The Benefits of Joining a Writers Group

There it was for probably the hundredth time on the sign outside my local library: writers group, meeting 8/18 2-4:00 PM.  Okay, maybe not the hundredth time, but how many times did I drive past the library, which is about two point five miles from my house, and see that group advertised and not do a darn thing?  The sign was one of those LED types that showed all the happenings at the library, from book discussion groups to story times for children.  And my library had a writers group.

Of course, every time I saw that sign, I wondered, What do they do at those meetings?  Do they just sit there and write?  Do writing exercises?  Or do they read each other’s work while there and comment on it?

I imagined a small group, maybe four people tops, sitting around a table with pens in hand and paper in front of them.  These folks were nameless and faceless and voiceless.  Strangers.  I couldn’t really believe that there were actually other people in my own city who were writers like me!

I’d been writing for over a year last August.  I was content with my progress at creating a finished book and self-publishing it, but I’d had to ask several friends to read it and edit for me.  Looking back, I feel like I was pulling teeth in some regards, because only about half of them got back to me, and I didn’t wish to push them into doing something they may not have wanted to do in the first place — except that they probably would have felt guilty had they said no to reading my first draft.  

While I was grateful to that group of friends, I knew that to ask my friends again for help of such a magnitude would be too much.  I was writing two more books, and let’s be honest — most people aren’t writers and editors.  

So I thought, Why not give this mysterious writers group a try?

On August 18, 2016, I approached the library with a mixed feeling of nervous energy and excitement.  Every footstep carried me closer to the light brick building I had known and visited plenty of times in the thirteen years of living here.  But this time was different.  I held tightly in my grip the first chapter of my current work in progress, thinking I needed to bring something along.

I entered the library and asked the lady behind the circulation desk where the writers group met.  She directed me to a meeting room near the back of the building, past the computers.  When I stepped into the room, at least ten people of all ages (well, thirty and up) were seated around the table and all looked at me at the same time.  The chair at the head of the long table was unoccupied, so I took a seat and offered a smile.

The woman to my left and the man to my right immediately introduced themselves to me, and a minute later, the man who ran the group (and worked at the library) told me his name (let’s call him Jack) and asked me to tell them a little about myself.  I was at ease in this group, for they were welcoming and pleasant.  And I wasn’t the only newbie that day.  Another woman (let’s call her Kate) about the same age as me (mid-thirties) was there for the first time.  Kate smiled at me across the table.  I was at home.

I sat there for the next two hours and got a handle on how the group functioned.  Everyone present had read everyone else’s work and had made comments on the content and suggestions for grammatical or punctuation changes.  As they went around the table, whoever was next in the lineup got their turn to have their work critiqued by the others.  Not everyone spoke, but most did.  I could tell most of these folks had been meeting for a while.  Their easygoing manner was inviting.  There was plenty of humor.  No one was offensive or rude.  It was like stepping into a group of good friends who were hanging out and enjoying some good food and drinks.

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At the end, Jack asked me what I thought and if I’d like to come back.  “Yes!” I said.  I gave him my email address, and he explained how the group worked: They met every two weeks.  I needed to send him up to ten pages of my stuff before the first week was up, so he could then send out everyone’s stuff about a week before the next meeting, giving us all enough time to read and comment.  

I was so enthusiastic that I sent him my chapter the very next day, even though I had a week to do so!  And so began the tradition that’s continued for almost a year.

People have come and gone from the group over the last several months, but there is a core group that keeps coming.  I have had the pleasure of reading what I consider good stories from a variety of genres from these folks: regular and cozy mysteries, romance, horror, nonfiction, short stories, sci-fi, and more.  There have been a few recent additions to the group who have become core as well, and it’s been amazing to see how the dynamic has stayed positive and inviting, with the humor never far away, since I joined.

What’s funny is that some people will shy away from joining groups like this out of fear.  If you’re a writer, maybe you just write for yourself, and that’s fine.  There are, however, many writers who want to get their stuff out there.  They write for their own pleasure and to share it with other people.  To allow fear of what others might say about your work is debilitating.  If you are serious about publishing your work, others will eventually read it…at least I would assume that’s what you want if you’re publishing it!

There have been times when what I submitted to the writers group needed some work, sometimes quite a bit of work.  I have gotten tough to swallow feedback, especially when it’s right in the moment.  Let’s face it — our writing is kind of like our baby, our kid.  We sort of fall in love with it (at least some of us do), and it’s hard to hear someone rip it apart.  Okay, that was harsh.  I have not had my stuff ripped to shreds.  No one in the group has ever discouraged me from writing or said I was wasting my time.  No one name calls or says that the work of another is only good for wiping someone’s backside.

Constructive criticism is meant to build up.  It may be tough to take, but swallow it down and let it digest a bit.  Realize that not everything you write it going to be stellar.  Some of it’s downright crap.  And that’s okay.  Because you know what?

You and I, we work at it again and again.  And come back better and stronger for it.  I am extremely and deeply grateful for my writers group.  I have told them this a few times, and I hope they believe it.

I recently finished a whole manuscript with them.  Ten months of edits on that baby have improved the story tremendously, and without this group of amazing people, I wouldn’t have been able to have the finished product I do.  

If you’ve been looking for a writers group, check out your local library.  If your library doesn’t have one, maybe there’s one in the next city over or in the county.  In this digital age, there’s no excuse not to pop online and do a search.  If you’re still out of luck, perhaps suggest to someone at the library that they start a group…or even offer to run it if they don’t have someone for the job.  If you know at least a couple of other writers who are looking for a group like this and they’re local, start a group that meets in your homes, a coffee shops, or wherever works for you.  But make the commitment to meet regularly.  Have a routine, a schedule.  Hold each other accountable to it.

If none of that works, there are plenty of groups online.  It’s not as great as face-to-face contact, but it’s better than nothing.  Facebook has loads of groups for writers, but I recommend 10 Minute Novelists.  This isn’t a group to share your story directly, but every Tuesday is Buddy Day, and you can ask for someone to read your story and edit, often in exchange for doing the same for them.  Don’t expect people to line up to read your stuff if you aren’t willing to give back.

Besides the invaluable feedback on my stories I’ve gotten from my writers group, I have made friends with them.  There have been times when the subject matter of a story has triggered something for someone in the group, and real life stories have been shared in that meeting room.  Stories of loss and heartache.  Tears have been shed.  Hugs given.  Our hearts bared.

We’re writers.  We write about our deepest fears, desires, and our heart’s song, so why wouldn’t we also express those thoughts face-to-face?  That sort of genuine interaction isn’t easily come by.

Friendship.  Constructive criticism.  People reading your story.  Improving your writing.

What’s not to love?  I’d say it’s a no-brainer.  Go join a writers group!

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog at the end of every week and a book review blog the 15th of every month.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

 

Keeping the Perspective – Marketing Versus Writing

My first guest post!

A Writer's Path

by Cynthia Hilston

It’s hard sometimes when in the midst of a problem to see past it.  Everything looks blurry.  The road ahead is unclear.

It’s easy to let emotions take control during these trying times, and next thing you know, you’re blowing up a balloon meant for a birthday party into a hot air balloon — yes, lots of hot air and a balloon not meant for flying, so it pops.

This is when you and I need to stop.  Just stop.  Seriously.

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Excerpt from Mile Marker 139

Today I’m sharing chapter two of my work in progress, Mile Marker 139:

You can read chapter one here: Chapter One

Chapter Two: Sarah Wilcox

“Four years and all that money, and this is what you’re doing with it?” Mrs. Wilcox asks for what feels like the hundredth time that week as Sarah readies for work.

“Sorry, Mom!  Jeez, shove it down my throat, why don’t you?”  Sarah grabs her to-go cup with her freshly brewed coffee in it, tosses on her coat, and moves toward the door.

“You’re not even going to have some breakfast?”

“You know all I need is coffee.”  Sarah smirks.

“Hmph.  That explains a lot.”

“Hey, it’s a job, isn’t it?  Beats sitting around here tomorrow all day listening to Uncle Bob and Dad argue over politics.  The election was a freaking year ago.  Get over it already.”

“I still hate how every store is practically open on holidays nowadays,” Mrs. Wilcox grumbles.

“Oh, Mom.”  Sarah sighs, taking pity on her mother, and kisses her cheek.  “Maybe Brewing Up Some Happiness is overpriced to you.  Maybe it’s got corporate America written all over it, but it’s paycheck.  And I like their coffee.  Lots of people like their coffee.  It’s job stability while I try to figure out my future.”

Mrs. Wilcox half-smiles.  “Get going, then, daughter.  Will you be home in time for dinner?”

“I don’t know.  First day on the job and all.  I’m supposed to get off at 5:00, but we’ll see.  It’s gonna be crazy today.  Lots of travelers.  Anyway, gotta go.  Can’t be late!”

Sarah climbs into her Ford Focus and zooms through suburbia, ready to leave her vanilla, cookie-cutter neighborhood.  Four years at Yale to pursue a bachelor’s degree in fashion design hadn’t exactly been what her parents had planned for their only daughter.  The school wasn’t the problem.  The degree was.  For Sarah to attend her parents’ Alma Mater was an honor to the family and a testimony to their daughter’s success and hard work.  Now, what her mother deemed a “useless degree” hangs framed in Sarah’s room.  She has been back with her parents since May, hoping for a career to emerge.  She’s tried submitting her resume for any job she thought might open the door to opportunity for her, but every door closed with signs that read “more experience needed,” “not the right fit,” “too young,” “need more education,” and “not looking for anyone at this time.”

So, it is to the new coffee shop at the nearby rest area that Sarah drives today.  When she arrives, the lot is full.  Employees are supposed to park as far away from the building as possible, giving access to the customers — at least that’s what her soon-to-be-boss told her during the interview last week.  Sarah checks herself over in the rearview mirror.  Makeup isn’t too heavy on her olive skin.  Her dark hair and eyes are the beauty of her mother’s Italian side, but she’s got her father’s straight-toothed smile.  Sarah’s a pretty girl.  She would’ve done well in the fashion industry if only there weren’t a thousand other pretty girls just like her.

She flashes that brilliant smile at her reflection.  “Here we go.”  She exits the car.

If Sarah thinks her bubbly personality will rub off on her coworkers, she finds herself gravely mistaken as she spends the next five days training.  That’s Thanksgiving break for many, but it’s no break for her. She’s deep in foaming milk and espresso for hours each day.  She’s just trying to keep her head up enough to prevent drowning in coffee and the cynicism that’s caffeinated by too much of the on-the-go lifestyle of customers. She smiles at them, is the perfect picture of kindness, and works hard.  But all they want is their coffee.  To them, Sarah is just another faceless, nameless worker behind the counter, the clear separation between them.  She serves a function and nothing else.  Five days in, Sarah is exhausted in every sense of the word.pablo (16)

She started late in the day that Sunday. It’s now eleven at night, and business is finally slow. The janitor pushes his mop and bucket into the dining area and begins to work.

“What are you doing here tonight, Mike?” asks Janice, middle-aged mom who’s been working alongside Sarah every day.

The janitor looks up and smiles.  “Ah, you know how it is this time of year, Janice.  No day off, even for us veterans.”

“So, did you wind up seeing your son for Thanksgiving?”

“Nah.”  Mike frowns.  “Needed my sleep. Ain’t driving all the way to Detroit for that.”

Sarah thinks she gets why Mike doesn’t care for the holiday. “I didn’t wanna spend the time with my messed up family either.”

Janice glares at her, then looks at Mike. “That’s too bad. I wish I would’ve had more time with my family. The kids are growing up too fast, and ever since Ted ran off with that hussy with the boob job, I’ve had to rely on my parents too much.”

Mike moves his mop in circles for several seconds, considering his answer.  “I wish my son relied on me more.  Consider yourself lucky, Janice.  Well, I’ve got to get this hellhole clean, well, as clean as I can, before the sun’s up.  Good night.”

“Have a good one, Mike.”  Janice begins to wipe down the cappuccino machine.  The steam wands are especially filthy.

Sarah stands next to her, wraps a wet cloth around a wand.  “What was that glare for?”

Janice sighs.  She’s not normally one to glower, but Sarah’s sure something goes unspoken between Janice and Mike in front of others.  “Mike’s been the janitor here for as long as I can remember.  He’s a good guy, but don’t push him.”

“He seems lonely.”

“You’ve worked here for a few days, Sarah.  You don’t know anything about him.”

“Okay, well, I just…”

“Look, I’m not trying to be mean, but you’re young.  People like Mike, and even me, we’ve been through stuff, you know?  You can’t pretend to understand something you’ve never lived.”

Sarah’s brow furrows.  “I didn’t mean to assume anything.”

“Well, you did.”  Janice finishes cleaning off the machine and tends to the next customer, leaving Sarah staring at the back of her.  

Fifteen minutes later, Sarah finishes up her shift and clocks out without saying goodbye.  She’s due back in a few hours, so she gets what little sleep she can.  Mrs. Wilcox’s disapproval of Sarah’s job grows as her daughter bolts out the door Monday morning, too high on caffeine.

“They work you too much,” Mrs. Wilcox calls after her, but it’s too late.  Sarah is in her car again, and minutes later, she’s on the turnpike, speeding at 85 miles per hour to work.

When Sarah arrives, it’s still dark.  She sits in her car and stares into the blackness divided by a few patches of brightness from the parking lot light posts.  Clustered next to the large building that houses the restaurants and restrooms are picnic tables on some grass.  Sarah imagines families sitting there in the warmer weather and has a hard time picturing sunshine and summer in this moment.  Just when she thinks no one in their right mind would sit outside at one of the picnic tables, she sees it: a form dimly lit by the closest light post.  

Sarah leaves her car and begins walking toward the building, but as she does so, she can’t help glancing in the direction of that odd figure.  It’s freezing.  She can see her breath and wants nothing more than to get back inside, so who would stay out there?

Probably just someone taking a cigarette break, Sarah thinks.  She enters and puts what she saw out of her mind…

…until she returns the next day for another early shift.  Everything is the same: the cold, the darkness, and the figure in the same location.  Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but Sarah is sure it’s the same person.  Of course, maybe it really is just someone taking a cigarette break at the same time.

Sarah’s schedule falls into a routine of waking very early and going to work all week and into the next.  Sundays are her days off and every other Wednesday.  Two weeks in, Sarah can make you a half-caf, soy, extra hot, no whip, one extra shot mocha or any other drink you might want, but she’s no closer to understanding why the same person sits in the exact location every day she comes to work.  Crazier still is that the person is there when she leaves in the early afternoon, by which time Sarah can see it’s most likely a woman.  A woman with really short hair that Sarah doesn’t find flattering.  Why isn’t she at least wearing a hat?

Sarah’s kept quiet at work ever since Janice told her not to talk about things she didn’t understand, but she can’t take the silence anymore.  Well, it’s not really silent at work, not with the in and out of customers and the steaming of milk and the clang of metal.

During a slow moment, Sarah turns to Janice and asks, “Do you know anything about that woman outside?”

“What woman?”

“You know, the one who sits at that picnic table every day.  Don’t tell me you haven’t seen her.”

“Oh, her.  She’s always there.”

“Does she ever stop in and get coffee?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Hmm.”  Sarah isn’t convinced.  It’s like this mystery woman is there but not.  The workers know she exists, but they pretend she’s just part of the ornamentation and overlook her like a spot on the floor.

The questions start in Sarah’s mind, and she can’t shut them down.  She needs to know more.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I will post a new excerpt every Saturday!

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available for FREE July 1 & 2 or for only $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Do I Get My Writing Ideas From?

Cynthia Hilston - Author & Blogger

This is one of the questions writers often get asked.  For some writers, they have a dream that inspires a novel.  For others, it’s music.  They hear a song that gets their mind churning, and bam, a story evolves.  Yet for others still, the book comes from personal experience, from real life events that are fictionalized.  There’s really no limit to where a writer gets their material from.

For me, my first bouts of inspiration came from other people’s stories.  I was a writer of fan fiction for many years before writing original stories, so I played with other people’s characters in their worlds, only adding my twists to things.  That was good practice, all fine and dandy for honing my writing and getting people to read my stuff, but it was never going to amount to making a living out of being an author.  No one should profit off…

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Where Do I Get My Writing Ideas From?

This is one of the questions writers often get asked.  For some writers, they have a dream that inspires a novel.  For others, it’s music.  They hear a song that gets their mind churning, and bam, a story evolves.  Yet for others still, the book comes from personal experience, from real life events that are fictionalized.  There’s really no limit to where a writer gets their material from.

For me, my first bouts of inspiration came from other people’s stories.  I was a writer of fan fiction for many years before writing original stories, so I played with other people’s characters in their worlds, only adding my twists to things.  That was good practice, all fine and dandy for honing my writing and getting people to read my stuff, but it was never going to amount to making a living out of being an author.  No one should profit off of someone else’s creations, unless, of course, the original author gives permission or the stuff is public domain.

But let me get to the point of where I get my ideas from when it comes to writing my original stories.  My first original story, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is based off of my late grandma’s life, so that answers that question easily.  I will go into more detail regarding the creation of my first novel in July’s blog post, since I feel this story deserves its own telling.

When I was writing Hannah’s Rainbow, I honestly didn’t know if I’d write more books.  Of course, I wanted to do so, but I didn’t know if I actually had any more stories in me to tell.  Shortly after finishing Hannah’s Rainbow, while my beta-readers were going through it, the comments from one of the women in particular struck me.  She really liked Harry, who is Hannah’s brother.  In the book, Harry and Hannah develop a close friendship once they reach young adulthood, despite not being on good terms when they were children.  They share an understanding of each being in the shadow of an older sibling of the same sex as them, and Harry and Hannah are only two years apart.  Harry’s character has an important role in part of Hannah’s story, but since it is Hannah’s story, as Hannah gets older, Harry is cast to the sidelines.  Although he makes a few appearances later in the book, Hannah now has her own family: a husband and kids, and eventually grandchildren.

pablo (1)But Harry…what was his story?  One of my readers wanted to know more.  Harry is an alcoholic whose actions result in severe consequences for him because of something terrible he does at age 21.  He doesn’t see his family for years.  What happens during that time?  When he returns to his family in Hannah’s Rainbow, he tells them some of what happened, but this was an opportunity for me to really explore Harry’s story.  So a spin-off evolved.  Harry’s story is called A Laughing Matter of Pain, and not only does it explain what happens during his absence from his family, but some of his adolescence is covered, explaining how he becomes the man he is.

I began to write Harry’s story in earnest a year ago (June 2016), but would you believe that about three weeks in, another story idea struck me?  I have Hannah’s Rainbow to sort of thank for it again, but it’s more my husband whom I should thank.  There is a part in Hannah’s Rainbow where Hannah has just moved into a new house and has a young daughter, but her husband has been drafted during World War II.  That part lagged when I was writing, and when talking with my husband, he suggested giving Hannah an eccentric next door neighbor.  We joked about the neighbor being obsessed with rocks and talking about them incessantly (based off someone we know in real life who does this sometimes).  I imagined a young woman moving into a house by herself and having such an odd next door neighbor, but what if, instead of him talking about rocks, his yard is covered in rocks?  Nothing living there as far as plants go.  Why is there nothing living?  He is a widower.  He seems a little crazy.  This young lady is alone.  Why?  I started fleshing out these characters and created Lorna and Tristan for my story, Lorna versus Laura.  I began writing that story in tandem with Harry’s story, and guess what?  Lorna’s story began demanding more of my attention.  Her story just flowed out of me, so Harry’s story took a backseat for a few months while I finished the first draft of Lorna’s story.pablo (3)

I have since finished both Lorna versus Laura and A Laughing Matter of Pain, but they are not yet published.  I am currently working on books four and five, Arianna and Mile Marker 139.  Both of these books were born out of conversations I had with others.  

For Arianna, a good friend and I were discussing telemarketers one day.  We wondered what the job must be like when a customer wants to talk the ear off of the agent who’s calling, or maybe the agent is used to being a type of therapist to lonely customers.  That got me to thinking about using that for a book, but as I fleshed out the story of Arianna, the book became less and less about her new job as a telemarketer and much more about her trying to reinvent herself after her parents’ deaths.  A common theme among my stories has become broken characters who are trying to rebuild their lives and those in their lives who are along for the journey.  Romance is involved, although that is not usually the primary genre of my stories.

milemarkerIn Mile Marker 139, for the title, you can probably guess that this story involves a highway.  Mile marker 139 is a real place along the Ohio Turnpike, and there is a rest area there.  My husband has a fascination with rest areas, thinking that they would be neat places to people watch, to just drive to on some lonely night, sit, and look around.  That conversation about rest areas got the gears in my head turning.  What if there is a mysterious lady who shows up at a rest area every night at the same time?  Most people don’t notice her.  They’re just passing by, but there are people who work at the rest area.  They would see her.  The story revolves around three characters, a janitor, a barista, and a trucker, and how their interactions with this strange woman echo truths in their own lives.  As the story unfolds, the truth about Shelley (the mysterious woman) comes out.

What’s in store beyond that?  Book six will be a modern-day adaptation of Jane Eyre, which is my favorite book.  Book seven will be based off of a recent dream I had about a woman in the early twentieth century who is a writer, but her passion is discouraged because of her sex and her low class association.  

As you can see, my ideas come from all over the place!  I guess I am not the most organized writer in the world, but my chaos somehow works for me.

If you’re a writer and you’re having a hard time finding inspiration, here are my suggestions:

 

  • Take a walk in the woods
  • People watch
  • Write a short story or even just a page with dialogue between two characters
  • Pretend to interview a character
  • Take an interest of yours and think about how you could make it into a story
  • If you love music, create a soundtrack for a story and go from there
  • Write a poem
  • Just journal about what’s on your mind
  • Read lots of books
  • Get a full night’s sleep and try again tomorrow
  • Invest ten minutes a day to sit down and just write

 

This list isn’t exhaustive, and I’m sure you can find other suggestions on the net.  There are people who are much more qualified than me to give suggestions on where to find ideas for writing a story, but this is just my little list.  

I’ve shared with you my crazy sources of ideas.  Maybe it helped spark something for you?  Or maybe you’re a writing fool and don’t need my help.  Whatever your situation, I wish you the best in finding inspiration, keeping it, and writing it down.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog at the end of every month and a book review blog the 15th of every month.

Please note: Since the last day of June falls on a Friday, I’m posting this in place of my usual character profile on Friday.

Also, check out my novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, available FREE on July 1 & 2 or for $2.99 any other time on Amazon: Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful

 

Here’s the Reality Check For Writers

A Writer's Path

by Doug Lewars

According to Forbes there are between 600 thousand and a million books published each year and roughly half are self-published. The average number of sales per volume is less than 250.

That’s not encouraging.

Of course I have no idea where Forbes came up with these numbers. Still, they tend to be pretty careful about what they publish so let’s assume the numbers are real. Now, if you are capable of writing, editing and publishing say, two books per year, and if you want to earn a conservative income of say, $30,000, then you would need royalties of $60 per volume. Given that publishers rather like taking their cut, your book would probably need to be priced around a hundred dollars. Better make that next book non-fiction.

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