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What a Writers Group Can Do For You

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For a long time I was one of those writers who holed herself up and wrote. And then submitted, got rejected, had an occasional acceptance, and went on to write a bit more. I was one of those who told herself, “I don’t need a critique group, or beta readers, or whatever. I’m fine on my own. Writing is meant to be done alone anyway.”

And when you look at “great” writers (whatever your personal definition of “great” is, and whoever you consider to be “great”), it’s difficult to imagine that Austen or Dickens or Twain or Faulkner or Hemingway ever gathered around a table and handed out copies of his latest work for others to give feedback on. But at the same time, don’t we also have that romantic notion of them hanging out in cafés with other writers or whatever? Having dinner parties or something? At the very least giving their families and friends a few pages to read now and then

Honestly, I haven’t done my homework here, so I have no idea how any of those writers worked, whether they closely guarded their manuscripts up until publication or shared them with others. But while I’m sure many writers do fine on their own and without input from anyone outside of an eventual editor (and if they self-publish, maybe not even that), over the last year I’ve personally discovered the great glory that is a writers group.

Each Thursday, barring holidays and any other personal obstacles, we meet to discuss our projects. Prior to Thursday, many of us email chapters or short stories or poems to the group for feedback. But some Thursdays we have nothing specific on the agenda. We might brainstorm through someone’s plot problem or just do some general shoring up of someone’s crushed ego in the face of multiple rejections.

Yesterday I received a rejection, and today I was still down about it. So down I didn’t even want to go to writers group; I figured I’d be bad company and utterly useless to my fellows. However, moping around the house was failing to make me feel any better, and so I decided to suck up and go. And my group met the challenge of giving me space while simultaneously drawing me in so that by the time I had to go pick up my son from school I was laughing and didn’t want to leave.

In short, a good writers group is like a good group of friends, but better than that—they’re a good group of friends that understands the particular foibles of being a writer. The highs and lows, the struggles and joys. And they can point out things that are in your blind spot. When you think you’ve written something stellar, your group can tell you gently and patiently that, yes, it’s good but still needs work after the first draft. It wasn’t born perfect. (We always think our babies are beautiful, but in writing they never are. All newborn novels are ugly.)

For the time being, I’ve shelved the project that was rejected, and again my group is very good about treading that line. They tell me it’s fine but also encourage me to come back to it later because it has potential. Gentle but firm pressure, like someone with a hand at your back urging you forward.

Of course, having the right group is key, too. A bad writers group is worse than none at all. I can’t help you there. I got lucky, basically tripping into this one. I connected with one member at a writing conference and she introduced me to the rest. Which just goes to show that writing conferences produce tangible rewards as well. But that’s another story.

Isolated Incidents

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I want to write a book with this title (though I’m sure at least one already exists; I didn’t look). It would be about how acts of kindness beget more kindness while acts of hatred beget more hatred. Think about how little it takes to make your day wonderful or awful. Someone friendly or unfriendly can make all the difference.

It’s not all that original a concept; the originality would have to come in at the plot level. But anyway, I already have too many projects on my plate! So this one will have to wait. Along with several others I have listed . . .

Stories Are Important

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I don’t think it can be done in a sentence.

Stories are important because we step into them and stand back at the same time. Stories are a liminal space, a threshold.

You know how we define ourselves by first defining others? That is the function of stories. The ancient myths taught people how to behave. You don’t, for example, cut a visitor’s legs off after offering him a bed to sleep in. We don’t do that, this myth told the Greeks. And we take retribution on those who don’t follow the rules of hospitality. This is fair and just.

Stories now do much the same, though on grander scales. We read and identify. This is the right thing to do, we say to ourselves. Yes, that’s a smart way to act. Or: No! Don’t do that! We are invested, but from a safe distance.

Liminal spaces are not meant to be inhabited indefinitely. We pass through them. They are fleeting. Stories are the same. We pass through them, sometimes many times because we really want to stay. But we cannot. That is part of their charm. A holiday is no longer a holiday if you stay. A story is no longer a story if you never come out of it. (Then it’s dementia or something, I suppose.)

Stories are important. There is no sentence to finish. One could list a lot of reasons, but there is no need. Stories are important. Period.

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“Ichabod Reed” Free on Amazon

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For the next few days (today through the 25th), my Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Ichabod Reed” is free on Amazon Kindle. You can pick it up here.

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The Great Unknown

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I’ll admit I had my doubts. I wasn’t wowed by “Trust You,” was moderately more pleased with “Hold On Forever,” and by the time he was giving out “I Think We’d Feel Good Together,” I was already suffering fatigue and thinking, Geez, I’ll just wait for the album. Which came out today. And still I hesitated, but curiosity and my love for Rob won out, and I “completed the album” on iTunes.

And . . . I really like it.

Okay, well, I took it with me on a walk. And I haven’t had a nice solo walk in a while, so my general pleasure at being able to get a walk in might have colored my feelings about the music. But still. When heard cohesively, The Great Unknown is pretty catchy. There’s a lot to dance to, if you like that kind of thing. Club mixes, anyone?

My problem with “Trust You” had been that it didn’t really sound like Rob to me, and there are songs on this album where I was definitely thinking, “Reminds me of Jason Mraz” and “Oh, how American Authors,” but at least vocally it sounded like Rob. And I like Jason Mraz and American Authors. ::shrug:: Anyway, “Trust You” has grown on me over time.

Also, while I’d sort of cringed at a live video of “I Think We’d Feel Good Together” (studio acoustics often suck, so I’ll handily blame that), the album version is better. It would have to be. I can’t imagine anything worse.

The upshot is, there wasn’t any song I felt the urge to skip. I always listen to the whole album a few times before deciding which songs I can live without, but I can usually tell right away if there’s one I’m not going to want on my permanent playlist. That hasn’t happened [yet]. Yes, even “Trust You” will stay on my iPod.

Nice work again, Mr. Tumnus Thomas.

Spectacular Settings

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Victoria Street, London, April 2012

Victoria Street, London, April 2012

The above is one of my favorite photos. It’s pretty mundane, I suppose, but it’s the wallpaper on my iPhone. I love London, and I was just walking down this street one day with the idea of going on the Eye, and couldn’t stop myself snapping this shot.

Today I’m participating in the WEP Challenge of “Spectacular Settings”. I think London is a spectacular setting. It’s where The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller is largely set (though, being in the 60s, there is no London Eye).

I love this photo because you get the London cabs and the red buses. You get the red phone box, too. It reminds me that what is exotic to a traveler is everyday for a slew of people. When I’m in London, for some people I’m the most interesting thing that happens in their day. (And that’s not me being self-important; I’ve actually been told that several times.) That’s weird to think about, considering I find all of London so very interesting. And of course, to myself I’m mundane.

This all relates to Peter in that he can’t live a regular life, much as he might want to. He’s a spy. What’s normal for him doesn’t translate to the every day. So when he falls in love with a cab driver, trying to straddle those worlds . . . It’s kind of a mess.

Anyway, this picture inspires me because it forces me to see things differently. It gives me perspective. It makes me think from a different direction, which is an exercise I enjoy. “Stranger in a strange land?” Well, it’s not so strange to the people who live there! Stranger in . . . a land. Though the more often I go, the less of a stranger I become.

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Q&A re: Little London

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Little London is my home office, and if you visit my Facebook page you can see a video tour of it. But the tour has prompted a few questions, which I’ll answer here.

Q: What book was that you’re reading to your son?

A: The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones. There are two paperback volumes, each containing two books, so four books total.

Q: What was that stuffed animal you said was your favorite as a kid?

A: That was C.W., named as such because his whiskers are made from candlewick. I bought him at a church bazar in 1984. He’s homemade, so there’s none other like him (that I’m aware of; for all I know, the church lady made a dozen).

Q: What are all those action figures?

A: Action figures.

If you’re looking for specifics, there are a lot of them, so . . . You probably most noticed the Sandman figures? And I’ve got a Loki, and some little Doctor Who figs . . . Oh, and Prince John from Disney’s Robin Hood because that’s one of my favorites.

Q: OMG, was that a real skull?!

A: No. Benny (as a friend of mine named him) is a Hamlet prop from The Globe.

Q: What’s the cauldron for?

A: Burning things.

Q: What are those dolls on top of that shelf?

A: Assuming you don’t mean the action figures, I’m guessing you mean “the boys,” which are Sherlock, John, and Jim. My best friend’s mother made them for me. And that book they’re standing behind is a pop-up book of London. I change the page periodically to keep them entertained. They used to go on adventures, but I became worried about their health, so they stay home most of the time now.

Q: Where did you get that big clock?

A: A clockmaker on Etsy.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask. I’ll answer any that seem valid.

To-Do List

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  1. Finish my WIP.
  2. Write the script I’ve been commissioned to write.

. . .

After that it’s all a muddle. There’s another script I’m co-writing that’s sort of floating around. There’s the optioned script that I don’t even know what’s going on with it and I’m afraid to find out. Peter has an editing deadline of November 10, but I haven’t heard from my editor, so . . . ??? And I should probably put another Sherlock Holmes story on my slate as well.

Life has been very interesting lately, and I do believe things happen for a reason, so I’m curious to see which way the currents take me.

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Visit Little London!

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So right now, if you go to my Facebook page, you can watch a video tour of my home office. It’s kind of long, and I’m embarrassed at the mess, but cinéma vérité, n’est pas? I couldn’t post the video here because of the length (file size too large). But I hope you’ll go have a look and enjoy.

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Now on Facebook!

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I’ve finally bitten the bullet and created an official Facebook page. Really, what I’ve done is succumbed to pressure. Everyone says you have to have a Facebook page, but I resisted because I already keep up with Twitter, and then have this site and my reviews site, and I dabble in Instagram . . . And I have an Amazon author page, and I think there’s a Goodreads page languishing somewhere . . . So much stuff! I need a staff to keep up with it all.

But anyway, I do hope you’ll join me on Facebook. I promise not to shower you with anything more than the fun, funny, and (hopefully) meaningful. Stuff for writers, and fans of mystery and YA fantasy. And occasional updates on my own stuff. That kind of thing.

Come on. You’re already on FB anyway. Just go click “Like.”

See there? I can apply a little pressure, too. 😛

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