Fitting in Writing ANGTFT (Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That)

I have a thousand things to do today and writing is just not one of them.  This statement represents well the challenge of people working full time, managing the hustle and bustle of life while also trying to squeeze in writing.  Often times when I share with friends and colleagues that I enjoy writing, the number one question consistently asked is, “When do you have time to write?”


I must admit it is a valid question to ponder.   While working a full time job clocking at least 50 hours a week and attending classes five hours a week on a personal quest to earn a Phd, it is a reasonable question to ask.  I find the answer to be one simple truth.  You frankly make time to do what you want to do.   There is no magic potion for finding time to write.  There is no miracle formula that works universally; it’s simply a commitment that one has to make and stay the course across all obstacles until the desired writing objectives are complete.

When people shift to a healthier lifestyle, their eating and exercise habits must change in order to sustain success.  Writing is no different.  To sustain a healthy pattern of writing, you must watch your writing habits.

My writing has not been a perfect journey, and I haven’t yet hit all of my writing goals.   What I do have is a few habits that I keep coming back to that will refocus me as needed.  No matter how long I step away from writing, these three triggers work to get me back on track.  Identifying your writing triggers is a revelation we all need. Here are my top three:

Writing is therapy for me. My best writing is triggered by moments of pain.  I came to know this through the experience of losing my job as well as the loss of a dear friend.   These moments of pain and loss created my best writing pieces.  This has helped me to take advantage of opportunities to bring my voice forward in the turmoil of dark times.   Writing heals me.  Over time, I have learned to embrace the pain and stop myself to write during those times.  Never let a good crisis go to waste.

With a little help by friends I get by. The best thing that happened to my writing practices was joining a writing group and developing a group of friends that support my writing ups and downs.  I joined a writing group because it was something different and sounded like a cool idea at the time.  My co-worker invited me to the group.  He was the King Blogger of a large corporation and I was always fascinated by his writing style.   This group is the glue that keeps my writing going.  We meet every two weeks and read each other’s’ projects and celebrate successes and rejections.  Peer pressure still works and you just do not want to show up three straight times without something to show and tell.  That pressure will have you rising up early mornings or late nights to get something written down.  We all subscribe to the belief that it doesn’t have to be perfect but it does have to be written down.   Simply attending our sessions give me enough mojo to dust myself off and get back up again.

Be kind to myself when I’m off track. I am my worst critic and when I do not hit a writing goal, I go inward and it creates a downward spiral that lands me in a place of being stuck.  Over the years, I have adopted a lighter attitude about not hitting every single deadline on time.  Writing is something I get to do.   It’s not something I have to do.  And each time, I get to write, I treat it as an honor and a privilege to bring my voice forward. By being kind to myself during my writing lulls, I find that I shift out of the lulls much faster.

Writing is a gift and as the William Faulkner quote says, “if a story is in you, it has got to come out.”  So, I hope this blog inspires you to uncover your writing triggers if you haven’t already and bring your stories out.   I would love to hear your ideas on how you manage to “fit in writing.”  Please post your tips below because we all could use them.  Happy Writing!

How to Run a Writing Group: Dealing with Feedback

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

Dealing with that other F-Word: Feedback

The stocks

The stocks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know the social contract that stipulates that you don’t tell someone their baby is ugly? Well, as a member of a writing group, you will break that contract. The baby, in this case, is someone’s novel, screenplay, blog, or poem.

Let’s face it, the tendency is for most people to fall into one of three categories when it comes to commenting on someone’s writing: The “Hack and Slash” types, the “Lukewarm” types and the “Shiny Happy” types. Hack and Slash seems to take great pleasure in totally decimating everyone else’s work. There is not one positive nugget they can find in anyone’s writing, save their own. Lukewarm will often take the middle road on everything. The feedback they provide is wishy-washy and they will not give you direct feedback on anything. Shiny Happy, on the other hand, treats everyone’s ego as a fragile Tiffany egg and, while pointing out all things positive about a piece of writing, often fails to give the writer notes they can use to better their work. All of these types tend to be non-productive, especially in the group setting.

Believe it or not there is a tactful way to go about letting someone know that their writing needs work. We know it as constructive criticism. The key word here is “constructive.” Feedback given by members of a writer’s group must be the type that propels a person’s writing forward. Feedback such as “I really like your work. I found it interesting,” while positive, doesn’t really tell the writer anything specific that he or she can use.

Having been in the same writers group for the past eight years and having offered feedback on student papers as a teacher, I have found the following model to be helpful:

a. Point out one or two things you really liked about the piece and why. Give specific details so that the person receiving the feedback can tell you read his or her work closely. What specifically did you like about the writer’s work? What exactly made it interesting? Compared to what? Try to point out specific sentences or paragraphs that work well.

b. Point out one or two areas for improvement. Don’t just mention the problems you saw, offer potential solutions and “What ifs”. For those sentences and paragraphs that don’t work well, explain ways the writer might adjust the ideas or content presented so that they add rather than detract from the overall piece.

c. Ask clarifying questions of the writer. This often helps generate new ideas and helps sort out problem areas in a piece of writing. For example, “Where do you see this character going in the story?” or “What if you took the dialogue from Chapter 2 and incorporated it into Chapter 1 instead?”

Sticking with the ugly baby metaphor, I have always viewed writing as a little like giving birth. Heck, writing gives birth to ideas, right? In that sense, when one of our “children” happens to be the focus of constructive criticism, it is important that all members of the writing group understand how to accept such critique of their work gracefully. When members of a group are familiar to one another, they are often aware of how they need to approach critiquing a fellow member’s writing. But when the members of a writers group are an unknown quantity, so to speak, it often becomes a little nerve-wracking for both the constructive criticizer and the constructively criticized. It might be helpful to put the following protocol in place, especially if members of the writing group don’t yet know one another:

  • When receiving constructive criticism, instead of speaking, take notes and write down questions you have for those offering their feedback.
  • Allow each member of the group to offer feedback and then address each member’s comments and questions.
  • Always keep in mind that the goal is to help you develop your writing.
  • If something someone says strikes you the wrong way, be sure to ask questions to help clarify their comments. Chances are, they did not mean the comment to be taken in a negative manner.

The fact is that most everyone is nervous about giving and receiving constructive criticism. As long as clear expectations are conveyed to the entire group, there should be very few problems with the process. Not everyone is going to agree and sometimes you might be providing feedback on a piece written in your least favorite genre, but try to put personal feelings aside and look at the writing itself. Ask yourself how you can help the writer make the piece better. And always remember that each person in the group has a common goal: to improve their writing. Listen to one another. Work together. Read thoroughly and provide meaningful feedback. Those are the keys to using constructive criticism in a writer’s group.

How to Run a Writing Group: Running Your Meetings

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

William Hogarth's 1736 engraving, Scholars at ...

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, Scholars at a Lecture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


So, you’ve gathered a group of like-minded folks eager to share the road and become better writers.  You’ve found an understanding cafe or bookshop to put up with your shared insanity.  You’ve synchronized everyone’s schedule.  Now it’s time to fire up the engine, this is where the rubber meets the road, or some other automotive metaphor.

How exactly do you run your sessions?  Some thought and discussion should go into it before you start meeting.  A few ideas on format and protocol can prevent awkward shoe staring while everyone figures out how to proceed.

For a brand new group, consider a getting to know you period.  If not a full meeting, at least a good chunk to break the ice.  Everyone should introduce themselves, describe what type of writing they are interested in, and then answer two important questions.  What are their personal goals as writers?  What are they looking for from the group?

Some people are better at this than others.  It always makes me feel like I’m in grade school, but it’s a known ritual that gets everyone in the collaborative mindset.  Anytime a new member joins, this ritual should be repeated.

The format needs to be flexible enough to allow for discussion and debate, but structured enough to cover all the material in the time allotted.  If that sounds easy, you haven’t been to very many meetings.  I advise against too formal, since that can be intimidating.  Even though this isn’t a social club, you are there to support each other and should feel comfortable.  Think more of collegial collaboration instead of boardroom meeting.

Our group started small, only four people bringing about a page each.  The simple method of taking turns in no particular order covered everything quite nicely.  As membership grew along with the output, the meetings had to grow more structured.  Not necessarily more formal, but definitely more focused.

We meet at a coffee shop and everyone orders.  The ‘how’s it going?’ socializing takes place while the orders are being filled.  When the last person gets their drink, socializing ends and the meeting begins.

From there we go in round robin fashion.  Each member gets a turn in the hot seat where their work is up for review.  Then we move on to the next writer.  If you didn’t submit work, you’re not off the hook.  You still take a turn and answer for your crimes.  We discuss notes and criticisms, talk about what we liked or didn’t like, discuss what-ifs, and ask where the piece is going.  This will be part debate since opinions differ, and part question and answer between the writer and the other members.

For the writer this is a gold mine.  I think a great way to see the effect of your writing, is to watch two people debate it.  You don’t get involved in the debate, merely observe and take notes.  You will get a real sense of what people are taking from the piece, and they tend to be more honest with the person they’re debating than they would be with the writer.

The danger here is that unchecked debates can drag on.  Discussion without direction will ramble and go off on tangents.  That bogs down the flow of the meeting.  The responsibility to stay on track is shared by all members, but you are going to need somebody in charge.  The person who formed the group might be in charge by default, but it doesn’t have to be them, or even the same person each meeting.  In the spirit of collaboration you want a moderator, not a dictator.

The leader’s main duty is keeping the meeting running by keeping it on task.  That means turning everyone around when they get on one of those tangents.  You can never completely stop the group from going on them, but somebody has to turn them around.  A simple ‘we’re getting off track’ should snap everyone out of it.

The other chore on the leader is simple timekeeping.  Groups of three or four have more leeway here, but the larger the group, the more you have to keep an eye on the clock.  Each writer deserves their fair share, and no one should get short changed.

For most people this isn’t a problem, but there are some time hogs out there.  They may ‘discuss’ their work by rambling about it rather than taking feedback from the group.  That rambling may roam far afield of the topic at hand.  They might even bring the discussion back to them when it’s another writer’s turn for feedback.  It’s the leader’s job to spot such behavior and keep it in check.  Usually an appeal to time management is sufficient.

Our group has been meeting for a long time in one form or another.  Naturally we’ve developed some slang, in jokes, and nicknames.  Some are obvious.  Slackers and moochers are the same in a writing group as in any other group.  Some are more obscure and won’t make sense to outsiders.  One term that’s come up for us is simply The Beast.

Writers working on a longer piece, say a screenplay or a novel, might not want to bring it in piecemeal.  If they’re still contributing to the discussion, this is fine.  However, when that work is done, they’re going to want feedback.  Now you’ve got a Beast.  It won’t fit into the meeting run time along with other members’ work.

We have what we call a focused session.  A whole meeting dedicated to one person’s work.  It’s scheduled well in advance, so everyone has a chance to read the Beast.  Since it’s focused on one work, the discussion can go into great detail.  This is win-win for the group.  The writer gets detailed, honest critiques, and members get to practice their editing skills on a long piece.

That format of round robin critique should be the meat of the meetings, but leave a few minutes for new business.  If anyone has an idea for a group project, or questions about new tools and resources, go over it now.  Get in the habit of reviewing goals and deadlines.  Encourage an attitude of contribution and respect for the group’s time and rules.  Writing can be a lonely process, but this meeting is where you get to travel with companions, at least for a few hours.  Enjoy it!

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“Try to See It My Way” (Writers and Negative Capability)

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 22:  Portraits of poet ...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

“The wise man questions the wisdom of others because he questions his own, the foolish man, because it is different from his own.” —Leo Stein, American art collector and critic

In an 1817 letter to a friend, the poet John Keats describes one of the qualities that makes writers like Shakespeare so great: negative capability. Keats defines this trait as “…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In other words, this is the ability to sublimate one’s own individual assumptions about the world and write about uncertain (or potentially polarizing) topics in such a way that the author’s own views remain unknown. It is also the recognition that there are often grey areas in life which cannot be resolved through rational means. This requires an extraordinary degree of objectivity, and it’s much harder than it seems.

To enter into the mind of other people (or things) and speak from their point of view is an essential goal for writers, and certainly Keats demonstrates this skill in “Ode to a Nightingale,” “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” and “Ode On a Grecian Urn.” Often some of the most engaging literary works are those where there is no clear side taken on contentious issues (such as the free will versus predestination dichotomy in Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex). But the question is, how can writers break free from their own personal perceptions and approach subjects from a more objective point of view? Consider these strategies:

1. Read writers who are good at negative capability. I’ve mentioned Keats, Shakespeare, and Sophocles. But there are plenty of other notable authors, such as Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, Anne Rice, Walt Whitman, and John Updike.

2. Learn to view situations from other people’s perspectives. Imagine not what you would do if you were facing their circumstances, but rather think about what they would do and why.

3. Step into the unknown. Force yourself to write about subjects or situations you are uncomfortable with (or know little about).

4. Write in a new genre. Tell a familiar tale in a different format. For example, if you normally write short stories, turn your narrative into a poem (or vice versa). Or you could try turning a poem into a screenplay (or vice versa). Different literary conventions require different sensibilities, and this can lead to breakthroughs in our perceptions of subjects.

One of the joys of reading is having the opportunity to experience situations from someone else’s perspective. To do this convincingly, writers must learn to put aside their own ideas about the world and imagine alternative possibilities. This is terra incognita for many people, but by embracing this approach, you may discover new avenues of creative potential.

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Who Is My Audience?

Mark Twain photo portrait.
Image via Wikipedia

Mark Twain claimed that, before he ever published a book, he would “always read the manuscript to a private group of friends, composed as follows:

1. Man and a woman with no sense of humor.

2. Man and a woman with a medium sense of humor.

3. Man and a woman with prodigious sense of humor.

4. An intensely practical person.

5. A sentimental person.

6. Person who must have a moral in, and a purpose.

7. Hypercritical person—natural flaw-picker and fault-finder.

8. Enthusiast—person who enjoys anything and everything, almost.

9. Person who watches others, and applauds or condemns with the majority.

10. Half a dozen bright young girls and boys, unclassified.

11. Person who relishes slang and familiar flippancy.

12. Person who detests them.

13. Person of evenly-balanced judicial mind.

14. Man who always goes to sleep.

“These people represent the general public. Their verdict is the sure forecast of the verdict of the general public. There is not a person among them whose opinion is not valuable to me; but the man whom I most depend upon—the man whom I watch with the deepest solicitude—the man does most toward deciding me as to whether I shall publish the book or burn it, is the man who always goes to sleep. If he drops off within fifteen minutes, I burn the book; if he keeps awake three-quarters of an hour, I publish—and I publish with the greatest confidence, too. For the intent of my works is to entertain; and by making this man comfortable on a sofa and timing him, I can tell within a shade or two what degree of success I am going to achieve” (from Who Is Mark Twain?)

Who is our audience? While the notion of “art for art’s sake” certainly has its place, at some point writers must ask themselves what they really hope to accomplish by putting words on paper. If you’re writing fiction (be it a potboiler or more serious “literary fiction”), the story had better be engaging, otherwise you’ll likely lose your readers before you’ve begun.

The same is true for non-fiction. Although the purpose of your writing could be simply telling a true story or providing information, there are effective and ineffective ways of doing this. Historical writing, for example, often lands somewhere on the extremes of the audience-engagement spectrum: either it’s a compelling narrative that breathes life into figures from the past, or it’s as dead as Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones.

So remember Twain’s analogy, and no matter what we are writing, let’s all try to keep that drowsy fellow on the sofa awake.

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