Monday, January 12, 2009

The Literary Maze

When we began this blog in 2006, our goal was to cover the subject of writers' groups and we feel we've done so rather thoroughly. Our posts on forming, maintaining, and making the best use of a group can be found in the archives and will remain there as a resource.

Yet the writer's life has its ups and downs, twists and turns; and for reasons many and varied, though all good, we've turned in a new direction. Each of the four of us, Lynne Griffin, Amy MacKinnon, Lisa Marnell, and Hannah Roveto will continue to pursue our unique literary lives, to see where their personal literary journeys take them.

Farewell and happy writing.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Holidays 2008

With the joys and blessings of the holidays upon us, The Writers Group blog is on hiatus until 2009. Thank you for taking time to stop by and share your thoughts with us in 2008. We wish you the following:

* make time to write, to think, to plot, even if you find yourself amid chaos;

* take a warm cozy moment or two to read;

* enjoy spending your gift certificate to your favorite bookstore, preferably independent, and cherish the books given to you with love from those who care for you.

Happy holidays, and cheers to a productive and personally rewarding 2009!

Amy, Lisa, Lynne and Hannah

Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting the Interview

Writers, as creative as we may be, are not able to imagine the true details of the many professions we envision for our characters. Wikipedia does not suffice. We need to get out there and find individuals who live and breathe, as our characters do, to interview. How to turn away from our solitary world where we have complete control, and get out there to do the job right?

Q) Do you have advice on the best way to get an interview with someone you want to speak with for research purposes? One of the characters in my book had a niche job that I know I don't know enough about, but I've located someone who would be perfect to speak with. How do I go about getting a busy person to speak with me for informational purposes?

Lynne Griffin
I do a lot of research before I ask for an interview. Being prepared is critical to conducting an informative one and in being seen as professional. By doing your homework, you'll have a better sense of who to approach and specifically what you're after. Don't waste your subject's time by asking the obvious things you have access to by reading books or searching online. Make the experience worthwhile for both of you by going deep. The interviews I've conducted for my work-in-progress gave me some of my best insights into my characters' motivations. I strongly urge you to round out your research by going to a primary source. And always send a thank you afterwards, and again via your acknowledgments once the book is published.

Amy MacKinnon
Call and ask. It's amazing how helpful people are -- and flattered that you're interested in their lives. As for questions, allow your natural curiousity free reign and make a point of going to their environment. It's crucial to the detials, to the setting, the character to be present.

Hannah Roveto
People are amazingly kind and always flattered when anyone wants to peek into their lives, nevermind someone who might turn knowledge into a story. I've interviewed complete strangers on things as arcane as bioluminescence (glowing plankton!). Take a deep breath, and be professional. Write the person a brief but thoughtful email or letter. Explain you are a writer and you have a character doing a similar job, and need to understand the whys and wherefores and hows. Estimate how much time the interview will take and tell them. An hour? At their convenience, of course! Go in prepared with questions based on the story, going beyond the job to things like the temperament of people who do that job, what motivates them to go into that field, terms that might have useful secret or double meanings. Explain your basic theme; what comes to mind professionally for them? Why did you make your character this way? You are genuinely interested in who these people are; enjoy the conversation and write a follow-up thank you. And credit them when the book comes out!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How To Thread a Novel

So much detail to put in just the right places. How does anyone ever write a novel? There are tricks, of course, passed along from writer to writer. Not to over simplify -- or over promise as per our header here, but here are our best suggestions in a nutshell.

Q: I've written my first draft and there are sizeable clumps of information that need to be threaded throughout. What's the best way to do this? I started an outline, but got sick of it. I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird about plot treatment--summarize chapter by chapter what happens. I'm thinking this might be the best way to go. I know the chronological thread of my MC's life, but I want to start when she's an adult, then go back and insert background on her past, her relationship with her mother, her job, her relationship with her boss, how she met certain friends, all while keeping the main story moving forward. Without it all becoming a huge mess. How have you done it? Hannah's Thread Obsessed and Millefeuille post were helpful, but maybe a little more nuts and bolts about how to work those threads? And Lynne's post on journals hit home. I had one character as an ex-Marine, then realized it didn't really fit his personality! Exactly what does a thread consist of--subplots or just the chronology of each character?

Lynne Griffin
Like Amy, my storytelling process is more organic than plotted or outlined. I don't choose jobs or homes or life circumstances for my characters, these come to me over time. And the time I spend thinking about my characters--listening to their story, wondering about their predicaments-- far exceeds the time I spend putting words on the page. That said, as you mentioned above, I keep a journal for each novel. Not only do I jot down plot points as they come to me, but I note what threads I'll need to go back and tighten in revision. Writing fiction, for me, is equal parts art and science. I strive to write for the story, then I go back to be sure I've been true to craft. As my dear friend Michael Lowenthal once said, "Let readers dismiss the work on taste, not talent."

Amy MacKinnon
Outlines? Plot treatments? Chapter summaries? It all sounds so technical. I'm afraid I can't help you with this one because my process is more organic and very simple. In terms of threads, I introduce them the way I'm introduced to other people's stories in real life: in bits and pieces. When I'm getting to know someone, they don't tell me everything of their past and present right away, and they almost always hedge the truth. Time teases out the story, trust, circumstances, a shared experience. It's a gradual process. And then, finally, there's the big revelation and you realize the clues were there all along. It's simply a matter of identifying each story in your novel, and ensuring each is told as fully, as richly as possible, and all sharing a common thread.

Hannah Roveto
I always do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, for my own work and when I read for others. Hallie Ephron teaches a High-Low Revision process; she explains it in her Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, which is perfect for any kind of novel. Whether or not you're an outliner, and I'm not, you do need to see your first draft from higher ground and follow each character through. The draft is very organic for me, messy even. Once it's complete, then comes the work to make sure it doesn't stay that way! I do synopses on a couple of sheets of lined paper, with 3-4 lines per chapter. Line one is the synopsis, with the date in the left margin and setting, then a quick description of key points. When I've got them all down I go back and make little notes -- one or two words -- thread by thread, character by character, on what info gets revealed to whom when ("R 2 K, dad issue"). Leaving yourself little space makes you focus. What really does happen here that is important to the reader/story? Best to do this with a cup of hot tea to one side, in the comfiest office chair you own. The few hours it takes are well spent!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The MFA Decision

There are lots of ways to immerse a learner in the craft of writing. And every writer should be prepared to be a lifelong learner. But which way is the right way for you?

I've pretty much ruled out going back for an MFA (I'm in my early 40s with school-age kids, and can't quite justify the cost right now, and I'm not looking to teach any time soon), but I keep wondering if that's the right decision. I wonder how the workshops and teaching in a decent low-residency program compare to the workshops and teaching I've gotten at writers' conferences and online. And of course I wonder if the credential helps open doors. I can't say for sure that my fiction is literary; I think it's halfway between literary and commercial. I'm wondering if any of you went through a similar decision struggle, or if not, why not.


Lynne Griffin
Like you, when I came to writing fiction my life circumstances made getting an MFA a challenging proposition. Full time business to run, full time wife, mother and homemaker. It wasn't going to happen. And I already had a masters degree in education. I never toyed with the low residency programs either, though I think they are a fantastic option and know some amazing writers who teach in them. I have taken numerous courses at Grub Street and have benefited from every single one. The means by which craft is learned and then honed is a personal decision. Having written two novels, I can say the learning is ongoing. Each experience teaches new things and reminds me I will never know it all. My advice is to examine the way you learn best and then to fill your writing life with as many different opportunities to learn as you can. And if you do choose to get an MFA, be forewarned. Even when you complete a program, you're learning won't be through.

Amy MacKinnon
I would love to get my MFA. It would please me to no end to devote many, many hours to reading excellent books, parsing it with like minded people, devote time to critiquing their work, having the same done to mine. Wait, I have that already...

So, do I think an MFA opens doors? Maybe Iowa and a few others. Do I believe it makes for a better writer? Maybe, maybe not. I believe the writing is more organic without it, but some people would absolutely benefit from honing their craft. Do I think there's the tendency while enrolled in a MFA program to write to a particular schematic. Yes. Evalaute your goals for the program. If you're doing it with the intent of getting published, you don't need it. If you desire an MFA for the pure joy of wallowing in literature, with the intent to expand your breadth of knowledge, go for it.

Hannah Roveto
Knowing writers who made it with and without an MFA, the bottom line is this: having the stick-to-it-iveness to make the time to learn from others and also to share critical reading support. If you have options like the fabulous Grub Street in Boston for classes -- and will get yourself to them -- and a great writers' group or reader, an MFA is not necessary. A low-residency MFA is a solid middle ground between this Do-It-Yourself version and a formal MFA, requiring you to make the commitment (not unlike how some use a gym membership to force themselves to exercise!) in a way that fits your life. If that is the push and structure you need, I heartily recommend such a program!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Best Books of 2008

Thank you, Book Browse and Donna Chavez!

Mystery. With her stupendous prose and intricate characterizations MacKinnon has penned a winner - Hardcover

Tethered A Novel by Amy Mackinnon
Read the full review

Tethered is the first book in recent memory that I absolutely could not read fast enough to see how it comes out. The book is deceptive. Is it a mystery? Is it a literary novel? At first it seems to be a rather interesting, if uncomplicated, story about a young woman, Clara Marsh, who works in a funeral home as an undertaker; assistant to the funeral director, Linus Bartholomew. She's had a rather difficult life – orphaned at an early age then raised by an overly strict Bible-thumping grandmother – thus she is pretty much a loner. So when she encounters a little girl called Trecie in one of the mourning rooms I was expecting a story about how Clara begins to relate to the youngster and eventually overcomes her inability to connect with others. Boy was I wrong. .... Read full review.

Reviewed By Donna Chavez

Thursday, December 11, 2008

You've been waiting and waiting, emailing for hints, finally it's Thursday and Lissa Warren is back with the answer to that question every writer asks. And who better to ask than Lissa, Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press and author of that must-have, The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity:

Q) We've heard again and again that writers need to help promote their work once their books are published, but not every one knows how to do this (other than buying THE SAVVY AUTHORS GUIDE). What are your best author do's and don'ts?

A) Lissa Warren: It’s true—these days, authors need to be actively involved in the promotion of their books. They need to be partners in the campaign—not just the recipients of it. Here are my do’s and don’ts:

Create a website for your book—and keep it updated. By adding new content on a regular basis—even if it’s just your latest media coverage and your newest events—you’ll make it a place people want to come back to, rather than a place they visit once.

Be agreeable. If your publicist asks you to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday to do a phoner with a small radio station in a city no one has ever heard of, do it—not just because you never know who could be listening and what it could lead to, but because publicists tend to work extra hard when authors are cooperative.

Follow the news, and let your publicist know what’s happening in the world that you can speak to, and what your take is on it. She can then use that info to get you more coverage. Don’t have a publicist? Then send out a well-crafted pitch via email yourself. When news is breaking, the media needs experts and will sometimes be receptive to authors even when they’re pitching themselves.

Write—and try to find a home for--op-eds and original articles (preferably tied to your book) that mention the book in your bio line.

Blog. Start your own blog, or blog for established ones like the Huffington Post.

Secure some speaking gigs for yourself. Bookstores, libraries, literary festivals, universities, corporations, churches, synagogues and JCCs, professional conferences—there are tons of places to talk. Check with your publicist to see what she’s pursuing—then fill in the gaps. If it seems like too much work, investigate the possibility of enlisting the services of a lecture agent.

Consider hiring a freelance publicist or outsourcing for a radio satellite tour and/or Web campaign for your book. They’re not cheap, but they can really help you get the word out.

Be hard to reach. If you don’t have a cell, get one (and return messages from your publicist and from the media promptly). Same goes for email (and check it frequently so as not to miss opportunities). The three months before and after your book comes out are not a good time to take a vacation—so don’t.

Be your usual unselfish self. Every book has a very small window in which to succeed—usually a couple of months after it pubs. You may need to set limits with family, friends, and even your employer. To the extent that you can, try to view promoting your book as a full-time job.

Don’t have unrealistic expectations. It’s good to aim high, but not everyone can be on Oprah or Fresh Air, or reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Start small, start niche, start local—then build from your base. And remember: publicity begets publicity begets publicity.

Engage in shameless self-promotion. Find ways to put yourself out there that aren’t tacky. For example, in any press material you create don’t say your book is fascinating—make it sound fascinating. Don’t praise the book yourself, but instead quote positive reviews and provide blurbs by other authors.

Fail to do your homework. Spend time researching shows, publications, and Websites that might be appropriate for your book. Before going on a radio or TV show, try to listen to or view it online—or at least check out the show’s website. Before speaking with a reporter, Google them to see what kind of things they’ve covered in the past, and what their approach has been.

Be a forgettable interview. Go into every interview armed with 3-5 talking points—things you’d really like to convey that you think will resonate with the intended audience. Learn how to sound bite well. If necessary, hire a media coach to help you. And the same goes for your reading/talks—select your passages carefully, time yourself (20-30 minutes is usually sufficient for a bookstore talk), and practice your delivery. And be sure to send thank you notes once the segment airs or the article runs/posts.

Forget that this is supposed to be fun. Most people never even write a book, much less get it published. Try to enjoy your time in the spotlight.