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Maximizing The Potential Of Your Writing Group, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

A writing group can be a great resource for a writer, especially when you’re starting out. Most accomplished writers I know work with a group that reads their work and comments on it with the aim of helping you polish your word-nugget into something you can sell. I’ve belonged to a few writing groups, and they have all been helpful to me in different ways. Based on my experience, here are my thoughts on how to maximize your group’s potential so that everyone gets what they need.

1. Don’t bring in a rough draft. It is no fun reading someone’s crappy writing. Your buddies shouldn’t have to slog through a piece that is barely intelligible even to you. Polish it. Get it to the point where you can’t see anything wrong and then bring it in.

2. Have a page limit. Writing groups that include a wide range of writers with different levels of output will often end up feeling unfair to someone. Maybe not every writer needs to have their work read every time. It really is best if your group tries to keep the amount you read for each other fairly even.  You don’t want to be the person who dumps a 200 page manuscript on your group when you’ve only read twelve pages for any of them. If you prefer to have your work read in a big chunk, skip your turn several times so that you have done plenty of reading for the other members. But give them fair warning that a long piece is coming their way.

3. Have serious writers in your group. Any writing group is likely to have some people who are new to professional writing along with a few people who are already published. Your level of accomplishment will become increasingly uneven as time goes on and various members sell their stories or books. If you’re in a group like this, good! That means you’re with serious writers who are trying to build a career. Stick with them.

4. Have tryouts. This goes along with the item above. You don’t want to bring in a new member if no one in your group likes his/her writing. That person doesn’t want to be in a group of people who’d rather read a cereal box than his memoir about stamp collecting. Have everyone in your group read a sample from an applying writer and have an honest discussion about whether you want to admit him/her to your group. This is a kindness both to yourselves and to the applicant, who will be better off with a group of like-minded readers.

5. Agree beforehand what type of commentary everyone is looking for. I have a tough skin. If something I’ve written is crap, I want to know it before I send it to my agent. I’m okay with harsh criticism as long as it doesn’t mask a personal slight. That’s what I’m there for. But some groups don’t work like this. Some groups say only very supportive things, some groups have rules such as, “Say two positives for every one negative.” Some groups don’t discuss the negatives out loud, but give written comments about weaknesses in a manuscript. Decide what you need, have guidelines for participation written down. That wan, if someone isn’t going along with the rules, you have a written list of rules for a reminder.

6. Have some time, either before or after critique, to just hang out and talk. I’ve learned some of the most valuable professional tidbits from writing groups, such as scuttlebutt about an editor or publisher, or ways in which the industry is changing. This time to just relax and talk together is very important to your group, and helps strengthen the bond between members.

If anyone else has anything to add about writing groups, please feel free to do so in the comments section. Now go find some cool writers and get a group started.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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Voice In Teen Novels, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

I get asked a lot in my classes on writing how I make the voice for the teenager ‘authentic’. I think my answer is frustratingly esoteric, but it works for me: I don’t try to sound like a teenager at all. I don’t try to include current slang, or fads, or anything that actually separates me from teens.  I’m a generation older than they are and there isn’t anything I can do about that. Their youth, their teenaged rambunctiousness, their clingy jeans and their weird hairstyles — if I get bogged down in all that, it alienates me from them too much. In other words, I can’t be really authentic in my YA voice if I think of teenagers as the “other”.

Instead I try really hard to get down to the basics, and simply imagine a young, inexperienced person stuck in the situation I’ve created for them. I focus on creating a real, whole character who behaves in all the unexpected, strange ways people behave when they’re confronted with the challenges of life.

Some writers have a totally different take on this question, and they’re not wrong. Many YA writers I know spend time with teens just so they can listen to the way they talk, notice their clothes, and their many changing fads. This can be a good approach too, but I would suggest that even writers who are observing and studying young people, when they’re in the task of writing, are still thinking of their teen characters as people first. Probably all those anxieties about linguistically masquerading themselves fall into the background when they’re drafting.

My only caveat with this approach is that if one tries too hard to sound “current,” one could end up with a book that doesn’t age particularly well. Imagine reading a book written during the 1970s when all the kids were saying, “Far out,” and “Groovy.” Do you want to read that book now? I’ll bet you if you take a look at the books that have endured over the decades, you’ll find that none of the characters sound like the cast of The Brady Bunch.  If plain old lovely English is good enough for the likes of Judy Blume, Madeleine L’Engle, and Katherine Paterson, it is certainly good enough for me.

Besides, there’s so much more to voice than shallow, faddish verbiage. If you get the concerns of a young person right, their frustration with the limits to their own power, their inexperience when dealing with oftentimes adult issues, their very human fears about not being strong enough or pretty enough or smart enough… If you hit all these notes right, the voice takes care of itself. The concerns of a teenager are, in the final analysis, not too different from the concerns of an adult. Where do I belong? How can I be happy? How can I find love?  Who am I? The older I get, the more I realize that we are all like children, continually bewildered by a random, unpredictable, chaotic world, no matter how old we happen to be. If a writer remembers that, s/he can create believable characters of any age.

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Amy Kathleen Ryan’s author website: www.amykathleenryan.com

Amy Kathleen Ryan’s bio page

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GlowSparkVibesZen and Xander Undone    Shades of Earth: An Across the Universe Novel (Across the Universe)Angel DustPhantoms in the Snow

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