Monday, August 31, 2009

Writers' Critiquing Groups I've Loved, Ditched, and Infiltrated

I've mentioned that I'm a fan of writers' critiquing groups. It can be a great source of feedback as a writer and you can learn a lot by critiquing other writers work. That being said, it's not without it's pitfalls and any group has to be manage (I'm still a member of the Kensington Writers' Group unless they formed a splinter group and didn't tell me!) Here is an article I wrote that appeared in WestWord the Writers Guild of Alberta magazine and on ezine articles. A couple other articles I wrote are on ezine: "Atticus Catticus and Why Writers Should Follow Deadlines" and "What I learned from Simon Cowell - Developing the Voice of your Character." Check them out, but in the meantime ...

‘What do I know from Kosher?’

Lessons Learned from a Cross Cultural Writers’ Group

“You don’t understand my culture.”

That was a cry heard often from one member of my fiction writers’ group who was Muslim. Nearly every point of criticism was met with it during the first two years the group was together.

“If the story doesn’t start until chapter five, I won’t get far enough to discover your culture,” was my response.

By virtue of the diverse world we live in your writers’ group is likely to be filled with people of different ages, and religious and ethnic backgrounds. Having started and ditched two writers’ groups and infiltrated a third, I’ve learnt a few things along the way. The experience of being in a writers’ group needs to be respectful from a personal perspective and worthwhile from a writing perspective.

Lessons Learned from membership in a Cross Cultural writers’ group

Respect is integral to any writers’ group and especially a cross-cultural one. My first writers’ group in Toronto in the 90s was composed of one devoutly Muslim woman, three orthodox Jewish women, two Catholics, and two women researching goddess-based cultures. It led to interesting conversations, friendships, and new dining experiences (like finding a restaurant that would accommodate everyone’s religious dietary requirements).

I had previously worked as a broadcast journalist and traveled over a large part of the world. I had even done a radio documentary about Egyptian Muslim women, so I, and others, had our own views on religion. But given that we had come together with the purpose of writing and critiquing each other’s work to grow as children’s writers, we respected the religious choices of others.

It seems that lack of confidence is the bane of all writers. It is intensified when religious or cultural beliefs encourage humbleness and discourage boastfulness. This can affect a writer’s view of themselves and their writing. Confidence in the fact that you are a good writer is not boastfulness; it’s maturity as a writer. However, bragging that you’ll be the first in the group to get published is just that – bragging. It’s not a race; every writer develops at their own pace.

I used to think that it was the responsibility of group members to boost each other’s confidence. I no longer think that. The members of the writers’ group I started in Calgary made a concerted effort to boost the self-esteem of an older member who’d had one book published and nothing since. I eventually realized that she was the only person who could boost her self-esteem. It’s great to be positive and encouraging but we all need to come to the table with healthy egos intact.

It’s important to realize that the group is where you get feedback. Don’t let non-writers like your spouse, sibling, or parent read your manuscript. I gave an earlier draft of my middle grade manuscript Dead Frog on the Porch, to my childhood best friend. The main characters are twin girls. My friend phoned me angrily one day to tell me that “One character is you, the other character is me, and your character is picking on my character!” My response: “Honey, it ain’t all about you.” That was funny. But I’ve seen more writers let the ink dry in their pens after a confidence crushing comment from a spouse or brother who may have their own agenda, but aren’t writers or editors. If you just want to hear that your work is great, give it to your grandma or child, they will be so thrilled that someone they know has written something they will praise it to the hilt.

Lessons Learned from Managing a Cross Cultural writers’ group

Writers join groups with the goal of publication. If you’re a beginning writer it’s best to join or start a group after taking a basic course in your genre. If you’re actively seeking publication or already a published writer, a writers group can be a valuable tool for getting feedback on the final draft before sending it out to publishers.

A writers’ group can also act as a motivator, setting deadlines to get that next draft before the group. It can be many things, but above all it needs to be professional and intentional. While great fiction often stems from personal experience, there is a clear distinction between fiction and journaling. A fiction writers’ group may not be the place to work through your personal issues. In a cross-cultural group, while learning about other cultures is a bonus, don’t let the meetings denigrate into sharing stories about culture, customs, and religion unless it is directly related to the writing.

The focus of group discussion should be on giving and receiving feedback to further each member’s growth as a writer. Trust between group members takes time to develop but is essential to the exchange of open and honest feedback. Feedback doesn’t have to be harsh. Make it about the work and not about the person. One woman with school aged children told us how they gave feedback in grade five – it would focus on what they liked or what worked and what they wondered about or what was missing. For example: “I wonder how the character feels when that happens?” It gets the point across without destroying the sometimes fragile ego of the aspiring writer.

You’d think politics would have no place in a fiction writers’ group. One time, the Muslim member wanted us to critique a book that painted a Nazi character in a human light. The Jewish members of the group felt uncomfortable with this and I, as the unofficial leader, spent a lot of time on the phone mediating the situation. People carry their cultural identity and baggage with them to the group. The intent of the group, and the reason why people are there, needs to be managed in a professional way. When cross-cultural tension threatens to destroy a group it needs to be addressed.

I described myself as the unofficial leader. I didn’t want to lead, but I had started my first two groups and felt responsible for keeping them on track. Some groups need a strong facilitator, for others it is best to do things by consensus. Let the group decide how to best meet its needs. At first you may need critiquing, then expand to bring in guest speakers, do writing exercises, discuss current markets, or critique published work in your genre. It’s also best to let the group decide on the tough questions like who gets to join, and what happens when a member doesn’t participate over a long stretch of time.

It’s a good idea to appoint someone, or take turns, to keep the meeting on track. This includes starting and finishing on time, limiting each person’s time, and keeping the discussion on topic. If meetings have broken down to discussions about root canals, showing of vacation pictures, and complaining about spouses, it’s time to re-focus.

What’s the shelf life of a writers’ group? I took too much ownership in keeping both groups I started together past their ‘best before’ date. How long should a group stay together and what happens if some members of the group are more serious than others? Do some people only participate when they want feedback on their work but don’t provide feedback to others? Have you been sworn to secrecy about your membership in a splinter group? There’s bound to be a little bit of the above in every group at certain times.

The group I started in Toronto came to a natural end after three years when I moved to Calgary. The group splintered into a handful of the more serious members. I ditched the group I started in Calgary after a visit to a writer-in-residence at the library helped me realize that I had outgrown it. I left the group members holding a plate of uneaten Samosas and infiltrated the Kensington Writers’ Group (KWG). Groups change and evolve. Let them, they may be better in their new incarnation.

“I have a daughter who’s almost your age.” This from an older member of my Toronto group after we’d been friends for a while. Neither of us had noticed that there was nearly twenty years difference in our age. We’d meet outside the group to discuss writing, critique each other’s manuscripts, have dinner and talk about life. I respected her as a writer and thought of her as a friend. It is the same for other members who are closer to my age but from different religious and ethnic backgrounds than mine. I’ve become friends with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met in my day-to-day life. I’ve learned about their cultures and developed a respect for them as people. As writers, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Kreativ Blogger Award

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Angie from over at Notes From the Writing Chair was kind enough to give me a Kreativ Blogger Award. Thanks Angie! You're awesome. Check out Angie's site, it's full of great quotes and interesting insights about writing, and I love her view from her writing chair!
Here are the rules for the award: 1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award. 2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog. 3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award. 4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. (below) 5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers. 6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate. 7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated. I asked a few people at work what was quirky about me and their response: 'oh, honey, don't get us started.' So here's 7 random, possibly interesting things about me: 1. I'm the only person in the world who doesn't like dijion mustard. 2. I believe I am the world's best hummus maker and routinely challenge people to present me with their best pulverized chick pea creation. I continue to seek an international level competition to prove my point. I purport to have a secret ingredient, and then freely reveal it (cumin). 3. My lunch and dinner motto is: give me lentils or give me lentils. I looooovvvee lentils and have been known to eat lentil soup/stew (don't get me started on the soup vs. stew debate) or dhal every day. One colleague informed me that I have to eat something other than lentils and I pointed out to her that in actuality I didn't. 4. I have a cat who eats my rejection letter from literary agents. She is featured in a you tube video: Sprite Doesn't Like Rejection. 5. I infiltrated a local meeting of Pagans (wiccans, witches, wizards, werewolves - well maybe not the last one), and the cat eat cat world of the cat show. I will be doing future blog posts about writers infiltrating sub-cultures. 6. I like my raw fruits and vegetables to be at room temperature.
7. I am weirdly fascinated with the Sasquatch and have made that word into a verb. To Sasquatch oneself is to go into your writing den, eschew all human contact and commonly accepted norms of hygiene, and only emerge to refill your cup of milky tea. So here are 7 blogs I love. Some are funny, some are poetic, some are informative, and all are written by thoughtful, creative people who care about their craft and we are lucky they are sharing their talents with us. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Punk Rock and Sacred Stories

This is a pressie I'm going to give to my writer friend Lori Hahnel (the fridge magnet, not the fridge - I'm going to need that) next time I see her.
She's the author of a literary novel called Love Minus Zero (Oberon Press) it's based on her time in the 80s when she started the first all female punk rock band in Calgary, Alberta, Canada - if you want to know which juicy bits are true, apparently you have to ply her with scotch (note to self: ply Lori with scotch sometime soon). It launched to great reviews which you can see on her website.
Nothing Sacred (Thistledown Press) a book of short fiction (in my day we called them short stories, just saying) is her second book and it will launch October 29th at Audrey's in Edmonton, Alberta.
When I'm not bugging Lori about her cyber links hanging out all over the place we regularly get together for lunch and whine, er, I mean discuss, writing and the publishing industry. She's been a great resource and source of support for me on my journey to publication and beyond. I will be getting her to do a blog post a la David Letterman style 'Top Ten Things I've learnt in the year since I've been published.' She's also doing a writer in residence schtick with the Canadian Author's Association this fall and winter so check out her blog for details.
Over the next few months I'll be profiling members of my writing group, and other writing friends, who are not only active in the community, but are always ready to give advice, listen, and be supportive. I'm a big believer in writers critiquing groups, even if it's a loose knit group of writers in your network that you call on for feedback.
Next post: Writers groups I've loved, ditched and infiltrated.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting Down and Dirty or why you need to get the words right!

This is a conversation between me, my friend Nancy in Toronto, and her nine year old daughter Lydia. We were in a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto.

Lydia: Mom have you ever done the down and dirty?

Nancy: Excuse me?!

Lydia: The down and dirty, you know when you eat in a restaurant and then run out without paying.

Me: Oh, you mean dine and dash.

Lydia: Yeah, the down and dirty, have you ever done it Mom?

Nancy: Dine and dash, and no, I haven’t.

Lydia : Jan have you ever done the down and dirty?

Me: Dine and dash. No. My sister did it, but it was because of me. 

Lydia: Tell me when your sister did the down and dirty.

Me: Dine and dash. Well, she was out for dinner with her neighbours and I was babysitting. It was about a week after Halloween.

Lydia: Get to the part where she does the down and dirty.

Me: Dine and dash. Well, I had had a flu shot that day and then I didn’t have dinner because I wasn’t hungry, but when I got to my sister’s house I ate a lot of Halloween candy.

Lydia: What’s that got to do with the down and dirty?

Me: Dine and dash. I’m getting to that part. So, I was feeling sick and I laid down. I handed over the babysitting duties to my niece who was conflicted with enforcing the ‘no more candy’ rule, because she wanted more candy.

Lydia: Jan get to the part where your sister did the down and dirty.

Me: Dine and dash. I’m getting there. So I phoned my sister to tell her to come home. She thought I was really sick and then she did it. 

Lydia: The down and dirty?

Me: No, she dined and dashed and left her neighbours holding the bill. I turned out to be okay.

Lydia: She did the down and dirty!

Me: Dine and dash.

Words matter. Janet Reid said it. Nathan Bransford said it. Words are our tools. Get them right or there may be hilarious consequences. The least of which is being accused of getting down and dirty.    

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dead Frog on the Porch meets Deus ex Machina

Now that I'm finished my 'how I got published' story I'll be doing regular blog posts along the lines of 'where life meets writing.' I'll post updates on the progress of my novel Dead Frog on the Porch, profiles of the writers in my writing group, tips on writing, and resources for writers. I'll also explore the time worn question of why everyone thinks I'm writing about them! 

I finished the substantive edits on Dead Frog on the Porch. They were minor. There was only a couple of times I pulled a Deus ex Machina. Every writer worth their weight in self addressed stamped envelopes knows what that is, few, including me, know how to pronounce it! Translated from Latin it means 'God from the machine.' Translated into writerly language, it's where a force outside of the protagonist intervenes to get the protagonist out of a sticky situation. Here's a fairly graphic picture of a Deus ex Machina. So, I did some rewriting so that the protagonist was leading the action that solved the problem, and I introduced a sidekick character in the first book that will play a bigger role in the second book, Dead Bird Through the Cat Door.  

I also saw some of the cover art, which is awesome and I will share that when it's available. 

You'll notice that I added a book shelf to my blog (courtesy of Shelfari), and have put up some of my favourite books. Take a gander through the book shelf, they are all in my top ten and I'll be referring to them from time to time. The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, had been on my literal book shelf for over a decade. I knew I should read it because it's a classic, but I kept putting it off. Wow, was I glad I read it. Holy inner conflict Batman! It was an excellent example of inner conflict. Characters need both inner and outer conflict, usually writers are good at the outer conflict (things that happen to the characters) but not so much with the inner conflict (how the characters feel and respond to the things that are happening to them). If you're struggling with this in your work in progress I would highly recommend The Scarlet Letter.

Next blog post: Down and Dirty or why you need to get the words right! 

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Whatever happened to those three dead moths ...

And so it ends as it began. It was a cold and lonely Tuesday evening, felt like Thursday, when I dragged my butt home from aquasize. There was a chill in the autumn air that a cup of steaming chai with an extra dollop of organic honey couldn’t stave off. Needed to check my e-mail before shoving some curried vegetables down my gullet and bolting out to meet a friend for coffee. There it was. An email from Crystal Stranaghan the publisher of Gumboot Books. It was the e-mail we all wait for. Quickly scanned over the line apologizing for the delay, complete with a winky-face emoticon. A line about how much she liked the manuscript. Then the line we all wait for: “It’s something I’d be interested in publishing….” I did the classic OMG scream then phoned my sister. Forwarded the e-mail to my writer’s group with an ‘in your face’ message.

Then I wrote back to Crystal to begin the process of negotiation. I was unable to acquire an agent, even though I had a contract, but I will keep in touch with the agents I meet at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference and continue stalking them as I progress in my career as a novelist. I went back to Surrey that year with a contract in hand and it was announced in front of all 700 participants as a success story. The novel comes out in the fall of 2009.

After the offer from Gumboot, the other Vancouver publisher got back to me suggesting some rewrites and resubmission. I wrote them that I had an offer and thanked them for their interest. 

Success comes through persistence, rewriting, and following up on every opportunity that comes your way. Let the frustration burn off like the morning mist on the Ganges.

I never thought about giving up … and it never once occurred to me to clean out the three dead moths in my mailbox.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Frustration pumped perseverance through my veins

We last left our intrepid heroine (aka me) pondering the effect of rejection on the very core of her being.    

The following week I got a request for my full manuscript from a longstanding reputable agent in New York with a ‘the 4th’ after his name. Holy emotional rollercoaster Batman! It was at this point where I asked Nathan Bransford, Agent for Curtis Brown and awesome blogger for some technical advice that wasn’t in the standard FAQ. He offered some helpful advice. I love Nathan’s blog. It’s hilarious and always has helpful advice. I recommend it, often and repeatedly, for people wanting to learn more about publishing and the agent query process. Reading his blog is an easy and fun way to do your homework. And with blogs like Nathan's, and Janet Reid's, there are no excuses for not doing your homework as a writer.

This might be a good place to do a sidebar about the role of frustration in a writer’s life. I don’t have to tell you how frustrating it is to be a writer. If you are a writer aspiring to be published, you know how frustrating it is. That summer, when I was so close, I could taste the printer’s ink and smell the heavy metals in the cover art. Frustration became like a palpitating part of my body. It reverberated through every fiber of my being. The fact that my manuscript was getting so close to a contract made it even worse. I was so ready to launch my career as a novelist. I’d previously been a journalist and spent years honing the craft of fiction writing. I’d observed and learned from other writers’ publishing experiences over the years. I’d absorbed everything I could about how to be a better writer and incorporated it into my writing. I’d watched authors market themselves and their books and took what worked and discarded what didn’t, and I’d learned everything I could about blogs and electronic marketing.  I was so ready. Frustration was both the bane of my existence and my existence. It was my driving force. Frustration pumped perseverance through my veins. I have no advice on how to deal with frustration because I get very frustrated. Patience is not my best font. All I can say is stick with it; perseverance is what gets you there. 

Next post: what happened to the three dead moths?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Hello rock. Let me squeeze in between you and that hard place

I did a rewrite for Publisher ‘B’. Then I thought, why don’t I offer the rewrite to Publisher ‘A’ as well. Since they came close to buying the first version, I thought this versions might push them over the edge (in a good way, of course). Not wanting to be one of those stalking writers, I sought some advice from the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. I decided to re-submit it and wrote a non-stalking letter something to the effect that ‘I get that you rejected me, but here are the changes I made and would you like to take another look at it? If not, I will crawl back into my writing den never to darken your mailbox with another manuscript.’ They were thrilled that I would offer it to them again and I sent the manuscript out.

About a month later, I received an email from Publisher ‘A'. They said they thought the voice of the characters would appeal to 12 year olds, but the plot would appeal to younger children who wouldn’t get the 12 year old humour or language. Hello rock. Is that you there by that hard place? Let me squeeze in between! She added that they had reached the end of the road with this manuscript. Sigh.

The week after, I received a letter from Publisher ‘B’. It said that they liked the rewrite, the manuscript had a great deal of promise, but they didn’t have editorial resources to get it there. They left the door open for another rewrite.  This is when I left a voice mail message on a friend’s phone that went something like this:  “How much rejection can one human being possible take before they go completely  mad!?” She never phoned me back, I think she might have even left town.

That weekend I came face to face with the possibility that this might not be the manuscript that gets published. I had to remind myself that many writers don’t get published until manuscript four or five. 

Next post: Frustration pumped perseverance through my veins. 

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Da Vinci Code of Editorial Letters

So we pick up my 'how I got published story' in the summer of 2008. Shortly after sending out two new queries, I received a lengthy rejection/ediorial letter from another established Canadian publisher, let’s call them Publisher ‘B’. There was a page of what they loved and then the inevitable line: “…the only thing that’s preventing us from publishing it is….” This time it was that the plot didn’t "unfold organically and intuitively." What did that mean? It only made me think of tomatoes. 

This became typical of rejection letters from agents and publishers. A couple of paragraphs about how much they loved it and then the word ‘but.’ This would be followed by a couple of paragraphs of suggested changes. While an enviable position to be in as a writer – getting feedback from an editor – the Da Vinci Code would have been easier to crack. 

In order to handle the rejections I came up with a rule. I would give myself 24 hours to rant and rave, gnash my teeth, shake my fist at the world, phone every friend I had and read the rejection to them, and send it to all my writing friends asking for their interpretation. Then I would move on and get over it. I realized that a manuscript is never finished until it is between two covers. Thinking a manuscript is finished when you send it out will lead to frustration and disappointment.   

That summer I entered a query-writing contest on the blog Buried in the Slush Pile. It's the blog of an editor who works for the U.S. publisher Children’s Brains are Yummy (CBAY). The prize was that the editor, who usually only accepts agented submissions, would accept an un-agented submission. I was one of the winners so I knew that my query letter was solid.  
Next post: "Hello rock, let me squeeze in between you and that hard place." 

Bringing Pagens together since 2001

I did another guest post over at Forgotten Bookmarks. 
What do a meeting of local pagans, a hospital visitor information card, and a book about an urban crime fighting wizard detective have in common? Find out here...  It involves a book I borrowed from my friend Amber (of open toed shoes fame) and the bookmarks she will find when I return it to her. 
P.S.: I will do a series of future posts on being a writer and infiltrating sub-cultures. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Bloodsucking is so yesterday."

Since no one was able to offer me any insight into the whole 'why can't vampires and werewolves just get along' thing, I had to go searching for the answer. I didn't find an answer, but I found this article, "Oh, How they Suck" by Grady Hendrix, that looks at contemporary representations of vampires as brooding, crying, vegans - sounds kinda like poets!   
Remind me to tell you the story of how I accused my friend's husband of being a vampire because he works nights at the blood bank and, well, he tries to stay out of the sun during the day ... need I say more? 

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Why can't vampires and werewolves just get along?

We return now to our regularly scheduled 'how I got published' posts. The last few posts saw our intrepid heroine (aka me) get three requests from agents for her full and a request from a Canadian publisher to rewrite and resubmit. We take up the story from there ...

Of the three agents who requested my full, the project wasn’t right for them. But I am still stalking two of them, and will keep up the contact as my career progresses and I have a few more books published.

That brings us to the summer of 2008. I took leave without pay and my holidays to spend two months writing. On the friday of the Calgary Stampede (for my friends outside of Canada a definition is needed. The Stampede is either a celebration of western cowboy/rodeo culture or an opportunity to drink too much and eat way too many pancakes and sausages - or both), I went to a book reading called Chocolate and Chat it was put on by two writers of young adult books k.c. dyer and James McCann. k.c. is the organizer of the Surrey International Writers' Conference (SiWC) and the author of a number of y/a books, including a time travel series. James writes urban fantasy vampire/werewolf books (which leads to the title of this blog post - why can't vampires and werewolves just get along? If anyone knows, please let me know.) 

I don't know if was because of Stampede or because it was smoking hot out and other writers didn't want to come out of their caves, but I was the only one who showed up. So I had them to myself and peppered them with questions about the path of my manuscript. We agreed that I was close and probably in the top ten percent of submissions. I asked: "how do I get from 90% to 100%." They both agreed that the only difference was persistence. They told me about two newer publishers in Vancouver. I sent off two more queries.... 

The next post - cracking the Da Vinci code of editorial letters!