When Your Writing Group Fails

I’m a big advocate of writing critique groups. My group has moved me forward as a writer and improved the quality of my work. And everyone who attends regularly has improved, too. We encourage one another, celebrate our victories, and never have to struggle alone. Plus, they’re a great group to hang out with.

However, I recently received an email from someone who wasn’t so excited about his critique group. To summarize his chief concerns: many people weren’t taking their writing seriously, he only respected the comments of a few attendees, and he feared his writing would get worse if he kept on going. It’s been a year since he last went. I used to go to that group and understand his frustration.

A few days later I talked with another writer who dropped out of that same group for similar reasons. However, unlike my friend who emailed me, she joined a different group; it is functioning at a higher level and meeting her needs. She’s glad she made the switch.

Not all writing groups are the same. Aside from pursuing different goals, they can function at different levels. If you tried a group and dropped out frustrated, don’t give up on them, but look for a different one. If you can’t find one, start your own.

Are you part of a writing group? What’s your experience with writing groups?

Why Do You Write? What’s Your Motivation?

If you are reading this blog, it’s likely because you are a writer (or at least are moving in that direction). Why do you write? What motivates you? What causes you to put in the work when other people or pursuits beckon?

If the answer is fame, money, or easy work, you hold unrealistic expectations. While it is possible to garner a bit of recognition or earn some money, these will not likely happen in abundance. Only a fortunate few realize these outcomes. As for writing being an easy job, that is far from reality. Writing requires hard work, dogged determination, and sacrifice.

Being a writer is a difficult choice: dealing with isolation, people who misunderstand, rejection, disappointment, and fatigue. Why then, do we write? Though the reasons vary, they usually boil down to having a message we feel we must share, an idea that will explode if we don’t let it out. It’s critical we identify our specific motivation behind this.

It is, then, an inner drive that forces us to write. It’s important we embrace this. If we write but don’t know why, we will surely give up when roadblocks derail us, criticism deflates us, and frustration discourages us.

But if we know why we write, if we fully understand our provocation, then these threats will not thwart our progress. We will persist; we will prevail. Though there may be momentary hiccups along the way, nothing will prevent us from the work we know we must do.

If you understand why you write, great! If you aren’t sure, spend some time to discover the reason; uncover your inner angst or unction that fuels your writing. Then when our work is attacked, be it from the outside or within, we can confidently push through because we know why we write.

Why do you write? If you’re not sure, what steps will you take to discover why?

Does the Thought of Marketing Your Book Make You Squirm?

This blog is about writing. An important aspect of writing is marketing what we write, first to get it published and then to get it read. I don’t talk much about promotion because, like many authors, I don’t like to do it; I don’t even want to think about it.

Perfect Timing by Robin MellomWhen Robin Mellom told me she was thinking about self-publishing her next YA book, Perfect Timing, I encouraged her to do it and promised I’d help get the word out. Thankfully it’s much easier to “market” someone else’s book than your own.

Here are some easy steps we can do to promote another author’s work (which we can later apply to ourselves when the time comes). Consider these seven options:

Blog: We can blog about the author and the book. This can be direct or indirect. Even a brief mention with a link can help. We can also post a review of the book on our blog.

Amazon: We can review the book on Amazon. While every author wants five-star reviews, a book with only five-star reviews is suspect, so give an honest rating. Perhaps more important than the rating is the actual review itself and especially the headline we give it. If you spot another review that is favorable, mark it as “helpful” so more people can see and read it. More Amazon reviews mean more exposure to prospects by Amazon and more people likely to buy the book.

Goodreads: On Goodreads we can first flag the book as one we “want to read.” Then, as we read it, we can post our progress. When we’re finished, we mark it as “done.” Each of these steps shows interest in the book and helps other Goodreads readers to discover it. Of course, we can also write a review on Goodreads. Some book-marketing gurus think Goodreads is more important than Amazon.

Facebook: We can make status updates about the book and the author. For example, “I can’t wait to read Robin Mellom’s new book Perfect Timing” or “Perfect Timing was a real page turner.” Of course include links and even the cover. We can also follow the author; then “like” or comment on his or her updates. With Facebook, the more likes and comments an update receives, the more people who will see it.

Twitter: We can tweet about the author and the book. Use their Twitter handle and book hashtag. We can also follow the author and retweet their tweets. All these efforts increase their reach on Twitter.

Pinterest: Technically with Pinterest we’re only supposed to post our own images or ones we have the right to post, but what author would object to us pinning their cover? The more places it appears, the better.

In Person: Although we think about using social media for marketing, we can also go old-school and talk about books in person with our friends and family.

Try some of these options to help your friends promote their books. Then when it comes time to market your own, it will be a bit easier.

(And please check out Robin Mellom’s new book Perfect Timing.)

Our Writing Must Follow Expected Conventions

I recently read a short story by a young author. I enjoyed her plot, her imagination, and her use of words. One thing I didn’t like was missing apostrophes in all her contractions. Each time I encountered a contraction sans apostrophe it took me out of her story. These reoccurring speed bumps reduced my enjoyment of her work.

I’m not sure why she did this, especially since most programs will auto-correct missing apostrophes whenever possible. Even my smart phone does that.

As a college student it’s hard to believe she didn’t understand the use of apostrophes. Was she being sloppy? Didn’t she care? Was this a rebellious act, trying to make some point? I have no idea.

What I do know is that writing entails following certain conventions. If we want others to best understand our work, we must adhere to expected standards for sentence structure, paragraph use, upper and lower case, spelling, and, yes, punctuation.

New writers too often struggle in understanding the basic conventions of standard punctuation. Commas and quotes are common sources of confusion. While mastering the full intricacies of proper punctuation – over which there can be occasional debate – requires effort and time, there’s no excuse for not following the basics. Writers who assume punctuation doesn’t matter are shortsighted, more likely, lazy.

As writers, we want others to understand our words and not dismiss our work. This requires we follow expected writing conventions, whether we agree with them or not. This includes proper punctuation.

What punctuation errors frustrate you? What writing conventions do you struggle with?

Writing For Today’s Audience: People Have Short Attention Spans

I recently looked at an article I wrote twenty years ago. I was shocked.

Old School: First was the vocabulary I used. I was verbose, selecting big words when simpler ones would have sufficed. That was my style then, using word selection to sound intellectual; my thesaurus was my best friend, providing me with sophisticated language I could sometimes barely pronounce. Then, to accommodate my scholarly terminology choices, my sentence structure was correspondingly complex.

The other surprising trait was lengthy paragraphs, which seemed to go on and on, line after glorious line. This was in part due to my selection of long words, which took up more space. But it mostly harkened back to high school English that taught me to have six to eight sentences per paragraph: start with a thesis sentence, expand upon it in the next sentence, followed by three to five more sentences to explain it, and concluded with a summary sentence to recap everything. Really, some teacher taught me to do that.

The New Way: Thankfully, I’ve matured as a writer since then. My word choice is clearer, my sentence structure is simpler, and my paragraph lengths are shorter. My writing is cleaner, more concise, and easier to read – as it should be. I could scarcely stand to read those verbose sentences and lengthy paragraphs from my past.

Most readers today would agree. We have short attention spans. Many people multitask when they read, and for those who don’t, their environments and their minds offer a near constant source of distraction. They also skim – a lot. I struggle with all three.

Today’s Tips: That’s why we need to write for today’s readers:

  • Use simpler words
  • Write shorter paragraphs
  • Make text scannable
  • Insert subheads
  • Have bulleted lists

Give readers every reason to keep reading our work. Provide them with no cause to switch to another task; they may never come back.

Do. Not. Do. This.

I first saw this technique on a blog: Putting. A. Period. After. Every. Word.

It was endearing – sort of. But when I saw it a second time, it annoyed me. Now I’m seeing it too often, even in published books. I suppose if you want to communicate attitude for a thirteen-year old, angst-filled girl who is wrtting in her diary, it may be okay – or not.

I place this trend in the same category as using UPPER CASE, bold, underline, or italic to embellish text. It is amateurish. Never use creative formatting to cover a lack of creative writing.

The only acceptable method to place emphasis on text is italics. But even then, use it sparingly. Whenever, I have an urge to italicize something, I ask myself, “Why?” Is the sentence so weak it requires an italicized word to effectively communicate? If so, the passage may need work.

(Having said that, in blogging, we need to make our posts scannable for people who won’t read every word. One way to do that is with bold text. But save this technique for blogging; never, ever do it in a book, article, or short story.)

I want my words to speak for themselves and not rely on creative formatting to communicate.

When you write, avoid UPPER CASE, bold, underline, or italic, and Do. Not. Do. This.

How to Resume Your Writing Project After Taking a Break

Some writing, such as a blog post, article, or even the draft of a short story, generally takes one sitting. But what about longer works that take days, weeks, and months to complete? For these we have the challenge of stopping and then resuming our project.

Returning to a long piece is challenging for many writers. Some say it takes up to an hour before they can pick up where they left off. They may sit idle, desperately attempting to ramp up inspiration to reach that same mental readiness or emotional state they were in when they stopped. Sometimes this evades them and then writing languishes – for days, for weeks, or forever.

Other writers read their last chapter – or sometimes the entire project – to get a running start, hoping to launch themselves into creating the next section. Not only does this take time, but they often fall into the trap of editing as they go, sometimes never actually writing new material. A side effect of this technique is that the beginning of the piece is always edited far better than the end.

I’ve tried both methods and found them lacking. Then someone told me a better way.

When I’m working on a long project, I never end my writing session at a logical stopping point, such as a chapter, a scene or a thought, or even a paragraph. I stop in midsentence.

Then, when it’s time to resume, I simply read the last couple of lines. By the time I get to my sentence fragment, the words to finish the sentence fly from my fingers. The next line flows from it, and I’m back where I left off. This takes me less than a minute, often a few seconds.

Though this requires a bit of practice – especially for people like me who have trouble leaving something half-finished – it is possible. The key is to stop at a really interesting place, one where we can’t miss the concluding thought.

When I remember to do this, it has never failed me. Picking up where I left off becomes easy, quick, and painless. Try it.

What challenges do you have in resuming your writing project? What techniques work for you?

What Do You Do When You Don’t Want To Write?

I strongly recommend writers write every day, or at least most every day, according to a regular schedule. This is a great ideal, however, what happens when we don’t feel like writing? Here are some tips I use to keep me writing every day:

  • Sit Down and Write Anyway: If I don’t feel like writing, I often tell myself, “Too bad, do it anyway.” Then I sit down and start typing. Soon I am writing, moving my project forward.
  • Remember Your Deadline: Having a due date or commitment is another strong motivator. Nothing makes my fingers fly as much as having a submission deadline in a couple of hours or a promise I made to have something done the next day.
  • Switch Projects: Working on the same project day after day is sometimes necessary, but it’s also tedious. If writing seems like too much of a chore, work on a different project for a day or two, even a week. Then move back to the first project, refreshed and ready to go.
  • Reward Yourself Afterwards: Give yourself a small reward after you’ve written so many words or invested a set amount of time. Work first; play later. One warning: if your reward is food, use it sparingly.
  • Change Venues: Some writers need a periodic change of scenery. Try a different room in your house, go to a coffee shop, or work outside. A different environment can provide the incentive to write. (This one seldom works for me; I need a specific environment to write well.)

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the trap of doing something else first to “get in the mood.” Email, Facebook, and Web surfing are all evil distractions that keep us from writing. Cleaning the house, doing dishes, finishing the laundry, mowing the lawn, organizing files, and backing up the computer are all worthy tasks but which impede writing.

If our writing is important, we need to make it our priority by writing even when we don’t feel like it.

Which tip works best for you? What else do you do when you don’t want to write?

Don’t Expect an Editor to Do Your Job

As a magazine publisher, I edit every submission I receive. Yes, every single one. (And then a proofreader fixes everything I miss.) Though some submissions are in much better shape than others, each one receives some changes. In fifteen years, I’ve never ever accepted a submission without making at least a few edits.

I may need to shorten a piece to meet space requirements. Or I may need to fix issues with the writing itself, such as using complete sentences, ensuring a consistent tense or perspective, fixing punctuation, and so forth. I may need to remove self-promotion, something that is unprofessional and that we prohibit. Other times I need to correct sections that readers will likely misunderstand. Occasionally, I need to remove something that will offend our audience.

Whatever the reason for the edits, I keep two things in mind: I don’t want to embarrass the writer, and I don’t what to change his or her voice. Most editors have a similar perspective: they have the writer’s best interest in mind.

Given that, some writers may wonder: If it’s going to be edited anyway, why should I submit my best work?

Submitting your best writing results in less work for the editor and earns you their respect. Your future submissions will be anticipated, more likely to be accepted, and may even be published sooner.

Submitting sloppy work has the opposite effect. The editor groans when your email arrives, puts off reading it, and is more likely to reject it. Don’t earn that reputation. This applies to both article and book submissions.

I have several writers who submit content on a regular basis. For some, each piece is well written and professional. For others, I see their quality slide over time, often degrading to a point where I think I’m reading their first draft; they didn’t even bother to proofread it. Maybe they’ve become complacent or perhaps they figure that since it’s going to be edited anyway, why bother?

Don’t be that writer.

Eight Lies Writers Tell Themselves

Have you ever said or thought any of the following?

  1. I’m not really a writer.
  2. I’m just an aspiring writer.
  3. My work is not getting better.
  4. What I write doesn’t matter.
  5. I don’t want anyone to read my words.
  6. I’ll never finish writing my book.
  7. No one will ever buy it anyway.
  8. I don’t actually care if anyone buys it.

While these may appear as cautious statements to protect us from disappointment, they are really lies that conspire to hold us back from embracing the writer within.

While we are all writers to one degree or another, if we’ve ever been the least bit intentional about stringing words together to communicate with others, then we are in fact writers. For us these eight statements are mere mental roadblocks to success.

Yes, I’ve said or thought most of these lies at one point or another. However, I’ve now banned them from my vocabulary and barred them from my mind.

I am a writer, and I am getting better; I want people to read my words and buy my books; what I have to say does matter.

I hope you will join me in rejecting these eight lies and replacing them with truth. It all begins when we say, “I am a writer.”