WRITING CLASS VIA ZOOM

I went into this with some trepidation. Heretofore, my only experiences with zoom have been with a critique group and with a social group. The critique group is only four, and the social group, five. How would that work with ten?

This class is called Exploring Fiction, and it’s part of the creative writing program offered at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts studio center. I’ve taken courses through the VMFA before, but this is the first time I’ve tried it online. My classmates all have schedules flexible enough to allow them to join a class in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Other than that, there’s quite a bit of variety.
.

  • Some have taken dozens of writing classes for many years; for others, this is the first writing class they’ve taken.
  • Participant ages vary; so far as I can guess, there is a span of thirty or forty years..
  • A few of my classmates have published several works, both books and shorter works. Some in the class have no interest in publishing at all.
  • I recognize several of my fellow writers from previous classes or peer review groups we’ve been in before. Others are new friends for me to meet!

What I liked:

  • Finally getting back with some of my writing friends of old
  • Finding that the teacher is well-organized, and already experienced
  • The “get acquainted” exercise, and learning things I didn’t know about people I already knew
  • The varied aspects of each class, which include assigned readings, prompted writing, and sharing of our own work
  • The teacher’s focus on the positive feedback
  • Being able to sip water or coffee, something I’d never bothered to take to class before
  • Once again hearing the different takes on the same prompt 
  • Hearing someone else’s very vivid writing
  • Discussing a short story from The New Yorker and examining why it works so well

What I didn’t like:

  • I couldn’t see everyone by simply turning my head
  • Everyone seemed more stilted and formal
  • Fewer spontaneous comments among students
  • Difficulty taking notes while using my laptop to run the meeting
  • Seeing the way I look on screen, face all mottled by shadows
  • Feeling self-conscious every time I touched my hair
    • Or scratched my nose
    • Or wrinkled my brow
    • Or moved at all, actually
  • Being hyper-aware of every noise I made, coughing or turning pages or whatever
  • Having to mute myself whenever my husband made noise in the backgroundAnd remembering to unmute after

Bottom line for this writer: not as good as in-person but soooo much better than no class at all!

The (Virtual) Perennial Student

A year and a bit ago, I wrote about the importance of continuing education and peer review for a writer. Though in-person classes and critique groups are more difficult these days, challenging yourself to write is just as important. As with so many other areas of life, the internet can help with that!

Writing classes are notoriously rowdy. Teachers may even welcome the relative calm of online classes conducted via web cam.

It’s practically a cliché that writing is a lone activity. For the past few months, pretty much everything has been a lone activity. Classes and writing groups add the social dimension to writing, especially during quarantines, lockdowns, and isolations. I never met a boring writer! I meet interesting people with similar interests and (usually) similar world views. Thus there is the potential to develop new friendships as well as keeping in touch with current friends.

Why Classes?

When you happen to live with a writing partner, social distancing and masks are probably not required.

Classes stimulate me to write in new directions.  Yes, I write when I’m not in class, but it tends to get habitual, not to mention sporadic.  An extra bonus of online classes is the ability to connect with teachers and fellow writers in all over the world. The variety of cultural perspectives is almost guaranteed to shine light on some of those new directions.

Drawing up a calendar schedule isn’t necessarily required, but it certainly helps to avoid last-minute writing crunches.

Classes are structured to make me write regularly. The VMFA studio classes meet regularly, with a variety of schedules to suit any writing lifestyle. Tuition is a real bargain, when one looks at dollars per hour of instruction! Just saying.

When I write regularly, I also submit regularly, at least six times per year.  This leads to lots of rejections, but without submissions there are no acceptances. Submissions, thankfully, are almost entirely online.

Typed submissions are much easier to send to online classes, but some people still prefer to write a first draft with pen and paper.

Most of my life has been spent in classrooms, as a student and/or teacher. Classes are my natural environment, the one in which I thrive.  Classmates and/or teachers praising my writing is extremely gratifying. Every time I get something published, it’s like an A on my report card or a star on my forehead. With more than 50 publications in literary journals and anthologies, my writing life is sufficiently star-studded to make me smile.

Why Critique Groups?

For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

There are some things that will help a group to be good.  There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

  • Set down the group guidelines in writing.
  • Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
  • Be clear about how feedback will be given.
  • Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
  • Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting:
    • Are they expected to send comments on others’ work?
    • Can they send work anyway?
  • What if someone comes without having written anything?
  • Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
  • Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
  • Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
  • Meet at least twice a month.

Online critique groups have additional logistics to consider.

  • To avoid pandemonium, there should be a recognized leader for each meeting.
    • The leader could be the meeting host, the original organizer, the most senior author, a regularly rotating position, or any other generally agreed person.
  • Web meeting courtesy should be observed, including muting microphones when not speaking, avoiding distracting background action on video, and not having side conversations.
  • Because all submissions will be digital, participants must share files in a format that can be opened and read by everyone.

Find Your Group

Here are just a few of the many options for classes online:

Peer review groups or partnerships can be formed by anyone. Perhaps some of your friends from past classes or workshops would be up for regular critiquing. Social media is a great way to connect with other writers you may never have met in real life. There are also more formal groups:

WRITING TIPS: OLDIES BUT GOODIES

Officially authentic Italian style

You are likely to recognize at least some of these tips.  They turn up in writing classes, critique groups, and books on writing well.  Still, a review never hurts.

Kill Your Favorites

How much pepperoni is too much pepperoni?

People have speech patterns, habitual gestures, familiar facial expressions, and characteristic ways of walking. Writers also have writing habits–favorite words or expressions that often seem apt. Maybe you like voices that rumble like thunder. Perhaps you are partial to jettison for flummoxed. Take care that you don’t over-use these darlings. Once in any short story is sufficient, unless their repetition is part of the story. Think twice before repeating them even in a book-length manuscript.

Is it possible to have too much cheese?

Other words aren’t necessarily favorites, just so common – so universal – that they slip in unnoticed. Probably your readers won’t notice, either. But they are so insipid that they deaden your writing. I’m talking about words like smile, frown, scowl, laugh, sigh. I’m talking about faces that flush, eyes that fill with tears.

Make a list of words that you use a lot – that you suspect that you use too often. Use the edit function of your word processing program to find each instance of each of these words. Consider which can be replaced with more precise and/or more vivid alternatives.

Beware Wrap-ups and Extensions

All that added cheese is doing no one any good.

To take an example familiar to most people reading this blog: if you have a child narrator/POV for telling the Biblical story of Noah’s ark, stop when the child is out of the story. Do not then add an authorial note about global warming, animal evolution, or anything else that is modern. If you have a mother narrating the loss of three children in a natural disaster, don’t add an authorial note after the mother’s death that tells how the one remaining daughter became a nun and devoted her life to working with children following natural disasters.

These examples are blatant, but beware of more subtle wrap-ups as well. If you have a wrap-up at all, as opposed to an ending, ask yourself whether it takes the reader out of the story itself, whether it adds anything relevant, whether you can do without it.

Make Use of Your Dreams

Keep a notebook/journal/folder – whatever suits your style – in which you record your especially vivid or disturbing subconscious ramblings. Record the dream as soon after the event as you reasonably can, and include as many details as you remember, however bizarre, disjointed, or impossible they may be. You can make use of these dream records in at least two ways.

The most obvious way to use these dream records is when you need your character to have a dream. You can either lift it in total or use it as a starting point. Much easier than creating a dream out of whole cloth.

Because dreams often contain odd juxtapositions, they also are useful when you are writing something that calls for a supernatural, mysterious, or merely unexpected series of events.

Once you are in the habit of collecting your dreams – and maybe the dreams told to you by family or friends – you may find yourself using them in surprising ways.

Use Uncomfortable Words

Potato chips? Lobster? Marshmallows?

Uncomfortable words are perfectly correct and not obscene. Nevertheless, they often surprise – or even shock – the reader. Sometimes they make the reader uncomfortable. These latter words can simply be highly personal. My high school English teacher was bothered by the word “bother.” She said it made her think of dirty old men. One of my personal preferences is to use “it isn’t” rather than “it’s not,” the latter sounding too much like “snot”–which is an uncomfortable word for a lot of people.

Kiwi?!

Consider succulent, flaccid, penal, ovoid, horehound, hump, abreast, coldcock, excretion, floppy, fondle, globule, goiter, lipid, niggardly, onus, rectify, and more.

Choose uncomfortable words for effect. Use them sparingly.

Listen

There’s something about listening to the pizza original that just seems to get lost in CD or digital files.

Pay attention to the sounds around you – speech and non. Think of how to describe that bird call – or the rainfall, or the traffic, or the crowd at the game – really sounds, and write it down. But also listen to what people are saying. Pick up on strong phrases such as “plucking my last nerve” or anecdotes containing disturbing images, such as a man on a bus with a dead rabbit in a paper bag. Jot these things into your writing journal for later inspiration.

Remember The Five Ws

You probably have a vague recollection that sometime in the past – perhaps in high school – someone told you that when writing a newspaper article, you need to cover all five Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. That is good advice in general, including fiction–and even memoir.

Where is this pizza and how can I get some?
  • The Who covers both the character(s) and the Point of View. 
  • What is generally what the POV character is striving for – anything from making the team to becoming the richest person in the world.
  • When can be as specific as April 19, 1945 or a vague as once upon a time… 
  • Where is, of course, setting.
Why? Really, just… why?
  • And Why is motivation – what is driving the character. Much depends on Why, and within the context of your story it must be both believable and sufficient to justify the act. If your character kills someone to secure a spot on the team, the stakes for making/not making the team must be very high indeed, and fully developed in the story.

Writing Both Sides

Characters who are either too good or too evil are too flat! Settings – whether rooms, cars, or countrysides – that are unmitigated beauty are likely to be unbelievable. Pick and choose the good and the bad, especially for your protagonist. 

Bottom line for writers: Good tips for good writing will never grow old!

If you feel stuck, try approaching your writing from a different angle.

Throwback Post: Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

I’ve been writing a lot, but it’s something other than a blog post! For today’s post, enjoy a throwback article on the pros and cons of critique groups, originally posted in November 2016.

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!

The Value of Writing Classes and Workshops

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer is to join a writing group or workshop. The people you meet can offer fresh perspectives on your writing and help you evolve in your genre and beyond. Not only is it great to have another set of eyes look over your work, but going to a workshop every week helps you stick to a regular writing schedule. That discipline, coupled with the skills you pick up, are a great way to bring your writing to the next level.

 

value writing classes workshops
I had no formal writing instruction from high school through retirement, but after I retired I began to take classes at the VMFA Studio School. In addition to all sorts of arts classes– drawing and painting, photography, pottery, printmaking– they offer creative writing courses. Coming up soon are two such courses: one in memoir writing, and another in blog writing.

 

Besides the classes at the VMFA, I’ve had classes and/or workshops at the University of Richmond and, of course, Nimrod Hall Summer arts programs. Registration for Nimrod is already open for week-long or weekend workshops, if you’re interested.

 

I’ve also had friends who’ve taken classes at VCU. They are difficult to get into for non-degree students, but it doesn’t hurt to try. While the types of courses vary from semester to semester, here is a list of upcoming courses they will be offering.

 

value writing classes workshops
A writing friend took a seminar with Agile Writers which she said was excellent. You can take their mini-tutorials online, or become a member for more benefits. Still others have taken classes at the Visual Arts Center. They currently have a couple of open classes: Writing from Your Senses and Writing the Memoir. Sometimes you can find classes or workshops at local libraries. I once taught a 6-week class at the Tuckahoe Branch of Henrico County Library. Such opportunities are catch-as-catch-can, but be aware!

 

There are also workshops set up for you to make contacts within the writing community and to help you get feedback on your writing. One such event is Writers Wednesdays through the James River Writers, where on the second Wednesday of every month writers in Richmond have a casual meet-and-greet at Ardent Craft Ales. Similarly, Writers Farmhouse invites authors to the Midlothian Urban Farmhouse Market & Cafe to write, read, and motivate.

james river writers annual conference
At the James River Writers Conference in 2012

These are all in the local Richmond area, but opportunities abound. Many schools with MFA programs offer non-degree classes in the summers. For example, I know that Hollins College has an annual offeringPoets & Writers magazine gives a national listing annually as well.

 

If you start taking writing instruction, you are likely to fall in love with your teacher. By all means, continue to take classes with her/him. But also branch out. I’ve taken classes with Douglas Jones, Susan Hankla, Sherri Reynolds, Cathy Hankla, Charlotte Morgan, and others. Valley Haggard is also a local writer who offers classes. James River Writers has a list of classes, workshops, and writing groups for you to get more info about these opportunities.
value writing classes workshops
Each teacher offers something; they all have their strengths. Some light a creative spark. Some provide structure to get started and/or finish a specific project. Some sharpen specific writing skills. Some offer assignments and deadlines that make you keep BIC (Butt in Chair) and actually put words on paper. All should offer encouragement and support!

Helpful and Hazardous Critique Groups

Last week I wrote about editing yourself. For most writers, self-editing is necessary but not sufficient to make the writing its best. That’s where critique groups and reading partners come in. Personally, I prefer a small group, four or five seeming ideal to me. The strength in numbers is that having multiple readers with different strengths can cover more of the territory: some might pick up on word choices and sentence structure, while others look more at the big picture of character and plot development.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups
Regardless of number, good readers have much in common:

 

1. They want your writing to be the best possible version of your work.
2. They are frank, but kind in their delivery.
3. They don’t get pissed if you don’t make a change they suggested.
4. If the group is unanimous in a certain point (e.g., a weak opening paragraph), believe it.
5. They can help you realize that some vital information is in your head but not on the page, especially with memoirs.
6. They can tell you when the impression you intended to create isn’t the one you did create.
7. They understand the expectations of your genre.
8. They make specific comments, so that you know how to fix what doesn’t work.
9. They don’t try to compete to be the best in the group.
helpful hazardous critique groups
Bad groups can be hazardous to your writing health in numerous ways.

 

1. It’s all about the competition.
2. They confuse critiquing with criticizing, and so don’t offer praise.
3. They give vague feedback that gives you no direction (e.g., “This is great” or “This doesn’t do it for me”).
4. They try to get you to write like them.
5. They socialize, eating up meeting time with too much chit-chat.
6. They get so involved with agreeing or disagreeing with your premise that they lose sight of the quality of the writing. This is especially the case when the topic is politics or religion—or any sort of opinion piece.

 

There are some things that will help a group to be good. There are online resources and guidelines you might adopt. In my experience, here are a few basics:

 

1. Set down the group guidelines in writing.
2. Be clear about what types of writing will be acceptable (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, opinion essays, etc.) and stick to them.
3. Be clear about how feedback will be given.
4. Specify when the work is due, in what form, and what length.
5. Decide what happens when someone misses a meeting: Are they expected to send comments on others’ work? Can they send work anyway?
6. What if someone comes without having written anything?
7. Stick to a regular meeting time and schedule.
8. Get the group’s consensus when changing any of this.
9. Keep the group small enough that everyone can have sufficient and equal time.
10. Meet at least twice a month.

 

helpful hazardous critique groups

You need to feel comfortable, supported, and helped. This is a very personal thing. If you find yourself in a “bad” group, get out!