Advanced Writing Groupage

Lev AC Rosen is the author of All Men of Genius, a steampunk novel inspired by both Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The novel follows Violet Adams as she disguises herself as her twin brother to gain entry to Victorian London’s most prestigious scientific academy, and once there, encounters blackmail, mystery, gender confusion, talking rabbits and killer automata.  Rosen received his MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.  He lives in Manhattan.


So you’ve read my love letter to my writing group and now you want to know more – how our group works, and how it’s lasted so long.  Well, here are some more advanced tips, for once you’ve found that special writing group, and you know you want to make it last.

  • Respect.  This sort of goes without saying, but if you don’t respect everyone in the group, then you’re not going to get much out of critique.  You’ll just be like “eh, what does that schlub know?” and ignore them.  Pro-tip: If you find yourself doing this with everyone who reads the book, your problem isn’t them.
  • The “I feel” rule.  Especially when first starting out, it can make a big difference to remember to express all critique – positive and negative – with “I feel” or something similar.  Make it clear you know it’s only your opinion, not some greater truth and the writer must obey you.
  • Positive and Negative – this goes with the above, but don’t forget to say nice things, too!  Encouraging people to continue is important.  I always find the more “this needs work” sections of critique more useful (obviously) but those positive ones lets me know what’s working and makes me feel good about what I’m doing and want to continue it.
  • A quiet, private space to meet.  We meet at someone’s apartment.  Lately it’s been mine, since I’m sort of centrally located, but when our friend had a small child we met at her place so she didn’t need to get a sitter.  Peoples houses are good – if you’re not comfortable, or don’t have the space, there’s also places like schools and churches which might rent a small space to a group.  I mentioned above once being in a group that met in a restaurant.  I cannot tell you how awful this way.  People talking, you’re trying to eat and critique at the same time, sauces on pages, taking notes while your food gets cold.  It’s chaos and it doesn’t foster easy flow of conversation the way you’d think a restaurant would.  Eating with writing group is great, but do it after the critiquing period.  Like your mother said, it’s rude to talk with your mouth full.  The key is to have a quiet, intimate space where you can really hear each other.
  • The Grain of Salt.  This is what I call the knowledge that when you give someone critique, they might not agree or take your advice on everything, or some days, anything.  Everything you say is taken with a grain of salt; you come from a place on that day at that time and the author comes from a place and maybe those places don’t meet.  It’s still important that they hear what you have to say, but don’t get offended if they nod and say “well, I don’t want to make the protagonist more sympathetic, I sort of like that you’re angry at her.”  It’s their story, after all.  In grad school, we’re taught not to write for the other person, that is, to give advice, or response “I didn’t feel I understood why she killed him” vs giving specific suggestions “if he said he was planning to blow up the city a page earlier, then I’d get why she killed him.  Also, she should kill him with a bomb, not a gun, because it’ll have more resonance.”  This is important in grad school.  In writing group, we ignore it.  But when we do go into the world of making specific suggestions, it is either at the writers request (“I want the reader to get why she’s killing him here, and clearly you guys aren’t.  How do I fix that?”) or with a caveat (“Okay, so I’m totally writing your book for you here, but what if she killed him with a bomb?”).  This is risky business, and I don’t recommend it til everyone feels really comfortable.  But then it can be the most useful sort of brainstorming ever.
  • This isn’t a competition.  If you’re concerned with doing better than the people in the group, if you’re comparing yourself to them, or you find them comparing themselves to you, then stop.  You should all be trying to help each other.
  • The Letter.  I recently discovered not all writing groups did this and I was shocked.  Obviously, when you read the pages you’re critiquing, you should be red-penning it, if you have a red pen.  But more important than that is the letter!  It can be written on the back of the pages, it can be bullet-point, but write to the writer saying what you liked and didn’t like in the piece.  That way they have a file to consult.  They should be taking notes, of course, but those letters help them remember who said what and why.  So write a letter.

In case you’re wondering about the logistics of my group in particular, we meet every other week, we critique one person a week, and we usually don’t hand out more than 100 pages.  So everyone has 2 weeks to read.  Sometimes, one of us will have a finished draft of a novel and they’ll want to hand the whole thing out (so it can be read in one fell swoop).  When we do this, the writer asks the rest of the group how long they’ll need – usually 4 weeks – and hands it out 4 weeks ahead.  We still do group and critique others in the meanwhile, but the pages have been handed out early.  Also, if you can, I highly recommend printing out large works and binding them for group.  They will appreciate it, and so will you when you go back over their notes.

So that’s our formula.  You have to find your own, of course.  But again I say find yourself a writing group.  They will make you a better writer.  Possibly a better person.  And if you’re lucky, they’ll also become a little family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Shared World and Traditional Novels

 Jeff Grubb is a game designer and writer living in Seattle.  He’s worked in a wide variety of shared universes, including Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Guild Wars, Marvel, and now the Star Wars Expanded Universe.  His Star Wars novel Scourge came out in late April of 2012.


There are two glasses of clear liquid on the counter over there. One is tonic water. The other is gin. But until you cross the room and taste them (and hopefully smell them first, if you are wise), they are apparently identical.

Similarly, there are two novels on the shelf. One is a self-contained story, unique to itself. A traditional novel. The other is part of a shared-world universe. But until you investigate, they are identical. Schrödinger’s books, if you prefer.

This is not to say that one type is superior to the other (that water from the previous example may be pristine or crawling with nasty microbes, and that gin may be gentle or toxic), but merely that that there are two different processes that lead to the same point – just as there are marsupials that evolved into niches held by placental mammals in places that are not Australia and thereby show similar traits. Two different thought processes bring these similar-appearing volumes, containing words and thoughts, bound along the long edge with pages that turn. Yet each tend to have marked differences in origin.

[And as I continue this, I’m going to use the words “tends to” when I mean to say “often is the case, though I don’t doubt that you can come up with an exception”. So let the exceptions test this general rule].

The traditional novel (and by that I mean the one you normally think about as being that type of book, be it Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, or the Hobbit) tends to come out of the writer’s mind like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus. Such a novel tends to be a completed work before it sees the interior of a publisher’s office, or even feels the gentle caress of an editor. It may represent a lot of work on the part of the writer without recompense for his time. It may be rejected numerous times, or be written without a clear idea of who will publish it (an editorial friend once noted “It is called the SUBMISSION process for a reason”). The traditional novel may see transformations in the journey to print, but it tends belong to its own universe – Dickens set many novels in England, but each one belongs to its own version of England. The origin of most of that universe is hatched from, or at least strained through, the writer’s mind.

[And I can think of specific examples that cross each one of those above points, but none that invalidate all of them. For example, sequels abound among traditional novels – Huckleberry Finn and Lord of the Rings comes to mind, but they still from that same origin point of the author’s private universe.].

The shared world or licensed novel has a different heritage. It has a universe already in place when the writer of the book approaches it. Indeed, the WRITER tends to be approached for a book about a certain concept in that world, as opposed to author generating that concept. The shared world novel tends to have a predetermined delivery date, and may often have a cover already in the works while the writer is in the process of writing. And the shared world novel has something that seems much rarer in traditional novels – at least traditional novels by previously unpublished writers – money up front. The writer is doing a recognized job, at a particular word count and deadline, and is being recompensed (through an advance on eventual) for that work. It is a little more secure in that way.

But the big difference is that idea of origin. A traditional novel has but one parent powering its genesis (though it may have a host of well-meaning aunts and uncles trying to transform it from duckling to swan). A shared world novel has a number of other authors, all contributing at the same time, and the genus of control shifts from behind the writer’s eyes out into a cloud of individuals, bibles, previous continuity, and the well-meaning aunts and uncles.

The shared world novel has numerous advantages. You get the power of a brand behind it. In raw marketing terms, if you are writing a Werewolf Musketeer novel, you get to stand on the shoulders of the previous Werewolf Musketeer writers. Their success feeds into your success. You didn’t write the previous ten novels, but your initial sales (and popularity) would be higher than if you were launching an original novel by a talented newcomer (or even an established professional). The brand holds strength.

A shared world also has someone else doing the heavy lifting at worldbuilding. Major characters, locations, and items may already exist. Someone else may have established the core ethos and ethics of the universe. You get a big toy box to root around in, as opposed to being given a block of wood and asked to carve away everything that doesn’t look like a race car.

The big disadvantage for shared worlds comes from the name – you have to SHARE them. There are other creatives. There are other worldbuilders. In many cases, there are fans who knowledge of long-running series will outstrip both your knowledge and that of everyone you will ask while writing the book (“I cannot believe that the author had the Werewolf Musketeer reach for the wine glass with his right hand. Everyone who read the 14th novel in the series knows that such a gauche action is cause for immediate banishment”). Your creative universe is a little more tightly constrained.

Finally, shared worlds are treated as ugly stepchildren, looked down upon even in genres that regularly rebel against being looked down upon themselves. Lacking both the journey of the traditional novel and benefiting from established (and often monitored) setting, they feel a little bit like cheating, and their success comes from marketing tricks as opposed to real suffering on the creatives’ parts (though there is suffering there).

The thing you haven’t seen me argue here is a difference in quality between the two. There are great novels in the traditional format and horrible ones. You can find excellent writing in a book from a shared world and execrable manglings of the English language in books of the same series. To say that one type has the inside track on the other is problematic at best, though for literary crimes a traditional novelist may disappear, taking his world with him, while in a shared universe, that particular volume gets excised and the rest of novels proceed.

And all of this is “inside-the-beltway” – worrying more about the process than the result. It is entertaining, no doubt, but in the end it is the quality of the writing, the characters, the plot, and ideas within a novel which gives it its shine, not the provenance of its origin. In the end, you, the reader, are looking at two similar glasses of clear liquid from across the room.

So what is it going to be. Gin? Tonic? Or a perhaps mixture of both?

Kill the Goddamn Vulture

The Central Clancy Writer for Ubisoft/Red Storm, Richard Dansky  was named one of the Top Twenty Game Writers by Gamasutra in 2009. His game credits include Splinter Cell: Conviction, Outland, and Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. He is also the author of five novels, including Booksense pick Firefly Rain, and his short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as The New Hero, Don’t Read This Book, and Dark Faith.


 

Once upon a time, they showed Bugs Bunny cartoons that featured a character named Killer. Killer was a vulture of an excessively bashful and self-effacing strain. He wasn’t particularly interested in doing vulture-ish things, he sang “Bringing Home A Baby Bumblebee” when he flapped gracelessly along, and his reaction to his mother’s suggestion that he get off his feathery ass and bring home some food was always an embarrassed “Doh, nope, nope, nope, not gonna do it.”

Killer, as you might expect, is not a terrifically successful hunter. He is not what you’d call a great role model when it comes to career aspiration. And yet, he’s the guy so many burgeoning creatives reference when they get a compliment, or an opportunity. Instead of taking the compliment, they hang their heads. They blush. They stare at their shoes and mumble about how they’re really not all that good, and then they change the subject. It’s painful to watch, especially if you’re the one saying “nice work” or “do you have a story” or “you are a recognized professional, you know.”

And yet, too many smart, talented people turn into Killer the Vulture when faced with the slightest possibility of success. It doesn’t matter how good their work is, how original it might be, how salable it might be in the marketplace. Confronted with the chance to take the next step, they devolve into paroxysms of “Nope, nope, gawrsh, nope, ain’t gonna do it.” Hell, half the time Killer comes out, it’s not even in relation to a particular project or story or whatever, it’s at the mere thought that someone might be taking the next step in their career, that they might be recognized or noteworthy or, God forbid, a reputable pro.

And this, my friends, is moosepuckey. It’s a cutthroat method of self-sabotage disguised as humility. Because as long as you tell yourself that nope, that ain’t you, that can’t possibly be you, then you don’t have to try to be that person or achieve that success – and you don’t have to risk not achieving it. It’s far better, sayeth that little vulture-ish devil on your shoulder, to stay in the minor leagues. To be a big fish in a brandy glass. To listen to everyone tell you how good you are and how you should be playing to a wider audience, without ever having to run the risk of finding out that maybe the bigger audience isn’t all that interested.

Don’t argue with me here. I know it’s not a particularly charitable interpretation, but we’re past charity here and we’re on to paying work. And if I know one thing, it’s that you’re not going to get paying work, or succeed at it, if every time someone offers you an opportunity you aww-shucks it into the gutter.

So, you have to kill the vulture. Every time he rears his head, you need to wrap your hands around his metaphorical neck and squeeze, because if you don’t, he’s going to do the talking for you. He’s going to say that you’re not worthy, and you couldn’t possibly, and gosh, you have so many other (inevitably less productive/profitable/interesting) projects that suddenly became high priority to do, so you can’t. Don’t let him talk, because once he starts, he never shuts up. Clamp that beak closed, wrap duct tape around it, and throw poor old Killer in the trunk of your car.

Now, figuratively speaking that sounds easy. Nonexistent vultures don’t put up much of a fight, at least not the sort that results in broken furniture. Breaking a lifetime habit of putting yourself down before someone else can, that’s a little tougher, but for your own sake, you’ve got to do it. You need to teach yourself to think of yourself in a new way, as someone professionally and creatively worthwhile. And the best way to do that is to look at yourself like you’re someone else.

Seriously. Separate yourself from your resume, or, better yet, have someone else do it. Then run down your accomplishments, your publications, your awards. List them out. Watch them add up. Odds are, by the time the recitation is done, it’s going to be a pretty formidable list sitting there.

Then take a look at that list. Squint a little. Regard it objectively. Do not, for the love of all that is holy, start nitpicking those accomplishments or finding all the myriad ways you can diminish them. The fact remains, regardless of any caveats you can throw on there, You Accomplished Them. Then ask yourself, “If this track record belonged to someone named Elmore Q. Gherkin, would I be impressed?”

The answer should be “yes”. If people are willing to say nice things about you (and mean them) or offer projects or opportunities, it is because they are impressed with your track record and/or talent. That’s because there’s something there to be impressed by, which, if you are following my instructions, you just agreed objectively is impressive.

Which leaves the hard part: taking that “yes” and applying it to yourself. Realizing that you don’t need the goddamn vulture to protect you from success. Owning your achievements and accepting the recognition that comes with them.

It’s not easy. It’s always tempting to denigrate the stuff that you’ve done, to haul out “Oh, I knew the editor” or “I was a last-minute replacement so they couldn’t be choosy” or whatever. But that’s a sucker game. Once you start picking at one of your achievements, you won’t stop until you’ve torn up every last one, and then you’re right back where you started.

So embrace what you’ve done. Kill the vulture. Because if you don’t, you’re exactly what a vulture likes: dead meat.

Promote Yourself Like a Rockstar

Tammy Brackett is the owner of Moonstruck Promotions, a solo publicist, consultant and writer,  booking agent and former tour manager and performer. Over the past 16 years, she’s crafted a business from the music industry. Tammy is the author Another Nightmare Gig from Hell, Fifty Ways to Tour Without Getting in the Van, Fifty Rules of Rock, Backstage Pass: Organize Your Band, and Backstage Pass: Book Your Band. She’s an expert in practical music matters and writes blog for musicians at http://alunatunes.wordpress.com.  She can be reached at tammy@moonstruckpromotions.com.


The art of marketing, whether your product is a piece of music or a new novel, is essential to increased sales and visibility. Without proper publicity and promotion, your work of art stands a chance of remaining in packing boxes or on store displays growing sad and dusty and terribly alone.

A good publicity plan doesn’t have to include the expense of a professional publicist.  Consider how the music world promotes and publicizes events, adapt their marketing model, add a dash of your own creativity and you’ll be promoting yourself like a rockstar in no time!

A bare-bones publicity plan should include the following:

  • A brief press release. Be sure to include contact name and information. A great press release is short, informative and appropriate for publication. Many publications no longer staff dedicated reviewers. Keep in mind, your press release may be printed verbatim. Keep it short and simple and interesting. Follow up your email press release with a phone call to ask about setting up a review or interview. Be sure to have sample books on hand to send to interested writers and reporters.
  • Flyers, posters, quarter page handbills still remain a staple in getting the word out for bands and musicians. A simple informational poster or flyer works wonders and is inexpensive and easily distributable. A small table tent announcing your new book can be easily placed in coffee shops, restaurants, museums, art galleries and other non-traditional outlets.
  • Explore radio possibilities. Many NPR affiliates have book-related programming. Take time to explore sites and find contacts. Radio is still a viable medium in many markets.
  • Don’t forget wonderful social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The trick here is to not slam followers and friends with constant information about your new work. Post quotes from your book, interesting tidbits but eschew the desire to continually try to get people to purchase. The Facebook and Twitter communities are invaluable marketing.
  • Collect quotes and reviews and create a one sheet to slip into your new book as it’s mailed out. For you to talk about your book is one thing, but for other people to be talking about it is quite another. Collect your quotes and reviews and make them work for you.

Innovative marketing ideas can also include cross-promotional opportunities. Consider sales outlets outside terrestrial or online bookstores. Many art galleries, museums, natural history sites, and local attractions have gift shops. Put pen to paper and really explore the angles of your new work. An exercise book may have a market outside the fitness community. Maybe it could be marketed to belly dancers or boomers. A new cook book may be attractive to the powerful market of stay at home moms. Learn to explore and develop new markets and new customers outside a target audience.

With a bit of thought, a creative publicity plan is easy to conceive and implement. Have fun finding new customers and fans. Give yourself a round of applause for a job well done. Heck, you deserve a standing ovation!