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.
A while ago a friend and I went to see Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet perform a contemporary collection called “American Legends.” I spent most of my childhood dancing ballet, just quitting before high school to focus on other interests. Yet, while I had seen my share of classical ballet and contemporary (modern) dance, this was the first time I had been to a contemporary ballet, and I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. The highlight of the show (and frankly, the reason we chose to attend this particular performance) was the final ballet, Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.”
I loved it; smiled the whole time. And, once I got past the fact that the women were in heels, and the men in tuxes, it occurred to me that in spite of the obvious costume and music departures, when it came right down to it, contemporary ballet was still, essentially, ballet. The steps, the form, the structure were all there under the long skirts and spinning mirror ball.
During my dancing years I can’t remember how many times I heard someone preach, “if you can dance ballet well, you can dance anything well.” Which was true, at least for me. Once I had a basic mastery of the discipline of ballet; jazz, modern, tap, street funk (yes, I grew up in the 80-90s, and yes, I danced a mean “running man”) were a breeze. And, I can’t help but think that writing well is not dissimilar.
The argument about whether or not to teach grammar was rolling around when I was studying education, and I imagine it still rages. Some of my English classmates at Utah State used to argue that really good writers can write around the grammar and usage areas they are unfamiliar with, and while I definitely see their point, I also think that, like dancing ballet, if you can master the structure, the discipline of writing, then the rest is a breeze.
That is not to say that I have always felt this way. In fact, I was vehemently annoyed with much of the grammar instruction during my school years and received middling to poor grades on many papers before I began to give in to direction on how to structure an essay. My general disinterest in details has made me inclined to be very excited about whatever point I wanted to make, or story I wanted to tell—often at the expense of telling them well. I specifically remember sitting down with an English professor to talk about a paper and having him tell me that my ideas were fantastic…but that it might be a good idea to print out my paper and actually read through it once before handing it in. As the years have passed, however, I have seen firsthand the benefits of understanding what makes good, clean, clear writing and applying it.
Make no mistake, the idea is essential, but in order to express it, to really communicate the thought or the story, it is crucial that a writer knows, technically, how to write it with skill. After all, knowing what you want to dance is only as important as knowing how to dance it, and dance it well.