TT: Reader, Reviewer… Writer?

JANE: So, Alan, recently I was thinking you’ve been retired for a while now.  Soon after you retired, we Tangented about the big event, and your various goals.

As I recall, you were going to move, get a dog, and start writing a novel.  I know the move happened and the dog was acquired, but how’s the writing going?

Antique Bottle of Mystery!

Antique Bottle of Mystery!

ALAN: Well, I started writing a time-travel novel, but it died. The characters were cardboard thin and they tended to lecture each other instead of having proper conversations. So I started writing a historical novel, which is actually looking a little more promising, but I got stuck three chapters into it.

JANE: That’s interesting.  You’ve been writing a review column for many years, and you faithfully manage to produce an interesting and humorous column every month.  From collaborating with you these last several years, I know you’re good at meeting deadlines.

So, what’s different about writing fiction?

ALAN: The hardest part is getting inside someone else’s head. The humorous incidents in my review column are all about me, and I’m already inside my own head, of course. But when I try and get inside another person’s head I tend to find lots of empty space there. And that translates into blank screens and blank sheets of paper…

JANE: Have you found any ways to work around this?

ALAN: Yes – I’ve joined a writers group. I’m hoping it will teach me something about character development by forcing me to do homework outside my comfort zone. Practice makes perfect!

I’m very lazy and I can always find reasons not to write. But if I have a deadline to meet, I then have a very good reason to write, and so I do. I really seem to need the stimulus of a deadline to force my fingers to the keyboard.

Have you ever belonged to a writer’s group?

JANE: I haven’t.  I did take one writing class in college, which I found valuable in making me actually finish something.  Up to that point, I’d tended to write until I got stuck or distracted, and then quit and go on to something else.   For that, the class was incredibly valuable.

You said you joined a “writers group,” but then you talk about “homework.”  That makes it sound more like a class to me.  I’d like to hear more about these assignments.

ALAN: I suppose it is a class, in a way, though it’s a very informal one. We meet on the second and fourth Friday of the month, and we always have to produce a piece of writing for the meeting. Lyn, the convener, sets us a task to work on between meetings. She calls these exercises our homework for the fortnight.

We’ve only had three meetings so far. For our first task, we had to choose an object from a set of things Lyn had dug out of goodness knows what dusty attic and write something about our chosen thing.  I chose a bottle.

Our second homework was to choose a picture from a set provided by Lyn and write a character sketch to bring the person in the picture alive. And for our third homework, Lyn wants us to write a story using the character we set up last time. That’s what I’m working on now.

I find it hard to imagine a writer’s group that doesn’t work like that, so I’m a bit puzzled as to how you think such a group would organise itself?

JANE: Most writer’s groups I’m acquainted with – second hand, you must understand – don’t have assignments.  Instead, the members bring what they are already working on and have it critiqued by the group.

For this reason, it helps if the members of the group are at least familiar with the conventions of the genre in which the others are writing – even if they are not writing in that genre themselves.

ALAN: By “conventions,” I presume you mean things like faster than light travel in SF stories or locked room mysteries in detective novels?

JANE: Something like that.  I suspect the issues are more subtle than that.

However, one thing your group is doing right – at least based on what I’ve heard – is insisting that all members bring a new piece of writing with them, if not every meeting, then every other meeting.  Many groups have gone belly-up because only one person brings anything new to share.

ALAN: Lyn was quite insistent about this. At our first meeting she told us that she expected us always to do our homework. She even told us that if we couldn’t bring a piece of writing to the next meeting then we shouldn’t bother coming to the meeting. And of course, nobody could stand the shame of that!

JANE: Respecting the need for a production requirement is the main reason I don’t belong to a group.  I don’t want feedback until a piece is completed, because I myself don’t know where a story is going until it gets there, and I don’t care to have anyone try to tell me.

 If I only wrote short stories, I could probably write a short story a month to bring to the group, but if I’m working on a novel, I would be unwilling to contribute anything other than a finished draft.

ALAN: There are ten people in our group, and meetings last for two hours. So again, Lyn insists that our pieces must be no longer than 600 words or so, otherwise we’d never get through them all in the time. She also wants each piece to be as complete as possible (i.e. not part of a longer work). I find that working within those constraints really stretches my writing muscles. I’m sure the discipline is good for me.

JANE: Absolutely!  Writing is a lot harder than even those close to the business realize.  Many years ago, I was chatting with Ace/Roc senior editor Ginjer Buchanan, and she mentioned that it wasn’t until she wrote a novel herself that she realized how hard it was to do.

(The novel was a “Highlander” tie-in, called White Silence, in case you wonder.)

Like you, Ginjer had done a lot of non-fiction writing, and had been highly praised as a fan writer.  And, of course, she’d read and edited hundreds of novels.  Nonetheless, she found writing a novel of her own a tremendous challenge.

ALAN: And she’s quite right. Fiction and non-fiction work quite differently from each other.

But now, using the newly acquired discipline that Lyn has enforced on me, I notice that we’ve reached our word limit. However I think we still have things to say, so let’s carry on with this again next week.

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11 Responses to “TT: Reader, Reviewer… Writer?”

  1. Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

    Ever since I moved to my current location, I said, “I’m going to join a writer group to make me produce more writing.” So far, I’ve found 2.

    The first group I found is at the local library but it was already dying when I got there. The librarian had finished her novel and just published it (indie). Another member had finished his book and had run into life so he couldn’t write another. A third writes only poetry. And the folks who had joined in January after their New Year Resolutions had all faded away. No one except the poet was writing and only the librarian understood F&SF. I’ll be attending my last one of those sessions this week.

    The second group is huge, well-organized, runs a massive conference every year with agents and editors and authors giving panels, but it meets on a day I’m working at my day job, and charges $100 per year just to belong. Also, its method is to read the work aloud and then get critiqued, which I think is the worst way to do it.

    So … I’m on my own again.

  2. Paul Says:

    Our library’s writing group works well, but (like SF conventions) I find it does more to encourage me to write than to teach me how.

  3. chadmerkley Says:

    So, Alan–when did “convener” become a word? Why not “organizer” or “leader”? 🙂 It just sounds really odd to me….

    It seems that historically, a lot major authors, artists, composers, etc. have belonged to some kind of group or club of similar creators, or at least hung out with them in some way. I know I’m more productive and feel more creative when I hang out with other musicians, and when I have a goal or “assignment” (it’s time to send out audition tapes for summer performances already!).

    So good luck to Alan, Jas. and Paul with you efforts in finding and benefiting from writers’ groups. I hope some of you are willing to share something at some point. Alan, I want to know more about the bottle.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      For me, “convener” has always been a word. I’d never use “leader” in the context of something voluntary and informal. I might use “organiser”, but it sounds a little odd to my ears. I think it’s probably another one of those UK vs. US usage things that Jane and I stumble over every so often…

      If you want to know more about the bottle, take a look at http://tyke.net.nz/u3a The bottle story is the first one – “Condiments of the Season”.


      -Alan

      • chadmerkley Says:

        Okay, you made me laugh. I like your definition of condiment.

        Interestingly, a few minutes of Google tells us that your bottle was made by the Daw Sen company, founded in 1890 by a Jewish family living in Calcutta. The company appears to still be in business in India, making chutneys, pickles, curries, and “condiments”.

        I do not know if the condiments are kosher.

      • Jane Lindskold Says:

        Chad, did you literally Google the bottle? Jim picked it up decades ago somewhere in NM. It’s about three and a half inches high.

        Alan’s bottle was not available to model so we used a bottle-double.

        Sorry, very bad pun!

        (Actually, I’m not sorry at all!)

      • chadmerkley Says:

        Alan reproduced the text on his bottle in his story, and that’s what I googled.

        Jane, if you keep making puns about bottles, someone will tell you to put a cork in it.

      • Jas. Marshall 6 Says:

        I will NOT do the “bottle in front of me” joke, I will NOT do the “bottle in front of me” joke, I will NOT do the “bottle in front of me” joke.

        Too late.

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    WELL I LIKE TO MEMORIZE MY FAVORITE SCENES OF FICTION TO SORT OF HELP ME MAKE MY OWN SHORT STORIES. Like favorite fiction scenes I will use as a bunch of hints for combination of a long scene, but FRIENDSHIP, LOVE, PEACEFUL COOPERATION, OR HEAVEN HELPING EARTH would be my repeated story cores, I like to once in a while study foreign beliefs.

    THE WIZARD OF OZ, EAST OF THE SUN WEST OF THE MOON, WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, they’re good examples of what I’d consider peaceful. THE LAND OF ELYON SERIES I’d consider courageous, THE SWAN PRINCESS, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LAST UNICORN I’d consider entertaining, JULIE OF THE WOLVES I’d consider respectful, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME I’d consider faithful.

    PART OF YOUR WORLD sung by Ariel, REACH FOR THE LIGHTS the theme of BALTO, EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED in Charolettes WEB, CANDLE ON THE WATER sung Helen Reddy who plays Nora in PETES DRAGON, THE LAST UNICORN by KENNY LOGGINS, and several of PHIL COLLINS songs especially those of his in his CD called TESTIFY, these are a few of the friendly soft songs that relax me repeatedly whether heard from the CD or heard in my mind.

    I’m an imaginative Nature lover who feels like her ADVENTURE OF A LIFETIME should be YELLOWSTONE because support is what I want to give the wolves, hope is what I’d like to help other wolf lovers increase, and doubtless enjoyment is how this trip would go emotionally. This whole note is JASMINE OLSON speaking

  5. shopping blog Says:

    First of all I would like to say great blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind.
    I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear
    your thoughts before writing. I’ve had a difficult time clearing my
    thoughts in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however
    it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally
    lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?
    Thank you!

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Sometimes I play a hand or so of solitaire, just to provide a dividing line between whatever I’d been doing before and writing. I often read what I’d written the day before, if applicable. However, I try to avoid the trap of rewriting unless there’s something I really feel needs work.

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