Sunday, July 29, 2012

Writers' Groups

On Friday Glenn and and I visited our local writers’ group to talk with them about writing and getting published.  The Pig Tail Alley Writers’ Group has been in existence for eighteen years, quite a record.  Seven writers now make up the group and they have a wide range of interests from mysteries to YA.  One of the topics we discussed was writing groups themselves.  I thought I might cover some of the information here since I rarely see writers’ groups discussed anymore.

My writing critique partner and I began a group in Okeechobee about five years ago.  We decided from our experiences with other groups that the first thing we needed to do was come up with a set of guidelines, one not so rigid that it wouldn’t allow for writers with different goals, but would lay out critique etiquette as well as the manner in which the group would proceed.

Here’s a run-down on what we developed:

Provide constructive feedback to writers serious about developing their craft with the goal of writing something for presentation and publication.

Bring manuscripts in professional format: double spaced, indent, pages numbered, spell-checked.

(The goals of the writers may be different from one another, some may wish to get published, others not, but we believed one goal for all should be improving their writing.)

Listen graciously

Offer courteous, constructive criticism.

Help others improve their writing without rewriting their work.

Respect the person’s own writing voice.

(No one can improve with vague input such as “I liked it” if there are no specifics why it worked or what didn’t work and why.  We were adamant that others should not write for the person, however.)

Accept feedback as well intended.
Try to find something positive to say first.
Stay on track during discussion.

(Since we met only once a week and rarely saw one another between times, we found it necessary to take a few minutes at the beginning to catch up on news, both personal and professional. It was easier to stay on track during the readings and critiques.)

Respond to reader’s work after they’ve read. Do not interrupt during the reading.

Read five pages (double spaced) or less of your original work unless otherwise indicated.

(It’s necessary to provide your writing members with your work to be able to give precise feedback.  It’s difficult to critique writing if you only hear the work.)

If you’re bringing a guest, please let us know.

(We thought this was only polite.)

Groups may develop different guidelines especially with respect to number of pages read, but there are points here that can be applied to all writing groups especially with respect to feedback

Not all writing groups work equally well.  I suspect part of the problem may be that the members have not agreed upon a way to proceed.  Written guidelines help.

Have you joined a writers’ group, several?  What have been your experiences?  What have you found makes a group work well?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

That's done!

 My next door neighbor reminded me the other day that when the creek flooded last year and washed away my backyard that something good would come of all the water.  She was right.  A week ago while we were sipping wine in the Finger Lakes, a crew came in and began reconstructing our stream bank.  They stacked about 200 tons of boulders on the bank to shore it up and filled in with smaller rocks.   
The machine and the guys who made the stream bank sound again
 After tearing up most of our yard, they reseeded the area and now grass is coming in.  It looks beautiful.  Leveling the yard and the artistry of setting those boulders just so gives us a beautiful view of the creek with no fear the ground might let go under our feet.  The mayor stopped by in the middle of the construction and apologized for the noise.  I told him it was music to my ears.  The creek may, and probably will flood again, but it’s not likely those boulders can be moved from their position.  No more property erosion.
A different view of our stream now
 We topped off the week of stream bank renovation with the village community yard sale day on Saturday.  To sell my old earrings (of which I have soooooo many), I clipped each pair to one of my business cards.  Buyers commented on the cards, saying it was a clever way to advertize my books.  We’ll see if it brings in any future sales.  Hubby and I both set up a display of our books and we sold a few.  Most people were looking for fifty cent used paperbacks, but we persuaded some to purchase ours.

As for the kitchen renovation, I wish I could tell you we finished that also, but not so.  Glenn finished getting in our new floor and is now assembling the cabinets.  To complete the floor he had to remove both the sink and the stove.  Of course they went into the yard sale as we’ve purchased new ones.  They didn’t sell.  Anyone out there need a used stove and stainless sink?
That's all folks!

Next week?  Finish the cabinets, put in stove, sink, and dishwasher.  Yea.  A dishwasher.   Someday I’ll have a new kitchen.  Glenn told me not having a sink was just “a minor inconvenience.”  I may write a short story with that title.  In it the husband gets killed for uttering that phrase.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Away and Home

After a month of renovating (read “destructing”) our kitchen, the heat finally got to us.  We couldn’t see to work on the ceiling because every time we looked up, sweat filled our eyes.  Time for a break.  We headed west to the Finger Lakes region of New York.  I found a bed and breakfast overlooking the southern end of Seneca Lake where we could sit on our balcony, sipping wine and gazing at the boats as they sailed on the quiet waters. 

And, yes, I did say sipping wine, not beer.  Before I researched microbreweries for the first book in my brewing series (A Deadly Draught), my preferred drinks were scotch, wine, and tea, depending upon the occasion.  I have grown to respect craft-brewed beers, and I’ve even spent an evening or two with a low calorie cousin to the microbrews.  Stouts and ales are now on my list of drinks to love. 

But this trip returned me to my original love, wine.  How could it not?  We were in one of the premier grape-growing, wine-producing regions of the United States, if not the world.  The hills ascending from the waters of the lakes abound in grape vines, and wineries are around every turn.  They offer tastings of their product, and we complied. 

We intended to do wineries several afternoons, but found that one was enough.  We’d found wine we liked and purchased a few bottles.  We spent the rest of the time relaxing on our balcony and enjoying our purchases with some cheese and chocolate.

Not only did our mini-vacation return me to my earlier love of wine, but we also did something more radical.  We left our laptops at home.  Let me say that in a different way.  We did no writing for the week.  It was like quitting smoking.  I kept thinking there was something I needed to do, yet not doing it felt momentarily liberating.

It’s good to be back home.  Our yard is undergoing its own renovation as the village undertakes shoring up our stream bank eroded from last year’s flood.  Actually we have no real yard.  I had no idea how tracks on a piece of earth moving equipment can tear up the ground.  They promise to repair it when they have finished.  We’ll see. 

Everything else is as it was before we left.  Our cats are still as spoiled as they were and ungrateful we have come home to them.  The kitchen is still unfinished.  The weather is too hot to work in.  The best part?  Sipping a cold beer on my deck with my laptop in front of me.  Of course, the view isn’t as good as on vacation.  I’m looking at machinery, a pile of rocks, and clumps of dirt.  But there’s a creek out there somewhere.  I can hear it.

For all you dedicated writers out there, are you ever without your laptops?  Can you vacation without it?  Do you look forward to the time when your thoughts are magically transferred to your computer screen?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Mystery Writers: an interview with Editor Jean Henry Mead

Today I was fortunate enough to grab Jean Henry Mead away from her busy schedule to visit us and talk about The Mystery Writers.  Jean is a mystery/suspense novelist and a national award-winning photojournalist.  She has 17 fiction and non-fiction books to her credit.  The Mystery Writers is an unusual and unique kind of book which combines interviews with mystery writers in all subgenres of mystery with short essays from each of them. 

Welcome to the blog, Jean.  Tell us how you came up with the idea for the book and the path from conception to publication.

Thank you, Lesley. I’m happy to talk about The Mystery Writers. The interviews were originally published on my blog site: Mysterious Writers and I just couldn’t allow them to disappear into cyber space because they were so revealing and had so much substance.  I had published a similar book with Poisoned Pen Press and wanted to include a print edition this time, so I queried the writers I had interviewed and asked that they write articles about the craft of writing. A lot of them are bestsellers and award winners and their advice is priceless.

You’ve classified writers into subcategories such as Suspense, Humorous Mysteries, Amateur Sleuth, Crime, Western Mysteries. How did you come up with these categories?

Those are the mystery subgenres that the authors I interviewed write in, twelve in all. The writers are from as far away as Brazil, South Africa, Thailand, England and Canada as well as the U.S. So the book is unique.

I’m impressed with how you put together the book.  You could have simply reprinted interviews with these mystery writers and had a book chock full of information and advice, but you also included essays.  How did you talk all these busy people into writing an advice essay? Did you bribe them somehow?

No bribes. Two of them were on tour with a recent release and didn’t have time to meet my deadline, but Sue Grafton and Julie Garwood gave such great, candid interviews that I included them in the book. As for the 58 others who did write articles, I think writers are very generous people who are more than willing to help fledglings with their advice.

I agree with you about the generosity of writers.  Many of us feel we were given a leg up by other writers and feel we want to return that favor. 

Who is the target audience for the book?  Is it meant to have appeal to readers as well as writers?  Is it only for beginning writers and only for those writing mystery?

It’s actually for anyone who likes to read about writers and writing. The book is aimed primarily at struggling authors as well as veteran writers like myself. I wish a book like this one had been available when I began writing back in the dark ages (before computers).

How did each writer decide what aspect of writing to focus on?  Did you give them a topic or did they choose their favorite?

I told most of them what I’d like them to write, but I didn’t tell bestsellers like Lawrence Block, J.A. Jance, James Scott Bell or Vickie Hinze what to write. I knew whatever they wrote would be good.

What do you want the reader of this book to get out of it?

I want them to know what a professional writer’s life is really like, the struggles we go through, the failures and successes as well as the shortcuts the articles they’ve written provide. Writing, after all, is a way of life.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the range of writers and their areas of writing you chose.  I assume you did this on purpose with an eye to appealing to the novice as well as the experienced writer/reader of the book.

Yes, that’s true. I wanted the book to be as broad-based as possible and to appeal to writers in various levels of success, from beginners to journeymen authors. And in every genre, not just mystery subgenres.

How long did this enterprise take you?

It literally consumed my life for five months. When you’re working with sixty writers, you have emails flying back and forth, interviews sent out for updates, and requests for articles. When they all started coming back to me I felt as though I were buried in an avalanche and was afraid that I would lose some of them or put them in the wrong categories in the book But it thankfully turned out well. .

It did turn out well.  I have my copy on my desk.  I bought it in paper so I could mark it up, but the book is available in eformat as well.

Was there anything that surprised/pleased/shocked you as you put together the work?

I’m pleased with all of them and yes, some of the answers shocked and surprised me. The interview with South African noir writer Roger Smith tells of the terrible conditions in South Africa after Nelson Mandela left office. I was especially shocked by his descriptions of life for women and children in many areas of South Africa. I was also surprised by what Lawrence Block said when I asked him how he would like to be remembered. Larry is very blunt with his answers. Also, Sue Grafton’s comparison of herself with Kinsey Millhone is a real hoot.

I was disappointed to find no essay from you.  What would you like to say to writers about publishing, selling, promotion or writing?  This is your essay time.

The book isn’t about me, Lesley. I’m just the compiler and editor. But if I were to give advice, I’d probably say: Write what you’re passionate about and when you consider your manuscript finished, place it in a drawer for a month or more. When you take it out, read it as though someone else had written it, then edit and polish until it’s the very best you’re capable of writing because you only get one chance to make a first and lasting impression. If you can afford a freelance editor, by all means hire one, especially with a first book. It’s still possible for a first time author to connect with a legacy publisher although only one in 45,000 ever make it. Now that anyone can self-publish, it’s more important than ever to present your best writing because you usually only get one chance with a reader. If she doesn’t like your first book, you can be certain that she won’t pick up the second one you’ve written.

You seem to have a knack for figuring out what the reading public needs and likes.  The Mystery Writers fills a niche other books on writing do not.  One of the series you write features Logan and Cafferty, two feisty women of a certain age, senior sleuths.  Both of these endeavors indicate you have are wise to what’s happening in publishing.  Where do your ideas come from?  Do you have a crystal ball other writers do not?  And what does that crystal ball say about your future work?  Anything else in the pipeline?

Pure luck, Lesley. I knew that there are some 78 million baby boomers getting ready to retire, so I began writing about two 60-year-old women amateur sleuths driving around in a motorhome solving murders (somewhat autobiographical, without the murders). By adding humor and a little romance—yes, there’s a lovesick sheriff in the series who chases lovely 60-year-old Dana Logan throughout the Logan & Cafferty series—I found a niche that hadn’t previously been filled.

As for works in the pipeline, I also write Wyoming historical novels and children’s mysteries as well as history books, one of which surprisingly became a college textbook. I’m currently working on the fourth Logan & Cafferty novel, Gray Wolf Mountain, and an historical, No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy. Then I‘ll write another Hamilton Kids’ Mystery. All my books are laced with humor, as yours are. 

Thank you for hosting me, Lesley. I’ve enjoyed our visit and I’m happy that your good interview and article appear in The Mystery Writers.

How honored I felt to be included in the company of writers featured in The Mystery Writers. 

Thanks so much for visiting here and sharing your experiences as a writer as well as the editor of a book packed full of writers’ experiences.  Come back and visit us anytime.