I've been attending my writer's group, the Durham Writer's Group, since the end of 2009. I had a lot of reasons to go- without a creative writing class to create artificial deadlines, I hoped that it would serve as a source of new deadlines. Professional writers understand that they must write, whether or not they are in the mood. Those of us who still have day jobs, though, sometimes need a nudge to keep ourselves going, and knowing that the rest of the group was expecting me to share something on a certain date does a lot to keep motivation up. In short, I hoped it would keep me writing, and it has done that.

But I've also found it has done something else. The Sci-Fi/Fantasy part of the DWG went through a thin period shortly after I joined, and for several months, there were only two or three participants, including myself. But I found it valuable regardless, and kept coming. Soon our numbers grew. We outgrew the free space we'd been allowed in Barnes and Noble, and the local cafe that let us use their space changed owners, so we now have an arrangement with Atomic Empire, a local gaming store. (Buy their stuff! They are nice to us.)

At this point we have well over thirty members, with new faces all the time. I hear aloud the early stages of fiction, some of it developing and some of it already very strong. Some of our members have now had novels, stories, and so forth published. While nobody can take credit for their achievements but themselves, I still feel very proud of their successes, and hope they found our contributions helpful. I feel like we are churning primal chaos of creation, seeing the protoforms of works that become great. 

I have also met a lot of truly phenomenal people. I am somewhat introverted, though I can fake otherwise as needed, and I would not easily have met this many people who share goals and interests otherwise. In short, joining a writer's group has been a marvelous experience for me. Your mileage may vary, but for me, these are the elements that have helped to make our group successful.

  1.  No fees to take part. We've avoided asking for money from our members, whether in the form of mandatory dues or a collection. We want people to feel free to take part regardless of their finances, and not feel like they cannot come because they're a few dollars short. This has introduced some complications- we bounced between several free locations, but ultimately realized that without some form of compensation, they have no reason to accomodate us. This makes the arrangement we now have with Atomic Empire very important- they allow us to use their conference room, and in return we make sure we use their concessions while there. It's closer to a collection than I like, but we're only doing something we would already have done, and gives us security that our prior locations, which never lasted, lacked.
  2. Everybody gets a chance to respond to the author's work. When the group was smaller, we were able to be a lot less organized. People just chatted about the piece until the conversation petered out, then we moved on. With a larger group this meant that not everybody got a chance to share their impressions. One of our organizers, Marc, had the idea of breaking out a stopwatch. Everybody present gets a minute or two to respond. In practice, this has resulted in a wider range of reactions, and overall more useful feedback, because everybody gets a voice and nobody is drowned out.
  3. Positive feedback and constructive criticism are encouraged. This is a critical balance to strike, and may depend on what the author actually wants out of the group. Some writers share so they can be praised, and go home encouraged, but no better a writer than when they arrived. They may never learn how to improve their writing, and will wonder why their work finds no broader audience when their writers group claims to like it so much. Others share, ready to hear what they could do better, but go home discouraged because there was nothing but criticism for their work. It's important to balance the two, so the writer returns feeling both encouraged to continue, but has useful advice or audience reactions to apply. Both extremes, saccharine and toxic, do no good to the participants.
  4. The author is encouraged to listen, not defend. This is one that I feel strongly about. I've seen authors jump to defend their work when one of the readers mentions a problem with their writing. But unless you can personally accompany every copy of your stories into the world and personally explain what's going on with your story, the best thing you can do is shut up and listen. If you feel like the readers have missed your point, don't jump in and explain. Think about how to change your story so that, next time, when the reader hits that point, they will understand. When readers explain where they were confused and where they saw problems, you need to listen, even if you don't agree, because they are helping you diagnose your work. 
  5. Bailey's. Even though I don't often have the chance to go, the DWG members have formed the tradition of heading to Baileys for drinks after each meeting. The chance to relax and visit has helped cement friendships, and made the group all the stronger. Soon a pair of our group members will be getting married- while I cannot honestly claim that the DWG is responsible for that good news, it makes a good story, so I'll probably claim it anyhow. We're all about good stories, after all. I'm glad for the tradition. And that nobody cares that I'm just drinking ginger ale. 

Through this group I've met a lot of really admirable people, and I hope they find the experience as useful as I have. While every group does things a little different- some don't read out loud, others do, there are infinite permutations- I am certain that the most successful groups will have these elements.

I hope everybody who participated in NaNoWriMo found it helped them to create something wonderful.

Every year when November comes around, NaNoWriMo gets me thinking about writing. Ideally I'm thinking about it more than just in November, but this particular event makes me think about writing in the context of forming productive and sustainable habits.

Even though I love to write, the demands of work and family often make finding time to write a challenge. While I was in graduate school I did no creative writing at all.  It was not long afterwards that I got the bug again, and I started listening to the podcast Writing Excuses, which aims to advise and inspire new writers. I can't speak highly enough of it. I took a creative writing class from Brandon Sanderson the year before Elantris came out, and it was phenomenal. Listening to Brandon, Howard, Dan, and now Mary was like taking that class all over again, but for free.

The one thing missing from the podcast was the writing deadlines imposed by a class. One of the reasons I took the class was to motivate me to write, and external deadlines are really effective for me. Knowing that I have to have something to show for myself by a certain date works for me.  I thought about signing up for another creative writing class, but it seemed like a costly way to keep myself motivated.

When Writing Excuses discussed the advantages of joining a writing group, I realized that this could be a way to self-impose regular deadlines, to make myself write regularly. Ideally I would develop the self discipline to write without any kind of external motivation, but that's where I was. I joined up with a local writing group through meetup.com, and the experience has been excellent. I'm meeting people of varied backgrounds, varied levels of experience, and varied perspectives, united by their love of writing. I offer to share my work as often as I can, largely to keep myself writing. (Still working on that self discipline thing.)

So you'd think that participating in NaNoWriMo would be a no-brainer for me. Of course I'd want to join thousands of people who unite for a surge of writing, giving one another moral support and encouragement. But it's not as straightforward as that, at least not for me.

The problem lies in establishing sustainable habits. NaNoWriMo encourages people to make a great big push, to set aside other commitments and write that novel you've always meant to write. And I do think that anything that encourages people to exercise their creative impulses is a good thing. But I wonder- at the end of the month, how many of the ragged participants keep writing on December 1st, even at a reduced, more sustainable level? If people are like me (and of course I assume people are going to be like me. What other measuring stick do I have? Besides, I like being me. You'd like it too) they are probably going to be so burnt out by the unsustainable effort, or so behind on all other commitments, that they do not feel ready to take up the pen again for a long time. Perhaps even, next November.

Anything that gets writers to write is good, so I'm not bagging on NaNoWriMo. But I think I'd do better working to establish a writing as a sustainable habit, one that can coexist with the other aspects of my life. Someday I want to be a professional writer, and that means learning to write continually, not in annual bursts. But I love the excitement and energy to create that accompanies NaNoWriMo, so my plan is to participate next year, but with more modest goals. For me, it would be a noteworthy achievement to write every day, regardless of the word count. That's going to be my NaNoWriMo goal next year- to establish a sustainable regular writing habit before then, and not to miss a day in November. The goal to reach 50,000 words is irrelevant- what matters is channeling the desire to create.

It was in this frame of mind that I listened to Howard Tayler's discussion of what to do if you fall short of your NaNoWriMo goals, linked below.


His words matched my own sentiment. If you don't make it, treat it as though you missed a deadline with the editor, set a reasonable time frame to finish your book- and then finish your book. The artificial goals set through NaNoWriMo or through participation in a writer's group are immaterial. What matters is their intent- to get people to create. To write.

So write.
I've made a lot of goals, milestones to spur me on as a writer. One of them happened today.

My story, Return to Earth, was aired on a fiction podcast- and one of the really good ones, too. StarShipSofa won a Hugo Award back in 2010, and it deserved that recognition. They've aired stories by some of my favorite authors. Kinda humbling to be on the same feed, actually.
The bad pipes in our new house are getting fixed. We found a plumber willing to work for boa constrictors. Now all we need is a drywall expert who'll work for feeder roaches.
When I was in high school, I saw a National Geographic map of the surface of Mars. I was captivated with the idea that, someday, humans would walk those dusty stones. Not me personally- not with my wealth of defective traits that only survived to be passed down to me because modern medicine allows us to subvert natural selection- but somebody. Humanity gaining a foothold on Mars, and throughout the solar system, was science fiction- but the kind of science fiction that predicted the inevitable. These days, that vision seems less and less inevitable. And I think we've lost something precious as a result.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is dead right. If we diverted even a fraction of the colossal tides of money that flow through the coffers of our governments towards space exploration and the feats of science and engineering that effort requires, it would revitalize our nation. It would give us a dream, something to take pride in. Something to outlast the cycles of the economy and elections. Something awesome.

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    July 2012