5 Reasons to join a writing circle

Chairs in a room

My WIP would be stuck in neutral if it weren’t for my amazing writing circle. We meet for a couple of hours the third Saturday of every month and our discussions have had a transformative effect on my work.

Here are five reasons why I think every writer should be part of a circle.

1. They identify your weaknesses

I spent most of April stuck on chapter 4 of my WIP. I’d written it in a variety of ways, tried changing the viewpoint, adding detail, scaling back the length, moving the setting, introducing new characters, exploring the characters through diaries and a host of other things. By the time I took it to my group I was completely fed up with it.

My group immediately spotted that my stoic, taciturn lead character wasn’t connecting with the reader because I’d given her no way to express her feelings. They suggested I rewrite the chapter and focus on communicating her thoughts through her body language.

The Emotion Thesurus

My group recommended this brilliant book to help describe body language.

 

That bit of advice was like finding the Rosetta Stone. It unlocked everything I was struggling with in the chapter and made the rewrite a breeze. I never would have identified that problem on my own.

2. They offer encouragement

It’s inspiring to see a project belonging to a member of your group advance from a jangle of ideas to a finished novel. And when said novel gets sold to a huge publishing company it reminds you that, yes, dreams do come true, yes, hard work does pay off and yes, you can do it if you really want to.

Here are the books released by members of my London writing group over the last couple of years:

A room full of chocolate

Things we have in common

The Wishing Doll

 

Those Pesky Rabbits

 

3. They stop you becoming a hermit

I am a social person. I’m also a writer. Often the two traits do not comfortably co-exist. I have to drag myself kicking and screaming to a quiet corner to sit and bang out my words. My writing circle gives me the opportunity to play communicate with other humans while still being productive.

4. Knowledge is power

How long should your agent letter be? Is Scrivener worth the money? Which local writing course is the best value for money? Writing circles are a hub of information as everyone chats and hums about the latest opportunities they’ve spotted. Learning from the experiences of fellow writers can save you time and money.

5. They keep you regular

I am a gold-star-level procrastinator who can be distracted by a leaf blowing across my window. But if you give me a deadline, I will work day and night and do whatever it takes to meet it. My writing circle gives me the push I need to write consistently. My circle co-members are far more disciplined than me but they admit our meetings help with churning through the many rewrites necessary to make an average project excellent.

 

Are you part of a writing circle? Do you find it helps improve your writing?

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How prolific are you?

Fast draftIn mid-March I went to a Kelley Armstrong Q&A as part of the Toronto libraries Eh! Author Series. During her introduction Kelley reeled off the five titles she has coming out in 2015 and my jaw dropped. Five books! And they’re not slim 60,000 word novels either. They’re hefty door-stoppers.

Kelley’s not alone in her prolific ways, there are many writers, past and present who can rack up the word counts. Dame Barbara Cartland is said to have averaged a book every 40 days. She also snagged the Guinness World record for most novels written in a single year when she bashed out 23 new books. Enid Blyton wrote more than 800 children’s books during her career (and generated more total sales than J K Rowling). Sci-fi novelist Issac Asimov published over 468 novels. Nora Roberts isn’t too far behind with over 200 titles under her four author names.

And then there’s me. I am not a fast writer. On my best days when the skies are blue, the traffic lights are a all green and my apartment is optimally heated and lit, I can write 3,000 words. But I find that speed outpaces my creative ideas and I end up scrapping much of the word count during rewrite. Whereas if I do a more leisurely 1,000 words a day I’m usually happier with my output.

However, I do admire speedy writers, so every now and then I try to push my writing limits.

Accordingly, last Saturday I traipsed along to City Hall to hear columnist and author, Candace Havens share the formula for her intensive writing technique – Fast Draft. The method challenges you to produce 20 pages a day for 14 consecutive days. It works best when undertaken with writing partners who can shame and coddle you (as needed) until you reach your daily goal.

At 20 pages a day you can hammer out an entire novel in two weeks. Who wouldn’t love that? If you’re up for the challenge, the rules are simple.

1. Forget routine, fit your writing in wherever you can

2. Feel free to write a terrible first draft

3. Gag your inner critic

4. No redrafting!

5. No excuses

Books and boxes

BoxesI moved house last week. During the packing process I was astounded at the number of boxes I filled. I half-heartedly vowed to be a more minimalist human in the future, however, I’m not sure writers can be minimalists.

Every few months I fill the pages of a new notebook – story ideas, phrases I like, song lyrics, similes I want to steal, contact details for fellow writers / websites / festivals / books. Let’s say I fill three notebooks a year, and that the notebooks have been piling up since my teens. That’s a lot of notebooks.

I also buy a diary each year. Its primary function is to keep my life in order, but it quickly acquires opening lines for chapters, jotted details for competitions and so on. Again, two decades worth.

I subscribe to Writer’s Digest magazine, Mslexia and I get the monthly Romantic Writers Association trade magazine. They are full of handy tips, techniques and teaching resources so I hate throwing them out.

Then there are the books. You learn to write by reading. Famous writers are always reminding us of this. The fact that I filled five boxes with books shows I’m really dedicating to learning the craft.

And finally – the manuscripts. Copies of chapters printed off, annotated. Scenes from stories I plan to complete. Binders full of research.

The result is boxes. Numerous boxes. Heavy boxes. I need more than a room of my own. I need a mansion.

How I caught the NaNoWriMo writing bug

NaNo bannerI discovered NaNoWriMo in 2006. I had quit my teaching job over the summer and in September I took myself off to Canada on a 12 month work visa. I needed to take a break from my career, from England, from what felt like a very staid life. I would spend a year, I decided, setting myself new challenges, trying new things and hewing my creative self out of the granite block of ‘adultness’ I had buried myself in.

I rocked up in Montreal, found myself a low-key job at a cinema and vowed to spend my down-time writing.

In October of that year a friend told me about NaNoWriMo. It sounded like the perfect challenge for the newly liberated me. 50,000 words in one month. The task seemed colossal. Ridiculous. Especially for someone who’d only written short stories and needed to balance every five minutes of writing with 20 minutes of mindless playtime.

I thought NaNoWriMo might be the perfect solution to my lack of focus. Patience is not among my stronger characteristics and the allure of short stories was my ability to bang them out and have something to show for my efforts after a few days – a week. The prospect of producing an entire novel in a month seemed like a huge reward for the lazy.

And so I signed up. The first week was bliss. I banged out well over a thousand words a day. I could do this. I was meant to do this. I felt like a writer! Powerful and creative.

But then week two rolled around and the ideas I’d planned weren’t enough to sustain the pace. My ideas withered under the word count demands and my output dropped from over a thousand daily words to hundreds. The less I wrote the more discouraged I felt, the more discouraged I felt, the fewer ideas I could summon to put down. It was a downward cycle – probably the same experience full-time writers go through, but on fast-forward.

I gave up at 30,000 words. Threw in the towel. Cut my losses.

But, it had been a great learning experience. I had banged out enough words to know that my idea didn’t have the legs to carry it the full length of a novel. A helpful discovery. I had also learned that:

(1) I was built for long projects,

(2) my characters were more vivid if I spent every day with them,

(3) that editing slows the process

(4) that a mixture of advance plot and blue sky pantsying worked for me

The following year I had another try. Failed again. I rinsed and repeated in 2008. And became a NaNo winner. I’m totally addicted to the annual challenge now. Some years work out better than others but it’s always a fun exercise.

Making Connections

Connect groupIt has been a hugely busy week. I’ve been killing the data on my phone replying to emails, reading blog comments, visiting blog websites because my time on public transport has been the only free time I’ve had for social networking. But that’s not a complaint. It’s also been an awesome week thanks to Melissa Maygrove’s Follow Fest ’14.

For the longest time I’ve been thinking how great it would be to widen my circle of writer friends, get more involved in online communities, get back into the habit of beta-ing and being beta-d. But finding these new friends seemed like a time-consuming task and there was never the time to spare.

Post Follow Fest ’14 I’m suddenly on the radar of a ton of writers and everyday I have all these fab blog posts popping into my inbox with tales of my fellow writers’ exploits. It’s very exciting and a great example of doing a small thing and reaping a big reward.

NaNoWriMo is right around the corner and I’m looking forward to tackling it alongside some of my new-found friends.

Follow Fest 2014

FollowFest-2014Name:

Shadé

Fiction or nonfiction?

Fiction

What genres do you write?

YA, Adventure, Fantasy and Romance

Are you published?

Yes, you can find my romantic thriller, Survivor here.

Do you do anything in addition to writing?

I blog about other writers at Coffee Bookshelves.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m a Nigerian-British and (now) new Canadian. I blog too much, own too many books and plan to be a prolific writer some day.

What are you reading right now?

I’m one of those people who reads 10 books at once. I’m reading Rose Petal Beach by Dorothy Koomson. It’s freaking me out so much I’ve had to take a time-out with Every Day Is For The Thief by Teju Cole.

Which authors influenced you the most?

Jane Austen for her smart humour, strong heroines and Mr Knightly (who doesn’t get enough love), Nora Roberts for introducing fearless, independent women to the romance world, Meg Cabot for keeping it fun and frothy and Joss Whedon for turning the tiny, blonde victim trope on its head with Buffy.

Where can people connect with you?

Blog: www.shadewrites.com

Twitter: @TheShadyFiles

Goodreads Shadé

Amazon Survivor

Barnes and Noble Survivor

Do you have a newsletter?

Not yet.
Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

I LOVE meeting other writers (virtually and IRL). I’m totally open to hosting release day blog tours, posting about new releases or beta-ing for people so don’t be a stranger, get in touch.

Thanks for stopping by! And please hop over to http://melissamaygrove.blogspot.com to meet some of the other authors participating in Follow Fest this week.

Adios!

Developing Writing Discipline

TypistI have just returned from a two week holiday break. I had promised myself I’d take the opportunity to finish a swathe of my current novel. Instead I wrote about 400 words. 300 of which was a blog post. Clearly I lack discipline. I’m always looking for new ways to improve my writing habits, I envy writers like Meg Cabot, Nora Roberts and Stephen King who seem to breathe words. I yearn to write as consistently and prolifically as they do.

This autumn I’m trying out a new technique. I call it, 20:200. Everyday I must either write for 20minutes or produce 200 words. Whichever comes first. I’m on day three and it’s going well. The hidden bonus is that once you’ve sat your butt in the chair and started writing you’ll probably do more than 200 words. It’s just getting into that productive zone that’s difficult.

Do you have any tips or techniques that help you write regularly?

Book shop

If you want to write well you have to read well. I like to dust off this maxim whenever I need to justify a book shopping spree. Since I’m in England where book prices are far more affordable than North America I’ve been adding to my bookshelves like mad. Here’s today’s haul.
Waterstones

The Creative Journey

Last week I re-read one of my favourite romance novels and marvelled again over how deftly the author sets up this sweet yet imperfect relationship then sweeps the reader along on the up / down rollercoaster of making the whole thing work. It’s a book that makes me sigh with envy (over both the hero and the skillful writing) every time.

I don’t make much use of my e-reader, I prefer physical books. But it’s perfect for romance novels (all those embarrassing cover jackets). But after finishing the latest reading of my beloved romance, I did a search for the author on my e-reader. I found the online shop stocks her full back catalogue and all for very reasonable prices. It seemed churlish not to click the ‘download’ button.

I started with her first novel but a third of the way in I had to put it down. The characters are clunky and come off as cruel rather than cute. The plot is threadbare and too many of the scenarios simply ridiculous. I find it hard to believe the same person wrote both books.

But it’s encouraging too. It goes to show how much you grow as a writer over the course of your career. When the author wrote book one she probably thought it was the best thing since Michael Jackson moonwalked. Now she probably wishes she could snatch it off the shelves and bury it in a shallow grave.

Similarly, I bought a new edition of Alice Walker’s The Bluest Eye not too long ago. The introduction includes a section written by Alice Walker detailing her dissatisfactions with the book and the changes she would make if she revised it now.

Alice Walker!

I take two things away from this:

1. Accept your work will never be perfect. Perfect is subjective. The you who likes what you’ve written today will find flaws next week. So revise, revise, revise, then bite the bullet and send your work out.

2. Think of the creative life as a journey, each mile making you a better writer. The writing process may not get easier but at least you can look forward to marked improvements in your finished projects.

Writer’s Digest Conference 2014

I spent the first weekend of August at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York. I heard about the conference a few weeks before it was due to happen and because I like to procrastinate in new and unusual ways, I decided to book a place.

The cost was a little prohibitive – for someone trying to save, anyway – but I figured I’d do whatever I could to keep the costs down. I travelled by Greyhound bus, stayed with a friend and barred myself from 5th Avenue.

The trip turned out to be an incredible experience. Here are 5 things I learned at the Writer’s Digest Conference.

1. Always pack business cards

Bus cardI had some made up the week before I left and I’m so glad I went to the trouble because handing out cards is so much easier than trying to scribble your details on scraps of paper. They came in particularly useful at the Lulu sponsored event on Saturday night when I plucked up the confidence to speak to the black, female writers in attendance. I get very used to being the only person of colour in writing groups and at events so it was wonderful to make some new friends.

 

2. Self-publishing has upsides but definite drawbacks too

There were a lot of workshops addressing aspects of the self-publishing/traditional publishing debate. It’s a very topical issue for writers right now and it was useful to hear from experienced writers who have opted to go either way or take a hybrid, middle path.

The panel of writers said it can take a long time to build volume sales and distribution of print copies is very limited. However, they felt it was worth it to retain control and work on their own timeline.

My big take away was the cost. The figures for outsourcing cover design, editing (development, copy, proof), marketing, file formatting, etc ranged from $5-$10k. It seems of you want to self-publish to the highest standard possible, you have to be willing to invest in your work.

 

3. Every writer struggles with the white page

Writers hear this a lot but we’re a self-depreciating bunch so we don’t really take it in. I know I often feel like I have the monopoly on crumbling before the blank page. But our day two keynote speaker was bestselling author Harlan Coben and he was unequivocal and clear, we are all scared when we create but it’s about discipline, he said. It doesn’t matter if you’re nervous or uninspired or think this is your worst writing ever, you sit down and get on with it.

 

4. Make sure your pitch is airtight

Pitch SlamThe conference’s main draw is the optional Pitch Slam. Basically you pay a little extra for one-on-one, three-minute meetings with agents. In those meeting you have 90 seconds to pitch your project and they have 90 seconds to respond, possibly even handing you a card and requesting full chapters. I didn’t sign up for this, I know my big YA project isn’t quite there yet, but most of the attendees did and it was so interesting hearing their stories. It just reiterated the importance of knowing exactly what your novel is about and being able to convey the plot and themes in a few sentences.

For an personal account of Pitch Slam from one writer who did participate, read Cina Pelayo’s blog post.

 

5. Brick by brick

Everybody from bestselling self-published author Michael J Sullivan to bestselling traditional author Kimberla Lawson Roby stressed the slow path to success. “I built my career one reader at a time, one bookclub at a time,” Kimberla told us during her keynote on the last day of conference. Everybody wants to be the next E L James and release a book that zooms straight up into the stratosphere. But for the average writer you go step-by-step, gathering readers one at a time. I imagine once you have them hooked, you have a fan for life. Which seems a good trade off.

 

WD2014

Bonding with fellow writers

Kimberla Lawson Roby

Kimberla Lawson Roby