Writing Class

An opportunity presented itself to me this winter. I found out about a program at the local university called the “Senior Passport.”

I hate to admit that I celebrated my “Medicare Birthday” this year but being 65 has given me some new opportunities. I signed up to audit a class on writing short stories. It has been a wonderful experience.

Each Monday, we meet and discuss short stories and present short stories we have written since the previous class. The professor packs the classes full of information and activities. Fortunately, we are a small group so there is time to get most of it in.

Each week, one of the students presents a short story to the class. The story I chose was “Train” by Alice Munro. With the stories, we discuss the author’s background, the story plot and twists, the characters and the setting.

Then we critique short stories we have written. This is my favorite part. It is fun to read what other people have written and to offer suggestions to one another. The other students are all fairly young but they offer many good suggestions on how I can improve my stories and in turn, I offer my opinions on their stories.

Writing in a group has a way of bringing people together, of bonding with one another. Being the “old lady” of the class, when we first met, the others were more interested in looking at their i-Phones than chatting during break. But as we began to share our stories, we talked to each other more. We got to know one another through our writing.

When I presented my story about growing up in small town America in the 1950’s, many of the other students came up to me afterwards with comments. One young man asked me about Roger Maris. He lived in Fargo, SD, for awhile and told me about a museum dedicated to Roger Maris in that town. We talked about the excerpt from my story (below) and shared some laughs.

Leaving their dogs to roam the streets, they’d head to the theater four blocks away.  Once inside, they bounced on the padded flip-down seats and waited for the lights to dim. “I hope they show Bugs Bunny today.” Gloria grabbed a handful of popcorn from the bag.

“I like Woody Woodpecker best,” Bob said.  They both made the classic “Hahaha-ha-ha” laugh of the cartoon character.

            The bouncing stopped as they heard the whirl of the reels begin. A black and white circle with a grid appeared on the screen, “Please Stand By.” They clapped their hands. A countdown flashed with numbers and they chanted, “Five, four, three, two, one.” Then the newsreel announcing “News of the Day.” Black and white pictures appeared on the big screen. Large white letters announced that Queen Elizabeth christened a ship somewhere. Roger Maris hit another home run.

            “I love Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle,” she whispered to Bob.

Another student talked to me about anorexia, a topic I breach in my story.

Flipping to the next page, she found several greeting cards. “Happy 6th Birthday” in big red letters.  A chubby cheeked girl in pink drawn holding a bunny on the front of another said, “You’re Turning Six!” One caught her eyes in particular. It was from her big sister, Barbara. She recognized the exact loops, uniform and clear, marking her signature. Always perfect. Her sister was ten years older than she and the oldest, making her the boss of the family. Whatever Barbara wanted, she got. She was talented, smart and pretty. But she was also a tyrant.

Gloria thought she probably had anorexia. Back in 1957, no one knew about anorexia nervosa. Mental illness was considered a character flaw. Barbara hid her problem from adults, but the siblings knew something was amiss.  She ate a lot of celery.

Others talked to me about my story in general and commented on what they liked about it as well as some pitfalls in my writing. It was interesting to see how the story brought us together.

Writing is a powerful tool. We are reading “Fortune Smiles” a book by Adam Johnson, a Pulitzer prize winner. His short stories are very intriguing. Our professor asked if we thought writing was just for entertainment or was there a deeper purpose? Most of us agreed that writing can change minds and promote social justice. Why else would tyrannical governments burn books if the words inside didn’t offer threat?

Books like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the plight of slavery to the forefront. Dozens of books including “To Kill a Mockingbird” shed light on the law and people’s prejudices. The short stories in Johnson’s book touch on topics such as cancer/death and dying, living with a disabled wife, pedophilia, and the Cold War attitude of an East German prison warden.

The class has given further proof that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The most exhilarating feeling for me is when my writing touches a soul. I may curse the Muses and wonder why I were given this “need to write” but then, once in a while, something magical happens and people are influenced by something I’ve written.

Have you ever had that happen? Tell me about it.

 

 

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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

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.

Making Dialogue Work for You

Critique groups like to use certain words and labels when gathering to discuss manuscripts. POV (point of view), “beats,” “tags” and “show, don’t tell” are a few of our favorites.

A discussion on dialogue tags and descriptive beats came up at our critique group yesterday. There was some confusion as to what each is. One person even thought that the words were interchangeable.

A dialogue tag is when a word is used to describe the manner in which a character is speaking. For example:
“Wait,” Bob shouted.
“Wait,” Sally whimpered.
“Wait,” Grandma hesitated.

The dialogue tag is “telling” the reader how the character is saying the words.

When I was a child in elementary school, our teachers encouraged the use of dialogue tags. It was frowned on to have too many “saids” and “asks” in our stories.

Nowadays, it is believed that the reader doesn’t really notice the dialogue tags, so “said” is preferred. Some editors go as far as to say that dialogue tags are distracting and confusing. The action of the scene or the emotion of the character should be apparent if the writing is clean and concise. There is no need to say “Bob shouted” if the story tells the reader that Bob is running down the street after his estranged girlfriend who has just driven off in his new Corvette.

“Beats” are used to move the action along or to enhance the emotions of the dialogue. No “said” is needed. A “beat” will indicate who the speaker is while showing action. It is “show, not tell.”
“Wait.” Bob ran, waving his arms, as Jill drove off in his brand-new red Corvette.
“Wait.” Sally wiped a tear from her eye.
“Wait.” Grandma stopped as she tried to maneuver her cane through the revolving door.

What techniques do you use to keep dialogue moving?

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