Joining a Writing Group


groupLast month in my Top Five Things This Writer Is Thankful For post, I mentioned two writers’ groups: the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime. When I first began thinking seriously about this writing thing, I did some research. Ok, I did a LOT of research.

Much of the advice centered around finding others like you in various stages of the process: beginners with only a story running through their heads; people who had novels written but not yet published; those from both sides of the traditional publishing/self-publishing aisle–both brand new and seasoned professionals.

Great, I thought. I live in the middle of nowhere. How was I going to find these people? Twitter has a beyond-fabulous writing community that stretches all dimensions of personality and experience, but I wanted to find people I could connect with in real life too. I learned about the genre-specific groups, most of which have a national–even international–presence. However, that presence does not reach its tendrils to the middle of nowhere. The closest I was going to get was Chicago. Enter Mystery Writers of America-Midwest (MWA) and Sisters i(and Misters!) n Crime-Chicagoland (SinC). I signed up, considering the membership charges an investment in my goals.

A year ago, I was hesitant to attend any of their events. I didn’t even have a completed manuscript. I didn’t know Imposter’s Syndrome was a thing, but I was certainly in the throes of it. (An excellent guest post by Kassandra Lamb on Jami Gold’s blog can help you self-diagnose. *smile*) I finally attended the Chicago Writing Workshop. Several people–including a published author and a small press publisher–encouraged me to join MWA and SinC, explaining that they were helpful for people at any stage of the game.

They were so right.

I’ve since attended four events (two events for each group). All were free, I might add, provided you’re a member, but I can’t even put a price on the value. I’ve found a group of people who are at the same stage, and we stay connected via email. I’ve found two beta readers. I’ve learned about others’ struggles and successes, small presses, the worth of an agent, and the changing landscape of publishing. I’ve networked with published authors and publishers themselves. And I’ve found an incredibly supportive group of people–no matter their “station” in the writing world–who are encouraging and willing to help others along their journeys.

If you are suffering from Imposter’s Syndrome and are doubting your worth, your credibility, your ability, I hope that you seek out some writing groups, whether it’s a general group or genre-specific, whether it’s home-grown that meets at your local library or internationally-known. Don’t be afraid to step out of that comfort zone so many of us writers dwell in! You will likely be pleasantly surprised.

Top Five Things This Writer Is Thankful For

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‘Tis the season for giving thanks, and here are my top five things (in no particular order) that I’m thankful for this November–related to writing, of course!

Bloggers and twitter followers

Without the continued chatter among bloggers and tweeters, where would we writers be? Writing can be so isolating, and for those of us who live out in the middle of nowhere, that isolation is amplified. I love connecting with others this way when in-person meetings aren’t possible.

Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America

I spent last weekend in Chicago to attend functions put on by Sisters in Crime (the Chicagoland chapter) and Mystery Writers of America (the Midwest chapter). It was my first experience in-person with both groups, and the camaraderie was something to behold. Members are at various stages in the writing journey, from just starting out to published authors many times over. The best part? The genuine friendliness and willingness to help each other out. I walked away from both events feeling encouraged and revived.

NaNoWriMo regional group

I’ve long complained about the lack of formal writing groups in my area–I’m three hours from Chicago–but I joined up with our regional NaNoWriMo group, and wow. Just wow. They are some really cool people whose goals are as varied as are our genres. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and it’s so nice to be in the company of like-minded people who help me remember to keep writing!

NaNoWriMo student group

This year, I started an after-school NaNoWriMo group for students at the high school where I teach. We had a Harry Potter-themed kick-off party and regular write-ins, and though it’s caused me to miss a lot of my “grown-up” regional write-ins, it’s a good trade-off. Seeing my students confer with one another about what the next best plot point is and sharing their work with their peers (and even me!) makes me smile. My favorite moment thus far was when it was pitch black save for the battery-operated candles hanging from the ceiling a la Hogwarts, and all you could hear was the clicking of keys. Every single one of us was engrossed in our own writing, yet we were doing it all together. Magical.

Early readers

Our school’s librarian was an English teacher in the early days of her career. She has become a good friend to me, personally and professionally. When I gathered the courage to tell her I was thinking of writing, she showered me with encouragement. She was an early reader for everything I wrote, and when The Devil Inside Me became more than a notion, she beta-read, discovering plot points and typos, offering suggestions and honest criticism. Without her enthusiasm, I doubt I would have ever finished the novel, let alone submitted it to agents and publishers.

What are you thankful for?

 

How to “Win” NaNoWriMo

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Last month, I explained National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and now it’s here! As I write this, I have written 11,000 words into my second novel, The Devil Before Me since November 1.

Crazy?

Yes.

And that’s why I do it.

I’m a procrastinator extraordinaire, and I often feel like I have to get everything done on my to-do list before I can sit down to write. (Otherwise, my mind will be distracted by the other things I have to do.) Now, I am not a competitive person by nature. I didn’t like team sports when I was a kid: I preferred ballet and piano lessons. But when it comes to writing and brain sports, well, that’s a different story.

The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo–writing 50,000 words in November–is strong for me. That’s my idea of competition. However, the last time I attempted it, I petered out about six days in. I just could not find a way to write that many words every. single. day.

I learned a few lessons that I applied to this attempt, and so far so good. Here they are:

1. For this month, prioritize your writing.

  • The laundry goes for a couple extra days.
  • The hubby is put on dishwashing duty.
  • I make crock pot meals.
  • I say “no” a lot when it comes to after-work things.

 

2. For the love of all that is holy in writing-land, have an outline.

  • But I’m a pantser, you say? No problem.
  • It doesn’t have to be a formal, rigid, locked-in outline your high school English teacher made you write.
  • Let it be fluid so that as your ideas come to you, you can follow them instead of an in-stone outline.
  • Just have your basic plot points. From there, jot down some of the scenes you’ll need. This has been my biggest help: knowing where I’m going next without having to think about it.

 

3. Join your regional NaNoWriMo group.

  • Mine has physical meet-ups to write as well as virtual ones.
  • Being with other people chasing the same dreams is AMAZING for your motivation and inspiration.
  • Seeing others struggle with the same writerly things you are helps you to know you are not alone.

 

4. It’s not going to perfect.

  • It’s a rough draft. Get your story out first. Then polish.
  • Resist the urge to edit too much. (I’m an English teacher. Trust me, I know how difficult that can be!) Your goal here is to get the story, your ideas, out of your head and into some semblance of a form.

 

5. Don’t be afraid to fail.

  • Life happens. Sick kids happen. Job changes happen. Just do what you can do. If you don’t write 50,000 words, you’ll at least have more words than if you didn’t try at all.
  • Failing can be the best teacher. My challenges with my last attempt drove me to do better this time by learning from my shortcomings. You can too!

Stir It Up

typewriter with paper flying out of itIs your writing routine working for you? My recent experiment is proof that changing things up can work to your benefit. I made it through 100% of my edits! (That may not seem like much, but I’m doing some extensive re-writes in the hopes that I won’t have so many drafts.) I just had to be willing to forego the must-write-every-day mantra–which was HARD to do. It still is. But I’m buoyed by the work I’ve been able to get done. If you’re stuck in a rut, I’d like to share two blog posts that talk about letting go of our routines to make way for motivation.

The first is guest blogger Amanda Linehan, who wrote “Writing Outside the Lines” on Lauren Sapala’s kick-butt blog. In it, she discusses how she was a ride-or-die outline user, until–well, until the outline wasn’t helping her. My favorite suggestion that she gave for those who are hesitant was to “try it out with some low-stakes project” like a short story.

The second is K.M. Weiland’s “Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write” over at Helping Writers Become Authors. With sage advice such as “don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle,” Weiland reminds us that “structures aren’t the destination, but rather the vehicle.”

In other words, stir it up, writer friends. If your method is not working for you, try another way. The writing police will not arrive, I swear.

Back on the Wagon

As most teachers will tell you, August tends to be our version of the new year. Everything starts fresh again: new students, new notebooks, new pens that I don’t need…The summer tends to be a recharging time for me, and while I really thought I’d knock out all of my edits for The Devil Inside Me, I did not. Not even close. But with the beginning of the “new” year, I have reset the clock and calendar, and the edits are calling. It’s interesting how, when you let your work sit for awhile, it often comes calling for you. In my case, it’s getting back into a regular schedule of things, which means regularly scheduled writing time. I’m changing up my schedule though: When actively writing, I try to write as close to daily as possible. However, I’ve discovered that this revision process requires more of my time in one sitting–so rather than block an hour out daily, I’m finding ways to chunk my time a few days a week, such as moving weekly chores onto one night so I have three straight hours to work the next. Knowing that I have a block of time, well, I can’t even tell you how much I looked forward to my dates with my manuscript this week!

Real Life Interferes

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It’s that time again: back-to-school. As a teacher, this middle part of August is a blur of putting a classroom back together, managing all of the new training modules the school/district/state dictates, and making deals with the copy machine that if it will just not jam for the next hundred copies, you’ll be finished. For the day.

Yes, I know. I get ten weeks off in the summer to do whatever I please. I’m (fortunately and gratefully) past the salary range where I no longer have to work a summer job or two to make ends meet. And trust me, I appreciate the time to recharge, relax, and tackle big projects. This year, one big project was gallbladder removal. Ugh.

But every August–and at other points throughout the year–real life rears its head and presents some challenges that simply prevent me from getting everything done that needs to be: sometimes it’s cleaning the house, sometimes it’s yard work, and sometimes, like now, it’s editing The Devil Inside Me.

What I’ve learned over the last two years of writing is that it’s ok. It’s ok if occasionally the project goes on the backburner. I used to feel horribly guilty if I wasn’t “touching” the novel in one way or another, but these breaks can also help reinvigorate the creative brain. So when life gets in the way, let’s cut ourselves some slack. What matters most is getting back at it!

Sign up for my mailing list HERE to receive a snippet of my current project: The Devil Inside Me. I’d love to hear your comments!

Writing Queries and Pitching Agents

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I finally finished the rough draft and one round of edits for The Devil Inside Me and have begun a never-ending second round of edits. This should be cause for celebration, but I’m holding off until I get the second round done. In the meantime, I’m beginning to prepare for what follows: querying agents. Eek!

I’m getting a jumpstart at this weekend’s Chicago Writing Workshop where I’ll be querying two agents for feedback. I have my query letter written that has been edited by a close friend/former English teacher/librarian as well as Chuck Sambuchino. I apologize to both of these wonderful human beings for being the first two people to have to look at it. Much more solid now, though I’m looking forward to hear what two other professionals will have to suggest.

Lauren Sapala and Jane Friedman seem to always know just what I need to hear at any given moment, and this week was no different. I know my query isn’t perfect, but my brain has moved on to being nervous about pitching it at the Chicago workshop. Jane’s recent post, entitled “The Power of Silence in a Pitch Situation,” addressed that in such a timely fashion that I’m beginning to get freaked out by her and Lauren’s psychic abilities. My favorite one-liner: “Get the other person talking and asking questions.” She then links to another article she wrote for Publisher’s Weekly regarding the power of silence in networking situations in general.

If you’re in query/pitching mode, I highly recommend reading that. Also, here are some of the resources I’ve found useful in writing my query. Have any resources or suggestions to share? Leave them in the comments!

Query Shark

Reedsy

Writer’s Digest

Andrea Somberg on Manuscript Wish List

Jane Friedman–includes other resources

Chicago Writing Workshop

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It’s not too late! There are still open spots for you to sign up and attend the Chicago Writing Workshop that’s happening on Saturday, June 23. If you’re looking for a conference that won’t break the bank (especially if you’re near Chi-town and don’t need a hotel), check this one out. Likewise, if the thought of spending two or more days with a bunch of strangers is terrifying, this is a one-day 9-5 workshop. You can do lunch all by yourself if you so desire.

Bonus: It’s held at the architecturally beautiful Congress Plaza hotel, which also happens to feature prominently (read: murder scene!) in my novel, The Devil Inside Me.

Registration is just $169. I thought that a fair price for what’s offered. Literary agents, editors, and authors deliver most of the workshop sessions. And for each of the five breakout blocks, there are three sessions to choose from. Some are applicable to everyone, such as “Pursuing a Small Press Publisher,” and some are geared to specific genres: “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal,” “How to Write and Pitch Awesome Science Fiction and Fantasy,” “How to Get Your Young Adult and Middle Grade Novels Published,” “Tell Me True: Tips on Writing Memoir and Essay.”

I’m particularly looking forward to the “Query Letter Comprehensive” session since that is the next step on my list after these edits that seemingly never end.

For reasonable add-on fees, you can also pitch agents and editors of all genres ($29 per). Several are sold out of time slots, but to give you an idea of the caliber we’re talking about, here’s just a few on the list: Emily Clark Victorson, Marcy Posner, Tracy Brennan, Abby Saul…

Sound like a decent deal? I thought so. I’ll let you know how it went afterward–and if you’re attending, I’d love to meet!

Take a Break!

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Last week I encouraged writers to submit their writing, but this week I’m going to tell you the opposite: sometimes you just need a break. When I first began learning about this industry, a recommendation was to write daily. Then I signed up for NaNoWriMo (insert link), and I struggled with burnout at that word count level. I do try to write daily, but sometimes life gets in the way. Writing is a priority to me, but not over my family, teaching job, and extracurricular responsibilities for the day job (I’m writing this on the way home from a student council conference, for example).

There is no crime in taking a break, and no need to feel guilty–as long as you get back on that horse. Sometimes a break can provide clarity for where you want to take a scene or a character. If you’re at the editing stage, take a break to ensure you have fresh eyes for that manuscript. Even writers who write for a living need to take a break occasionally, as Kristen Kieffer points out on her (massively helpful for writers) website, Well-Storied: I had fallen out of love with my writing  She then shares her “epic mission” to fall back in love with it–definitely worth a read for any writer! Kristen, who also hosts Your Write Dream on Facebook and #StorySocial on Twitter, wrote one of the best articles I read when I started on my journey, “10 Ways to Practice Self-Care as a Writer, that suggests taking breaks as needed.  Head on over to her Well-Storied website and check out her resources!

How Many Rejections Can You Take?

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Comparison is the thief of joy. I’m positive Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t talking about writers when he said that, but for those of us still in the aspiring-to-be-published category, it most definitely rings true.

When you’re the person still wondering if you can ever complete your first draft, or considering stabbing your eyes out during your first round of edits, or questioning if it’s your query letter or manuscript that is the cause of multiple rejections, seeing others’ success stories can make you doubt yourself. Why haven’t you gotten that far? Why aren’t you published? Scratch that–why is it taking so long to finish the first draft?

These doubts can quickly shift to negative thoughts. You know, the I’m-not-really-a-writer thoughts. The I’m-not-good-enough thoughts. The why-is-it-so-easy-for-everyone-else thoughts. It’s like a disease that spreads in your brain, doubt. But fear not! There is an antidote.

At the end of April, Caitlin LaRue started a #authorstats Twitter thread asking published authors to share their stats: how long it took to get an agent or deal, how many rounds of revisions, how many manuscripts, etc. The responses were eye-opening and ranged from a year to a lifetime. In other words, there is no timeline. The path is sometimes circuitous. No two journeys are the same. And for the love of all that is holy in Writing Land, don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle. Don’t let all that comparing take your joy.

What if you need a boost? Something to give you some confidence?

Submit something–just don’t forget that your timeline is your own.

When I first sat down and seriously decided I was going to write The Devil Inside Me, I learned as much as I could about the industry. One recommendation suggested writing and submitting short stories (or articles for you non-fiction writers) to build your publishing resume. My initial response was why? I didn’t want to be a short story writer; I wanted to be a novelist. And then, as I mentioned in “Just Submit the Story Already,” @HollyWrites13 and @AvrinKelly tweeted about #52weeks52stories, and I relented–mostly because I thought it would be fun to write a few exploring the backgrounds of my novel’s characters. I had no real plan to submit them–I wanted them to be exploratory and add some back story.

So I wrote a few, and, to my surprise, I genuinely loved one of them. “What have you got to lose?” became my mantra, and I submitted it. Repeatedly. And the rejections came, and they did indeed sting, but I remembered Stephen King. As a kid, long before he was published (in anything, not just his novels), he put all of his rejection letters on a nail in the wall. In his book On Writing, he said, “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” If repeated rejections were good enough for Stephen King, they’re good enough for me.

So, my #authorstats? In April, my short story “Downright Devilish” was published in Fourth & Sycamore’s online literary journal. I wrote it in a couple of days but revised it over a couple of weeks. I submitted it to nine different places via Submittable and received four rejections and four non-responses (typically equated with rejections in the publishing world).

I was so excited that someone liked it that I submitted another. My short story “Fiendish” will be published in a traditional print anthology (I can announce where later in May!). I wrote it in a couple of days and revised over a couple of weeks. I submitted that short story to twenty-three different places and contests via Submittable. This garnered ten rejections and four non-response/rejections. (The remainder are still in-process.)

I am far from what I would consider a published author. For me, that will be a published full-length novel with some respectable sales. And I haven’t won a Glimmer Train contest nor am I published in Strand. (Yet.) BUT, my writerly friends, I can not tell you how indescribable it is to see a YES! We love your work! email.

And now I get it. Those emails, those glorious people who read your work and say hey, I like what you’ve done here–they don’t just add to your publishing bio. They bolster your esteem. They’re a reminder that it’s not a race, that it’s ok to be on your own path. And that, writers, makes you want to write more. The more you write, the better you’ll get.