Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Value of a Critique Group

You've heard it before. To be a better writer, you need to share your work with others IN THE FIELD i.e. a writing group. But so many people don't. They try it, personalities clash, things fall apart. Yes, critique groups, like any other social situation, can be work - but oh so worth it. I was reminded of this fact this past weekend at the weekend-long SCBWI-MI Fall conference , and I returned with a whole new appreciation for my critique group.

Four of us, including myself, attended the conference together. They all had a critique with an editor and - as critiques often do - felt less than ecstatic about the feedback. We sat around and listened to the feedback, gave each other much needed ego boosts by pointing out the positive in the feedback, and then attacked the negative head-on. We knew each other's characters and plots so well, we were able to point out ways to fix things, and we knew each other so well, we felt comfortable doing it and safe receiving it.

I couldn't ask for a better group. There are six of us total. We've had members come and members go over the years, but for the most part, have been the same group for years. We are an eclectic bunch - writing poetry, picture books, middle-grade, and YA; romance, boy books, and fantasy; humorous, edgy, and dark - we run the gambit. We all have our strengths; we all have our hang-ups, our pitfalls, our overly used words, our crutches. Best of all? We all know it and aren't afraid to point it out.

It is a safe environment where we can be ourselves, which is so important when you are a writer - the world doesn't always get us but we get each other.

Our critique clique clicks - and I am such a better writer now than I was seven years ago when I found you all!

To those of you who do not have a critique group - get one! To those who do and it doesn't work - find another one! For those who do one and it does work - you know what I am talking about.!And to those in my group - cheers! I love you guys!

Of course, none of it helps if you aren't writing, so ................ butt-in-chair mates!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What I've Learned About Writing from Watching Project Runway

I'm guilty. I watch reality television. Not all of it; some shows are simply a flimsy platform created for idiots in search of quick fame. I do have my favorites though, like Survivor, Amazing Race, and Project Runway. My husband rolls his eyes when I say one of those shows is about to come on. I tell him I have to watch - I am doing research. "Research? Really?" He says. "Survivor?"

Yep, a wealth of character sketches and dialogue and human dynamics on that show. Amazing Race? All the places they go and challenges they must complete are interesting details to enrich plots and settings. Project Runway? Hands down, the best place to learn about the craft of writing.

What? I hear you saying - my husband too. How can a bunch of wannabe fashion designers making dresses for models teach you anything about writing?

Let me show you what I've learned from watching the show:

1) In the fashion world, everything has been done before - pants, skirts, shirts, etc. The designer's job is to make what has been done, new and fresh by mixing materials, colors, styles, etc. It is the same in the writing world. You'll find similar themes and premises in all literature - your job is to morph what's been done into something innovative and new through plot, setting, characters, etc.

2) The ideal in fashion is to create something clean, fresh, and sophisticated while still being wearable, new and fun. The same is true in writing. Publishers want well-written, 'literary' stories that will stand the test of time, but have a commercial hook that will appeal to the masses.

3) In writing like in fashion design, when we begin executing our ideas, sometimes something doesn't work. You have to be willing to change it up, alter it, or scratch it and start over , even if it means losing something you really liked. How many fashion designers have we seen fall out of the competition because they got too attached to their idea and lost sight of the big picture? Don't lose sight of what your goal is - if it isn't working, take it out and save it for another project.

4) Learn to listen to yourself and others. All artists have a little voice that tells them when something isn't right. Listen to it - don't get lazy and ignore it. Same with professionals in your field. If people are telling you the same thing about your work, listen. Sometimes that means a major overhaul - and we tend to ignore the comments if that means the work will be hard - but don't. Listen, listen, listen.

5) And ignore, ignore, ignore! You also have to learn to ignore yourself and others! We all doubt ourselves. Learn to recognize which voice is talking to you - your professional voice or that insecure child. Ignore the child. Same with people who mean well. You are the person who understands your vision the best. If what people are saying to you doesn't make sense for your vision, ignore their advice. Learn to identify what is good advice and what is not.

6) Never get too cocky. Everyone has talent, but no one starts a project perfectly. When you get complacent, so does your work. Push yourself every time.

7) Even the best ideas can fall apart with the wrong choices You've seen it happen on Project Runway before - a safe dress costs a designer the competition because she/he chose the wrong accessories. Make sure all the pieces of your story work together.

8) Stay current, but don't get trapped into creating yesterday's trends. Nothing worse than writing with shoulder pads and big belts, i.e. outdated devices and dialogue. Try to stay classic while being fresh and thinking out of the box.

9) Don't be afraid to try new things. If you think all you can make are dresses and you never try to make pants, you may be missing out on a talent you never knew you had. Don't let the fear of using chocolate or paper napkins scare you out of the race. BE OPEN AND INNOVATIVE!

10) The most important thing I have learned from Project Runway: Don't give up. You may be at the bottom on one project, but at the top the next. Don't let rejection cut you out of the pack. Learn from it and move on.

And that's what I've learned from Project Runway!

Happy creating!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Blog Entry At Last!

Today marks the last full day of writing time before my kids are home for summer break, and I thought I would use it to update my sorely neglected blog.

It has been nearly eight months since my last post - which is embarrassing, considering so many of my writer friends post every day. I haven't quite figured out how to juggle the household, the kids, and the millions of extra stuff that comes up, with my writing, my research, my agent/editor queries, and my blog. How do you all manage it?

During my blog silence, I finished a major overhaul of my novel. It was a huge undertaking. I switched the POV from third to first, cut 18,000 words, and pulled a few plot threads, which meant some tedious re-plotting of things. The actual overhaul took about three months of thinking about the changes, and six months of actually making those changes. Once the hardcore writing began, I couldn't focus on a blog or anything else beyond my household. In fact, every day, I fought hard to come out of the catatonic, zombie-state I found myself in after writing before the kids came home. (Is that normal? Anyone else get that way? I forced myself to walk - it helps!)

How DO you all do it? I thought my 7 am to 2 pm, five days a week schedule devoted to writing was pretty good - so many of my writer friends work outside of the home and complain they never have time to write - but I see people writing books and blogging, doing author visits, etc. and I wonder - HOW?

I stressed about not blogging for a while. Every time I would go to my critique meetings with my AWESOME writer's group and saw Jacqui and Diane, the champion bloggers in my group, I'd feel inadequate in my ability to juggle stuff. But I have realized that I have a sort of writing cycle that works for me. I blog when I am in the thinking stages of a work - when I am doing research, or plotting, or trying on character voices - this is usually during the summer months and early fall when the kids are home or just getting settled into the new school year and so much 'stuff' is going on. Then, right about October/November, I hit my hardcore writing groove, and nothing but that novel gets written because I have a goal - to finish in May before the insanity that is the end of the school year begins. With summer comes a new project, more thinking than writing, and, therefore, more blogging.

Probably not industry standards, and if I get published, I will probably need to change that because I will need to have a more regular blog - but for now? It works for me.

So, here's to summer days, reading books, writing blogs, and just plain hanging out while characters run rampant in my head (I love that part).