Monday, December 17, 2007

When to Let Go of Your Writing Group

I recently stopped going to a fiction writing group in my town. There was no big blowout; everyone was always civil and pleasant. But still, I felt I just wasn't getting what I wanted out of it. Finding a community is an important part of succeeding as a writer, but it's got to be the right community. If you're not getting what you want out of your writing group, it may be time to move on. Here are a few signs that should let you know when to let go.

Everyone's extremely negative. This one's the most obvious--if your group is full of people who just rip each other's manuscripts apart without much thought to constructive criticism, you need to get out of there. No art can thrive in a hostile environment, and if you leave the group feeling like you never want to show your writing attempts to anyone ever again, the group is just too tough to help you. Even if your draft needs a lot of work, the people in your group should always offer criticism that's meant to help you out--not tear you down. And no matter what shape your manuscript is in, your group menbers should always have something positive to say.

Everyone's extremely positive. Then again, too much positivity can be just as damaging. It can lead you to be blind to your weak points, and it doesn't teach you anything. It feels good to get praise--but it doesn't help you improve much as a writer. Next time you're in your group, listen to what other participants say about the work there. If people heap praise on work that seems like it could use some improvement, this may not be the right group for you.

The other members aren't on your level. Are you the star of the writing group? If so, this group of people may not be challenging you enough. And if you're the scapegoat, your confidence may be suffering as well as your manuscripts. Feeling like the worst writer in the group can be draining, but at least you might be learning--if the other group members are supportive and focused on helping you improve. But being the star is probably worse, because you aren't learning much at all. For most people, the best group is comprised of people within the same ability range.

Nobody is familiar with your genre. Poets, memoirists, genre fiction writers, literary fiction writers, short story writers--all are doing different things with their writing, and a devotee of one genre may not understand all the issues faced by a writer in another. If the other people in your group are versatile enough to comment well on a range of genres, this may not be a problem. But if the people in your group don't understand or just plain don't like or approve of your genre--this often happens when literary and genre fiction writers meet--you may be in trouble. It's often best to work with like-minded people who understand your writing market.

It's the wrong time in your writing process. The main reason I left my last writing group was because it was just the wrong time for me. I was in the middle of a first draft. Things were constantly in flux. I was experimenting with character and plot. I thought that feedback would help me along the way, but I soon found that it only confused me more. I realized that I have to work out the kinks in the rough draft alone--then I can show it to others.

You're putting in more work than you can handle. A writing group is a lot of work. In addition to keeping up with your own writing, you have to read and make insightful comments on others' work. This was another reason I left my group--every member would hand in a thirty-page chapter, often only days before the meeting was set to take place, and I found I was just spending more time than I wanted in critiquing others' work. If it starts to get overwhelming, you may need to take a breather.

You don't feel inspired. The ultimate purpose of any writing group is to inspire you to keep going. If your group is making you feel like you never want to write again, it's not helping. Find a group that makes you feel great about your writing--but also points out where you can improve.

Not every writing group is created equally. If you're putting in more than you're getting out of it, or if you don't feel inspired to write more after every meeting, it may be time to let your writing group go.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday!

Right-- it's Wednesday and time to get inspired and do some writing. If this creepy-- yet timely bit doesn't work for you I hope you find something equally interesting.

As soon as the twinkling Christmas lights were wrapped around the lampposts of the town's high street; the phone calls began again, this time in earnest. She threw herself into her work, making excuses to stay at her job for hours after quitting time. She organized all the author photos in the publicity department, updated the sales jacket files, anything not to be there when the shrill phone broke the silence of their small flat.

She could quietly ignore the phone messages, the insistent voices, just as long as she told herself she was too busy to really be of any use she rationalized that she would be fine.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Why a Novel is Like a Maze

As I toil through my novel-writing, it's occurred to me why so many people claim to want to write novels but never get around to it--and why it's so darn difficult. Writing a novel is like navigating a maze.

Think about it. You construct detailed characters who go in directions you never intended them to go in. You write pages and pages of plot only to find the path you've chosen is a dead end. A path you passed ages ago now looks much more promising, if only you can find your way back to it. And--wouldn't you know--you seem to have forgotten to bring your magical golden thread to help you find your way back. Soon your characters have ditched you to wander about on their own, refusing to do as you say, and you're helplessly lost in a mess of your own devising.

I wouldn't say I'm highly qualified to give advice--I'm well known for clear-cutting the whole maze and starting over at inopportune times. This is more like advice to myself. Advice that anyone else who's lost in a maze might benefit from, too.

Know your characters. Where your plotting skills falter, a strong character should be able to take over. If you know your characters well, you should know their behaviors when confronted with any situation. You should hear their voices in your head, see them in your mind's eye, and be able to pick them out of any crowd. I know this sounds crazy, but sometimes when I'm stuck on a plot detail I turn to whatever character I'm working with, and I ask them: what do you think about this? Then I close my eyes and write whatever comes to mind, without judging. This works surprisingly well.

Just keep making things worse. Part of knowing your characters is knowing what would be the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to them. What is their deepest desire or motivation--and how can you really screw with their world? First, boil your character down to their one essential motivation: maybe your heroine just wants to be loved, or your hero just wants to stay in control. Then take what they want away: separate her from everyone she loves, or put him in a position where he's completely lost control of events.

When you're stuck for a plot detail, think to yourself: "how can I make this situation even worse?" The answer may vary depending on which character you're dealing with.

Before you hit that delete key, take a breather. Sometimes we just get so lost in the maze that we want to take a big chainsaw and start hacking away. But before you start deleting your work, stop and think. What seems hopeless and horrible today could look pretty decent--or at least salvageable--once your frustration has subsided. Make a deal with yourself: you will give it a day before you delete anything big. Or maybe a week. Sometimes I need a week.

Have a little faith. Sometimes it's the most unlikely path that leads to the center. Have faith in your own imagination. Have faith in your characters--they may know where you're going, even if you don't. If you see yourself getting lost, stop and skip to the next scene you feel fairly sure about. Try to stay on the train of thought you've set for yourself, and worry about the details later. Remember: it doesn't matter if your first draft smells to high heaven, as long as you have one. Perfectionists wind up being literary critics, not writers.

Like a maze, a novel presents us with endless choices: turn right or left? Kill off the heroine's first love or make him stick around? Even the tiniest little wrong turn can get you hopelessly lost. But have faith and follow your characters down every path they take, and hopefully you'll come out on the other side--with a finished manuscript.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Writing Prompt Wednesday

The last time I saw my sister was in 1997. She had on a leather coat and a pair of red heels, and she was getting on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle. Mom and dad were screaming at her to get back inside, but she wasn't going in. She shot them a smirk, swung one high-heeled leg over the bike, gripped Sean Latimer around the waist, and murmured something in his ear. I've tried to imagine what she whispered to him before he pulled his shades down over his eyes and took off into the night, but I guess I'll never know.

I wanted to be just like her.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Why I Love the Dark Heroes

I just finished reading Karen Marie Moning's Bloodfever. This author normally writes paranormal romances, and while I find her to be extremely over-the-top--the first novel of hers I read had the heroine breaking into the hero's home and hiding under his bed, among giant-sized condom wrappers, when he came home--I also find her writing to be oddly compelling and extremely sexy. I think, despite the camp, she absolutely nails her heroes. She gives them just the right amount of darkness and danger--which is quite a bit more than political correctness would think--without making them irredeemable.

Her Fever series--which has two books so far but I hear is supposed to have six or seven by the time it's through--isn't really romance; it's more like fantasy with a touch of romance thrown in. And despite that, I think it's much more erotic and compelling than her more run-of-the-mill romances. The erotic tension is building over a span of novels, not just one--and there's much more room for character development and growth. In the first book, the hero and heroine kiss once, sort of by accident--and in the second one, they're still not on a first name basis. And yet despite all the formality, there's an extremely hot sexual charge that's vibrating just below the surface.

The hero of the Fever series is much darker and less warm than other heroes I've met in her books; he's a true bad-ass without much of a "save-the-kitten" factor. Towards the end of the book, in a rare tender moment, he touches the heroine's face. The heroine says that "Being touched in kindness [by the hero] makes you feel like the absolute most special person in the world. It's like walking up to the biggest, most powerful lion in the jungle, kneeling and putting your head between its jaws. Instead of taking your life, it licks you and begins to purr."

I read that sentence and I had this weird moment of epiphany. I thought, she gets it. This author really GETS it.

Ever since I read my first romance novel, I've been most attracted to fictional heroes like this--scary, dangerous guys who have the power to be very nasty, but instead treat the heroine with kindness. The point isn't the kindness. The point is that they could be unkind. The more dangerous these heroes were to others in the story, the more their later kindness toward the heroine seemed like an incredible gift. The more special she is for bringing out tender feelings in him.

I wasn't sure exactly what this feeling was when I was younger--I just knew that the scarier the guy was, the more I liked him, for some odd, inexplicable reason. And I didn't understand why I felt the same way into adulthood--despite the fact that I'm an intelligent, college-educated woman who is passionate about women's rights and believes in equality and decency in relationships. But there are lots of reasons why we love those dark, scary heroes--the less politically correct, the better--that shouldn't leave us feeling too guilty. Here are just a few.

That passion is irresistible. Those bad guys are ruthless. They want what they want, and they don't stop at anything to get it. And when what they want is us--uh, I mean the heroine--that's absolutely irresistible. Every woman wants to be desired; there's no female on the planet who doesn't get a little shiver of delight at the thought that a guy braved rain, cold, snow, an angry boss, or maybe a whole army to be with her. And a bad guy is less likely to follow the rules, play nice and be fair in his quest to get what he wants--including the love of the heroine. It might not be politically correct, but it's enough to make any woman feel loved and wanted.

The heroine who can make a bad guy love her is special. Moning said it perfectly when she put it in terms of lions and jungles. When you can make the baddest, meanest, scariest creature in the jungle roll over and purr, you must be something special. He'll rip the throat out of anyone else that comes near--but for the heroine, he's all snuggles. That's sure to make any woman feel pretty amazing about herself.

It's wrong and we know it. Let's face it--we're not supposed to like these guys. We're supposed to like the clean-cut, hardworking guys who are sweet and funny and decent. And that's exactly why the dark hero is so attractive. He's not a tame, ideal husband you can bring home to mom and dad. He's the personification of our deepest, darkest desires--the ones we'd rather mom and dad never knew we had. The dark hero is the personification of freedom and wildness--the antithesis of civility. His very nature is illicit. What's wrong and illicit is always incredibly tempting--just because we're not supposed to want it.

So if you love the bad guys, don't worry. You're in good company--no hero sells more books than the alpha male. It doesn't mean you're doomed to fall for the wrong guy all the time or that you have some sort of weird masochistic tendencies. It just means that you want it all. You want wildness, freedom, excitement--and love and stability. In real life, this combination never happens--they're mutually exclusive. But in fiction, we can have our cake and eat it too. That's why my favorite scary, dangerous guys are fictional.