Just heard today that my essay, “The Back Row,” won first place in the 2016 Mormon Lit Blitz Competition! I’m feeling honored as there were so many excellent pieces this year. This was a fun opportunity to write for a specific audience and to enjoy participating in the growing arena of Mormon writers. Thanks to all who voted! See the official post here for runners up and to enjoy the other finalists’ pieces if you haven’t had the chance.
This year I entered the Mormon Lit Bliz competition, and was selected as a finalist for my essay “The Back Row.” Very excited about it! You can read my essay here. There were a lot of great entries by other Mormon authors as well. You can read through and vote for you favorites here if you get time.
This post is to celebrate a good writers group–largely due to the fact that I love my current group so much. We are (mostly) pictured above at group member and excellent author Emily Bleeker‘s (center) launch party for her second book WHEN I’M GONE.
Unfortunately, not all writers’ groups are created equal. Here are some things I suggest looking for/establishing in a group.
Atmosphere of Safety and Respect
As authors, our work is highly personal, and sharing it with others can be daunting. It’s important to find a group where you can feel comfortable sharing and where you know members of the group are going to treat you and work with encouragement and respect. Some of our members have read their work aloud for the first time in our group–and are now sharing more regularly and working to branch out to wider audiences. A writers’ group should be a place where you can build confidence and not the reverse.
Structure and Schedule
It’s important to find a group that works best for you and your time constraints. Our group meets once a month at a central location for (a strict) two hours.
Also the meeting itself can take on a variety of purposes. Some groups merely read their work. Some actually take time to write at the group–sharing prompts and ideas to jump-start inspiration.
We have found what works best for us is for each member to share (usually aloud) excerpts or pieces of writing they have completed, and then we give them (constructive) feedback as a group. We set goals for the following month–which can be anything from word count to making submissions or writing query letters.
Someone once told me that the most reliable reviews were mixed reviews. Anything all bad or all good is rarely reliable. I feel the same applies to feedback from fellow writers/readers. A good reader should always be able to find something good about your piece and almost always something that can be improved. Don’t ask people to read your work and expect them to only have good things to say. You will not be able to become a stronger writer if you are unwilling to see the ways you can change and improve.
Learn to trust your instincts so that you can recognize which criticism is really going to help you improve your work and which is subjective or unnecessary. Then when you find peers whose feedback most often feels productive you know you’ve found a good group.
Some writers find it productive to meet entirely with authors who are at the same place in their writing career, or who write the same genre. I kind of think that good writing is good writing. We have everything from relative beginners to successful published authors. We write everything from women’s fiction to middle grade, to fantasy, to picture books and poetry. and each group member has something original to add.
I have learned so much from my writers’ group friends, and I know that each of us has come along way in our writing as a result of our association. I highly recommend starting/joining a group of your own.
This week I started reading Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. While I haven’t made enough headway to fully recommend the book, I came across something I quite liked early on when the protagonist, Serena Frome, describes her reading tastes.
My needs were simple. I didn’t bother much with themes or felicitous phrases and skipped fine descriptions of weather, landscapes and interiors. I wanted characters I could believe in, and I wanted to be made curious about what was to happen to them. Generally, I preferred people to be falling in and out of love, but I didn’t mind so much if they tried their hand at something else. It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end. Novels without female characters were a lifeless desert. Conrad was beyond my consideration, as were most stories by Kipling and Hemingway. Nor was I impressed by reputations. I read anything I saw lying around. Pulp fiction, great literature and anything in between—I gave them all the same rough treatment.
For the most part, I share these preferences. I have mentioned before, I think, that duty rarely factors into my reading choices. Like Serena, I care little for names or reputations. I read across genres; want genuine, relatable characters; and I wholeheartedly agree that books/movies without women/girls (of which there are far too many, in my opinion) are “lifeless deserts.” I am also admittedly if embarrassingly romantic. I like a love story, and I rarely read (or write) anything without one.
While I do read very fast and skim unnecessary descriptions, I can appreciate “themes” on occasion if they don’t overshadow plot too much. I also can set aside other preferences if the writing is particularly beautiful, or there are symbols to decode. Otherwise, her statement could just as well be mine. Can you relate to this as well? What are your reading preferences?
I had the opportunity to do a reading at the Homegrown Writers event at the Lake Villa Library last week! It is always fun to get out and share work with other authors. Also in attendance was my good friend and excellent author Emily Bleeker. Check out her women’s fiction. Website: http://emilybleeker.com/.
This week’s quote comes from a book called Wonder by R.J. Palacio. My nine-year-old suggested (read:commanded) that I read this, and it sparked a number of discussions between the two of us about school, bullying, feeling different, and especially being kind. It is a story about a boy with a facial deformity who leaves the comfort of his safe, home-schooled life to attend middle school for the first time, but also extends outward to include the thoughts and feelings of those who surround and are influenced by him. It is a great reminder that even though some challenges may be more visible than others, everyone struggles with something…and that we could all afford to be gentler with each other. The book is sometimes painful, but ultimately uplifting and motivating. The quote is part of a speech given by the school’s principal at a year-end graduation ceremony.
“In the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary–the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.”
My quote this week comes from a book I recently started called Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede–a favorite author of mine in my younger days. This is a fun story about an impressionable young girl and her family set in a kind of magical alternate version of the American West. The quote is an exchange that happens when the local teacher meets her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Rothmer, and a portion of their fourteen children for the first time.
“Pleased to meet you,” Miss Ochiba said. She and Mama looked at each other long and hard, and then they each gave a little nod, as if they’d had a whole conversation and both had come away satisfied. “These will be your children,” Miss Ochiba went on as if there’d been no slightest pause. “They’ve been saying you have a good-sized family.”
“Any size that’s wanted is good,” Mama said, and then told her our names.”
This is a pretty simple quote, but stood out to me for a few reasons. One is–I can’t help but gush–we had our third child, a baby girl (pictured) a couple months ago! She came seven weeks early, but is doing really well, and we are very pleased with her. Because she spent a couple weeks in the hospital, I spent a certain amount of time talking about her and our family to others, and fielded a lot of questions about why her brothers are so much older than she is (six and eight). The questions were kindly meant, and sometimes I gave short answers, and other times explained that she was born after a series of losses for our family.
Either way, it has occurred to me over the years that there just isn’t one perfect mold–one exact formula for what makes a good family. Good is, as Mrs. Rothmer points out, entirely a matter of choice, and, I would add, situation.
I also like this quote, and this book in general, because it deals with the varied effects of what “they’ve been saying,” or the words and opinions, often unwanted and unsolicited, of others. The main character, Eff, spends her life dealing with and being affected by what others say and how they treat her because of what they believe it means to be a thirteenth child. Her experiences seem to negate the old adage about sticks and stones, and affirm that words can indeed hurt.
Coming from a social media world, where opinions are readily expressed and spread, I liked this reminder that no matter how many children you have, whether or not you have any, or are even married, or whether or not your family fits the “mold.” What you’ve got can still be good–and the only opinions on the subject that really matter are your own.
Today my quote comes from a YA fantasy I’m reading called The Kiss of Deception. It is the first in a new series by Mary E. Pearson, and while I admit it was a little slow-going for me at first, this book has a lot to offer in the way of excellent characters, and some compelling twists and turns. The magic here is subtle which, in this case, grounds and makes it more plausible. My quote today is taken from a part in the story where Lia, the main character, is learning more about her possible “gift” from a wise new acquaintance.
“The truths of the world wish to be known, but they won’t force themselves upon you the way lies will. They’ll court you, whisper to you, play behind your eyelids, slip inside and warm your blood, dance along your spine and caress your neck until your flesh rises in bumps…
And sometimes it prowls here, heavy in your gut…that is the truth wishing to be known.”
Isn’t this a nice piece of writing? I feel I agree. It seems to me that any new truth I come across rarely announces itself…but more gradually, steadily makes itself known.
Only in recent years have I begun a tentative toe-dipping back into the waters of the biography after becoming mostly disillusioned with the genre during my school days. Back then, any assignment to research some figure of choice became a quest, in my mind, to find a hero–someone I could hold up as a standard, whose life philosophy I could adopt and whose picture I could hang on my wall.
Inevitably, I came up disappointed– Shakespeare was likely an adulterer with questionable authorship, Beethoven a moody, unfaithful misanthrope, and even the seemingly flawless Audrey Hepburn was sometimes troubled and possibly anorexic. I became frustrated with what I deemed the disparity between the lives and the work of my favorite artists, and in the long run, decided I’d just rather not know their life details–instead remaining happily naive of the flaws and challenges of such persons of note.
It is only lately that I have returned to the genre–with a rather altered view. Therefore, picking up Leonard Cohen’s biography the other day had little to do with any quest for a hero. In fact, I can safely say that not only am I no Cohen expert, but anyone would be hard-pressed to even call me much of a fan. I am only vaguely familiar with his songs, and know next to nothing of him and his career as a singer/songwriter/author. My interest in the man lies in the fact that he was responsible for penning, in a few lines of song lyrics, words that have not only been immensely significant to me, but have become a sort of life philosophy. These are from his song, “Anthem.”
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
These lyrics express why my philosophy toward biography has changed over years. I used to believe that the value in any life existed solely in its merits–its smooth, unblemished surfaces. However, as Cohen so accurately suggests–there is no such thing as “unblemished” in ordinary humanity: “There is” rather, “a crack in everything. And, not only are the cracks, the flaws, the mistakes inevitable, but they are necessary. They are “how the light gets in,” the light of experience, wisdom, humility, redemption, and hope.
So, perhaps it is the pain of error, the carrying of personal shortcomings, the long weary wading through the muddy paths of life that allowed these people to create art–to forget their own impossible “perfect offering” and in pressing forward in a flawed, human way, to make room for something divine.
I came across this article in The Atlantic today. On a side note, you may have noticed that I post frequently from The Atlantic. Sorry. This is one of the only periodicals I frequent on a daily basis…and they just have great stuff. Expect to see more in the future.
Anyhow. I saw the article about how story spoilers don’t really spoil stories and laughed, and for my part I mostly agree. Confession time: I am one of those people who really doesn’t have a problem reading the end of the book first. It’s not that I just can’t wait, per se, to know what happens. For me (and here’s another confession) I just feel no obligation to finish…or start for that matter…a book that isn’t worth my time.
So, occasionally, I will skim through the book to get a feel for whether or not I’m going to want to invest in this particular story. Is the character I like still around in the end, or does she die? Are things going to be wrapped up somewhat satisfactorily? Are they finally going to kiss or what? These are the questions I might like to have answered before I read something. Then, once these burning questions are out of the way, I can sit back and enjoy the story (or put it back on the shelf as the case may be).
I admit there have been times when I have been disappointed at a spoiled ending. Due to the fact that I am always a little behind the viewing curve when it comes to TV, and thanks to the wonderful world of social media, I learned of Matthew Crawley’s death in Downton Abbey long before I ever started watching season three. And while I was momentarily disappointed at the spoiler, I don’t think knowing the end made watching the season any less enjoyable.
I won’t deny that there can be something pretty great about being surprised by a twist or turn, but at the same time, I can’t help but think that if the book/film/tv program is really any good it will be worth watching regardless of whether or not the final outcome is clear.
What do you think? Does a spoiler really spoil the story?