a business to publish their work but not under their imprint. This won’t necessarily help your book succeed and is really about a business selling you a service for a profit. They usually don’t vet your work or care about editorial quality.

6. Form your own publishing company

This involves a lot of work, but if you’re an entrepreneur type and self-publishing doesn’t offer the kind of ‘legitimacy’ or recognition you desire, perhaps this is for you.

Going down this path means you’ll be responsible for choosing your genre and market, taking care of the registration aspects, creating a business and marketing plan, establishing distribution channels, knowing about bookshops and libraries, developing a network of reliable professionals such as cover designers, editors/proofreaders, getting on top of legal stuff like rights and options. Phew!

But this offers the opportunity to grow. Ask yourself, do you love the business of publishing? Will it allow you time to write?

7. Whatever you decide, network

Join your local writers’ centre, go to writers’ festivals, attend workshops and courses, and so on. In short, get to know the publishing industry and make valuable connections. From there you can decide what means suits you best. Having a name or being given a business card by an editor (a rare invitation to contact them) is a foot in the door.