Excuses, Excuses, Excuses

What prevents us from writing?  Why can’t we write at times?  We come up with all kinds of excuses.

Excuse #1  “I am too busy.”

Being too busy means you don’t want to do it.  If we really want to do something, we make the time; we prioritize.

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Excuse #2  Children and other distractions.

I have a friend who has 11 children and has managed to write three novels in the past couple of years.  Her advice? Write when you can, even if for just a few minutes before bed or after getting the children off to school and the baby is sleeping.  Keep your workload expectations low, but be persistent in writing every day.  Some days writing is squeezed into 5 minute intervals.  Other days longer periods are possible.

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Excuse #3 Fear of failure.

Sometimes our expectations are too high so we don’t write because we are afraid we will “fail.” Maybe we think we aren’t good enough, that we don’t deserve to be a writer.  When we let the fear of failure stop us, we are focused on the end product, not the process of creativity.  We have forgotten how much fun it is just to write.  Overcome fear by doing.  Sit down and write just for fun and see what happens.

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Excuse #4 “I am not inspired.”

What are you waiting for?  A cloud to open up and the sun to shine down on you?  By thinking you are uninspired, you are missing the things that could be inspiration for you.  Clear your head of the negativity and look around.  There is inspiration everywhere.  Erma Bombeck used to write about mundane things like cookie sheets.  Use your imagination.  Try some writing prompts and see where they lead.  Image

Excuse #5 “This is not the right moment.”

When is the “right moment?”  Waiting for the bus, sitting in the airport, taking a coffee break at work–consider all the times you are doing nothing.  I tend to “write” in the shower.  Some of my best ideas come to me in the morning as I get ready for work.  I mull them over in my mind during the day, then come home and put them down on paper.  Sometimes I make little notes throughout the day so I don’t forget a particular scene or dialogue that I have thought of in the course of my work.

Woody Allen said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”  Show up in your moment and write.  Worry about the rewrite later.  Get it down on paper.

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Excuse #6  Writers’ Block

I may be an exception, but I haven’t experienced writers’ block, unless I don’t have a clear idea of what it is.  I have had times when I didn’t know what to write next, but it soon passed as I relaxed or distracted myself momentarily.  I have written scenes where suddenly I don’t know what happens next, but I keep writing through it, producing many poor images and sentences until finally, my writing breaks through.  I think the answer to writers’ block is to relax and don’t put expectations on your writing at that point.  Your story will come back.  Don’t give up.  Keep writing.  “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” (Thomas Edison) Instead, dress your writers’ block in a frilly pink princess dress and top it off with a sparkly tiara.  Relax and enjoy the ride.

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Excuse #7 “My idea isn’t original enough.”

“There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Yet, everything is new when seen through different eyes.

One day I told a friend that I felt like I was regurgitating ideas that others had before me.  I didn’t feel like my material was “fresh.”  Other people had written about the same topic. (I was writing a non-fiction piece at the time.)  My friend, a photographer, listened and put it in perspective for me. “I can take a photo of the Grand Canyon that hundreds of other photographers have taken, but mine will be unique.” She explained that we all have a “different eye” or take on things.

Our ideas may seem similar, but unless you plagiarize another’s works, your writing is original.  So what if we both write about a big red barn in the middle of Kansas?  The words we use, the images we create, will be slightly different.

Excuse #8  “I need to do more research.”

Whether you think you need to do marketing research or content research, don’t let it stop your writing.

I love to do content research and it shows in some of my non-fiction pieces.  When I write non-fiction, research is my favorite part.  There are times I find so much material for a story, I get lost in the research and forget about writing the story.  I enjoy learning new things or finding more depth in a subject I am familiar with.  I have to force myself to stop and write the article or story.

As for marketing research, I don’t care for it.  About the extent of my marketing research is looking at a Writers Market now and then.  I have friends who frequent the book stores and look up books in their genre, study the book, checking who published it, reading the first line of each chapter, then going home and googling the author(s).  I feel guilty for not doing the same, but I find it tedious and uninteresting.  It may hinder my “success” to a certain extent, but not enough for me to change my behavior.

It seems the best thing to do is to set aside time for both writing and research.  One author I know spends one day a week doing marketing research and the rest of the week she writes.

I attended a writers’ workshop once in my early years where the speaker said, “Getting published is 40% writing and 60% marketing.”  Unsure where he got his statistics, I preferred not to pay attention to those numbers.

Maybe I’m like my writer-friend in Chicago who believed her writing was “channeled” to her and therefore couldn’t be edited. Maybe I am living in Lala-land, not accepting that I need to do more marketing research.  For now, I will stick to writing and let the chips fall where they may.

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Excuse #9 “Paying the bills is more important than writing.”

“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”  ―     Nassim Nicholas Taleb

We all need an income in order to live.  Many of us have regular jobs.  I, for one, am fortunate at this stage of my life that I have the freedom to work a flexible schedule, only working a couple days a week, allowing time to write on my days off.  (Of course, I also have errands to run and household chores to do like everyone else.)  The trap is–“How much money do I need?”  I can work more often if I choose, but that cuts into my writing time.  It’s a double-edged sword.  Nursing pays much better than writing, but I am more passionate about writing.  I am blessed to have these options.  I enjoy being a nurse, especially in the NICU with the tiny babies, but writing is my addiction.  There have been times when it has been busy at work and I have been asked to come in.  Rather than turning them down, I have thought about the paycheck and it has trumped writing that day.

The key here is priority.  If you have a healthy attitude towards money and don’t think you need all the gadgets with the bells and whistles, then your writing will not suffer.  People who have full-time jobs still manage to find time to write.  It is important to them, so they find the time.

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Excuse #10 _____________ (Fill in the blank)

What is your excuse for not writing?

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Critique Group, Marketing Style

The last group I will discuss is a well-organized critique group for fiction writers.  This group was formed out of a larger group called the Night-Writers.

The Night-Writers welcomes all writers, no matter the genre. They have a guest speaker at each monthly meeting. The focus is more on the speakers and marketing than on writing. A marketing firm spearheads the main group. They do marketing and book production for authors.

The fiction writers critique group is a part of the Night-Writers and focuses on writing. An author doesn’t have to employ the marketing firm to be a part of the critique group or to attend the general Night-Writer meetings.

We meet once a month on a Sunday afternoon in the basement of a local bookstore.  Our leader is a benevolent tyrant.  He makes the “rules” clear at the beginning of the meeting so there is no doubt that we are there for business.  Our business is critiquing and we do it in a well-organized, fair way, allowing all members to give input.  Our benevolent tyrant expects us to “do our homework” and review the stories prior to coming together on Sunday.  He sends out two stories each month by email and we use a format that he developed to critique the stories.  This means only two people get their stories read at the meeting, but that’s OK because my story will be read eventually and it will have a well thought out critique with helpful suggestions that I can take or leave.  We read the stories at home at our leisure and fill out the critique sheets. When we get together at the bookstore, we go around the table and give a verbal critique, then hand our written ones to the author.  After everyone is done, the author gets to speak to any misunderstandings of his/her story.  Each person is allowed 5-6 minutes to give the critique and our benevolent tyrant sets a timer so all know when 5-minutes is up.  An extra minute may be added on if the group agrees to it. Time's up
Pros: The critique group has good leadership with fair, clear objectives. It meets regularly at the same place and time each month. Critiques are thorough and follow a standardized format. The group has approximately 12 consistent members who attend regularly. The group welcomes new members. Impartial, non-judgmental criteria are used for critiques and mean-spirited language is not tolerated. No one dominates the group as verbal input is timed, allowing 5-6 minutes per person, including the leader. Critiquing others’ works helps the writer grow and develop his/her own writing style. The pieces that are critiqued can be several pages long, allowing for a more complete vision of the story. On occasion, the group discusses the mechanics of writing, touching on topics such as point-of-view, use of dialogue or story structure.
Cons: Only two stories can be critiqued at each monthly meeting due to the length of the submitted material and the time it takes to go through it. Writers may end up doing more editing than writing.
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Critique Group, Publisher Style

Today I will discuss another group I belong to but do not consistently attend.  It is a  critique group and can be very helpful.

This group varies from meeting to meeting. The leader is a publisher who promotes writing, but her base is very large, so attendance varies from meeting to meeting. It is a good group with published and non-published authors in attendance. It is a fun, “campy” group with people of varying ages and backgrounds. Young law students, a high school math teacher, counselors, nurses, stay-at-home moms all have a say in the group. We meet in the evening at a coffeehouse where refreshments and food are available. The meetings begin with a brief explanation by the publisher and introductions, followed by a short writing prompt. We share what we have written from the prompt if we choose.

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We are invited to bring a few pages of what we are working on. If we want a critique, we make 10 copies to pass around for people to read. After the pages are read and marked on, we go around and offer our opinions. The copies are returned to the authors of the stories.

People are generally very kind, starting with what they like and accenting the positive. They also share the parts that they think could use some work.

Pros: This critique group promotes writing and offers clear, non-threatening suggestions for the stories presented. It meets on a regular basis in the evening for 1-1 1/2 hours. Refreshments are available. The stories are read by people from various backgrounds and education. The leader is a publisher who may show an interest in your story. All genres and writing styles are read by the members. People are friendly and unintimidating.
Cons: It is difficult to get to know people well because of the inconsistent membership. Some meetings are attended by 5-6 people and other times, up to 15 plus. The group may try to do too much, having writing prompts and critique sessions. Having both at one meeting may limit adequate time to do either well.

I like to attend this group when I have material worth reading because I feel they give a fair, impartial critique.  I have had stories that I thought were dazzling, but the group input wasn’t as glowing as I anticipated.  This group keeps me grounded while making me feel like my story is salvageable.  It encourages writers to tweak their work without shooting them down.

Writers’ Groups Part II -Scene II

By the time you finish reading this, there will be no doubt as to whether the group described is the Good, the Bad or the Ugly.

Upon leaving Chicagoland, I found a group near my new home that met at a library twice a month.  This group was the polar opposite of my Illinois group which was disorganized but nurturing. The new group was led by a strong, opinionated person.  She ruled with an iron fist and led the group like a drill sergeant.  I didn’t last long in this group.  I didn’t like going home, feeling as if I was a bad writer.  I left every meeting thinking, “”What am I doing this for anyway?”  There were no “warm fuzzies” in the group and it was the leader’s way or the highway.

At one meeting, I had the nerve to read a story I had written in present tense.  Oh, my gosh!  The sky was falling.  How dare I!  “You never, never, ever write in the present tense!” I was told.  Really?  A week later, I found a novel on the NY Best Seller List that was written entirely in present tense.

After three sessions with this group, I left.  Another newbie left me with.  She had had some success publishing in magazines and was a wonderful storyteller from Kentucky, but she felt shot down all the time, too.  In retrospect, we both wished we had asked how many people in the group had been published.  (I have a feeling that my Kentucky friend was the only one in the group of 12-14.  I sincerely doubt the leader was published.)  

What bothers me is this woman is still out there, gathering disciples who believe her drivel, jumping off cliffs like lemurs.

Pros: This group met regularly at the same location.  The group was made up of a core group that always attended the meetings.  I suppose most of them liked to write, but may have had their fires extinguished with time or became clones of the leader, following her rules and never ever writing in present tense.

Cons: This group was very non-supportive of varying writing styles, genres and ideas.  There was no “give and take” or sharing.  The leader was the end-all.  Input from others was limited, often mimicking the opinions of the leader.

This group is an example of one person’s ego driving the agenda. Members viewed the leader as the expert and didn’t question her abilities. If you ever encounter a group like this, my advice is to run away!

thVY55MTI6 “Never, ever write in present tense, my little pretty!”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly–Writers’ Groups PART II

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In the last post, I describe my favorite writing group, a generative group. We generate potential material at our meetings.  We do this by using writing exercises to hone our skills.  Some of our writing exercises have turned into magazine articles, short stories in anthologies and ideas for books. 

Today I want to tell you about the very first writers’ group I was in. (I plan to feature a different group each time and list the pros and cons of each.)

My first experience with a writers’ group occurred when I lived in the Chicago suburbs.  I was having difficulty making friends and I was homesick for Nebraska.  I found a course that was being taught at a community college called “How to Get Published.” 

Like most beginning authors, I had had a modicum of success writing journal articles and newsletters for free.  I had several clips of such material to send to potential publishers.  I also had started a collection of rejection letters.  The community college class peaked my interest and I signed up.

The class was interesting and I enjoyed it very much.  As it happens when people share their writing in a group, we got to know each other through our stories.  When the class was over, I was approached by four classmates who asked if I would be interested in forming a writers’ group with them.  I was delighted. 

We met about every two weeks, usually in Lisle or Bolingbrook, suburbs about 20 minutes south of where I lived.  It was great fun but we were novices and had no clue what we were doing.  Our “leader” was a New Ager who believed her writing was channeled to her and required no revision.  We had no structure in the group and our meetings consisted of bringing a story we wrote, reading it and listening to others’ opinions of it.  As I look back, I guess I would classify it as a loosely based critique group.  We were spinning our wheels but not getting anywhere.

Pros: We shared a love of writing and were willing to share our work.  We were non-judgmental and, other than our channeled leader, we were open to suggestions and changes.  We met on a regular basis in a somewhat consistent meeting place.  The group was made up of the same four people who got to know each other well.

Cons: We lacked leadership and expertise.  We were muzzled by a leader who believed no editing was required of her works, but our work required plenty of editing.  (We were the unfortunate ones without a spiritual guide helping us write.) We had no goals or measurable objectives with which to evaluate our progress or lack thereof.

What was your first experience in a writers’ group like?

Writers’ Groups

Are you a member of a writers’ group? What is your group like? Does it help you hone your skills? Is it a critique group? What do you get out of it? What are the pros and cons?

When I read On Writing by Stephen King, I was left with the distinct impression that Stephen King did not hold much stock in writers’ groups. He said, “It is the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.”

I belong to a writers’ group and have belonged to others in the past. I have found them useful for honing my skills and for finding out information about the world of publishing. The main group I am currently in consists of 6-7 women who gather once or twice a month and do writing exercises to improve our technique and to light up our imaginations. I have been with the group for nearly 15 years.
There are 5 benefits of my belonging to this group:
1.) Accountability – At the beginning of each meeting, we go around the table and tell what we have been doing lately. We talk about our current writing projects, published works and the goals we are working on.
2.) Practical skills – We do writing exercises to hone our skills. We spend 10-15 minutes writing from a prompt that someone has developed for the meeting. We take turns coming up with the writing exercises. If we are at a loss for prompts (or are just plain lazy), we use the Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves.
3.) Support – We encourage each other to write. We share leads regarding possible publications for our work, possible agents, possible content. We provide positive reinforcement, focusing on member strengths.
4.) Group activities – We read at events such as John C Fremont Days in the Chautauqua tent and other local community events.
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5.) Environments – Typically our monthly meetings are held at a home or at a local coffee house, but once a year, we plan a retreat for our group. We choose a weekend that is available to all of the members, then we select a site. For many years, we met at a monastery “out in the middle of nowhere.” It was a wonderful place to write without distraction (and the monks fed us well.) That venue is no longer a “best kept secret” and it is difficult to book a weekend, so we are more creative in our locations.
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We have gone to a church camp during the winter, to the beautiful Lied Center in Nebraska City, and to the Cather home in Red Cloud, Nebraska. As we travel throughout the state, we discover the writing of our native authors such as Bess Streeter Aldrich, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz and Emma Pound.
We had the privilege of writing at Bess Streeter Aldrich’s actual kitchen table in her home in Elmwood, Nebraska. And, after drawing names for the bedrooms, I slept in Willa Cather’s bedroom at our last retreat in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
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I feel my writers’ group is invaluable. They have been my inspiration and support and I hope to continue growing with them.

Next time I will discuss groups that I have not found so helpful.