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).

 

Why creatives need down time

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It took me a long time to work out that down time isn’t wasting time, rather it’s an essential practice to creativity. I had such a protestant work ethic in me it felt lazy taking time out from writing. But I eventually realised that having a break by walking or doodling or reading or cooking refreshed me. When I returned to writing my problems were solved, my words flowed into art and I made other breakthroughs.

Science confirms that taking a break by napping, meditating or walking in nature increases productivity, replenishes attention, solidifies memories and encourages creativity.

Professor Lajos Székely talks about the creative pause ‘…when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness’. And I love this quote from Ferris Jabr saying ‘Epiphanies may seem to come out of nowhere, but they are often the product of unconscious mental activity during down time’.

When you consider the apparently 18 things that highly creative people do differently, it confirms that down time is indeed fundamental to creativity.

Highly creative people daydream, observe everything, work the hours that work for them, take time for solitude, turn adversity into advantage, seek out new experiences, fail up (rather than taking it personally they use it constructively), ask the big questions, watch people, take risks, view life as an opportunity for self-expression, follow their true passions, get out of their own heads, lose track of time, surround themselves with beauty, connect the dots (finding vision), constantly shake things up and make time for mindfulness.

But down time can’t be spent just any way. In the digital era we’ve become addicted to the distractions of google, email, social media, TV and so on. Being distracted is easy because it stops us from thinking or feeling anything challenging. Yet sometimes this is exactly the place where growth and problem-solving occurs. If you hate being bored like I do, the reality is that it gives space for the mind to wander, which is where creativity can happen.

Here are some ideas about how to build down time into your life to expand your creativity:

  1. Create sacred space that’s technology free. If you go for a walk, don’t take your phone. Allow your mind to wander, feel the breeze on your face, smell nature, listen to the sounds around you, look at the people’s faces. Use it to connect with what’s around you.
  2. Schedule down time where you allow your thoughts to roam free. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way advocates going on a regular artist date with yourself, where for say two hours a week you commit time to ‘nurturing your creative consciousness’. She says it’s like spending quality time with or pampering your artist self. Take them to an art gallery or the zoo, wherever they tell you they need to go.
  3. Meditate. The practice of observing yourself and allowing thoughts to come through you without attachment or engagement allows things to come up in a safe way. Meditation promotes focus, calmness, clarity and insight.
  4. Listen to and trust yourself. If you feel you need a break, don’t chastise yourself for being lazy. Listen to yourself and trust that your mind knows when it needs down time. Creativity happens in mysterious ways.

Defining (writing) success

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Success means different things to different writers. Perhaps you have a writer you aspire to be like, or you aim to publish in a particular way within a certain time frame, or you have technical goals about how you to ideally express yourself, or all of the above.

The question is:

  • Are your goals realistic and achievable?
  • Are they truly your goals (or some other ideal defined by people you know, writing mythology or your parents)?
  • Are you flexible enough to adjust your goals as needed?
  • Can you accept failure as part of the creative process, learn from it and continue?

Whose goals? Your goals

  • Do you dream of fame and fortune like JK Rowling enjoys? That might be nice, but her writing journey belongs to her just like yours belongs to you. Don’t rule out producing five best sellers in the next five years if that’s your aim, but remember that good writing comes from authenticity. So cast away others’ expectations, stop worrying about what the market claims it wants (which would likely be outdated by the time you produced something similar, if you could that is), forget about proving yourself to your parents or whoever, and look inside yourself to discover what writing means to you. Write for that reason and persist. Relentlessly. Be you.
  • Remember, few people are instant successes. Often, many years of learning and hard work sits behind such myths.
  • Finally, understand that one person’s success is another’s failure. This is why you must define success for yourself. At the end of the day, once the flashbulbs dim, even JK Rowling has to sit down alone and create a book she’s happy with.

Yes, but…

  • There’s always another hill to climb with writing—the next story, the next competition, a better publisher etc.. When you achieve something celebrate it.
  • To do this, monitor your progress. Break it up into bite sized achievements that you can celebrate along the way. Did you write 1k words each week for the last 8 weeks like you planned?  Tick. Did you do a course on character building and bring yours to life? Yay. Did you approach five publishers like planned even if though didn’t hear back from the first two? Brave. Did you enjoy the  writing process? Well done. Did you get lost in your love of language, or did the characters carry you away to unexpected places? Wondrous!

Learn to fail well

  • Failure is a binary concept that requires success as its polar opposite. Failure and success are thus abstract and arbitrary. We’ve already seen how definitions can vary wildly. Don’t let your beliefs about them stall or stop you. They’re only ideas, which you don’t have to be bound by. Change your thinking.
  • Writing requires failure
    • If we weren’t willing to fail, new territory wouldn’t  be traversed and creativity would cease to exist.
    • Don’t let the redrafting process make earlier drafts feel like failures. They’re not, they’re simply part of the process. Accept this and keep going.
    • Also, because many writers aspire towards perfection they’re bound to always fail. How can we ever succeed if we continually moved the goal posts further away? Even multi-published authors are often dissatisfied with their achievements. Get off the perfection treadmill.

Tenacity

  • Above all, writing and publishing are about tenacity. In this post, I discuss how persistence beats talent. It can be a long process of learning your craft before you test the market to find the best, and sometimes only means to publish your work.
  • If things don’t go to plan, don’t give up. If you expected to find a traditional publisher but that didn’t work out, consider self-publishing, research a hybrid model, put your book away or begin again until you produce something your kind of publisher wants. You might also need to lower the bar. Begin slowly but surely. Tortoise, hair – remember?
  • If you do ‘fail’ to meet your goals, make use of it. Learn from it and continue writing.
  • Remember, THE ONLY WAY TO FAIL WRITING IS TO QUIT. 

 

Finish your [writing] project

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In 2016, I attended a two-day workshop run by an author and psychologist. Its purpose was to give writers the necessary tools to finish their project, focusing on how to get in the right head space and plan properly.

Many attendees, including authors who’d published multiple books, were stuck. I was bored and had almost stalled because the drafting process felt endless.

At the end of weekend, I came away with a solid, realistic plan to finish my novel. I exceeded my goals and finished drafting well before my deadline. I’m using the same tools now to help me finish my redraft before Christmas.

Here are a some helpful points that came out of the workshop.

Mindset

The optimal mindset for creativity involves being a little excited, optimistic and seeking pleasure. You might have to fake it til you make it, but don’t give in to negative thoughts.

There are ways to help you create this mindset. Close your eyes and imagine a welcoming, mental place you can travel to before you begin work. For me, this was a deserted beach with wild waves on a cool days. For someone else it was a brightly coloured circus tent. You might also like to do a bit of relaxation, meditation, repeat some affirmations, go for a walk or do some breathing exercises before you work.

If you have a bad writing day, and we all do, separate yourself from your work. Don’t judge yourself and create fear and anxiety, which will be counterproductive the next time you write. The work simply didn’t go well — it wasn’t your entire being the failed.

Develop strategies to push through fears and doubts. There are many books on this, or read a piece by an author you admire about how they achieve this? The are loads on the Internet.

Be prepared to go beyond your comfort zone into new creative territory. Play, have fun. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Not a lot when you think about it. Trust yourself! You can always adjust your words later. Just get something down on the page.

Writing environment

This is about creating the optimum writing environment for you. When, where and how are you most productive? The aim is to find regular times to write and the best physical space in which to do that with the technology and other resources you need.

Write down your answers and create a plan. Diarise these times and build strong boundaries around them to ensure nothing gets in the way of your writing.

Set your intentions

Write down your long, medium and short-term goals. Be specific.

  • Specificity = measurement = accountability (to yourself).

Measure your progress daily, weekly and monthly. Small achievements over time add up and are motivating.

I keep a diary of my daily weekday word limit because that’s how I’ve decided to monitor my redrafting. But word count is only one possible way. You could set goals for outlines, chapters or a manuscript end date. For example:

  1. I will finish redrafting my novel by 21 December. My MS is x words long, there are x weeks until then, which means I must draft x words 5 days per week.
  2. I will have a first draft completed in 12 months i.e. by 24 October 2018. The average book is 80,000 words long and I plan to take 3 weeks holiday in which I won’t draft. This means I will draft 1,630 words over 49 weeks. I will write 3 days per week.
  3. I will write 1,500 words, 4 days per week.
  4. I will write for 1 hour, 5 days per week before work.

The plan

In your plan, make sure you have the following elements:

  • Specific, measurable goals
  • Creative mindset strategies
  • A creative environment you go to each time you write
  • A diarised writing schedule.

For more hints on creating a writing routine, see this post here.

Now go for it!

Active vs passive voice in writing

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When writing fiction, creative non-fiction and even good non-fiction, writing in the active voice is usually best. Here’s a quick summary of why.

Active Voice

Using the active voice means the subject* of your sentence does the action. In other words it’s someone or something doing something rather than it being done to them. Active sentences are more alive because they’re more direct, succinct and closer. They draw you in.

[*The subject is the who/thing that’s doing something. It’s usually a noun like Jenny or The dog  or a noun phrase. It’s the beginning and main focus of the sentence. The object is the what is being done and follows the verb.]

Passive Voice

Using the passive voice means the subject receives the action. The subject is being acted upon by an outside force. Passive sentences use more words, can be vague and often lead to a tangle of prepositional phrases (which begin with at, in, about, from, with, by).

The passive voice is often used in bureaucratic or scientific writing to take the focus away from individual beliefs or responsibility and towards bureaucratic responsibility or research data. While there are times when the passive voice may be appropriate, by design it’s not engaging writing.

Examples:

  1. Jennygrabbed the knife, turned around and stabbed him. (Jenny is the subject or the thing doing the action. It’s the main focus of the sentence. The object is the knife.)
    The knife was grabbed by Jenny, who turned around and stabbed him.
    (Here, the knife becomes the main focus or subject as it receives the action. Jenny becomes the object as she’s being acted upon.)
  2. ICAN, an Australian-based anti-nuclear campaign, won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize. (ICAN is the subject or main focus. ICAN won. ICAN was being acted upon.
    The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was won by ICAN, an Australian based anti-nuclear campaign. (The Nobel Peace Prize is the main focus or subject. The prize was won. The prize was acted upon.)

Active or Passive Voice

In most writing, we prefer the active voice to be prominent. It’s more direct and promotes stronger verbs. Verbs and nouns bring sentences alive and give them power, which makes readers keep turning the page. Also, active writing is more concise, and concise writing is more vigorous.

Passive writing is remote, longer, sometimes ambiguous and readers can easily disengage.

That said, you might not want every sentence to be hard hitting. There’s a place for the passive voice. For example, in crime writing it can be very useful. Also, evasive characters might speak in the passive voice. But use it purposefully. Be aware of why you’re choosing the passive voice rather than accidentally falling into it.

When To Use the Passive Voice

  • To emphasise the action, not the actor e.g. Given how dark and cold the night was, a raging bonfire was lit by campers.
  • To maintain focus on the subject e.g. The weapon used was a long knife.
  • To be diplomatic and avoid naming the actor e.g. The numbers were unfortunately read incorrectly.
  • When you don’t know who did the action e.g. In this case, forensics are the key.
  • To create authority e.g. Dogs must be put on leads.

Converting sentences to active voice

Look for at the word by (e.g. The Nobel Peace Prize was won by…). Rewrite the sentence so that the clause after by is closer to the beginning of the sentence so it becomes the focus. If the subject of the sentence is fuzzy, use a general term.