Writing: A Solitary Profession?

Writing is generally a solitary act. But does it need to be? What do you think about writing groups? Are they beneficial or a waste of valuable time?

After you read the responses from the WinRs, let us know what you think!
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GB Pool

The Loneliest Profession

Writing is basically a one-man operation, unless you write for television or the movies, where a committee does it. But the traditional author sits in front of a computer, typewriter, or a piece of paper and writes all by himself.

Belonging to a writers’ group, above and beyond the constructive criticism and brainstorming sessions, gives you people to talk to about your work, this precious commodity that you have created, nurtured, and hopefully someday will send off into the world to entertain and enlighten other people.

Having “a second pair of eyes” is a perfect way to see things that you missed, hear things that you didn’t know were there, and point out things that aren’t working. And if you are in the right group, they will see the good things in your “baby” as well.

I originally belonged to a larger group of writers. Their styles ranged from Science Fiction to experimental to Women’s Fiction to Mystery. Good writing is good writing. I can read anything and enjoy it if most of the basic rules of English Grammar (and Common Sense) are adhered to.

There in lies the rub. When a portion of the group doesn’t recognize the basic Parts of Speech, proper syntax, and know how to use Spell Check or even a dictionary…Houston, we have a problem.

A few of us broke away from the herd and started our own group. Two more writers joined us and we have the group we have today. We have watched each other grow, improve, learn, and it has made us all better writers. We learn from our own and each other’s mistakes and achievements.

But of all the things a group, any group – sewing circles, car clubs, collectors’ groups – brings to their members, the best thing is it gives you a place where people who are doing the same thing you are doing can come and talk about their dreams, their learning experiences, their frustrations, and their successes. It lets you know you aren’t really alone in this wonderful world of writing.

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Bonnie Schroeder

I belong to the Alameda Writers Group (AWG), Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) and the awesome WWW — which I think stands for Wednesday Women Writers, even though we sometimes meet on Thursdays.

Have I found these groups helpful? A big fat YES!! I have gotten honest, kind and insightful feedback that has (I hope) improved on my fiction immeasurably. Equally important, I’ve received encouragement and the immense comfort of knowing others share my Terror of the Blank Page.

From a craft standpoint, I believe it’s essential to have other writers read your work and give notes, and the people in my critique groups are serious readers as well as wonderful writers. They know what makes a piece work, and what brings it down, and when I’m too close to my work to see the most glaring errors, my fellow writers gently but honestly let me know where I went wrong. One of our wise members has remarked that she learns as much by reading others’ work as she does by getting feedback on her own, and that is so true.

When I see another writer struggling with an issue of plot, character development, or just trying to get those words in the most effective order, it teaches me something about my own process. My writing groups have supported and inspired me, and I can’t imagine life without them. Heck, I’d hang out with them even if I didn’t write.

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Jacqueline Vick

One of the best moves I ever made as a writer was when I accepted the invitation to join the WWW writing critique group.

The only writing feedback I had received prior was either paid for (I highly recommend Pilar Alessandra of On the Page for screenwriting) or anonymously delivered through contests, and sometimes the latter feedback was either vague or snarky.

I can’t stress how much my writing has improved from the perceptive comments of my group, all delivered in a caring way. If someone were to tell me that I was indulging myself in a certain passage, I could be confident that it was a valuable bit of information, not a personal criticism. And a writer needs people who will tell her when she’s amusing herself and not her audience!

On a broader scale, I belong to Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. The speakers made available by both SinC and MWA provide great insights and tips. All three have Yahoo lists that offer discussions on almost any topic, and you can ask others to share their experiences, which is priceless. Add to that newsletters chock full of information–writing tips, research advice, market guidelines–and the price of admission is well worth it.

As with anything, the more involved you get, the more you get out of it. I’m the type that has to force myself to attend meetings, but when I do, I’m always glad I did. I talk to other writers about what they are up to, find out the latest happenings in the publishing arena, and just enjoy my fellow scribes.

Writers have to fight the urge to remain isolated, and a writing group can put you in touch with others who share your passion.

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A Report Back on the CCWC

Late June, writers from all over the country met in Pasadena, CA, for the California Crime Writers Conference–a joint effort between the Southern California chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Dozens of panels to choose from, high-quality speakers, and the comradere of fellow writers made the weekend worth every penny.

Though it’s difficult to sum up such an eventful conference, here are some highlights from the Writers in Residence who attended. We asked them to consider the following questions:

What was the best/most important thing you learned at the conference?

Which speaker (keynote or session) did you find most inspiring/helpful, and why?

In which way has the conference helped you the most – tangibly (facts, techniques, contacts) or intangibly (inspiration, support)?

Did you attend this conference? Let us know what you thought!

Pictures: MK Johnston and Rosemary Lord soak up information at a panel. GB Pool works the Forensic Track. Jacqueline Vick works the raffle table with Sue Stimpson

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MK Johnston

A good conference benefits the writer in many ways. You learn, you relearn, you’re invigorated, you’re humbled. You reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. That’s all part of the appeal, whether you’ve just decided to begin writing, you’re shopping your latest novel or any point in between. And, as has often happened to me, I found some of the most helpful information came from the least likely source.

Generally, I had no trouble picking which session I wanted to attend, but one session had nothing that interested me. At the last moment I chose Christopher Rice’s “Become your editor’s favorite author”. His message was simple – Know what your central premise (theme) is, and create very detailed character biographies. In other words, know precisely what and who you’re writing about. He also stressed the importance of creating an editorial staff to include your biggest fan (for pure support), target audience member, tough critic (knowledgeable in your genre), and proof reader. Rice also discussed the rewrite process, not just technically, but emotionally. His advice – never rewrite your book for someone who rejected it.

One concept that kept coming up was whether or not to prepare a story outline. I didn’t use one when writing my first novel. Although it allowed me the freedom to explore different paths with the story line, it also took many years to complete, a luxury I won’t have with the sequel. Several speakers gave great advice on how to get the advantages of an outline without outlining. Two good suggestions: write key scenes on index cards and add up or down arrows to note whether that scene is more or less active (to help with pacing), or rely on very detailed character bios to guide the story.

I came away from the conference with my creative juices flowing and the resolve to finish my rewrite. Can any writer ask for more?

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GB Pool

Since I had the opportunity to work on the conference from its inception, I got to see how much goes into putting on an event like the California Crime Writers Conference. But I think getting to interact with other committee members, attendees, and the speakers was priceless. I have met so many absolutely marvelous people and I realize how important networking is to anyone who wants to not only be a writer, but be a successful one.

I ran the Forensics Track at the conference and spent the entire time with that group. I got to pick who spoke and work with them and introduce them. That was a sheer joy. As for my favorite speaker, I thought private detective J. Corey Friedman was spectacular. He could literally get your mother’s underwear size by running a “legitimate scam” on her. And he showed us how to get information on nearly anybody via the Internet. One man gave him only his name and Corey found his wife’s Social Security number on-line.

Working on the conference showed how well organizations can do things if each person gets their assignments and does them. Nobody bothered me and I did my own thing. It worked for me. And then to see how happy people were who came to the conference made all the work worth while. Bernadine De Paolis said, “I pissed on the ceiling.” She explained that in her family that means I did the impossible. I don’t know about that, but I sure was glad there were so many happy faces. That’s what I wanted.

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Note: The elusive Jackie Houchin takes many of the pictures for our blog. We will capture her on camera…eventually.

Jackie Houchin

Writing (and Reviewing) Crime

Along with everyone that attended the California Crime Writing Conference, I was impressed by the four “tracks” of workshops available.

I chose the “Learning the Craft” track because it fit what I am interested in. No, I haven’t written any crime fiction since the junior detective series I wrote for my grandchildren ten years ago. But I do review mystery and thriller books, so I wanted to learn from the professionals what makes a terrific best-seller.

Jerrilyn Farmer used her book, “Perfect Sax” to illustrate how to plot a mystery. She kept us spellbound for an hour as she reviewed her reasons for choosing for the victim, the method of murder, a variety of suspects, false leads and red herrings, and then showed us how to add twists and surprises to keep the cleverest of readers guessing till the end. “But remember,” she cautioned us, “all your characters’ actions and reactions must be logical and believable.”

In her workshop on how to plot a thriller, Gayle Lynds explained the difference between a mystery and a thriller. Mysteries begin with a terrible crime, then go on to discover who did it and why. Thrillers begin with the knowledge that something dreadful is about to happen, then race to try to stop it. She also drilled us on the importance of the villain in a thriller. “Your antagonist is critical, he drives the plot. He must be a worthy opponent for your hero, a clash of titans. If you get stuck in your story, ask yourself what the villain is doing.”

The tips I learned in these two sessions will help me better understand and review the next crime or suspense novel I read…if I can just remember to apply them.

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Jacqueline Vick

For attendees of the recent California Crime Writers Conference, the most difficult task was to choose which panels to attend.

In the Writing Business Track, Carolyn Howard Johnson began the day sharing cool tips on how to market your book without spending a lot of money. With so many online options available, this isn’t as difficult as it seems. Carol explained how to efficiently produce both a blog and a newsletter by sharing information between the two. Many blogs allow users to schedule a future posting date so that the newsletter content doesn’t duplicate what’s online. She also mentioned the immediate feedback she’s received from Tweets—postings on Twitter.

I have to say that the information she gave on marketing was the most valuable concrete information I received at the conference because she was talking about steps I can take today to get my “brand” out to people so they will be interested by the time my book comes out.

Annette Rogers of Poisoned Pen Press reminded us that we writers are storytellers. She read examples of great opening paragraphs to demonstrate how to catch the editor’s attention. Editors look for stories that can compete against all media, including television, movies and radio. And we can’t sell something that isn’t out there. If a dreaded rejection shows up in the mail, tweak a few words and send the manuscript out again the next day.

Annette inspired me because writers sometimes see editors as a scary, separate piece of the publishing puzzle, and her personable approach and sense of humor reminded me that editors are simply people who would love to see good writing on their desk.

The E-Publishing Panel included Annette Rogers, Marilyn Meredith, and E-Publisher Marci Baun. While traditional publishing can take two years from acceptance to print, E-Publishers can do it in as little as four months. The standards are the same, and guidelines are still important.

This panel inspired me to think outside of the box. The opportunities to publish are out there, even though it seems that the business is contracting.

Everyone inspired me in one way or another–the speakers with useful information, the other attendees with their stories and eternal optimism. I learned long ago that mystery writers are a close community, always willing to encourage and share tips. I highly recommend that writers get out of their cloistered writing rooms and step into this conference in two years when it is offered again.