Thursday, March 26, 2009

Don: Encouragement from friends on my path to publication

I attended my first SCBWI meeting shortly after moving to Austin ten years ago. Although my background had been in children's publishing, I was strictly an illustrator. I hadn't even considered writing.

Authors, I thought, were only for folks with master’s degrees, or for people who studied English or Russian literature. Authors were for people who knew about misplaced modifiers and when to use a colon versus a long dash. I didn't have or do or know any of those things. If someone had told me then that I'd be a published author in my not-too-distant future, I'd have said they were crazy.

So what's a guy like me doing with a literary agent like Sara? Well, hard work of course. But especially because of the encouragement, advice, and general goodwill I received from friends in the children's literature community — and especially Austin SCBWI.

Dianna Aston inspired me. It was her idea that I write the true story of outsider artist Bill Traylor, which will publish next year. She sent a newspaper article to me about the artist, and recommended a list of picture book biographies that I should study. I tacked the article to a bulletin board above my drawing table, with no real intentions to write Bill's story.

Cynthia Leitich Smith praised my writing. "You can write," she said. That was a powerful compliment; no one else had told me that before. Turned out, she had been reading the blog I had just started. When I told her about my plans to someday write Bill Traylor's story, she offered to give it a first read when I finished a draft. Someday began first thing the next morning.

Chris Barton not only offered to read and copy edit my manuscript, he read many of my stories that followed — poor thing. His feedback was invaluable, and his example of persistence encouraged me to keep writing.

Eventually, I took an online writing course with Anastasia Suen. I studied the craft, and I wrote every single day. What I learned is that a well written, compelling story, told in an authentic voice, trumps a misplaced semicolon or a dangling participle, any day.

There were many others that supported me and offered encouragement: Julie Lake, Anne Bustard, Liz Scanlon, Annette Simon, Susan Taylor Brown, the list goes on. Friends who graciously offered to read my work, provide constructive feedback, and encourage me to keep on keeping on, even when I found myself getting discouraged enough to throw in the towel.

But while this post is meant to recognize and show gratitude for the kindness and generosity of my friends, it's more than that. It's a testimony about the wonderful spirit of mentorship and benevolence among the children's literature community, unlike any other I've been a part of.

Getting published is tough; it's competitive out there. But authors, I've found, stick together. I plan to dedicate my first authored book, It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Taught Himself to Draw, to friends who stuck by and encouraged me on my way to publication as a writer.

Monday, March 23, 2009

News: MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson

Varian Johnson's MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS is a NYPL STUFF FOR THE TEEN AGE 2009 pick! Congratulations, Varian!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Troy: Me, Tom

That’s me, the kid on the left. Troy Howell.
Or rather, Tom.
Thomas Sawyer…sir.

It was a dress-up party for my birthday and I was ten, a very impressionable ten. An age, some psychologist’s claim, that is pivotal to one’s outlook or direction in life. Looking at myself now as an adult, I suppose I’ve supported that theory. I love fresh air and dappled sunlight, water, independence. I like adventure; I like cats. I don’t like pain-killer. I prefer a balance between sociability and reticence (I‘m involved, while on the edge). I appreciate wit, parody, satire. And one loyal friend is enough.

Just like Tom.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer wasn’t the only element that shaped me back then, but it was significant. I wasn’t Tom Sawyer just on my birthday, but all summer long, which lasted a year. Every summer lasted a year, when I was young. As Tom Sawyer, I purposely jabbed my toe so I could wrap it in bloodied cloth; used some of the blood to sign the Dark Oath I’d copied down; navigated the wide Mississippi (the street on which I lived) from a steamboat (my front porch); longed for a love like Becky Thatcher; and tried to smoke grass—the mowed kind—from a homemade corncob pipe without vomiting. But if I vomited, that was all right: Tom Sawyer did. Then when school began, I “played hooky” along with my loyal friend—the same friend under whose window I meowed at dawn, with whom I spent the rest of the morning reading comics. We were promptly caught and hauled to the principal’s office.

Reality had put an end to Tom Sawyer.
Or maybe not.

The more time you spend in a character’s shoes—or feet, with one toe wrapped—whether you’re a reader or writer (or an illustrator, for that matter), the deeper the experience, the more natural the representation. You can hear his voice, smell her hands. You can place your fingers on the character’s pulse and feel what makes it race or skip or freeze.

For the writer, it’s like taking memories that are yours and making them someone else's.
For the reader, it’s like taking those memories and making them your own.

I had been living Mark Twain’s delights.
When I met this boy covered in fine dust from the past, restless and straw-hatted, I met myself. I discovered desires that had been waiting to surface.

Character as mirror.

I fell in love with the great Mississippi, just like Tom. When I heard there was an actual river near where I lived, there in suburban southern California, I could hardly wait to see it. I did at last, after a long bike trek through the hills and hollows of an asphalt-and-stucco wilderness. There it lay, lagged really: a few-feet wide, few-inches deep, median strip of water with banks of concrete. The Los Angeles River.

Fiction was better than that. So were my dreams. (I now live in the country, close to nature, right where I’d yearned to be. I’m a mile or so from the Potomac; we have a pond….)

I pulled Tom Sawyer off the shelf the other day. It had been years since I’d opened it, and contrary to the impression I may be giving, it would not be one of my desert island picks. Twain is not even among my favorite authors. It was a book that touched me, not as a writer, but as a person. As a child, and hence, as an adult.

Since I’m writing middle grade material (my debut novel is middle grade), I thought I’d check to see how something that influenced me at age ten compares to what I’m doing for the same age group. I was relieved, if not surprised. The storytelling is direct, but much of the writing is mature:

“Then at once they reached and hovered upon the imminent verge of sleep—but an intruder came, now, that would not “down.” It was conscience. …. but conscience was not to be appeased by such thin plausibilities…. Then conscience granted a truce, and these curiously inconsistent pirates fell peacefully to sleep.”

Of course in context, in the setting and flow of action, this becomes less obscure for the young reader. Besides big words, there will always be overtones and meanings that drift beyond the understanding of a child. But just as a child can be affected by what is not said by a parent, what whispers in the parent’s heart or mind, so a child reader can be affected by these unseen currents. The child feels them. As the child grows, what is shifting below the surface gradually rises.

Back to my age-ten self: Oddly, when I picked up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain’s masterpiece, after having lived and breathed Tom Sawyer, I had difficulty relating to the first-person narration. I had difficulty separating the “I” of Huck from the I of me. Though personal in the telling, it was less personal than the third-person narrative of Huck’s counterpart. (I think today’s young reader is more sophisticated, but that’s another focus.) The writing in Huck Finn seemed more mature than that in Tom Sawyer, but it was its theme, its sweeping truth, that created this notion. This is also confirmation that what places a book is not so much “reading level” as it is point of view and scope of relevance across both time and culture. In Tom Sawyer, the narrative voice is obviously adult, in Huck Finn, it is simply that of its narrator. Compare the previous Tom Sawyer quote with this, the point of Huck’s moral crossroads between society’s (and, based on his clouded conception, God’s) view of slavery and his core nature:

“I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing … but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.”

That’s as complex as the narrative voice gets.

As a matter of course, once I was able to grasp Huckleberry as a character, I was able to grasp some of what he represented. I sensed that what he represented spread beyond the world of boyhood adventure and into the streets and spires of a large, looming, initial-capped, Society.

Character as window.
Character can also be concept.

When I turned twelve I found
Lord of the Flies, and not long afterward several neighborhood boys and I conducted a three-day war. Our neighborhood was chaotic with ditches at the time—the city was replacing water lines—that became symbols in my unconsciousness. I felt the upheaval, and the fever spread to my companions and rivals. During those delirious days, faces were painted, dirt clods flew, wooden clubs were carved and brandished, bruises appeared. One boy fell from a hastily constructed fort and landed in cacti. A boy I thought of as Piggy got struck in the forehead with a bamboo pole, which someone had thrown like a spear. The pole stayed suspended in that moment, an extension of our horror, and the boy collapsed. We washed his wound in the dog’s water bowl until his mother came, fearful, tearful, and angry, to take him to the nearest emergency room.

Again, reality ended the affair.
Again, maybe not.
Whatever William Golding’s intent, the climaxes of each—story and truth—collided within me. Until the blood ran, I‘d had no thought beyond merely playing out the parable. Though now not a pacifist—it depends on the cause—I loathe contention, strife, argument, fighting, war. Recognizing parental example as primary—my parents were peacemakers—I nevertheless see this adolescent episode as a threshold.

The heat waves of fiction always quivered along the surface of reality for me. Never mind whether the characters were flat or round or some other dimension: they were people; they were real. Though I was largely unaware of the process, they helped to reveal, define, introduce, change.

Besides giving me a ripping good time.

I recently loaned my Norman Rockwell edition of Tom Sawyer to my ten-year-old nephew. Before long, his parents were wondering why he and his little brother kept sneaking off into the woods; it was so unlike them.
They were pursing old adventures, and making them new.

The confluence of fiction and reality. Of an author’s dreams into those of the reader.

Memory as character …
Character as memory.

No answer.
No answer.

“What’s gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!”

The old lady with the spectacles didn’t know it, but she was calling for me.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Christine: Oprah's Not on Speed-Dial (and Other Corrected Misconceptions About Writers)

My teenage daughter, Julianne, recently had a fender-bender in the high school parking lot.

By the time she and the other driver had gotten out of their cars to murmur apologies and survey the damage, a backpack-clad crowd had gathered to check out the excitement. Amid the hubbub, my daughter overheard a conversation about how much this was going to cost.

“Julianne doesn’t need to worry,” one classmate said to another. “Her mom is the one who writes books. They’re rich.”

Once my near-hysterical laughter had subsided upon hearing this anecdote from my daughter, I started reflecting on some of the assumptions people have about writers … things that never occurred to me before I published my first book and subsequently, of course, became “rich.”

With the voices of the nuns from my childhood ringing dutifully in my head that I should stop whining and count my blessings, I’ll chance fate and correct a few improbable-to-the-point-of-absurd misconceptions about writers, starting with the one I’ve already referenced:

* I’m not rich. I don’t know why people think otherwise. I have a decidedly unglamorous day job. I brown-bag my lunch. I clip coupons and buy store-brand groceries. When I have to unexpectedly factor some kid’s busted tail light into my budget (thanks, Julianne), I postpone the haircut I was planning. So if being an author is supposed to guarantee me riches, someone forgot to send my publisher the memo.

* I’m not an ATM for free books. I’m thrilled about my postman’s niece’s best friend’s upcoming bat mitzvah, but I don’t have stacks of books at the ready for the gift-giving needs of every acquaintance of acquaintances.

* Speaking of those acquaintances of acquaintances: I don’t have time to read their manuscripts. Here’s the thing: I barely have time to write my manuscript. I wish them best of luck with their literary aspirations (really, I do), and I’ll happily refer them to my website for tips on getting published (, but I’m too swamped to serve as their unofficial editor. May I suggest their mothers? Mine has been a Godsend.

* That goes double for their kids’ George Orwell essays.

* Oprah’s not on speed-dial. It never fails: Any time my friends note that I’m not exactly cracking the New York Times bestseller list, their eyes widen and they say, “You know what you should do? You should go on Oprah!” I’ve learned to simply smile gamely and nod, rather than point out that booking a gig on Oprah isn’t like making an appointment with the dentist. If I give birth to eleven babies simultaneously or successfully crash-land a plane on the Hudson, then I’ll pencil Oprah into my schedule. Otherwise, her producers aren’t exactly sitting around waiting for my call.

* I don’t pal around with other authors. Whichever author you’re about to ask if I’ve met, assume the answer is no. It’s that whole I’m-really-busy deal, plus the fact that my hometown isn’t exactly the literary capital of the world. Who do I pal around with? People who give me estimates on busted tail lights.

* Whatever story idea you have for my next novel is probably a no-go. Sorry. No matter how quirky your Aunt Trixie is, or how frisky your Yorkshire terrier, I can’t translate your passions into prose. And really, haven’t I put my agent through enough already?

Hope I don’t sound too cranky, or too unappreciative for the exquisite honor of getting paid to write. I love my friends, relatives, acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances, but a reality check is a bit overdue, no? And now I’ve laid the gauntlet for them to give me my comeuppance and dispel all my assumptions about their jobs. Bring it on. That, I’ll be happy to read.

Sara: My website

The lovely Little Willow has finished working on my website, and it is up and running. Please visit

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Karen: Interview with Flux editor Brian Farrey

Brian Farrey, the acquisitions editor at Flux, graciously took the time to answer some of my questions about YA, submissions, and what it’s like being an editor:

Hello, Brian! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m the acquisitions editor for Flux, the young adult imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide located in the (currently frigid) Twin Cities. At Flux, we like to say that young adult is a point of view and not a reading level. To that end, I’m building a list of edgy, realistic teen fiction that embodies young adult viewpoints and never condescends. And sometimes, when I remember, I blog about my experiences as an editor at

How did you get started as an editor?

My first stint as an editor was when I served on the editorial board for WATER-STONE, Hamline University’s literary journal. We chose the short stories, essays, and poetry that went into the yearly book. From there, my next bit of professional editorial work was when I took over the reins here at Flux. I’ve been with Flux since its inception three years ago, working as a publicist for the line, so I’ve been around to see the genesis and subsequent growth of the line.

What were your favorite books as a kid?

Like a lot of kids, I spent buckets of time reading Judy Blume. I was a big fan of Clifford Hicks’ Alvin Fernald books (which I think are sadly out of print). I loved VERONICA GANZ and PETER AND VERONICA by Marilyn Sachs (an author I had the extreme honor of working with as her publicist when Flux re-issued her amazing book, THE FAT GIRL). Once a year, I re-read THE WESTING GAME. I loooove that book.

What are your favorite books now?

I don’t think these types of questions are fair for true book lovers. It’s like asking one to select a favorite child. But here’s my best shot at listing books I’ve read recently that made me overwhelmingly happy:
KIT’S WILDERNESS and CLAY by David Almond (Almond might just be my favorite writer; he’s amazing. If I ever taught a writing course, I would make KIT’S WILDERNESS mandatory reading.),
LUST by Geoff Ryman,
MADAPPLE by Christina Meldrum,

SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU by Peter Cameron (In my imaginary writing course, I would also put this on the reading list.)

And I admit to being just a little bit of a Harry Potter fan

Books I’m currently reading: DROOD by Dan Simmons, STONEHEART by Charlie Fletcher, WAS by Geoff Ryman, THE SCREWED UP LIFE OF CHARLIE THE SECOND by Drew Ferguson.

What advice do you have for writers?

You don’t need a fancy degree to be a writer. But I think it’s helpful to have a very good sense of the industry and the marketplace. To that end: read. You can learn from writers whose material you don’t care for just as much as you can from writers whose material you adore. Know what’s out there. It’s very, very easy for me to spot a submission written by someone who hasn’t read a contemporary YA novel. Ever. This isn’t to say that you should run out and copy the first bestseller you can get your hands on. Being original is kinda important too. But having a strong overview of what’s on shelves can certainly help you understand what attracts readers’ attentions and can maybe even show areas that remain untapped.

How about advice for novelists who are just starting out?

1) Do. Not. Send. Out. A. First. Draft. There’s an unyielding euphoria that comes hand in hand with finishing the first draft of any project. It’s a honeymoon period when you think about what you’ve just accomplished and you love your work like nothing else. 9.9 times out of 10, if you give it another read (maybe after sitting on it for a while), you’ll start to see areas that could use a little work. I understand the desire to get your new baby out there into the hands of editors and agents but you’re setting yourself up for failure if you don’t polish first. And it’s very easy to tell a first draft that hasn’t been vetted. To me, a lot of first drafts read like something the author was annoyed with, as if the book is just something standing between them and the screenplay for the movie version that they spent a lot of time casting in their mind. I can forgive spelling errors and punctuation problems and part of an editor’s job is certainly to guide a writer towards a stronger manuscript. I think my biggest disappointment is reading a synopsis that promises a fabulous premise (often called “high concept”) and then delivers mediocre writing.

2) Do your homework. Before you submit anywhere, read the publisher’s submission guidelines and follow them. Every week, I get submissions from writers who DIDN’T do their homework and they send me (often at great expense) manuscripts for picture books or middle grade novels, neither of which Flux publishes. Look at the kinds of books a publisher and its imprint does and see if you might be a good fit.

Do you have a pet peeve for submissions?

Before I answer this, I want to make two things clear: anything I mention here pertains to me and me only and should not be seen as any sort of industry standard. Also, I’m not saying that these peeves will make me reject a manuscript (largely because this is the first time I’ve gone public with these minor nuisances and it would be unfair to judge people who haven’t been previously privy to my perturbances—why, yes, I’m good at alliteration, thank for asking). Pet peeves? I hate Courier font. Hate it. If I get a submission in Courier font, I immediately change it. My eyes can’t handle it. (Now, for whatever reason, the opposite is true for Garamond. I like Garamond. I don’t know why. Aspiring authors: please do not send me your manuscript in Garamond and then mention in the cover letter that you did it to please me. That will only make me more squeamish about sharing these bits of info.) Times New Roman is a good default. What else…? I appreciate good formatting (double spaced, 1” margins, numbered pages). So I get a bit grr and fist shaky when I have to format something myself.

What kind of submissions would you love to see?

Although I call myself a Harry Potter fan, I am VERY, VERY picky about the fantasy I read. I like very little. The conventional (questionable?) wisdom, when pitching your book, is to say, “it’s just like [insert name of insanely popular book here].” This has never worked for me. Largely because my very strange brain says, “Well, why would I want to publish something that someone else has already done?” What I loved about your book, Karen, was how it transcended a generic fantasy world in a very unique way: you made it relevant.

That said, I love a really genuine voice. After a while, “snarky teen girl” voice grates on me. If you’ve got a teen and she’s a girl who happens to be snarky, she’d better be more than that. (I can already hear thousands of snarky teen girl voice writers ready to fire off e-mails of protest. I’m not saying snarky teen girl writing is evil—in fact, in terms of sales, it’s quite popular--and that I haven’t bought some but I do have issues when that’s all there is to the character. I think a lot of beginning writers who admire snarky teen girl voice in other books mimic just the attitude and forget to give the character a bit of depth.)

I want to see submissions that are about honesty. Sometimes, honesty can be ugly (and that’s OK) but I really flip for books that are rooted in emotional honesty.

Any quirky details about yourself to share?

Something I never really realized about myself before I took this position is that I’m a huge sucker for a good dystopian/future gone askew book. I’m not talking Buck Rogers/25th century/spaceships future. The closer the book is to the present day and the more likely the frightening events of the book seem to me, the better. Not to jump on any bandwagons or anything but Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES really is fantastic. I was also enamored with James DeVita’s THE SILENCED. (That sound you hear? The mad stampede of dystopian YA submissions flooding my inbox. Be careful what you wish for…)

(Karen Kincy is a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her debut novel, OTHER, will be coming out from Flux in Spring 2010. Visit her website at

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Writing Groups Are Awesome

Writing Groups are Awesome

(If you do them right)

Let’s get the introduction out of the way: my name is Dan Wells, and my first published book just launched today from Headline Publishing in the UK (it launches in the US next year, from Tor). It’s a psychological thriller called I Am Not a Serial Killer, which will be followed by two sequels, and all three books owe their existence to my writing group; they’re the ones who helped me make them good enough to sell.

I have been in a serious writing group for ten years now, dating back to college when I met a guy named Brandon Sanderson in a creative writing class. We were both aspiring novelists and decided to share our stuff, and things snowballed from there; we recruited a few other friends and started meeting every week. The roster has changed over time as people come and go, but that writing group has managed to produce four published authors, with several more very close to selling something, so we’re pretty pleased with the results. We’ve also screwed up several times. It’s taught us a lot about writing, but it’s also managed to teach us a lot about writing groups, and that’s what I’m here to share with you today.

How can a writing group help you?

In many ways, the primary benefit of a regular writing group is the simple incentive to write: you have to submit something new every week (or however often you meet), and if you don’t have anything you’re going to feel pretty self-conscious. There were long stretches in my early writing career when the threat of writing group mockery was the only thing that kept me going every week—I was down and disillusioned and certain that everything I wrote was terrible, but there was no way I was going to show up empty-handed. That weekly incentive to write, compounded year after year, helped establish the daily writing habits that eventually became my full-time job.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the writing group was performing its more traditional function: it was making me a better writer. First I learned from their reactions: simply by looking at what they liked and what they didn’t, I was able to interpret vast reams of data. I learned that certain things I thought were funny weren’t, and I learned that certain emotions or ideas were not getting across the way I intended them. When something confused them I learned that I needed to explain myself better, and when they forgot about characters or plot points I learned that I needed to spread certain references more evenly through my books. After the reaction-level stuff came the more explicit comments: they pointed out my clich├ęs and my point-of-view gaffes; they identified my internal consistency errors and my many plot flow problems. And finally, from an overall, wide-angle view, they helped me recognize the things I did well and the things I needed to work on. I was able to see my writing through the eyes of my audience, ask them questions, and try out new ideas.

Over time I began to realize that reading and commenting on other people’s writing was just as helpful, if not more so, than receiving comments on my own work. It’s very easy to read something and know you don’t like it, but being forced to articulate why you don’t like it turns you into a much more critical thinker, and helps you learn how to identify and fix the same problems in your own writing. Is a scene boring? Why? Maybe it’s because there’s no conflict, or maybe it’s because the conflict is just a repeat of the last scene, or maybe it’s because the conflict wasn’t set up properly; maybe there’s too much dialogue, or maybe there’s not enough. It’s hard to see these kinds of things in your own writing, because you’re so close to it, and practicing on other people’s writing helps train your mind to see it more easily.

Forming your writing group

So now you know that a writing group is a great idea, and you have two main options: join an existing group, or start a new one from scratch. If an existing group is looking for new members, they usually make themselves easy to find: start in local libraries and bookstores and ask around; the clerks/librarians/message boards will probably be able to tell you if any writing groups meet there, and when you can find them. If you’re in college, or live near one, check out the libraries, humanities buildings, and publication centers. If you’re in high school, just talk to your English teacher. You might also choose to cut out the footwork altogether and go straight to the Internet: every state, and most big cities, already have writing leagues and organizations that you can tap into, and they can point you toward writing groups that meet in your area.

Once you’ve found a writing group, give them a good trial period; if you like them, hooray, and if you hate them, you can always leave, but please give them a chance first. Writing groups often appear confrontational, even when they’re not, simply because many people are unaccustomed to having their writing critiqued. Remember that they don’t hate you, and they don’t hate your writing, they’re just didn’t like the story you submitted this week. That’s fine: that’s why you’re there. That said, you may well run into a writing group that doesn’t fit your style or suit your needs, and it’s perfectly fine to leave and look for another one. If the other writers aren’t as serious as you are, or they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they only ever say good things, you probably won’t learn enough from them to make it worth your while. Even then, I’d encourage you to offer suggestions and try to improve the group before bailing out completely.

Forming your own group can be harder, but it does have the great benefit of allowing you to establish your rules and goals and schedule from the ground up. You can find people for your group in a lot of the places we’ve already mentioned: libraries, bookstores, writing classes, and online. A particularly good resource is, the website for National Novel Writing Month. Especially during October and November, it’s absolutely brimming with eager writers, and portions of the message board are broken down into state and regional areas, AND each region has a local coordinator whose whole job is getting local writers connected to each other. Attending local conventions and conferences is another great way to meet aspiring authors, with the added benefit of selecting for specific genres. If you’re in college, take writing classes and join the literature magazines—that is, as I mentioned, how I formed my writing group. If you’re not in college, consider taking a community writing class anyway; even if the class is terrible, you can at least meet other writers and head off on your own.

When forming your writing group, we’ve always found it helpful to include a mix of contributing and non-contributing members—people who read and give great feedback, but who don’t actually write their own stuff. These people are a great addition to a writing group because they improve your feedback without adding to the reading load. In my group right now we have five writers and two pure readers (it used to be four and three, but one of the non-writers has finally made the leap and started submitting). It’s also a good idea to include a good range of ages, genders, and genres, to make sure you not only have people who represent your audience, you also have people who can give a fresh outsider perspective. We also have a mix of novelists and short story writers, which is nice.

Writing group structure

There are hundreds of different ways to run your writing group, and my group has tried most of them over the last ten years before finally settling on a system we really like. It’s a great jumping-off point for your own group, and you are of course free to tweak and change things until you get something that works for you.


We meet every week. Any farther apart and you’ll forget one chapter before you read the next; any closer together and you’ll create such a huge time commitment that few people will be able to keep up with it. Our group meets on Tuesday nights at 8, in one of the member’s homes, so it’s easy to remember, plan around, and attend.


A lot of writing groups are also reading groups, where the members will show up, read their stuff out loud, and get immediate feedback. This can be fun, but it’s also very long, and we’ve found that we can get more and better comments when we plan ahead. We ask that everyone email their submission on Thursday, so we have plenty of time to read before the following Tuesday; most of us don’t actually read until Tuesday afternoon, but the early deadline forces us to plan ahead and keeps things smooth. We’ve also restricted submission size to 4000 words each, though most of them hover between 2500 and 3000. It’s a good size without taking forever to read; longer submissions are occasionally allowed, but we’ve found that we don’t get as good of feedback on them simply because there’s so much to cover.


We do each writer’s work in turn, and we try to keep it to 20 minutes. It doesn’t seem like much, but we’ve found that anything longer than that tends to get either unfocused or too nit-picky, and neither situation is very helpful. Start with one submission, give all your comments, then move on to the next.

The Level System

This is the key to the whole process, and it was developed by one of our writers named Janci Patterson. The system works very simply:

First we talk about good things—all the stuff we loved or enjoyed, all the places we laughed or were excited, all the payoffs that really had an impact, and so on. Writing groups have a tendency to focus on mistakes and other bad stuff, but it’s very important for a writer to know which parts work well in addition to which parts don’t. Starting with good things helps get everyone in a good mood, and it assures us that we don’t run out of time talking about bad things before we finally get to the good stuff.

Next we talk about Level Threes: anything we hated so much that we would literally stop reading if not otherwise obligated. There are more of these than you think, especially in first drafts. This is where we find out about major plotting errors, unresolved threads, characters who act too stupidly to believe, and so on. These are often the most important comments, so we do them first.

Next are Level Twos, which is where most of the problems typically lie. This is where we point out consistency errors, confusing descriptions, bad blocking, and so on. If a problem is important, but not enough to make you put the book down, it’s a Level Two.

Finally, if we have time, we have Level Ones: all the little stuff like misspellings and wrong names and weird choices. There are usually a ton of these, especially in a piece that’s pretty polished, and they can often be very annoying even though they’re not very important, so it’s helpful to label them as Level Ones because it lets the author know that they’re not a huge deal. Often in the past we would spend half an hour talking about things that really weren’t all that important.

Breaking things into levels helps us focus our comments most helpfully and spend our time most effectively. It’s a great system.

The Cardinal Rules

When you actually sit down in your writing group and start critiquing each others’ stuff, there are two rules that we consider to be indispensable:

No Prescriptive Comments

As a commenter, your job is to give your reactions to the piece, and to point out mistakes and problems. It is not your job to fix those problems—that’s what the writer’s for. When you provide descriptive feedback and detailed reactions, the writer can take copious notes, analyze them, look at his goals for the piece, and decide the best way to fix things. The writer is the only one capable of doing that. If you start prescribing changes (“you should do it this way instead”), you are getting in the author’s way and, in the worst case, influencing the piece down a direction it really shouldn’t go. The commenters are there to provide information; the writers are the ones who take that information and put it to work.

Writers Shouldn’t Talk

As a writer, your job is to listen to everyone’s comments, to keep notes, and to learn what you can. It is not your job to defend your work—when you try to explain why you did what you did, and how it really works and they’re just not getting it, the entire tone of the writing group changes. People get defensive, others get aggressive, and the feedback devolves into an argument. If you have to convince people that a certain scene or character or decision works, that means it doesn’t work; your writing must be able to stand on its own. Don’t argue with negative feedback, use it to become a better writer. It’s also important to remember that you are under no obligation to actually use any of the feedback you get—take notes, review it, and you may eventually decide that you’re right and they’re wrong. It happens. But do that later, and keep your writing group free from arguments and confrontation.

“The Writing Group Problem”

No matter how wonderful your writing group is, the very nature of the process will tend to lead to a very specific problem. Reading 4000 words a week is a very jumpy, truncated process; you’ll do your best, but you will inevitably forget about certain characters, decisions, and even emotions that surface over the course of a story. Whereas a normal reader might devour your entire book in a couple of days, a writing group might spend a year or more on it, with significant gaps in between each chapter. People will forget about certain things, key payoffs will lose a bit of their impact, and complex stories with multiple plots can appear more muddy than they really are. This is sad, but unfortunately unavoidable if you want the huge benefits of a weekly writing group.

Our solution is simply to keep it in mind—we often preface our comments with “this may just be the writing group problem, but….” We also make sure to give our completed novels to other readers, who can read them full-length; they can’t provide the detailed, scene-by-scene feedback of a writing group, but they are much better at providing large-scale feedback that a writing group will miss.


Writing groups are an incredibly valuable resource for any writer, and are much easier to join, organize, and run than you may think. With a bit of effort you can put together a group that will not only help you become a better writer, but form lasting friendships that will last throughout your career.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Mary: Writing Retreats

I’m walking a winter’s beach in Gloucester, MA, the temperature in the single digits, the wind blowing sharp and cold against my face. I’m dressed in layers so I can walk the beach back and forth for as long as it takes. I wrap a scarf around my head, dig my hands in my pockets, and take my first strides. My assignment? To consider the total restructuring of my novel.

I’m in heaven! Who cares about the cold, the skies graying with an impending storm? I have all the time in the world, a warm room to go back to, two writer friends to commiserate with right down the hall, and nothing else to do but think, dream, read, and write. I’m on retreat.

Imagine extricating yourself from your daily life of job, house, kids, chores, partner, errands, etc.—and taking yourself to a special place for the sole purpose of writing. Whether for a long weekend, a week, or an entire month; at a deserted beach motel in winter, a friend’s lake house in summer, or an urban B&B in the fall; with or without writer friends—the retreat experience is both magical and productive.

Because not all writers respond to retreats in the same way, I’ve asked four of my retreat mates, Jacqueline Davies, Jennifer Jacobson, Sarah Lamstein, and Carol Peacock, to help me answer some questions about creating a successful writing retreat.

1. How many people should go?
There is no ideal number! For me, retreats work best with no more than four people. In larger groups, I find there’s too much temptation to spend precious writing time in captivating conversations with other writers. Being around more than four people provides way too much distraction. But that’s just me!

Jennifer Jacobson likes retreats of all sizes. “With a larger group,” Jennifer says, “the dynamics keep changing. Lots of interesting and unexpected connections are made based on interest and where each of us is in our process. We come together as a large group each night, but during the day (when not deeply immersed in our own work) we might break into pairs or small groups.” In these smaller, spontaneous group meetings, Jennifer might pitch an idea for a new picture book, brainstorm a better ending for a YA novel, or enter a discussion about alternating points of view. Whether the retreat is “big or small,” Jennifer always finds it inspires “an amazing spirit of generosity” among writers.

While I love the companionship and support of a small group retreat, I also treasure writing time alone on a solo retreat. I’m lucky because my family has a house in the remote woods of Maine, a place I can get away to for a few days when I really need to concentrate on a project. And just a couple of weeks ago, I got a lot of writing done while I was house- and cat-sitting for a friend. I know writers who often go away by themselves, even if it’s just to a local B&B in the next town, to write in solitude.

2. How long should the retreat last?
Most of the retreats I’ve been on last between 3 and 7 days. For me, 5 days with other writers is perfect, and 3 days are too few—you don’t really get enough time to settle into your work. But 3 days are better than nothing! I’ve also taken myself to my public library for a 5-hour mini-retreat when I have a specific task to achieve. There’s something about taking yourself away from your regular writing place and daily life to focus on your work.

Jacqueline Davies loves the luxury of a solo month-long retreat when she’s able to pack her kids off to summer camp and rent a little apartment on the coast of Maine. “Away from daily life, and all the concerns both large and small that crowd my daily life, I am able to unpack my brain—empty it out—and think of nothing but my novel. A typical workday on retreat begins in bed. I wake up—but not fully—and allow myself to slowly sift through my half-awake thoughts. What did I dream about? How does it relate to my work-in-progress? What did I go to sleep thinking about? Have any new ideas about my novel mushroomed in the night?”

“On shorter retreats,” Jackie says, “it can be hard for me to allow myself this dream-work time. I tend to feel that I need to get up and "get to it." Get words down on the page. Make progress. Rack up pages. Push to the end. But on longer retreats, I can relax, knowing that there's time for both. And in truth, my best writing grows out of those dreaming sessions, when I'm still half asleep, and I can access the murky workings of my subconscious brain.”

I’ve never gone on a month-long, solo writing retreat. It strikes me as a very brave thing to do. But I’m intrigued by the experiences of Jackie and other writers who’ve done it. Someday, I’m going to give it a try. A hilltop in Tuscany sounds perfect.

3. Pin Down the Dates!
You’ve identified who’s going on retreat. Now the emails start to fly as your group tries to find what dates work for everyone. Once you find the dates, commit to them. Even if your son gets the lead in the high school musical. Even if your day job decides to schedule an important meeting. Even if you forgot it was your mother’s birthday. Once your retreat group agrees on the dates, unless there’s some dire emergency, you’ve made an important commitment. This commitment becomes the foundation of your writing success while on retreat and reverberates into your writing life long after the retreat is over.

4. Where should you go on retreat?
I’ve been on retreats at my house in Maine. Then there was that off-season motel on a beach in Gloucester. One time, our retreat group worked out a deal, taking over an entire B&B. I’ve heard of writers’ retreats in rented houses, condos, and in summer camps when camp wasn’t in session. The possibilities are endless and fun to research. (But don’t let tooo much research take you away from your writing—“hilltop retreat in Tuscany?” Hmmm…)

5. Getting Ready
As the retreat dates approach, I find myself getting more and more excited to see my friends, get to work, and focus. I start mentally preparing myself for the project I plan to work on. I journal about my intentions—i.e. strengthen the novel’s middle section, get started on something new, draft the next reader in my series, etc. I start piling up books to read and share, resources for my novel, journals. I also bring a knitting project. All this preparation gets me pumped up so I’m ready to ‘hit the paper writing’ once the retreat starts.

As retreat time gets closer for Sarah Lamstein, she says she’s often “still embroiled in other things and only thinking about the retreat in a very small corner of my mind - thinking what earlier versions of the piece will I bring, what books to aid in my composing an accurate historical setting, what books that I admire in a similar genre to stimulate me. And all the time while I'm involved in other things and thinking about the retreat in only a very small corner of my mind, I'm feeling: delicious! It'll be delicious!! So there's an almost certainty of joy in the retreat - the joy of solitude and focus and shaping.”

Carol Peacock, spends “inordinate amounts of time getting ready for a retreat. I’m always worried I will forget something, which is not quite so odd when we remember that my very first group retreat, I DID forget all my clothes! Still it seems to require almost a whole day to get ready. During that time, I’m also organizing the "to do" lists for my family, which in the end, they never follow.”

Along with her computer, printer, power cord, extra ink, paper, and portable table, Carol Peacock also makes sure to pack lots of office products: colored post-its, multi-colored little tabs, highlighter markers, tape, scissors, index cards, stickers. Carol’s revisions are always very glamorous! Here’s a picture of her work area in that Gloucester motel.

Food! Another thing to plan in advance is what foods everyone will bring. If you’re renting or staying at someone’s house, you can coordinate meals. What’s worked best in my experience is for each person to take responsibility for our own breakfast and lunch foods and one dinner meal. Once, when we stayed in a B&B, we got take-out at dinner and all sat around the living room. No one has ever gone hungry (or thirsty!) during retreat!

6. On retreat.
Finally, all the planning is behind you and you arrive with all your stuff. You’re full of hope—and hope’s twin sister, anxiety. Will you write? You’ve inconvenienced every one back home with your absence. You’re using up precious vacation time. And what about the expense? What if you just sit around eating chocolates and staring out the window all day? Or, knitting?

Jackie Davies says, “Settling in is a necessary part of going on retreat. It might take you an hour; it might take you three days. Either way, it's got to be done. One of the fastest ways I've found to settle in to a new retreat space is to unpack my suitcase and then take a nap.”

Greeting and catching up with your retreat mates, unpacking, making yourself at home in your new workspace, napping, going for a walk, journaling—whatever it takes, make sure to take time for this important step. Settle yourself in, calm your brain, open your heart, tune into your creative channels and then….

Get to work! You’ve come on retreat to write, so get to it. Review the editorial letter, read over your latest draft, decorate your manuscript with “office products,” have a cup of tea, doodle in the margins, write in your journal about how haaaard it is—all this is part of the process, but eventually you have to get writing. Soon you’ll be in the groove, I promise! It also helps to know that right next door to you, your retreat mates are writing away. Peer pressure works. Writing energy fills the house.

Sarah Lamstein says, “There's nothing like it when you get in the ‘zone’- the sense that you're getting a firmer grip on your character, that you can write scenes with abandon, and that you can be ruthless about cutting what doesn't belong, no matter its adorableness. This is a time of luxuriance, a time of time when you're just working - not doing anything else - working as soon as you get up in the morning and until you go to bed at night. You use time in this way because you know it's limited and why not get everything out of it?”

A typical day: Make a plan with your retreat mates about when you’re going to meet together as a group. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Just dinner? Afternoon tea? A morning walk? One group I retreat with makes plans to meet for dinner and then spend the evenings sharing and critiquing work, discussing books, brainstorming marketing ideas, etc.

But during the day, all or some of us will frequently “bump into each other” during meals or on walks. Caution: be careful not to bump into each other too often or else the work won’t get done! My retreat buddies and I don’t get to see much of each other during the year so it’s hard not to spend time socializing. Still, we all share a deep commitment to our writing and realize that during retreat, the writing comes first.

Closure: As the retreat sadly comes to an end, make sure to schedule a solid block of time for closure. This step can easily get lost with all the packing and cleaning up that needs to get done. It’s so valuable to sit down as a group, or by yourself if you’re alone, to evaluate the retreat, congratulate yourself for what you’ve done, and, most importantly, pull out those calendars to set dates for the next retreats. I have retreat dates set on my calendar two or three years into the future! You may also want to state and record your group’s writing goals for what you want to accomplish between now and the next retreat. This way, the retreat’s energy keeps on going until you meet again.

Okay, back to that wide expanse of beach in Gloucester, the snowflakes now filling the air and pinging against my cheeks. I’ve walked one mile to one end of the beach and I’m all warmed up. During this walk, I’ve played around with starting my novel later in the story, then earlier in the story. I moved the crisis point up, then pushed it back. I pause now to stand on a rock and stare out to sea. Nah, I decide. The structure’s fine. But I could strengthen that subplot. And maybe get rid of an unnecessary character and go deeper into my main character. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I turn around and head to my cozy motel room. I can’t wait to get back and write!

Do you go on writing retreats? What is your experience? Do editors and agents ever go on retreats?