Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Writing Groups Part II (Two days late)

Caught up in holiday madness. I knew I needed to post on Monday, to keep with my new goal, but I was occupied pretty much all day. I am home for the holidays (because I caught a flight early Saturday a.m. out of New York, thereby escaping the blizzard/travel insanity, thank heaven) but I spent Monday and Tuesday occupied with the nephew, who is almost two and can't be left alone for a second. Adorable, if exhausting. But, I owe you all a post this week, and a post you shall get.

I said in my earlier post that writing groups are a tremendously valuable part of the writing process, and I meant it. For my first book, Did I Expect Angels? I know I wouldn't have finished the book without the group. Around Christmas of 2001, I had a general idea and theme in my head, and over that Christmas break from work I sat down at the family computer and wrote about 15 pages. And then I left it. (This was my habit in those days: starting projects and never seeing them through, all the while thinking, "I want to be a writer." Of course, writers have to write--and more than that, they have to finish things. I knew this, but couldn't quite get over that hurdle.) So I had 15 pages and a vague sense of dissatisfaction with my life.

Fast forward to Memorial Day of 2002. I had lunch with a friend, who told me she was also working on some writing projects. We talked it over and agreed that we needed some extra help getting things done (in my case) and getting feedback (hers). So we each recruited a friend and set up an online writers' group. We set up a schedule where every Monday one of us would email the others a selection of pages, maybe 15 - 20 at a time, and the others would have a week to read and write a critique. We'd email our critiques to everyone the following Monday and the next person would email her pages.

Suddenly I had a deadline! I sent out my 15 pages the first week, and I had 3 weeks more to produce 15 pages. And I actually did. I got going and wrote pages! For the first time I had an actual direction and motivation to finish something, and it was wonderful. And I discovered that I was not a great writer. I remember being told that it read like a short story, because I *talked about* things happening, rather than putting the reader in the moment and showing what happened. "Everything just kind of zooms past," was what they said, as well as I can remember. This was a revelation. I had had writing classes in college, but we'd done short stories, where it's more acceptable to sum (some) things up just to conserve space; with a 4000k word limit in many magazines, you know, some summation is in order. But this doesn't apply nearly as much in novels, which I was trying to write.

Through this writers' group, I finished my book. I worked on it actively from that June through January of 2003. I am very grateful to this group.

I cannot say that we were free of drama. There was one member whom I inadvertently offended. Several times. Consistently, weeks on end, it turns out. I have no idea when it began, but apparently it grew and grew until we hit the boiling point, and she sent out comments about my latest installation that ... well, they weren't constructive, they weren't helpful; they were just angry. "I don't like this...I've already read this so many times I don't care..." (yes, she had, but part of the writing group experience is reading revisions) "... I don't agree with this sentiment and I don't care to read anything that says it" etc.

I was confused. My friend told me that this woman was incredibly angry with me because I hadn't begun my critiques with positive comments first. Apparently this is a rule of most writing groups; but I had no idea. And no one mentioned it to me after they noticed that I was ignoring/ignorant of the rule. Angry Woman had sent my friend a draft of an email that she wanted to send to me, telling me how rude I was and how I was affecting her mental health; she was agoraphobic and couldn't hold down a job and unhappy and I was making everything worse. My friend told her not to send the note, that I was just more blunt than other people. So she didn't send it; instead she got angrier and angrier every time I didn't start with the positives. Sigh.

Once I was aware this was a problem, I sent her a note. I apologized for having harmed her so grievously (though I didn't include the sarcasm, I promise I didn't), said I was unaware she'd been having these problems, and maybe she could let me know when I offended her, and we could just start again. Well, this made it worse. She emailed back a nasty note. I wish I remembered what it said! It would make this post a lot more amusing. But I don't remember, so I can only talk about it. (Writing lesson! Talking about things -- aka "telling" -- is not as interesting as showing them!) I do remember she said something like, "I was just being blunt. Maybe you can't handle bluntness." Angry Woman emailed us all and literally asked the other two to take sides, because she couldn't handle being in a group that tolerated my kind of behavior. Please let her know, she said, if we wanted her out of the group. She ended the note with, "I await your decision."

Of course my two other friends wouldn't kick her out. They told her the decision had to be hers, so she needed to let us know if she wanted to continue or not. Within a day there was an email labeled "resignation" in my inbox. (as I think about it, that's not terribly specific; she could have been announcing her resignation to the idea of remaining in the group that included such an ignorant boor as myself.) Consensus on the sane side was that she had some problems bigger than this, and had been looking for a reason/way to get out of the group.

We continued on for a while. It was a lot harder with only three members, however. Somehow, having two weeks in between submitting was quite a bit harder than having three. More than three would have been too long, but two was way too short. We soldiered on as best we could, but also found that only two outside opinions weren't as helpful as having three (even if one of them was angry).

A few months later we recruited another writer, who wrote restaurant reviews (my dream job!), and she was low-drama and low-key and gave helpful critiques. Unfortunately, soon after this, I started grad school. (Unfortunate for me being in the group; not unfortunate for me.) My writing in grad school was focused on stage and screen, and I simply didn't have time to continue writing prose. And if I sent the group my playwriting, by the time I got their comments back I had already submitted that piece of writing and gotten graded on it--the program moved fast. So I had to bow out, and I was sad to do it.

I have great memories of that group. We saw each other through some interesting times and crises and frustrations, buoyed each other through some things, and then I managed to ruin someone's life. I guess I still love them since it was not *my* life that was ruined.

Monday, December 14, 2009

writing groups!

Ever had this happen?

You have a great idea, you’re on a tear, you’re particular inspired by a tear-jerking movie, you’re drunk (ahem) or just delirious because this is the third day you’ve gotten less than 4 hours sleep. You go to your computer and write something at breakneck speed, and you’re convinced this is the greatest thing you have ever produced. You finish the piece, sigh happily and hit Print, then go (back) to bed to revel in that feeling, that joy, that knowledge: You Are A Great Writer.

Oh, the pain of the mornings.

Now imagine a slightly different scenario. You’ve labored on something for days/weeks/months/YEARS and you know it’s the best thing you can do. You’ve gone through it dozens of times, found typos, found inconsistencies, realized that perhaps this line where Kaylee screams “I’ll find that rare stolen coin if it’s the last thing I do!” (a) reads like she’s a psycho or (b) is perhaps a tad on the melodramatic side or (c) is a placeholder you wrote because that is in fact what she’s looking for but you planned to come back later and make it a little less like an infodump/less freakishly awful. And then you forgot about it and on the seventh re-read you found it.

And suddenly you think, “What else have I left in there that I forgot about?” If you have a long piece, you just can’t remember all the places you do something like that.

What to do?

Beta readers. Readers are incredibly important. And make sure it’s someone who won’t smile and say, “I loved it!” Because as good as that little ego stroking may feel, ultimately it doesn’t help. I assure you, agents and editors will not smile and say “I loved it!” when they come upon someone shrieking, “I’ll find that rare stolen coin if it’s the last thing I do!”

Now, it’s also a big favor to ask, having someone read a completed 100,000-word manuscript. Friends will often do it for several reasons: they’ve heard you talk about this piece for days/weeks/months/YEARS and they’re curious. They’d like to write, but never have. They’re good readers. Or perhaps they have nothing else to do. But nine times out of ten, their feedback isn’t going to be that great. Why? Simply because they don’t do this very often.
A better option is to have people reading what you’re writing as you go. It’s less painful to read six pages, rather than two hundred fifty. The reader can also pay closer attention to little things. It’s hard for your readers to get the big picture (actually, nigh on impossible) but…because you have also read their submissions as the weeks go by, they wn’t be as offended when you ask them to read the whole thing in a big gulp.

I will talk more about the writing groups I’ve been part of…later.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My First Book

Monday Blogging
Look at me! My goal is off to a good start.

I don’t quite remember what the impetus was to write my first book. My English class had been writing stories for a few weeks, and I really enjoyed it, so maybe it was that. But I do remember sitting down at our relatively new computer and saying to myself, “I’m going to write a book,” and starting to type. I was 14 years old.

The short story unit had been fun. We took a few weeks to talk about characters and plot, and I set about writing a murder mystery. I was very into Agatha Christie at the time (though I only read the Hercule Poirot mysteries, rather than the bland Miss Marple—or I thought she was bland at the time; maybe she’s not and I need to revisit?) and I was determined to do the same. I started with a catchy title—BIRTHDAY MURDER—and began writing.

I don’t remember the plot of Birthday Murder. I revised it a few times, and I don’t remember the first plot or the second or the third. I do remember the first ending, however, because I cribbed it directly from Ms. Christie. And this was not a generic ending, where one could think that I just arrived at that idea independently. No, it involved a murder happening in silence, several hours before it was discovered; false blood strewn about the room (an unnaturally bright shade of red, because a chemical had been added to keep it fresh); and a balloon with a stopper that got pulled from a cord stretched out the window, emitting an ear-splitting, animal-sounding scream to bring people running when the killer was among them, so they wouldn’t suspect. Very creative, Agatha! Me, using it again? Not so much.

At some point, I realized that it was a bad idea to plagiarize. Unfortunately, it was right before handing in the final draft. I needed an ending, one that I could just scribble down to turn in the next day. Hmm, how did I handle that? I don’t remember that either. I do remember that I changed the motive. Rather than a crazy, involved family secret being exposed (or some such nonsense) I changed it to the covers-all “For Kicks.” Yep. A semi-direct quote, as close as I can remember it: “She did it for fun. FOR FUN.”

Take a moment to let that wash over you. High drama.

And yet Mrs. Morris liked it enough to read my story aloud to the class. I’ve recounted this to people before, and every time I tell it I remember sitting at my desk, staring at the faux-wood surface, the heat of blood in my cheeks as I was embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. Mrs. Morris didn’t actually tell the class whose story she was reading, but they all knew (probably from my reaction) and they complimented me profusely after it was over. I was in love. I’m not sure with whom. Maybe with myself. More likely, with writing, given what I did next.

I think it was the next Friday night that I sat down to write a book. And that was my goal. No short story this time. I turned on the computer…and looked at a blank screen. (Black, back in those days. Although I was able to change both background and character colors, and I enjoyed messing with that a lot. Mint green on pink? Red on black, black on red? Orange on blue? Best part: my mom didn’t know how to fix it.)

My problem was plotting. Not actually ironing out what would happen when, but the very idea. It’s an age-old problem for writers of all sorts. It’s not quite writers’ block, but this general feeling of “I should be writing something!” but not knowing what that something would be. I’ve had that feeling since, but a few years ago I actually realized that I already have more ideas for books and screenplays than I could ever finish. The problem is not getting ideas; the problem is making ideas work. (Therefore, when someone says, “I have a proposal: I’ll give you ideas and you write them, and we’ll split the proceeds 50/50” you should RUN. First, the idea of “proceeds” is far-fetched in far too many cases; second, ideas are as easy to come by as urine [Really? Am I really going to use that?] and the ideas are not the work.)

So…at that point, where was an idea? This was easily solved. My sister gave it to me. She was 17 at the time and she said, rather offhandedly, “A guy’s wife gets kidnapped, and their baby dies, and he gets revenge and kills the people involved and then he’s prosecuted and he escapes to Nicaragua, fighting with the Contras.”

That is the plot I chose.

I’ll just let that sink in. More high drama. Higher.

Forget the fact that I didn’t know the first thing about Nicaragua, the Contras, kidnapping, marriage. Or that my idea of revenge involved putting toothpaste in inconvenient places. Forget that I didn’t do any research. I could do this!

It took a month or two, and I had written my book. Now, I was (am) a softie and I couldn’t have a sad ending. So the guy (Alan) couldn’t be banished to Nicaragua. In fact, he couldn’t be a bad guy. Therefore the person on whom he gets his revenge must be a total horror. I chose his mother-in-law—divorced from the father-in-law, because the father-in-law is rich and therefore a good guy—and yes, she was so awful that I had Alan’s wife, Jody, scream “You total bitch!” though I couldn’t make myself have an actual swear word in the dialogue, so I changed it to witch. Whoo.

It is also noteworthy that I didn’t think this would be a YA novel. I thought this would take the publishing world by storm when it went out and bio on the book jacket (which I had helpfully written out at the end of the manuscript) said, “Yes, folks, this lady’s fourteen.” Direct quote. Sigh.

Now, off to my readers! I gave it to my mom, and said, “I want your real feedback. What you really think.” She made a face that I have since made, that “I don’t want to hurt you but I don’t want to encourage you either” face, and said, “It’s…amateurish.” I nodded and thought about it. I gave it to a 14-year-old friend, who loved it. And I gave it to my 9th grade teacher, who also loved it and told me to publish it. (Whose opinions did I latch onto? Whose do you think?) She didn’t, however, tell me *how* to publish it. Problem.

A bigger problem: My little brother, who loved messing with the computer, then erased our hard drive. I was 14, so he must have been 11. He was very into computer games (specifically Digger, the only computer game I’ve ever gotten into, and “Bushido” which I don’t remember except that it involved samurai swords.) and decided one day to clean up the hard drive. The next day, I turned on the computer and when it didn’t take me to LeMenu, I called for my dad, who called for my mom, who called for Bill. Bill told us, so cavalierly, “I just erased an extra command.” (The words on screen said, I am not kidding, “Missing command.”)

My book was gone.

My mom’s eyes were saucers. I stared at the computer, that dark screen that was missing THE MOST IMPORTANT COMMAND (apparently no commands are “extra”), silent. My mom looked between me and Bill, worried about the possible carnage, and took me away and said, “If you don’t say anything to him, I’ll take you to Baskin Robbins.” (worth noting: she took him, too, in the same trip.) I turned around and went to my room and closed the door.

I was able to retrieve the printed manuscript from one of my friends. I spent many more hours retyping the same book into the computer, since Bill was now forbidden to mess with the programming. He kept on playing “Bushido,” though, and as revenge I hid the floppy disk (a five-incher!) which was more effective than toothpaste.

So I had gotten my book back, in a way, but by then the spirit was gone. Maybe Bill saved me from myself; the thing was dumb. I really cannot imagine what an agent’s response would have been, since a form rejection seems too nice. (Although I do have an agent friend. Maybe I’ll ask her.) No copy survives, only memories. It remains where it belongs: under the proverbial bed.