Fresh air and verbs are good for you: Writing and Summer Vacation for Teen Writers

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Over the summer, you might want to find or create a writing workshop or writing group. What are writing groups and writing workshops?

Writing circles and buddies

A writing group (sometimes called a “community” or “circle”) is an informal get-together where writers get together to talk about what they’re writing, to get advice and to share their writing with the group so they can get feedback. Feedback is a reader’s opinion about the writing: what the reader liked, didn’t like, would change, would keep, etc. The purpose of getting feedback is to make your story or poem better, to increase your confidence in your writing skills and to create a personal connection with your readers. Examples of feedback are movie reviews and book reviews, like you see on Amazon, GoodReads and Library Thing. Sometimes the group has a leader who guides the discussion, like a teacher would. Every group is different.

Writers’ circles may be in person or online. Circles may be found at high school or college campuses, bookstores, libraries or community centers. Sometimes groups meet at members’ houses. Some groups require membership (Pennwriters is an example in my area), complete with yearly conventions, monthly meetings and more. Barnes and Noble’s “Writer Within” series is free and meets in their stores once per month, a good option for bringing an adult along (she can browse and give you privacy while you participate in the group). The size of writers’ groups varies. Just because you live in a small town doesn’t mean your local writing groups will be dinky. If it’s the only game in town, it might be huge!

I recommend that young writers look for free groups with minimum posting and writing requirements. Find out if you like meeting with a group before sinking one cent into it. Put your writerly money toward pens, ink cartridges, your own laptop or some technique books.

Chances are good that your local writing group won’t have a lot of people your age unless it’s a group specifically designed for young writers. This can mean a lot of things for you. A good group will let you get comfortable, encourage your participation at your pace and encourage your work. Some writers automatically believe that young writers aren’t good writers. This isn’t true. No matter how much experience you have or how old you are, you can write a great story (or you can write junk). Don’t let anyone in a writing group make you feel that your writing isn’t worth pursuing. You might feel you have to leave a group because of prejudice and that’s fine. That’s not quitting. It’s experimenting. You found one group. You’ll find another. If you can’t find one, make one.

Creating a writing circle

All you need for a writing group is a couple of writers who want to become better writers. Trade files and do some feedback (you can do this online as well as in person). If you have a writing mentor at school (an English teacher, for example), let her know you’d like to create a writing group and ask if she thinks other students would be interested. It might become an extracurricular activity complete with a supervisor. If not, you can get a few leads of who might be interested in getting together a couple of times over the summer (or online) for a writing group.

Before you set up your group, decide how often, if at all, you want to meet or chat. Summer is full of vacations, visiting relatives, stuff like that. The fewer structured get-togethers you have, the greater your chance of success.

Figure in the time and hassle of travel. If you don’t have a way to get to a writing group (or if your friends can’t get to yours), online groups might be a better alternative, even if it’s a group you create.

One way to create an informal online group is to make a Facebook group that’s invitation-only (to keep your work somewhat private; read Facebook’s privacy policy for more information). I suggest you share your work in another way, on a free private message board or via e-mail, but the “meetings” can happen on your group’s wall. You can make a quick, free private forum at sites like proboards.com. You can also create a Tweet Chat by using your own specific hashtag. If you do any of these, invite a TC editor so we can congratulate you on taking the plunge!

For some advice on giving and receiving criticism of your writing, we have articles about those topics. There are more articles online if you search “fiction (or poetry) critique how to.”

Writing alone

If you need some feedback, writing circles and writing buddies are great. But you don’t need anyone else to read your writing. You might feel more at ease keeping your work to yourself right now. Keep practicing the basics. Try new things and if they don’t work, try something new.

Writing books and websites are also essential (and easy) reading. I’ve included a suggested reading list of some books and websites at the end of the article. If you’re feeling bold, you can enter writing contests that give away writing books or bookstore gift credit as prizes and earn your writing books through your writing.

Writers work alone. Even writers who collaborate primarily work by themselves. And not sharing your work doesn’t mean you’re not a writer. You know the definition of a writer? Someone who writes. That’s it. You don’t need to be published. You don’t need to write a certain number of words, pages or lines of poetry.

Stay Motivated

Write for fun. No one writes because it’s a chore. Writing is a passion and a delight. Enjoy it!

Allow “shitty first drafts” (see Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott in our suggested reading list) It’s okay to produce junk. It’s like getting lost to find out where you are. It’s practice. And yes, I used the s-word. Sometimes a word that gets bleeped on TV is the best word for a situation. The entire English language is there for you to use so use it. Pick simple, straightforward words.

Everything you write is worth a second draft. Even if you hate it, that’s okay. It’s practice. No one expects a novice athlete to score on her first time on the field. Don’t be embarrassed by what you write; the best cure for embarrassment is practice and everything you’re writing is practice. Don’t be afraid to fail; failure is subjective anyway.

Writers do not magically know everything once they hit 18. Or 21. Or 30. Or 50. Age means nothing. Publication credits mean nothing. What matters is experience, a writer who writes, who continues to learn and who shares with you what he’s learned without insisting it’s a Great Truth.

At the same time, don’t tune out well-intentioned writing advice. Even blowhards might have a valuable tip you can use. Writers love talking about writing. Come up with a couple of open-ended questions for writers (these can come in handy at writer group meetings). In the book you’re writing, what does your main character want? What poets inspire you? What were the first things you wrote?

Feel free to imitate your favorite writers. Think not only of stories, poems and books but songs, TV shows, movies, vlogs, blogs, anywhere you feel moved by characters, story or other aspects of writing.

Review with writing in mind. Why did you like it or dislike it? What worked? What were your thoughts about the characters or setting? What can you use for your own writing? You can post at sites like GoodReads or start your own blog (or create a category in your existing blog) for your reviews. It’ll be a good way to preserve your thoughts and can inspire you later.

Read a lot. Not just your summer reading lists but for pleasure as well. This article counts. Blogs count. Read news articles, sports recaps, TV reviews, graphic novels, fanfic, anything you can get your eyes on. This can help you learn things like structure, pace and word choice without hitting you over the head. Notice style differences among all the things you read. The copy on the back of a shampoo bottle is different from the “program info” on your TV menu.

Maintain a journal. You can do it online via a blog, which is an easy way to stay organized (set your privacy settings when you begin). You can keep a journal on your computer (consider password-protection for your file). You can also keep a longhand journal. You don’t have to write true stories. Include fiction, poetry, whatever you’re into writing. Write using collages.

Write songs. If it helps, think of yourself as a collector rather than a writer. Collect bits of writing, pieces of inspiration, a sentence or paragraph as the mood strikes. You can piece together later.

Try wild things. The only limit is your imagination. Writing is a creative pursuit. Challenge your creativity! Express yourself and who you are.

Use timers. Fifteen to twenty minutes is a good place to begin. If you find yourself zoning out, you’ll learn to snap back to attention. If you find yourself on a roll, you’ll learn how to leave off in a good place for your next writing session. Try not to stop your session without knowing what will happen next.

Keep an idea file. Keep all your abandoned pieces in it. Jot down writing prompts (check Twitter for free daily writing prompts from a variety of sources).

Eavesdrop. Pull inspiration from what you overhear. A good trick is to go to a busy place and pretend you’re listening to your MP3 player (or listen with the sound low) and write down snippets of what people are saying. You can also write down how they look, their body language, their action, anything that might come in handy for future characters.

How-To Basics

There are a lot of resources out there to help you with your basics, like how to punctuate dialogue or what the parts of a story or poem are called. You’re here because you’re ready to move beyond that.

For stories and poems, you need structure and organization of ideas.

You’ll need a narrative voice. People seem to think a narrator is obvious in fiction but not as obvious in poetry. You don’t have to write poetry as yourself any more than you would fiction. Give yourself the freedom to be someone else on paper.

Keep your dialogue realistic. Read it aloud (or whisper it or mouth it) and think, “Do people talk like this?” Dialogue can be fragmented, interrupting, incomplete and incoherent. The attribution tag “said” is your friend and it doesn’t need an adverb to go with it.

You can set your story anywhere geographically or anywhere in time. Don’t discount your own backyard.

There are lots of kinds of fiction and poetry you can write. Check out our Writer’s Glossary for more on genres (and try the exercises).

You don’t have to finish everything you start. If it’s not going anywhere or doesn’t feel right, shrug it off, put it in the file and start fresh.

Prompts

Create your own prompts. Set them aside in your idea file or get writing immediately. Trade prompts with a writing buddy or post in your group for everyone to write something based on the prompts.

  • Find five images to use as visual prompts
  • Write or copy five text prompts (like on our calendar)
  • Write five opening lines.
  • Write five end lines.
  • Create characters and build stories or poems around them
  • Write five random lines of dialogue. The more detailed or weird, the better.
  • Make five lists of five things each. Five things you touched the last time you went to a grocery store. Five smells in your school’s hallways. Five things that irritate you when you’re in a crowd. Five people who make you curious. Five jobs you’d like to try.

Getting unstuck

It happens to everyone. If you feel stuck but aren’t ready to quit the piece, here are some things to think of while you work:

  • What happens next?
  • What happens if…?
  • What’s something bad that could happen here?
  • What’s something wild that could happen here?
  • Who could come into the scene?
  • Have a character do the opposite of what you would do.
  • Give your main character a best friend or romantic interest.
  • Use a character from one of your favorite stories. Change the name and a feature or two to make the character fresh. You can change more when you rewrite.
  • Set your story in a different time.
  • End the scene and begin a new one.
  • Write something based on a dream or give your story a dream-like twist.
  • Start with your ending in mind and write towards it.
  • Write in a different place. If you usually write in your room, go to the kitchen or a cafe. If that’s not an option, sit in a different spot or position in the room you usually use.

Now go write something already. Then play outside. Or both.


Suggested reading:

Final Poll Results

Rewriting a Novel:
or What’s This About Writing Workshops?

Absolute Blank

By Ana George

A while ago I wrote an article about writing a novel in a month. I’ve done this National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or “NaNo”) thing four times now, producing a 50,000 word draft novel each time.

Let me stop for a moment to echo Justine Larbalastier who, in her writing blog, repeatedly points out that some writers produce readable first drafts, and others do not. Let’s say the draft has been edited to the point that it’s readable, there’s a story that flows, the typos have (at least mostly) been fixed, the sentences are grammatical, and while it may not be the most wonderful story ever told, it’s a story. That’s where my NaNoWriMo manuscripts typically stand at the end of November.

I’ve been kind of intending to take a writing workshop at the local adult education center. I’ve drooled in their catalogs for several years, but this fall my schedule cleared enough to actually sign up for one, and they offered a workshop on novel writing.

I was about to start rewriting my 2007 NaNo, and so I signed up. The cost was about $160, for eight two-hour sessions, and it was limited to twelve students. I signed up several weeks early, to ensure a place. The catalog blurb said to come to the first class with a few-page long synopsis and a first chapter to share.

Meanwhile, I started in on the rewrite. I had the first draft printed by Lulu.com, a print-on-demand service, in the form of a book. A 50,000-word document costs me around $17 to photocopy at the local copy shop; Lulu printed and bound it for about $10 (plus shipping costs). The per-copy shipping costs are minimized by ordering several, so I got one to keep on my shelf, as-written, one to scribble in and mark up, and several to circulate to reading friends. One such friend, an eighth-grade English teacher, made extensive marks and comments, which proved very useful.

Having re-read the novel several times myself, and with first-draft readers’ comments in hand, I started the rewrite. I did it in order, taking one chapter at a time from the folder with the original manuscript in it, and bending it to suit the new ideas. I re-read the comments on each. Some plot elements had to be moved; one significant chapter needed to happen much earlier. This kind of thing is perilous, because the characters know what they’ve already done and been told, so it’s important to keep track of what depends on what, at least long enough to get it written into the book.

As another example of a fairly drastic change, one character’s nationality (and name) needed to be changed. Again, much depends on this kind of thing, so it’s important to pay careful attention if you need to do something like this.

In some cases, chapters were split and expanded, giving more detail, or acting out a story that was merely mentioned in conversation between two characters. Writing coaches are fond of saying “show, don’t tell,” and perhaps this is the kind of thing they’re talking about. The plot slowly took on more of a shape, through the pruning out of unneeded scenes, and the addition of new ones.

I got stuck, about three-quarters of the way through the book. The ending of the first draft was rushed, readers of the first draft urged me to expand it, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it.

Enter the writing workshop

One of the assignments for the fast-approaching workshop was to write a synopsis of a few pages. This was hard going, but proved to be very useful. The first draft was all characters and plot, just a list of who, what, where. A couple friends (including the novel forum here at Toasted Cheese) helped by making comments that were functionally “um, what?” The second draft had much more of the why in it, but not enough about the characters and events to allow the reader to follow it. A final draft, which I submitted for the workshop, struck a balance.

While writing the synopsis, it became much clearer to me what I wanted to do with the ending. I can recommend from experience: when you get stuck on the plot, write, or re-write, a synopsis.

The workshop itself was a lot of fun. At the first class we went around the table, and the students each read a few pages from the beginning of their novels-in-progress. Comments were relatively few, by design: did it get your attention? Could you taste the snow? Were you embarrassed for the shoplifter?

For the remaining classes, two students were assigned to bring in enough copies of their synopsis and a first chapter (or two), which were handed out. These were read and critiqued in the ensuing week, and discussed at the next class.

The discussion was fairly formal: the first ten minutes were for positive comments only. The next twenty, for any comment anyone cared to make about the chapter and the synopsis. Up to this point, the author was, by rule, silent, except perhaps to clear up confusion. The last ten minutes, the author could answer, elucidate, ask questions of the critics, and so forth. It was difficult to sit through half an hour of discussion on my own book, without answering, but it was most enlightening, seeing the things other people saw in it: parallels to similar novels or movies, wondering where it was going and how it would get there.

In my case, the consensus was that my novel starts too gently, without enough of a hook to draw the reader into continuing. There’s little idea of where it’s going from that first chapter or two. This became clear from the other students’ comments. They also pointed out that the understanding of the characters about the nature of time and the mutability of history changes as the book progresses. I’m not sure I had noticed that before someone pointed it out. It should certainly be made more explicit in the synopsis, and perhaps in the book itself. Here is an article on how to write a fiction synopsis. The rewriting process for me was like a three-legged stool: the synopsis helps with sorting out the plot, the workshop helps with the synopsis, and the novel itself helps with both the synopsis and the workshop (if only through sympathy with the other writers’ plights).

There were enough dropouts that we had an extra session at the end of the class with nothing to critique. We agreed among ourselves that we wanted to learn more about plotting, so the instructor encouraged us to write a synopsis either of one of our own novels, or any other novel which we’d found interesting and plot-rich. I responded with a synopsis of my first NaNo (from 2003), which served in part to emphasize the plot flaws of that story, but was also valuable experience in writing a synopsis, and in seeing how it reflected on the plot. Another student wrote a synopsis of a published book, in a spirit of learning from the masters. One other student demanded to read the 2003 NaNo on the basis of the synopsis (so maybe I did something right).

Writing Group

Several of the students from the workshop have decided to form a writing group, to get together from time to time and critique each others’ work. That’s due to start later this month (January ’09). I think most of us felt it would be useful to have more detailed feedback on the rest of our novels, beyond the first chapter and the plot synopsis. Perhaps this will be a place where we can do that for each other. It’s certainly the case that most readers of a novel will give only very perfunctory comments (“I liked it.” or “It was good.”). If you can find somebody who will tell you Aunt Agatha really has to go, and that this side-plot is interesting but not germane, recruit them for your writing group. Start a writing group if you don’t already have one.

Final Poll Results

Summer Camp:
The West Virginia Writers’ Workshop

Absolute Blank

By Jim Walke (jaywalke)

Writing can be a lonely job. It takes place in basements and attics during the gray months, on dining room tables littered with bills or breezy park benches with only bare trees to witness the verbal assaults. Warm weather returns and some writers emerge from their dens. They grimace at the sunlight, stretch, and begin their yearly migration to a summer escape. This year, I joined the herd. The question was: Where to go?

A quick web search and perusal of a popular writing magazine gave me a hundred possibilities scattered across the country and the world. Read the fine print to be sure you are getting what you want. Of course, all generalizations are wrong (including this one), but there a few guidelines. University-sponsored events will focus on literary fiction and poetry, while those backed by a journal will deal with works it would likely publish. Genre conferences are available and while some believe they are full of romance, to others they are a mystery. There are writing retreats—bucolic escapes that provide time alone to focus on your work, which are usually self-directed. If your daily writing life is made up of stolen minutes between meetings and/or loads of laundry, you may want to try a retreat. Personally, I’d had enough navel-gazing to last until autumn and I was looking for classes, workshops, and readings. Then I had to narrow the focus further: choosing craft over publishing, accessibility over mega-stars. It is entirely possible to attend a huge conference where your favorite best-selling author reads and your dream agent haunts the bar. Getting to talk to them, however, may be another story.

I hit Morgantown on a day late in July to attend the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop (WVWW), a conference held on the campus of West Virginia University. The humidity slapped me like a wet towel as soon as I open the car door. Morgantown, like most of occupied West Virginia, is built in a steep river valley and the three available acres of flat land were developed long ago. I tried to count the steps up to the dorm where conference attendees were housed, but I lost track (and briefly, consciousness) at 117. I dropped a quarter on the way up and it rolled to Cincinnati.

After checking in to my blessedly air-conditioned dorm room, I headed off to the first item on the agenda: a welcome lunch. Fifty writers sat around tables, eyeing the buffet. We were welcomed by the Director of the workshop, James Harms, a dead ringer for Harry Anderson of “Night Court” fame. Professor Harms also doubles as the head of the Creative Writing program at WVU. Emboldened by his resemblance to a TV judge, I cornered him for a few questions and he laid out the bare facts. The Workshop seems to ebb and flow with the economy, but has grown steadily to its current level. The pull is regional: Ohio, West Virginia and a few souls from the Mid-Atlantic States. The main draws seem to be the price (underwritten by WVU), and the fact that it only runs for a long weekend. Those two factors definitely affected my decision. A few of the conferences I considered would have required a home equity loan for financing, and a note from the Centers for Disease Control to explain my sick time away from work. The WVWW is aimed at beginning to mid-level writers, but several published professionals return year after year for the camaraderie. For its investment the University gets a recruiting bump for undergrad and MFA programs, and Morgantown gets the cachet of being a place where poets and writers gather.

The afternoon set the pattern for the next three days: a reading from a faculty member, in this case Mark Brazaitis, the winner of the both the Iowa Short Fiction award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize. Then a craft class, followed by the title event: the workshops. Brazaitis was my workshop leader, and I was sweating. I’d read his stuff before attending, and he’s good. My last workshop was many moons ago in college. I have a thick skin, but I was more concerned about saying something stupid than getting shot full of arrows myself. We’d received the fiction submissions in advance, and they covered the gamut of genre and ability. Mark laid out the ground rules for the workshop, which were straightforward. The author read a page or so to refresh memories, someone else summarized the entire piece, Mark would ask a few pointed questions, then we were off—chiming in and attempting to balance negative comments with positives. The class was kept small: ten participants.

The time flew by as we discussed the work in front of us. I should have realized that the quality of the discussion would be strong. Writers who leave their homes and use personal funds and vacation time to improve their craft are already driven to succeed. They may not be household names yet, but they are careful readers with insight into the writing process, and therefore excellent workshop members. I got more good commentary in a half-hour than I could shake a stick at, and took home ten sets of their personal notes on my work. As an added bonus, I didn’t say anything stupid.

Dinner was followed by more readings, then socializing. There was imbibing. On we went: sleep, classes, workshop, readings. Rinse and repeat. The classes covered submitting work to journals, starting and maintaining a writing group and how-tos on writing nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews. If you’ve ever wanted to ask editors questions point-blank about the submission process, this is a place to do it. One of them handed out cover letters received (sanitized of names) as examples of what not to do. I was pleased not to find any that I recognized. Apparently, borderline psychotic handwritten notes on a cocktail napkin are unacceptable. Who knew?

While the structured events were excellent, I may (as in college) have learned more outside of class. All of the faculty members were approachable and available for questions and comments. They moved easily from podium to desk, attending each other’s classes and blurring the line between teacher and student. I learned that there are other people out there working in rural voids, without much chance for feedback beyond what’s offered on the internet. There are also healthy, disciplined writing groups in towns small and large. We’re all re-writing and submitting, trying to improve our work and tell our stories. It’s comforting to know. It may not make us sane, but at least we’re not alone. Contact with that sort of group energy also recharges the writer batteries. Now when I am getting lazy and start to think “good enough,” I consider putting that work in front of the workshop group and it makes me take one more hard look before sealing the envelope.

The final event of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop was an open mike reading. I’ve never read from my own work before. It was a rewarding experience, but even better was hearing the work of the other participants. It was a reminder that writing does not have to be serious, just as truthful as possible.

I’ll be going back next year, to West Virginia or perhaps somewhere new. Summer camp was a lot of fun this year, and it was well worth the investment of money and time. I didn’t come home with a macramé ashtray or a canoeing badge, but I do have new friends, dedicated writers who will look at work via email. I saw a poet dance to the music of her own words. I sweated on the steps and at the workshop table, and I trimmed a little fat in both places. I wouldn’t want to go to camp year-round, but my short stint in the summer made me eager to climb back into my basement for another few months.

Links:

West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.

Next year, maybe Sewanee if I can swing the $$$ and time.

Something in between at Hollins

I would also suggest the Speakeasy message forum at Poets & Writers. It requires registration and a login, but along with other good writing message boards it has one devoted to conferences, workshops and retreats.

Final Poll Results