Mosaic: Celebrating Diversity with Young Writers

Last spring, I was invited to be a judge for the Mosaic writing contest, hosted by Friends of the Library (Montgomery County MD).  This annual contest is held in partnership with the local schools and encourages middle schoolers to express their cultural identity through creative writing.

I was assigned about 40 pieces of student writing – poems, short stories, personal essays – to read and score. It felt like being back in the classroom again.

What struck out to me was not — as you might expect in a writing contest — the advanced skill level of the students. Admittedly, some of them were written in what may be defined as grade-appropriate skill level English, evidence of students in a new country, learning English as their second language, as was the subject of many of the student writings. What made me smile, laugh, and tugged at my heart a little bit was the honesty and the true emotions that the students expressed, whether in simple sentence structure or complex clauses and phrases.  The theme of “My Culture” was presented as stories about family, imagining returning home, celebrating holidays, getting used to a new home, and many many other creative turns.

Each were a unique display of the children’s personality, as well as their journey through identifying with their own culture. It was a special opportunity for me to read the work of these young people.

Last week, I received the printed collection of the winning submissions.This young anthology represents many students and their special courage to not only write about their personal experiences, but also to submit personal writing to be judged in a writing contest.

Congratulations to the winners, as well as all the students who extended themselves enough to enter.  I hope you continue to write for yourself and for others.

Find more information about the Mosaic Writing Contest, the winners, and how to buy a copy of the book online.

By |August 27th, 2017|Writing|Comments Off on Mosaic: Celebrating Diversity with Young Writers

How to Accept Writing Criticism

 I just published my second novel, and before it came to print, I ran it through the gauntlet that is my writing group.  Yes, they liked some pages, didn’t like others. But at some point, if you are going to be an author – you have to let someone else read your writing and it’s best if that first person isn’t your intended reader with the final printed book in hand. Let the first readers be compassionate, honest people who will give you constructive critiques, that you can take back to that rough draft and make it better. My preference is my writing group and I recommend a good group for other writers, as well.

I listed some tips on how to give constructive criticism in a previous post.  When done right, this should be helpful to both the writer and reader providing comments.

Accepting critique is the other side of that coin. It has to be done gracefully, for your fellow writers to want to continue to work with you. I know it’s hard. You’ve poured gallons of coffee and Pepsi, spent hours and hours, put in all your heart and soul into these pages,  and now you’re going to hand it over to people to tear it apart. It’s like making the perfect chocolate mousse and giving it to a kindergarten class—you don’t even want to look.  But trust that your writing group members feel exactly the same way about giving their pages to you. With constructive, honest and respectful dialogue, it will not be as much of a mess as you anticipate.

Here’s a few tips to keep in mind as you receive feedback from your fellow writing group members.

Don’t get defensive. Trust that you all are working together to improve each other’s writing. Don’t take comments as personal attacks (and they shouldn’t be given in that manner, either.)  You are in the group for critique, remember?

Know that everyone will not agree. Each member of your group, including you, may have an entirely different opinion on your opening paragraph, the closing line and everything in between. Listen to everyone’s comments, take it all in, sift it together and make a decision that works for what you want to do.

Don’t try to explain. It’s natural. As soon as someone says that they don’t really think a little girl will follow a rabbit down a hole, you will want to explain why she would. Or how big the hole is. Or how convincing the rabbit is. But what the critique demonstrates is the crucial point: you didn’t prove it in your writing. If you have to explain to the writing group why, how, what, who, where, when, then you didn’t do it well enough in the story so it needs to be fixed. Your reader won’t have you sitting there filling in the blanks. Wherever you have to explain to your writing group, make a note in bright red Sharpie for more.

Learn from your writing group.  You learn and improve not only by having people critique your work, but by being thoughtful about others’. I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve read something in someone else’s pages, didn’t think it worked well and realized I was making the same mistake in my own pages. Yes, the old log in your own eye thing. Or I thought “ahh – I see how they did that” and could apply it to my writing. Note – this is not about stealing ideas; if your writing group member’s heroine is being whisked away on a white pony, don’t stick a white pony in your urban legend.  Its more about mechanics. Maybe you like how they end each chapter with song lyrics or effectively use multiple points of view.  (Which is also the reason that writers must also be readers, too, but you probably are already doing that.)

Note the repeated comments. After several reads, you will start to notice a pattern in the comments on your writing.  Your group members will ask for more details, tell you to cut long passages, use less technical terms, use less commas.  We are creatures of habit, particularly our writing style, and tend to make many of the same mistakes over and over.  Keep the comments in mind as you write and edit, before you give to your writing group. You’ll start to internalize their comments and write better, in earlier drafts.

Change your writing. Or not. You don’t have to change it.  Perhaps you have decided that your character is going to jump mud puddles in her wedding gown as she runs away from the church and that man she didn’t want to marry in the first place. Your group members think she’d more likely hop back in the waiting limo or that it is impossible to jump in that dress you put her in.  You have the choice to:

  • Change something else so that you don’t have to change this part. Perhaps, she’ll wear a different dress better suited for puddle jumping.
  • Change everything. Maybe once you heard other’s opinions, it was obvious that it didn’t come off the way your wanted, so it really needs to be reworked.
  • Leave everything as is, it is your story afterall.

Write better. Yes, you love your story. You think its perfect. But the whole point of the writing group and critiquing process is to make your writing better.  Listen to your writing group members and learn from it.

Have fun!

By |April 21st, 2016|Writing, Writing group|Comments Off on How to Accept Writing Criticism

How to Critique Work in Writing Groups

In reading your own work, you of course, understand everything that you meant to say, know the underlying motives of all the characters, know how the furniture is arranged, and can see the beauty of the landscape. But how does it translate to the reader?

Writing groups are a great venue to try out your writing on someone other than yourself. If you want compliments, share with the family and close friends who love you. If you want honest feedback, work with a writing group.  I’ve been with my current writing group with three other writers for four, or maybe five, years. They were instrumental in drafting my first novel, Life in Spades, and have been just as insightful for my upcoming second novel.

In a previous post, I talk about how to form a writing group: who to include, when to meet, and all those type of logistics.  Now, what happens when you all get together? Let’s first talk about how to offer critique; in a future post, I will talk about how to accept it.

Rule #1 and the most important step: read the submitted work. Allow time to read the submitted pages and make thoughtful comments. Even better if you can read it a second time. On a second read, something that you questioned the first read might make more sense or you might catch something you completely missed the first time.

The correlating rule: follow your group’s rules on submitting work. If you are supposed to share 10 pages by Tuesday at noon, don’t send 25 pages on Thursday night and expect that everyone has read your pages by the time you meet on Saturday morning.

As you read, offer useful and constructive criticism.  The purpose of a writing group is to make your writing better, not to get beat up by fellow writers.  Something like “I don’t like this paragraph” is not useful. Instead, provide more guidance, such as “this event seems out of place in the flow of the chapter.”  Consider other useful comments, such as the following.

  • The character’s motive isn’t clear or her action isn’t consistent with what she did in the previous chapters.  She walked into the coffee shop, threw a cup of water in her best friend’s face and walked out.  You want to know why.  She has never thrown water in anyone’s face before, it doesn’t seem like something she would do.
  • The meaning isn’t clear; the wording is awkward.  The syntax is off or is cumbersome.
  • This is too long of a description and I skipped over it (yes – this is useful to know!), or the inverse – This is too short and rushed, I want to know more.
  • The point-of-view switched right here and became confusing.  You want to know who is talking or how does this person know what’s going on in the other room.
  • I don’t understand what this word/phrase means. If the writer is using jargon, foreign words or technical terms, you may not understand the particular word, but the context clues should help, especially if that word seems important. If not, point that out.
  • This is not factually correct.  Did the characters go to Sunday brunch to celebrate the first day of the new millennium? You might point out that Jan 1 2000 was a Saturday.
  • This can’t actually happen.  As writers, sometimes we make characters do things we, in real life, have no idea how to do. And sometimes we get it wrong. If your writing group member has a character knitting a sweater with a crochet hook, changing a tire with a wrench, or paddling a yacht and you know better – tell them.

As well as critiquing what’s printed, look for what’s missing.  Sometimes there’s nothing essentially wrong with the writing – its clear, its grammatically correct, the story flows, but there still might be something missing. Ask the writer questions about what isn’t there.

  • What does the character look like?
  • What did she say, what was her reaction?
  • Where are they? I don’t understand the setting – are they at the beach, at the bar, in an airplane – or how they got there.

Along with things to do in critiquing, here are a couple “don’ts’.”

Don’t waste time with fine-tune editing.  Its probably an auto-response for writers to check spelling and grammar. You can’t help changing “their” to “they’re” and putting in that comma. If you must, go ahead. But don’t feel compelled or spend a lot of time on it unless it’s a glaring error.  There will be so many changes before getting to the final and there will be the time for fine tune editing later. If however, you notice that the writer makes consistent mistakes, for instance they always uses “lay” and “lie” incorrectly, offering the correction could save them time and re-writing later.

Don’t try to fix or re-write the story. As you mark areas of question and offer critiques, don’t feel like you have to fix it. If a character’s motive isn’t obvious, don’t rewrite the section to make it so. Likewise, if you don’t like Juliet falling in love with Romeo, don’t suggest she find another dude.  Allow the writer to take back your comments and figure out what she wants to do with it.


And lastly, one last “do” – Do provide compliments. Although most of my points have been on giving critiques, also note the things that you like in the writing. Draw smiley faces, scribble “LOL” or other inspiring notes to indicate some of the good points. We all appreciate hearing that at least one line on those 10 pages is pretty good.


By |January 29th, 2016|Writing, Writing group|Comments Off on How to Critique Work in Writing Groups

Maya Angelou – May Your Wings Fit You Well

I imagine that everyone will have a say on the passing of Maya Angelou.  A quote from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a line from Phenomenal Woman or And Still I Rise or some other favorite poem.  That includes me, just my thread to add to the story quilt of memories about this amazing woman.

On my list of life regrets, will always be that I never took her class at Wake Forest. Even though I was in graduate school for my MBA, it seemed like a thing I should do – wander over to the lecture hall and sit in, and listen to this legendary writer who shaped American literature and gave a unique voice to the African-American story.  In my first year, by the time I found out that THE Maya Angelou was a professor on campus, she wasn’t teaching. Then in my second, well… you always think there will be time, right? As another option, I imagined just walking over to her house (Winston-Salem is only so big, how hard could it be to find) and having a glass of tea while listening to her rumbling voice tell stories and sing poems.

I was fortunate enough, however, to see her speak once or twice. Something she said in one of her talks makes me smile whenever I have to speak in public. She said, “when you get nervous, just sing.”  And then she sang this little song about there always being a rainbow in the cloud.  Well, if there’s anything worse for me than speaking in public, it’s singing. But this makes me laugh to myself whenever I stand in front of a crowd and I smile and relax, so I guess her suggestions works just the same.

I’ve shed a few tears today, for I feel like I lost a friend.  But whenever I get a little nervous, I hum a little melody-less tune and hear her voice, reminding me to sing.

Dr. Maya Angleou – we pray that your wings are gonna fit you well.  Rest in peace.

May 28, 2014



By |May 28th, 2014|Books, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing|Comments Off on Maya Angelou – May Your Wings Fit You Well

Looking for Family in the National Archives

I recently read an article in the Washington Post about the documents verifying sale and “shipment” of Solomon Northrup, the author of the memoir, and now Oscar winning film, 12 Years a Slave.

The excitement, and validation, of reading an ancestor’s name written in that old-style, curly, elegant handwriting, on a century’s old document reminded me of my experience as a part-time, amateur genealogists conducting my own family research. I literally almost screamed when I finally found my family listed in census records, and cried when I eventually located the actual marriage certificate of my great-grandparents, bearing their “X”s, in a courthouse in Virginia. Even my mother was impressed. I mention the idea of knowing your family’s history in my novel, Life in Spades, as one of the characters tours a family plantation.

Check local courthouses for personal records such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death records.

Check local courthouses for personal records such as marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death records.

In case you have been inspired to look up your family, here are a few lessons learned from my time spent in the National Archives and country courthouses.

The Census is a good place to start, to give you a general picture of where people were when and with whom. The records will tell you who is in the household – head of family, spouse, children, anyone else living there, family or not, and all their personal data – age and/or birthday, occupation, race, number of children, etc. This information is free in the National Archives and you get to use those microfiche skills you learned in school that you always wondered when you would ever use (yes, I’m telling my age there).

The 1900 Census provides plenty of personal date: names, relationships, race, age, place of birth, relationships, occupation, literacy, and home ownership.

The 1900 Census provides plenty of personal date: names, relationships, race, age, place of birth, relationships, occupation, literacy, and home ownership.

Select which side of your family you are going to work on – maternal or paternal, before you even start your research. Write out in chronological order as much information as you know – names, ages, cities lived in, spouses, children. Make notes of information you aren’t clear on – “maybe married” “about 25 years old.” On my first days sitting in the National Archives, I became very frustrated not being able to find anything about anybody, but finally realized I was looking in the wrong cities at the wrong times for the wrong people.

Look for spelling changes of surnames, especially with foreign names. Genealogy data is often coded by what the Last name sounds like, the “Soundex” code, because spelling changes and can be recorded “incorrectly” over time. For instance – the surname “Johnson” may be coded the same as “Jonson,” “Johanson,” and “Jonsen.”

Organize everything. I had a binder and folders, with a tab and sections for each family name. I kept a family tree, that I updated, in the front of the binder. Once you get through several generations and several branches, it can get confusing. Especially once you realize that folks in each generation were all named after the same ancestors. Our family has at least one James, Joseph, and William on every branch. If you are using a software system (and I advise that you do if you are doing this seriously) each person will be given a code to distinguish between granddad Samuel, Uncle Sam, and cousin Sammy.

Use blank census forms for note-taking.

Use blank census forms for note-taking.

Read several pages from your family’s census listing. Old census were taken by a person who went from house to house, so above and below your family will be their neighbors. It was common for families to stay near each other, or perhaps, you will find that your ancestor married their neighbor – now you have all of the “in-laws” information, too. As an added bonus, you may find the census taker’s notes on the records; I have one with “Mulberry Street” scribbled along the side.

Use several sources to verify information. Just because your family name is Blacksmith and you find a Blacksmith in the records, look for other proof that that is your family. Ages, occupations are pieces of information that can help.

Use historical data and maps to help you figure out your story. Searching for records in Richmond, Philadelphia? It would be helpful to know when there were major battles and what buildings and records were lost in fires. Male ancestors in their late teens or twenties during the 1910s, 1940s? You might look for military records, too. This one stumped me – why don’t the older relatives have Social Security numbers? I’ll let you do the research on that one.

Make some smart assumptions and follow that lead. I found a deed of sale for a parcel of land, purchased by a White man with the same name as several of my ancestors in the county my family is from, in 1880.  County records list the property as a plantation.  Is this the home and employer, or plantation and owner, of my father’s ancestors?

Land records provide useful information about location and ownership.

Land records provide useful information about location and ownership.

Fill in your statistical date with family stories from your living relatives. The records will show your family moved from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, but your relatives will tell you why. Your research may spark some memories, hopefully pleasant ones. And the stories will add life to your research.  Who knows, all your notes and research may become your next book.

Are you inspired or have you already started researching your family? Let me know in the Comments.

By |March 4th, 2014|Relationships, Research, Writing|Comments Off on Looking for Family in the National Archives

The Soundtrack for Life

What songs are in your life's soundtrack?

What songs are in your life’s soundtrack?.

“There’s a soundtrack for Life in Spades?” People have asked when I mention certain songs that relate to the characters.  Yes, there is music mentioned throughout the book as the women work through their challenges of love and family.  And yes, there is particular music I think of in my own head when I consider Gina, Laura, Sherry, and Cookie’s stories.

While I’m working on a writing project, whether my next book or blog post, I listen to the Life in Spades “soundtrack”, as well as other music I’ve pulled up on my iPod or Slacker.  Depending on whether I’m writing, editing, re-reading, or trying to get over a stumbling block, yes, the genre changes.  Although I can write to Bruno Mars, I have to edit with instrumental in the background.

Music plays such a key piece in our lives, so it’s not surprising really that it would play a part in our creativity and productivity.  Every major life event has a song.  Birthdays, weddings, holidays.  Even births invoke certain songs – Isn’t She Lovely? – as do deaths – Precious Lord, Take My Hand.  Getting on the school bus, whistling on our way to work, going to bed after a long day.  And just as we celebrate life’s milestones with song, our memories are triggered by music, too.  What song did your mother hum to you as a kid?  Where were you when the Thriller video premiered? (And if you are not old enough to have that as a living, specific memory, well, just keep that to yourself.)  What was your first music concert?  What grade, who were your friends?

It was a source of entertainment to consider what music Gina, Laura, Sherry, and Cookie would be listening to as they got together for a game of spades, went out for happy hour, and swept across the dance floor.  It also gave my brain another creative puzzle to figure out.

Sam Cooke crooning “You’re nobody unless somebody loves you,” spoke to Laura’s feelings as she struggles with her feelings about being a professional escort and what that meant for her personal life.  Later, Porgy & Bess illustrated the universal choice of choosing the man who loves you versus the one who can provide things that you think you want.  Cookie’s heart recognizes that love may be lost, but there are second chances and that’s okay, as David sings to her from the music festival stage.  As Sherry gulps a drink, sure that all she wants is to dance with somebody, we wonder, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”  And what is playing on Gina’s iPod as she runs behind Alex. Is life really, so simply “Black & White”?

Music in our own lives is fun, it’s memories, it’s a time marker.  In Life In Spades, it serves as mood and texture for who the women are.  As the author, it kept me humming along as they bopped and shimmied along onto the page.  I hope my readers feel like tapping their feet along to their story, too.


Share in the Comments – What songs mark important moments in your life?

By |January 31st, 2014|Spades, Spades Characters, Writing|Comments Off on The Soundtrack for Life

When Your Muse Takes a Break

You’re going along, tapping away on your keyboard or scribbling in your notebook, the story, the words, the ideas are coming to you at a good, creative pace.  And then all the sudden – your characters sit languidly on the couch, they drive down the street just staring out the window, or they take a nap. Now what?

When it seems that my beautiful writing muse has taken a lunch break, I need something to call her back, or at least a substitute until she returns.  I’ve found a few useful techniques to get the story going again.

Read what you’ve already written.  Maybe you are in a “no edit” mode, but this doesn’t violate that rule.  Reading over what you already have might show a hole in your plot or raise your own question of “why’d they do that?” or “how did they get there?”  Filling in the answers will get your brain cells firing for a while and then may push you to the next point in your writing.

Read something else – a book, the newspaper, the comics.  I have no scientific evidence of such, but I believe reading other materials gets your brain cells working, too, and often an idea, possibly not related at all to what you just read, will fly your way from left field.  But sometimes it is related.  Perhaps reading about the Ravens game on Sunday, you will decide to send your character out to throw a football with his son. Or his girlfriend. Or kick the relationship to the curb.  Or grab a crabcake for lunch on his way to Edgar Alan Poe’s house.

Consider writing prompts.  Elementary school teachers use them, so they must be good.  Prompts are generic suggestions of situations for your character or plot to spur your creativity.  There’s books, there’s online sites full of them. I’ve posted some on my Pinterest page.  For each story, for each writer, the prompt will veer the story into its own path.  For instance, a prompt may say “a stranger offers your character something to eat or drink.” In one story, the character may be a young girl who shrinks and wanders down a rabbit hole; in another, a man may be meeting the love of his life at a bar; yet another, the main character may awaken days later to find a tiger in his bathroom.  Or perhaps, your character will be the stranger.

Refer to writing prompts to get your creativity going again.

Refer to writing prompts to get your creativity going again.

Describe your surroundings.  Whether in a coffee shop or sitting in your office, describe what you see.  What kind of chair are you sitting on? Who else is in the room or area with you? What do you smell, hear?  Describe someone who has just walked by.  Where are they going, what are they leaving?  You’d be surprised what characters might walk into your next story.  Indeed, this is how I found “Michael” in my novel, Life in Spades.  He walked in and sat next to me in a train station.

Take a break, too. When the muse is gone, don’t futilely beat your head against the keyboard.  Hit “save” and walk away.  Check Twitter, see what your friends are doing on Facebook, go for a walk, call your mother, fix yourself a drink. Do something totally not related to the story. I’ve been happily surprised when the “perfect” line or turn of plot comes to me while swimming laps or wandering through the grocery store picking up dinner.  Sometimes your muse wants to sneak up on you and it can’t do that when you’re sitting there looking for her.

Will everything you right using these techniques be part of your next great novel? Not necessarily. But neither is whatever you were going to right while trying to break through your writer’s block. Perhaps, though, it will intrigue your muse enough to wander back and peek over your shoulder.  And if all that doesn’t work? Eat chocolate.


Share any other techniques to get your ideas going in the Comments below.

By |November 18th, 2013|Uncategorized, Writing|Comments Off on When Your Muse Takes a Break

Plan a Writing Day

When my writing group meets, we usually have sent each other our selected drafts before hand, had time to read them over, and scribble or type comments.  Face to face, we discuss our comments, ask questions, maybe even brainstorm a few ideas for someone who is stuck.  Recently, we decided to switch things up. We would write, enjoy breakfast, and talk about our writing. All of us have attended a writing retreat at some point, whether a day long or a weekend, and we planned to harness this collective writing energy to file a few more pages in our novels-to-be.  I’ve done this in the past with my scrapbooking friends, too. It’s all the creativity bouncing in the air, it spurs you to want to grab it and make something beautiful, too.


Coffee, laptop and a lot of ideas. All ready for a productive writing day.

Select a place conducive to your work.  Places like Starbucks and Panera are generally welcoming of folks hanging out for a few hours, but be mindful that they are in business to make a buck, not be your secondary office. Don’t take up more than a reasonable amount of space, do buy some coffee and food as “rent” for your space, and do be kind to the staff.  And if they give you the side-eye or keep coming by to clear up your table, that might be the gentle hint that your time is up.  We found a nice small coffee house that served breakfast and a light lunch and kept an eye out for a morning or mid-afternoon crowd. Of course, if your budget and calendar allow, you can plan for a weekend or a few days away from your regular life.  Be sure to invite me if you go this route.

Come prepared to write.  You don’t want to start off your day drumming the table trying to think of something to write. Jot down a few ideas before you come, think about where you want to jump in on an piece that’s already in progress.

Pack your supplies for writing. Are you a paper and pen kind of person or do you need your laptop? Don’t forget your cord or charger.  You may also want to bring headphones if you are one of those people who are easily distracted by conversation at the next table.  What else do you normally have? Do you need chocolate to keep you going, a special stress ball to help you think? Don’t forget your must-have writing accessories.

Prepare for writer’s block with prompts.  What happens when you get stuck?  What are your characters going to do next, where are they going to go, what’s going on? Don’t waste your time staring into the ceiling. Before our writing day, I wrote out a few writing prompts on index cards, ready for anyone to grab one if they needed a little push.  Perhaps you will stick with the idea, perhaps it will get your brains cells to think of something else, totally not even related. It’s all good. A few of the prompts to stick in your writing notebook:

  • Your character is stuck in traffic.
  • Someone offers your character something to eat or drink.
  • Describe one of your character’s flaws.
  • It starts raining.
  • Your character sees someone they think they recognize.

Watch your time. It’s easy to get carried away in the social aspect of the day. Set an agenda, allowing enough time to write (maybe 2 hour blocks), talk about your writing, enjoy a snack or meal, according to your goals for the day.

Have fun! This is what you want to do, right? Enjoy it.

Need more writing prompts? Check my Pinterest page – When Your Muse Takes a Break – for more ideas.

By |October 28th, 2013|Writing, Writing group|Comments Off on Plan a Writing Day

Start with One Word, Then Add Another 49,999

Back a few Novembers ago, I came across this crazy idea of writing 50,000 words in one month. Not just any 50,000 words – but in coherent (mostly), related (kinda) sentences that told a story.  With countless cups of coffee, endless bowls of M&Ms, and less sleep than is probably healthy, I managed to finish a skeleton of a 100 page idea.

How did I come up with that magic number of 50,000, other than it just sounds like a nice, round, impressive number?  And why in November, which is, for most people and especially a mother of 4, a crazy month of Thanksgiving planning, Christmas shopping, and lots and lots of baking? Because it’s NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month.  Started in 2009 and now run by the Office of Light and Letters, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to wanna-be-writers to get those characters and plots and scenes out of their brains and on to paper in a minimum of 50,000 words.  What you do after you hit that magic number or November 30, whichever comes first, is up to you. I chose to keep going. Another 250,000 words and I lost count after about 15 rounds of edits, and it all became my debut novel, Life in Spades.

Now, there’s Camp NaNoWriMo in July for those who don’t want to wait until November to begin your literary challenge. And of course, if you’ve missed Camp, too, you can always go it alone.  Either way, it’s going to take a little preparation to write 50,000 words.  Here’s a few things I learned along the way to get your started.

Set up Camp. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have a writing desk or office, or maybe you are taking up part-time residence on the kitchen table in between meals. Find a comfortable space and at least for that writing time, make it yours.  Set up our laptop, get your favorite coffee cup, put up a picture of you on your last vacation.

Figure out your Camp schedule.   How long is writing camp and when will you be there?  A month, a week?  Will you get up early and write before your normal day gets started? Stay up late? Write during your lunch break? Or perhaps you can you take 30 days off and disappear from your regular life.  Plan to write during that time every day. That’s not my idea – Steven King, Walter Mosley – I imagine most successful writers – would tell you you’ve got to write everyday. But those two, I know do say that for sure, both in their books on writing.

Plan your Camp agenda.  How many words are you going to write in your novel, how many years will you cover in a memoir, how many poems will you compose?  Break that goal down into manageable, not overwhelming chunks.  50,000 words in a month? 1667 words/day in November or 1613 words/day in July.   Do the math, make a sign, post it on your wall.

Tell your family, or room-mates, or whoever else lives with you. They need to understand why all of the sudden you cannot hang out watching reality TV and playing Wii Dance Revolution and why you are muttering about some group of imaginary people. You don’t have to tell anyone else if you don’t want to. It depends on how many people you want asking you, “are you done yet?”  Send them a text every now and then to let them know how you’re doing.

Pack provisions.  Snacks, your favorite beverage to keep you well-fed.  Bring a creative diversion for when you can’t think. I keep a ball winder (for yarn) and a crochet project handy for when I need to let my mind wander.

Carry a notepad and pen, or smartphone or iPad. Somewhere to write down ideas. Once you start writing on a consistent basis, you will start making connections to your story while going about your normal life. You will see a dress that one of your characters would look great in. You will realize that the street you want your character to speed down has been closed off and turned into a market square. A plot turn will become suddenly evident to you. You’ll want to write all this down, ready for when you get back to your writing desk.

Write, don’t edit. Just write. You will cut drastically into your time and word count by going back and editing – because the editing will never end.  If you have a compulsion to go back and re-read, then just edit the big stuff – the character was short not tall, Black not White, it was a rainy day, not a sunny day. Edit the stuff that really matters, then get back to the story. Leave the fine tuning until after you’ve hit our goal.

Take notes – briefly. I didn’t come upon this until several full revisions into my novel, when I finally couldn’t keep track of every little detail in my head. Use notecards and write the main point of each chapter and any important details.  Your character breaks a leg or loses her voice, it’s summer time or Tuesday. Refer to those cards as you go forward.  If you are not going back to make edits, make notes on those cards for when you are ready to go back.

Get started. And let me know how it’s going.  I’ll be writing right along with you.

By |July 1st, 2013|Writing|Comments Off on Start with One Word, Then Add Another 49,999

6 Tips for your Writing Group

For me, and I believe most other writers, writing is a solitary process. In fact, there were only a handful of people who even knew I was writing a book at all. In the very beginning, I shared the first few chapters with a couple friends and asked them what did they think of this as a premise for a book.  When they gave me the thumbs up, I worked to finish my manuscript, a very long and slow process of writing, re-writing, deleting, and re-writing some more. It was too much to ask friends to read in their spare time, but I definitely needed another set of eyes to look things over.  Why? Because what made sense in my head didn’t always translate that way on paper. Hence, I formed a writing group with like-minded and similarly goaled writers to critique each other’s work.

If you are in the same situation of writing – whether you’re working on a novel, a short story, a script, a poem, or anything in between – you may also find a writing group to be useful.  Here are my tips in forming, or joining, such a group.

Identify writers who are working in the same general genre.  For instance, the other members of my Wednesday group are all working on fiction novels, although the particular niche is slightly different. We have chic-lit/romance and fantasy, but they are all women-focused fiction. You can determine whether it matters if some are working on short story versus novel, but I think poems and novels would be a bad mix. Why? Because the writing style is different, the length of the work is different. You want to be working on similar projects.

Preview writing to make sure you like the other group members’ writing.  Call it judgmental, but you have to like the others’ writing or each meeting, you’re going to be upset that you’ve got to read something you don’t like and who has time for that? Further, be sure you like the story and genre of the others.  Erotica, sci fi, and historical fiction aren’t for everyone.  There could be a great writer in my group, but if she’s writing horror, every week I’d be walking around scared out of my wits.

Find group members you like as people.  You’re going to be meeting with these people on a regular basis for who knows how long. My Sunday group has been meeting for at least ten years; although members come in and out, there has been the same core of people since I met them. My Wednesday group has been meeting for over two years, every two weeks. You spend a lot of time with these people, baring your writing soul to them. Why spend that kind of time with people you don’t like?

Establish ground rules. Discuss when you will meet, how you will decide who will share their writing, how long a submission can be, how you will critique.  My Sunday group allows everyone to share a few pages that are presented at the meeting and read out loud.  My Wednesday group requires those who are submitting to do so a week ahead of the meeting day, a maximum of 20 pages; everyone reads and makes notes before the meeting, to be discussed in person.  Your decisions on the rules may be determined by the writing genre; for instance, the Sunday method is great for poetry, short story, and essays. The Wednesday method is a great option for novels, so you can read a chapter or two in whole.

Have specific tasks for members. Have someone responsible for various tasks so everything gets done. Like what?  Scheduling, whether reserving a room or confirming the host.  Time keeping, making sure everyone gets equal amount of time for discussion of their work.  Refreshments, determine who is bringing the coffee and the cupcakes or bringing the delivery menu.

Be respectful and be constructive. No matter what you are writing, writing is a very personal task. Beyond that, letting other people read your writing and then sitting back while they pick it apart is soul-bearing. Be respectful of each other’s work. In both of my groups, it’s common for someone to say something like “this doesn’t work for me,” “I don’t believe the character would do/say this,” “I don’t find this part is plausible.”  But something like “this is awful!” would be way off course, it’s hurtful and not helpful.  If you have an expertise in an area, offer it, whether it’s professional knowledge or from a hobby.  One of the members in my Wednesday group sails, so when another was writing about a storm, she could offer some useful advice on how a barometer works and how sailors adjust to winds and waves.

With all that, let me add this. What your group says is not gospel.  If they say “your main character running off to a desert island would be more interesting” and you want her to stay put in New York City – stick with it. Your group isn’t there to change or re-write your story, they’re there to help you strengthen the story you want to tell.

Enjoy your group and the group process.  Writing and re-writing can be painful enough, why add something to the mix that’s not enjoyable?

Are you in a writing group and have other tips? Are you considering forming a writing group and have other questions?  I would love to hear about your experience.

By |May 7th, 2013|Writing, Writing group|Comments Off on 6 Tips for your Writing Group