So, You Wanna Start a Writing Group?

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By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

So you’ve decided that you no longer want to be a writer in solitary, locked in your room and scribbling madly away. You want to start a writers group. A writers group is a great way to help your writing, from getting past your writer’s block, to finding out if something is ready to submit, to just getting the motivation to write. Maybe you’ve already got a group of writer friends who want to join you—so it should be easy to just meet up regularly and write or talk about writing, right?

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Recently, members on the Toasted Cheese forums chimed in with some advice on starting a new writers group, and how to keep writers coming back. TC Editor Boots started it off with this: “I just have a very simple advice—humility.” After that, there are a couple of things to think about when planning your new writers group.

First, decide what kind of group you want to be. Do you want to have a group of people meeting regularly to just get together and write? Do you want to have prompts at each meeting or just allow people to free write or work on their own projects? Do you want to have critiques on writing? Do you want to have writers bring in their work to read to the group for critiques, or email it beforehand so that everyone can come prepared? Planning out the basic format of your writers group will help new members get a sense of what to expect when they are considering joining your group.

Next, decide on where you’re going to meet. A quiet place is best, but make sure you’re allowed to talk and read out loud. A library is not a good idea, unless they have a meeting room. Coffee shops can work but can get crowded at certain times of the day, so make sure you figure out when it’s quieter. Sometimes even a restaurant will work, and can encourage people to keep coming back and stay longer if they can get food and drinks. Keep in mind, too, that some writers are shy and may not want their writing overheard by others, so make sure you accommodate or allow for them to submit their work by email before the meeting.

How often are you going to meet? And for how long? You can meet once a week, once a month, every other week, or something in between. Bob from the TC forums has a writers group that meets once a month, but for two to three hours. If you’re only going to meet once a month, a longer meeting works. However, if you’re going to meet more often, such as every week, a shorter time period is best, depending on everyone’s schedules.

How many people are you going to include in your group? And if you are critiquing, how many pieces can be read? It can be off-putting to members when the group is so big they have to sign up to bring a piece in, and spend most of your time critiquing without getting any feedback on their own work. It’s usually best to keep a new writers group small in the beginning so that people can participate every time. And if you have an eclectic group of writers, TC Editor Beaver has a tip: “Make sure your reading tastes are compatible… I’d suggest potential group members make a list of genres they don’t like to read.” Not everyone will want to sit through every style of writing there is. Additionally, you can also limit yourself to just short stories, or just novels, or just poems.

You’ll also want to decide if you want to admit new members. Several TC members have seen new writers come to a writers group only to never return again. And if someone brings in a lengthy piece, such as a novel, that they’ll read over several meetings, it can feel tedious to have to explain the novel’s premise every week to any new members. Do you want to make rules about attendance as well? Beaver says: “[I]f you’re not going to show up to a scheduled meeting, it’s nice to let the others know. It’s sad to show up to a meeting place at scheduled time and wait and wait and eventually realize no one else is coming.”

If you decide you’re going to admit new members, where will you advertise? Where will you stay up-to-date with current members? Facebook works well for a private group and is free. Craigslist is good for advertising but not for getting a discussion going. And is great for attracting new members, but costs money to start a group and can end up with a lot of members who don’t ever come to meetings. Decide on the format that’s best for your group—it may be that just email works the best.

And finally, harpspeed has some great advice about starting a writers group: “The best advice I could give would be not to be too fussy about rules.” While you want to get a good idea of how you’ll run your writers group, don’t be too strict on keeping it that way. It may not always go the way you planned, and could even evolve into something entirely different. It could end up changing for the better or fading away. No matter what, remember that your group will help you learn and grow your writing.

Final Poll Results

Combining Your Passions: Interview with DeAnna Cameron

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By Erica Ruedas (pinupgeek)

DeAnna Cameron started her writing career as a journalist before switching to writing fiction. After taking a writing class where she was inspired to combine two of her passions, writing and belly dance, she wrote and published her first novel, The Belly Dancer, about Dora Chambers, a young bride trying to find her place in society, who finds herself entranced by belly dancers at the 1893 Chicago’s fair. Her second novel, Dancing at the Chance, follows Pepper McClair, a dancer in New York at the beginning of the vaudeville era, who tries to realize her dreams as a dancer and find love.

Here she answers some questions about writing, marketing with a niche audience, and her love for belly dancing.

Toasted Cheese: You’ve said that when you published The Belly Dancer you had to learn how to market your novel very quickly. Did you change anything about the way you marketed Dancing at the Chance?

DeAnna Cameron: I did handle things differently the second time around. I think some of it worked better, and some of it didn’t, but it’s almost impossible to know for sure. The reality is an author can rarely pinpoint exactly what is working, so my philosophy is to do what you can and what you enjoy (belly dance parties!), but never to let marketing one book replace the importance of writing the next one.

One thing I did differently, and which I wish I had been able to do the first time around, was to attend reader conferences like the ones held by the Historical Novel Society, RT Booklovers and RWA, where I could participate in the huge book-signing events they hold. Another thing I did was to connect with a lot more blogger reviewers. As bookstores disappear, readers are less likely to discover new authors by browsing bookshelves. Following book bloggers has become one way readers have filled the gap, so it’s important for new authors to go where the readers are.

TC: For marketing The Belly Dancer, you reached out to the belly dance community. How would you say that helped get your book out there, and how did it help when it came time to market Dancing at the Chance?

DC: It was a terrific help. My love for the art and history of Middle Eastern dance was the driving force behind the story, so it felt natural to want to share it with other belly dancers when it became a book. And I couldn’t have asked for a more receptive community. Every belly dance publication I can think of featured either a review or article about it, and I’ve heard from belly dancers from all over the country about how much they enjoyed the story. When Dancing at the Chance came out, I think its connection to vaudeville appealed to them as well because it’s an aesthetic that’s popular with so many belly dancers. There’s a lot of cross-over appeal between belly dance and vaudeville, and of course there is some pure belly dance in Dancing at the Chance as well, and the main characters of The Belly Dancer make a cameo appearance.

TC: They say “write what you love.” How much of your novels began as just a personal interest in the Vaudevillian era and the late 19th century and in dance?

DC: Dancing at the Chance actually began as a sequel to The Belly Dancer. Since many of the Egyptian belly dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair stayed in this country after the fair ended and went on to perform in the vaudeville circuits, I intended to continue their story in that milieu. And what’s funny is that I thought I already knew a lot about vaudeville. But when I started doing the research, I realized I didn’t know it at all. It was so much crazier and more interesting than I ever imagined. And it wasn’t the belly dancers and the other headline acts that I found most interesting, but all the performers who worked at the opposite end of the spectrum, the acts that filled the least desirable spots on the bill. The scrappy, struggling performers who lived on little more than hopes and dreams, and all the people who worked behind the scenes to create the magic that happened onstage.

TC: What’s your tried and true method of organizing all your historical research?

DC: I don’t know if it’s tried and true, but my method involves a fat three-ring binder to keep my handwritten and typewritten notes organized, a slew of tabbed and earmarked historical resource books, and a carefully catalogued index on my computer of any online resources I come across that I think I might want to revisit later. It could be anything from a picture of a period dress that would suit a character or a picture of a building I plan to reference, maybe a biography of a historical person referenced in the story, or perhaps just an archived menu from a restaurant the characters will visit.

TC: How does your interest in belly dance fuel your passion for writing? Do you believe that they are both sides of the same coin or that they are two separate things you just happened to combine for your novels?

DC: I think it’s what you said before, about “writing what you love.” I’ve started stories about dozens of different things, but none of them hooked me long enough to turn them into novels. The story about The Belly Dancers at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and then later with the plight of struggling vaudevillians in Old New York, captivated me and I think that passion fueled the stories and hooked other people too.

TC: There’s historical fiction, romance novels, and dance. What made you combine all three? Which part is more fun to write?

DC: I was so naive when I started writing The Belly Dancer that I didn’t even know I was writing historical fiction or romantic fiction or dance-related fiction. I was simply writing a story that interested me and that I thought might interest other people, too. It was only when it was finished, and when there was an agent and a publisher involved, that I realized how important these labels are. So there was no master plan on my part. Some authors figure out what kind of novel they want to write and then write it. I wrote the novel I wanted to write, and then tried to figure out how to label it.

TC: You went from a long journalism career to writing fiction. What did you take from your journalism career to help you write your novels?

DC: As a fiction writer, I think I use what I learned as a journalist every single day. I learned how to research quickly and the importance of vetting what you find. I learned to write fast and to write through writer’s block. I learned the importance of narrative structure and style. Really, it was an invaluable experience and I’m eternally grateful for all the mentors I had along the way.

TC: What are you working on now?

DC: I actually have a few things in the works. One historical novel is still in an early research stage. I’m also working on a young adult Victorian paranormal trilogy. And, finally, I have a contemporary romance that centers on a young woman whose life is changed by belly dance class. See? I always come back to belly dance.

TC: Any advice for the budding historical fiction or romance writer?

DC: To be a writer, you have to write, so make it a priority. Write every day if you can, but at least a few times a week. It sounds simple, but there are so many people who say they want to be writers but they never write anything. Or they don’t finish what they’ve started. If you can finish a novel, you’ve probably got the drive to do what it’ll take to become a published author. So keep writing, even when it’s hard.

Where you can find DeAnna:

Twitter: @DeAnnaMCameron

Final Poll Results

What Dr. John H. Watson Can Teach About Writing

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By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

“Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

Dr. John H. Watson is the fictional biographer of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Dr. Watson (and his creator) always spun the tales of deduction and reasoning into stories that mesmerized the Victorian public. Even against the criticism of his friend, Watson continued to write his stories, and when Holmes finally took up the pen to write one or two of his own tales, he was forced to admit that, for all his analytical mind, he had to create a story to interest his readers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless other fictional detectives and mysteries, and are still being rewritten and re-imagined, over one hundred years after their original publication. What is it about the stories penned by Dr. Watson and his creator that have made them last? Why do readers keep returning to them?

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Tell a Story

First and foremost, Watson was a storyteller. While Holmes may have preferred to focus on the science of the cases, Watson knew his readers wanted the romance and thrill, and he gave them just that. In each story, he painted a picture of the visitors who climbed the seventeen steps to 221B Baker Street, from what they were wearing to their emotional state when they arrived. And when a case called for action, Watson pulled no punches, giving detailed accounts of a dangerous boat chase or a tense stakeout, as well as concluding dramatically with the capture of the criminal and explanation of Holmes’s deductions.

As a writer, give your readers the big picture as well as the small, and allow them to feel the thrill, romance, fear, even the mundanity of the situation. Give them enough information to see the scene in their head and keep them on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.

But don’t tell them everything. Sometimes what the reader can imagine is more interesting to them than what you can come up with. Watson often referred to other cases, dropping tantalizing clues to stories that were never published or giving just enough hints so that his contemporary readers could try to puzzle out the real-life counterpart to a client or villain. You may know about everything that happens in your world, but you don’t have to present it all to the reader. Drop a reference here and there, and let your reader imagine the rest.

Be Prolific

Dr. Watson alludes to many unpublished cases in his stories. One of the reasons he gives as to why he never published them is that the results were too mundane or unsatisfying to provide any interest to his readers. Even though he faithfully chronicled every one of his companion’s adventures, he carefully picked the stories he chose to publish, sharing only the ones he knew would make good stories.

Not every story or novel you write will be a masterpiece. Some of them will have unsatisfying endings, others will have boring characters, and still more will just stop and have no ending. Every writer has a couple of stories that just didn’t work, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to write it. Every word you write is practice for the next one, and even if that piece never sees the light of day, you still had the practice for writing something better. But what do you do with all those unpublished stories?

Watson had a tin dispatch box in the bank vault at Cox & Co., where he kept all of his case notes. Create a special place for all of your work, whether it be a folder on your computer’s desktop or a special box in your closet. Instead of leaving them there, though, make a regular date with yourself to go through them and handpick the best ones to polish and send out into the world.

Create Lasting Characters

Dr. Watson not only created an intriguing star for his stories, but a standout supporting cast. Most readers can immediately recognize the rat-like, unimaginative Inspector Lestrade and the long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, who in turns worried over and was antagonized by her eccentric tenant. Even the smaller characters, such as The Woman, Irene Adler, who once intrigued Holmes with her cleverness and is often cast as his love interest, or the nefarious Professor Moriarty, the shadowy spider behind London’s criminal scene, have their own unique personalities and quirks that make them memorable.

Each of your characters should have a story. For your main characters, this means writing a history for them. What events occurred in the characters’ lives that got them to the point where you start your story? The reader may never get to see that history, but remember that every character is the star of their own show.

With your background and one-scene characters, you don’t have to create as elaborate backstories, but have an idea for what they want out of their lives, and out of their interactions with your story. Writing a character with no purpose to his or her life will make for a flat character. Give them a purpose for their own fictional life. By giving each of your characters a reason for existing, you make them more real and more memorable to your reader.

Live your own adventure

Dr. Watson wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes’s biographer. More often than not, he was found right next to Holmes in the thick of danger, often lending a hand or his trusty service revolver to aid in the capture of a criminal. He didn’t just write the adventures; he lived them, and his perspective gave his stories more interest to readers.

As a writer, you can’t spend all your time imagining at your desk. Sometimes you have to go out into the world, and have an adventure. You don’t always have to write what you know, but you’ll hardly have anything to write about if you don’t have a few adventures now and then. While following the world’s only consulting detective around may not be practical or even safe, there’s plenty you can do, starting by just stepping out your front door. Experience life, and then go home and write about it.

Final Poll Results

Developing the Habit: Simple Tricks to Start Writing Every Day

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By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

You tell yourself that you’re going to start writing every day, starting today. You’re going to sit down at your desk, or in your work space, and take out a blank sheet of paper or open a blank document in your favorite writing program, and you will write masterpieces. But then a thousand things happen. You stay late at work, there are errands to be run, family and friends to see, kids to help with homework, and a thousand other little things that you want to do but don’t have the time for. You keep telling yourself ‘tomorrow’. Tomorrow I’ll start writing every day. But then you don’t.

Of course, telling yourself that you’re going to start writing every day accomplishes nothing. Getting in front of that computer screen or that piece of paper is a lot harder than just making a verbal commitment. It’s so easy to say “I’m going to write every day” because nothing happens if you do or don’t do it. Not getting that novel written or that freelance career you want isn’t going to make much of an effect on you today, when you’re at the end of a long day and trying to decide between writing another chapter in your novel, or watching TV.

What you need is a way to make it easier on yourself. You need to make your goal a lot smaller and manageable. So, instead of telling yourself you’re going to make a habit of writing every day, from now until eternity, make a commitment to write every day for just 30 days. Studies have shown that sticking to a new behavior for approximately 30 days is enough to make it a habit. Once you get past that 30-day mark, that behavior is ingrained inside your brain, and you’ll start performing it automatically.

Of course, writing every day, even if it’s just for 30 days, is still a difficult task. Thousands of people attempt it every November during National Novel Writing Month, and only twenty percent reach their 50,000 word goal. There’s always some excuse to not have the time to sit down and write. However, if you trick your brain into it, there are a lot of ways you can succeed in getting yourself to sit down every day and write.

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Set an Achievable Goal

Take a look at your schedule and realistically consider how much time you’ll have to write. Is it 10 minutes waiting for your coffee to be ready in the morning, an hour during lunch at work, or 30 minutes just before you go to bed? Figure out how much you can get written during that time, and then set that as your goal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paragraph, a haiku, a blog entry or a 10-minute journal prompt. Just make your goal a word count that makes you feel successful at the end of the day, and complete that every day. If you write more than your goal word count, consider it a bonus. Some days you’ll barely hit your goal, and some days you’ll surpass it, but as long as you get that little bit done, you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Reward Yourself

Reward yourself for a streak of writing. Experiment with different time frames to figure out what works best for you. For instance, you can try 7 days, or 14, or 5. Put a reminder in your calendar to check in at the end of your streak, and if possible, get a picture of your reward and tape it by your computer or your notebook so you can clearly see what you’re working towards. Whatever your reward is, make sure it’s something small but worth waiting for, such as an edible treat, some item you want to buy, or an event, such as a movie you want to go to. You can save the big reward for the end of the 30 days.

Give Up Something

If rewarding yourself doesn’t motivate you, give up something every time you miss a day. Make sure that whatever it is it’s something you’ll be sure to miss. For instance, missing a day of writing means getting rid of something from your closet. Or missing a day of writing means no watching your favorite TV show for a week. You can also give up something until you complete your 30 day streak. Experiment with a few different things and find out what works for you, and keeps you in your writing chair.

Put Your Money Where Your Pen Is

Write a check to your favorite charity and keep the check by your computer or notepad. If, during a month’s worth of writing, you miss a day, mail that check right off and start your 30 days over again. Alternatively, you can keep a jar by your desk, and deposit an amount in it for every day that you don’t write, and donate whatever’s in there at the end of your 30 days. You can also make a bet with a friend or family member. If you’re short on cash, use an object, like a nice jacket or a favorite pair of sunglasses, or service, such as babysitting or yard work. If you miss a day, your friend can cash in on the bet, and you can start over again.

Publicly Commit

Have a Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or blog? Publicly announce that you’ll be writing every day for 30 days, and update daily on your progress. If you’re not active in social media, send an e-mail to supportive family and friends, and tell them you’re going to write every day for 30 days. Send out updates once a week, so as not to spam them, and make sure you broadcast your failures, and start over again. By announcing your intention publicly, you’ll be more inclined to stick to your new writing habit to save face.

Change Your Environment

If writing at home just isn’t working, try changing your environment. When it’s time to write, move to a different room that will be just for writing. Or, sit in a designated writing chair or wear a writing hat. If you can, try changing locations completely. Go down to the local coffee shop with your laptop or notebook, and stay there until you hit your daily goal. Even if it’s the office supply closet at lunchtime, or a special writing notebook and pen, change something around you to signal to your brain that’s it time to write, and only write. And since it’s Writing Time, you won’t be able to do anything else until you’re done.

Enter a Contest

Try entering a contest. It doesn’t have to cost money or even have a prize at the end. This one works the same way as publicly announcing your intention to start writing every day. By wanting to save face, you’ll work hard to complete your contest entry before it’s due, which probably means writing every day, in some form or another. Even signing up for something like National Novel Writing Month or Script Frenzy will work, especially if you join and participate in the local groups. You’ll have the assurance and support from the others who are writing with you, and will be more likely to stay on track.

These are just a few of the ways you can develop the habit of writing something every day. Some writers swear by writing at the same time every day, others write the minute they wake up or just before they go to sleep, but what works for one writer won’t work for another. If you fail at writing every day the first, second, or tenth time, don’t give up! Reflect on what went wrong instead. Did the method you tried not work for you? Try something else. Are you not meeting your goal? Make it smaller. Finding it hard to come up with anything to write? Do a journal prompt instead. Test things out for a few days at a time, until you find something that gets you motivated. Then, keep writing!

Final Poll Results