15 for Fifteen

A Pen In Each Hand

By Beaver

This month we’re celebrating 15 years of Toasted Cheese. As we look back on some of our proudest moments from the past decade and a half, we invite you to do the same.

Day to day, progress can sometimes be so slow, it feels like you’re not moving forward at all. Pausing and reflecting from time to time is a good way to not lose sight of the big picture.

Make a list of 15 things you’ve accomplished writing-wise since January 2001. Big or small, anything you’re proud of can go on this list. If you have a writing buddy or group, this would be a great exercise for all of you to do and then share with each other.

Celebrate your accomplishments. Write a blog post or share on social media. (When you hit a low point you can look back on your list to give yourself a boost.) Invest in your writing life. Get yourself some new writing supplies or that software you’ve been meaning to purchase (if you don’t have it yet, Scrivener is well worth the investment). Do something fun! Freshen up your writing space, go to dinner with your writing buddy and toast your successes, throw a party for yourself and your writing group.

What’s next? Set 15 new short- or long-term writing goals. Tuck it away somewhere safe and revisit it in a decade or so to see how you did. Happy writing!

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?

Background Image: 826CHI/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

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.


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