Not Just Hump Day

Untitled design(1)To most people Wednesday equals Hump Day.  They have made it halfway through their work week and the weekend is just around the corner. They are one step closer to Friday. But, not Agile Writers members. To us, Wednesdays mean that we can leave our working lives for two hours and enter the world of writing. Which for most is usually a solitary event, with just you and your computer, but this one night a week you are joined by others. And every week you leave with a little more knowledge to take home and help hone your craft.

Last week, July 27th, Agile Writers were lucky to have Richmond Writers organizer, Joe Erhardt, as our guest editor. Every month two members courageously offers up ten pages of their working manuscript to be thoroughly dissected. The pages are then put on the screen, red ink and all, for the entire group to see. I promise you, it’s not as scary as it sounds. Everyone leaves with valuable knowledge. Not just those whose pages were put on the chopping block. Each month you get to see, first hand, what editors are really looking and how to stay out of the rejection pile.  Our session with Joe Erhardt was no exception.

One of the most important things Joe said was to “write for the reader.” Although, I had heard this before I think it’s important enough to hear again. Many times as a writer you get caught up in the world you are creating and the message you are trying to get out that you forget this simple piece of advice. You are focused on you, and not the one that will be the buying your book. One thing I noticed about Joe is that he actually edits for the reader. All the while he is explaining the red ink throughout the pages he makes statements such as, “This will be easier for the reader,” “The reader would like/love this,” or “I think this would be confusing for the reader.” He edits and makes suggestions with the reader in mind.

Here are a few more things I learned from Joe:

  • Don’t write “off of.” Simply writing off is enough. For example, He jumped off of the cliff. Should be written-he jumped off the cliff.
  • Using the simple past –ed version of a word is more forceful than –ing. Use he rolled instead of he was rolling.
  • Using “as if” waters down whatever follows. Ask yourself if that phrase is really needed or wanted.
  • Try to avoid using “due to.” Unless it is being said by a character in dialogue.
  • Do Not have too many blank spaces if it’s not indicating a scene break. An editor may think you do not know what you are doing and you will be in the rejection pile.
  • Don’t say something is “unusual.” Describe it!
  • “Adverbs are cockroaches that need to be stomped on!” This was Joe’s response when asked by a fellow member what he thought about adverbs.

Of course, Joe Erhardt gifted the group with more knowledge than I can write here but I will leave you with this: If you can make readers care about your characters and their situations, it DOES NOT MATTER if what you are writing has been done before.

An Audience of One

audienceI have heard two competing pieces of advice about considering your audience when writing a novel.

One: define your audience. Be specific. You have to know who you’re addressing in order to create a cohesive work.

Two: don’t worry about who you’re writing to. In fact, try to forget that you have any desire to publish the book and have it read by others. If you write primarily out of that desire to be published, you will compromise your creativity. Just write. Concentrate on writing one day at a time. Write something that you can feel good about. Your audience will appear if you’ve done your job well.

Maybe it’s just my peacemaker personality, but I happen to think there is a way to link these two apparently opposing prescriptions.

What if you define your readership and then you try to forget all about them and just write?

I know, that sounds impossible.

I do think it’s important to define who you are writing to. It’s one of the first tasks we undertake in Agile Writers. We have to decide what gender and age bracket we think our readers are in. For me, it turns out that I should have taken this a step further before beginning to write. I needed to define who my audience is in terms of what they know about the subject matter of my book.

I am writing in large part about a religious experience that is outside of the norm for most Americans. So, somewhere in the middle of my first draft I realized that I needed to make a choice about my audience. Was I writing to that small (but growing) population who has experienced many of the contexts my protagonist finds herself exploring? Or am I writing to a general audience who will quite possibly have no information about the subject other than what I tell them?

This matters. Not knowing the answer to this question has stopped me in my tracks at a few junctures in the writing process. I have asked myself the following maddening questions (and others!): Am I explaining too much or too little here? Do I need a glossary of terms? Should I just stick to the English translations of these terms? Is this of interest to my reader? Is it relevant? Am I accidentally writing a textbook within a novel?

Well, that depends—who am I talking to?

Trying to answer the question of “who am I talking to?” inevitably sends my mind down the track of wondering what the most marketable answer to that question might be. Do I embrace a very small niche market? Or do I aim for broader appeal?

What is important to me, though, is not that I am absolutely sure that I have chosen the right audience for my book. What is important to me is that I am able to write the book. And thinking too much about marketing seems premature when I don’t actually have a book to be marketed yet.

So I took a stab at identifying my audience and answering some of those haunting questions, if only so that the questioning voices would quiet down long enough for me to get back to the real work—writing a novel.

I cannot write for an eventual publisher, reader, agent, or anyone else. If I am going to write something authentic, then my audience is one—me. I have to write to satisfy myself. Then I have to let others be the ones to tell me if my book is relatable or too obscure. I can make guesses, but I will never truly inhabit another’s context and so I don’t know exactly what my audience wants.

I only know what I want.

And I want to keep writing.

Quiet the Chatter of Your Mind

indexHere at Agile Writers, we have a mantra “Constantly Move Forward.”

There are so many ways to get stuck. A novel is a long project. A snafu at any juncture can derail the whole venture.

We explored one common obstacle to the writing process this week in our weekly “Craft of Writing” installment.

Periodically, we choose a book about the craft of writing to wade through as a group. Individual members volunteer to read, digest, and present a chapter to the larger group every week. We are currently nearing the end of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This week’s chapter, “Radio Station KFKD,” dealt with the kinds of “static” found in writers’ heads. Lamott says that “as writers we have very noisy heads” (I’d modify that to say “as people”–but maybe it’s more problematic for writers/creatives than others?). She breaks down the internal chatter into two categories: positive and negative.

You might think that the positive internal chatter (about how special, gifted, talented, brilliant and wonderful we are) would be helpful and encouraging. Actually, Lamott says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that both the positive and the negative internal chatter are equally detrimental to the act of writing. Obviously, dwelling on our doubts, mistakes, and past failures can cripple our capacity to do creative work of any kind, including writing.

Lamott says we need to quiet our minds. We need to find ways to tone down all of the chatter–positive and negative–flooding our internal radio waves. When we are quiet, we can dip into the world of our story. We can hear the characters clearly. We can intuit what they will do next. We can write from an unobstructed and attuned space within us.

But, how do we quiet the chatter?

For me, that’s where Agile Writers comes in. My own Inner Critic got installed a long time ago. She knows what to say to stop me in my tracks. For years, I couldn’t even allow myself to write anything that was important to me because I was certain I would fail and make a fool of myself. The chatter in my brain sounded something like this:

“You’re a talented writer. If only you had the time to write…”

“Who do you think you are? You’re not a writer. You’re a wannabe.”

“If you write something, and by some fluke it gets published, everyone you know will read it and laugh at you.”

“You’re so selfish. Writing is something that people can do who don’t have families and careers and people depending on them.”

Over the last year, these voices have been slowly silenced by other voices. There is something so powerful about sitting in a room surrounded by people who are brave enough and humble enough to show up with their dream, the same dream you have–the dream to write–and act on it, week after week.

I got in my car after my first Agile Writers meeting, where everyone had applauded me just for showing up (as we do all new attendees), and tears came to my eyes. And I thought, maybe I can do this. Maybe with the support of the people in that room, I can really take a stab at this dream of writing.

I know I’m not alone in this. The support and accountability of a community of writers is a valuable antidote to the chatter in our own minds. Weekly progress check-ins at Agile Writers force us to keep one foot in the world of our novels-in-progress at all times. The support and honest assessments of our critique partners keep us grounded in a more comprehensive assessment of our work. The structure of the Eight Stages of Agile Writer Novels give us a map, so that when the “static” of doubt or self-aggrandizement comes, we know how to keep going, how to take the next small step and keep moving forward.

Accountability and Motivation

I was recently talk­ing to one of my Agile Writers about why the work­shop is so suc­cess­ful. In the last 3 years we’ve invited over 100 peo­ple to our group. In that same time we’ve com­pleted over 20 first draft nov­els. That’s about a 20% suc­cess rate. For most any writ­ers group, that is a pretty high percentage.

To what do we owe this suc­cess? Part of it is the plan­ning that we do. The Agile Storyboard is an impor­tant first step to under­stand­ing your story and your char­ac­ters before you get started.

But just as impor­tant is the way we do cri­tique. Each writer is assigned two cri­tique part­ners. The three writ­ers will work together for the full six months they will be writ­ing their books.

This cre­ates a sense of account­abil­ity. You know that there are two peo­ple wait­ing to receive your work each week. So you have to get your writ­ing done by Sunday night to email to your part­ners. That’s the motivation.

Likewise your part­ners are send­ing their work to you. You feel a sense of respon­si­bil­ity to cri­tique their work by the fol­low­ing Wednesday night.

This also breeds a strong sense of cama­raderie among the cri­tique part­ners. It’s a coop­er­a­tive arrange­ment. Everyone is work­ing together toward a com­mon goal. Your cri­tique part­ners are your friends and they’re giv­ing you great advice. And so, you want to give them your best advice as well.

We write about 10 pages a week for cri­tique (double-spaced, about 2500 words). This is about the right amount so that every­one gets cri­tiqued in an hour’s time. It’s also the right amount to cre­ate a 250-page novel in 6 months. Which is our ulti­mate goal.

How are you man­ag­ing cri­tique in your group? How does it work? Do you have the same cri­tique part­ners each week or do you get some­one com­ing cold into the mid­dle of your story? What do you think are some of the advan­tages to your way and how does it com­pare to what we’re doing? Leave your com­ments below!