Tag Archives: writing group

Writing Group Therapy

8 Apr

Writers are told again and again: “Find someone to read your work who will pretend to give a crap and maybe even notice if you leave out an important word.” Luckily, I’ve found a writing group that works for me. I seem to work best in a group that does a mishmash of things, like critiquing, talking shop, and also doing inspiration prompts for the next week. But finding this group wasn’t easy. I’ve kissed my share of writing group frogs.

Some groups I joined were made up of hobbiest writers, people who wanted to see their novel get snatched up and made into a blockbuster movie someday, but weren’t stupid enough to quit their jobs and go to school or pursue it full time some other way (like yours truly). These groups were usually critique focused, always enthusiastic and rarely much help to me. The politics of jealousy almost always rose up and bit everyone in the butt eventually anyway, so they rarely lasted long either.

The most awkward night I had in one of those non-pro groups was when one of the members tried to write a book in a genre that one of the other members had been published in. Let’s call him Zeke and her Brenda (names have been changed to protect me from lawsuits). Zeke was an older man, short and rangy, who always wore polyester shirts and slacks in various shades of brown and whose socks never matched. He was at least 70 and lived at home with his 90 year old mother. To describe him as socially awkward would give you the wrong impression that he was even remotely charming in his conversational failings. He wasn’t. He was mildly nasty and slightly arrogant. We were all pretty certain he’d never had sex in his life.

Brenda was a well-put-together, married romance writer of about 40. She was nice, if a bit standoffish. She had a reason to be protective of herself: she was the only one in our group who had been published professionally (Zeke put out his own books, paying for the print runs himself, back when ebooks weren’t even a glimmer in publishing’s eye and indie meant you lived in Indiana). She had a couple of romances out with a minor publisher; not Harlequin, but somewhere that paid decently. We all wanted to be her best friend because of it. She bore the admiration well.

So when Zeke announced one night that he’d started writing a romance novel, you can just imagine how hard we all bit our tongues. He read us the first few chapters. It was…how do I describe it? Imagine one of those pulp stories from the 50’s, the ones in which the men could think or fight their way out of any situation, and the women were all pretty but mute unless they needed to scream or praise the hero, and no character had any depth at all. Then turn that into the most clichéd romance novel you ever read. Basically, it was an adventure story with very little adventure and a romance in which the heroine was never given a POV. It was painful. But because we were members of his critique group and not his psychologist, we endeavored to give him feedback. Carefully.

Then he read us the sex scene.

I say sex scene, singular, because the book only had one. It was towards the end and as it approached, we held our breath as a group, both dying of curiosity and dreading what was to come. He read the extremely clumsy transition into the scene and we all exchanged looks. He was going to do it. Really. Here it was.

Suddenly, the hero and heroine were swallowed up not by passion, but by a previously unmentioned wormhole, Just as suddenly and right after that, they landed in an alien ocean and were transformed into jellyfish. Zeke then described the mating ritual of jellyfish in excruciating detail, at the end of which the characters changed back into humans, fell through the wormhole again, and were transported back to the original world, where the heroines’ parents were waiting for them.

When Zeke was done reading, there was a long silence in the room.

Then Brenda, whom Zeke was looking at expectantly, cleared her throat. She shifted forward on her seat. She shifted back. None of us said a word. Finally, she leaned towards Zeke and put her hand on his knee.

“I like what you just read, Zeke,” she said. “But I think you’ve broken some of the cardinal rules of romance writing.”

“Like what?” Zeke grumbled, crossing his arms.

“Well, for example,” Brenda said, glancing around the room, “in the romance genre, it is pretty well established that you can’t have the heroines’ parents around. It impedes…things.”

Brenda and Zeke then spent the rest of the meeting arguing about that point. We all joined in, just to avoid the giant jellyfish in the room.

I moved out of state and left the group soon after that meeting, so I don’t know if anyone ever confronted Zeke about his jellyfish erotica. I feel a little bit guilty about that. It’s always good to be honest when critiquing. But in this case, I think opening that particular can of jellyfish would have been more hurtful than helpful. And honestly, I don’t think I really wanted to hear Zeke’s reasoning behind that scene. Some things are best left in the dark. Like jellyfish sex.



Random Words?

5 Apr

Back in the Dark Ages…

Word prompts

We met in the upstairs eating area, above the deli at our local upscale grocery store. It was quiet, there was always ample table space, and the deli had really nice sandwiches. It was Artist Group back then. We met whenever – sometimes every week – and brought whatever we wanted to show off. Nobody took it too seriously and we made great stuff. That’s when we started with the word prompts.

I always seemed to be the one to write down the words, as we went around the table. One by one, we built a pool of words and phrases; a schizophrenic shopping list, maybe.

The list went on until it was full. And then we voted – on as many as we liked, or whatever struck our fancy. In the end, out of a dozen or so words, we were left with a few clear winners. The top three or four, which would become our ‘prompts’ for the week, always helped me focus. It became a good game, to exercise my creative muscles. “How the hell do I make a story out of this nonsense?”

  • Molotov
  • Scotch
  • Belly-dance
  • Betrayal
  • Mini-mart

Sometimes, we’d end up with only ONE word that we all agreed on. That word would be the “lead” focus in whatever we did. The second place words would be “supporting” concepts. It was a nice arrangement.


And then there was the time we decided to “randomly” clip together the elements of a short story. We set out five categories across the top as rows: Start/End/Action/Character/Place. We made as many entries as there were writers – six in this case. Six different places to start a story, and end one. Six disparate actions, character types, and odd settings. I ripped the paper into pieces and then we each literally drew them from a hat, one category at a time. It was brilliant. I still remember what I ended up with:

  • Start: A drug deal
  • End: A skating rink
  • Action: A fight
  • Character: An elephant
  • Place: A diner

And, of course, they often times just helped us pull together our thoughts. Sometimes, that’s all I need – a framework to hang my imagination upon. We’re still at it, by the way. Maybe not every week, but as often as we can. In twos and threes, sometimes more, we work our craft the best way we can.

  • Streetlight
  • Garbage
  • Vengeance
  • Vulgar

There probably isn’t a wrong way to do it, but I imagine there is a HUGE variety. How do other ‘groups’ do it? Does your little cabal of artists roll the dice like we do? Do you use an online random word generator? Put your ipod on shuffle? Flip through the dictionary? Please let us know! If you tell us how and why, we’ll do it at our next writers group. Promise!


(and you can click ‘Continue Reading’ if you want to see more of the ‘word prompts’ we’ve used)

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