Writer’s Group Therapy

Signing the Declaration of Independence--the ultimate writer's groupWriting, we’ve heard time and time again, is a lonely business. It’s just you, the keyboard and maybe a pet curled up in the corner—preferably a quiet pet with no incontinence issues. Of course, you’re a writer, so chances are you enjoy this situation, but at some point you’re bound to have the feeling that something’s missing, something important, something often annoying yet just as often warm and engaging… oh, yes! Other people! Most of us need to come out from underneath our rocks once in a while and be with our fellow humans, and what better way to do that than with a writer’s group?

I’m very grateful for my writer’s group. We meet at my church and are a small, eclectic bunch who love the craft and talking about it. Being with them always gives me the shot in the arm or kick in the behind I need to keep going. With these good folks in mind, I present my top 5 reasons for joining a writer’s group.

#5. Talking Shop. Most people don’t want to talk about your writing. They might be crazy about you, but they aren’t writers and after the initial inquiry about how your writing is going and your initial reply that it’s going pretty well, the subject is going to pretty much peter out. Having other people to talk to who are as excited as you are about stringing words together until they form a coherent something is often like water to a someone stranded in the desert.

#4. Catching Errors. I’m not just talking about grammar and punctuation. I recently described a character as wearing a tux with a morning coat—in the evening. One of the members has deep experience in this kind of thing and kindly explained to me that such a sartorial combination would never occur, thus preventing me from looking like an idiot to my readers, if I ever have any.

#3. Solving Problems. There’s no better place to go for help with knotty writing issues than a good writer’s group. They can help you with wording, plot twists, you name it. If you’re stuck on something, the group is a place to get unmired.

#2. Boosting Morale. Ours is a gentle, tactful group and I like it that way. We always look for something good to say about a member’s writing even if there’s criticism to be given. The criticism itself is given in a positive tone, often with suggestions or offers of help. It’s hard to walk out of there feeling put down. Corrected, maybe, but not put down. I do want to know if my stuff stinks, but tell me in a friendly, resprectfl way. I’ve been in critique sessions where ripping the writers apart was like a blood sport—no thanks.

#1. Getting It Out There. Presenting your work to your writer-group friends might be the only time anybody ever pays any attention to it. Many are the essays, short stories, novels, poems, etc. that have been written, yet never seen the light of day. By bringing your writing before the group, you know that somebody, somewhere, has heard it. What a wonderful gift that is! Even if they tell you—politely and respectfully—that it stinks.

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Writing Lessons from Reading: “Letters from Hades” by Jeffrey Thomas

Letters from Hades coverI found Letters from Hades by googling “novels set in hell.” You get a pretty good list that way. The story is presented as the journal of a man condemned to Hell for suicide. The journal itself is another condemned soul who has been formed into the cover of a book with an eye in its center. The eye sees and reacts to the action during the novel, which is just one of the interesting things Thomas brings to the tale.

I enjoyed this novel and I found some writing lessons, positive and negative, in its pages. Let’s get to them.

Use striking images. The novel begins with the line “On my fifth day in Hell, I found a praying mantis.” It’s an ordinary creature in a bizarre location, which grabs your attention. Thomas takes off from here with a description of his environs with sentences like “When the rain was over, the grounds of the university steamed with scarlet pools and there were even squirming, flopping eels and jellyfish in those pools that I realized were actually organs and entrails.” Vivid, eh? Notice how the description is packed with verbs and nouns.

Vividly imagine the setting and use it to support the story’s action. This lesson is an extension of the previous one. Regardless of where the protagonist wanders in this story, the setting is always played up, almost like a character itself. After his arrival in the city of Oblivion, the narrator describes a “…tower that seemed to support the molten sky like a column. Where most of the large skyscrapers had windows, housing either citizens or perhaps the Demonic class of Oblivion, this one had not a single pane, and its flanks were entirely formed of intricately woven black machinery heavily scabbed in corrosion like dried blood. Further, this machine building thrummed, gonged, chattered, whined, rang, chittered, hissed, rumbled, causing its immediate environs to vibrate. Steam billowed out of vents along its great height, curling like specters escaping from a gargantuan funereal obelisk.” This one building represents the oppressive feel of the entire city and the city itself lends its darkness to everything that happens there. You get the feeling that the things that happen there could happen nowhere else.

In a love relationship, try getting lovers from opposite sides. One of the best-known examples of this idea is “Romeo and Juliet,” I suppose. In Letters from Hades, the protagonist and a female demon named Chara fall in love and run away together. The fact that they are from such vastly different sides of the track and that most of the characters around them are against the relationship ratchets up the tension in the novel, so it keeps you turning pages.

In a first-person narrative, let the reader know the protagonist’s name. I wouldn’t call this a hard and fast rule—not that any of these are, of course—it’s just a touch I think enables the reader to connect with the lead character a little more. There’s no need to repeat it over and over—maybe just once or twice. It seems like this would help with verisimilitude, too—the lead is often in conversation—how likely is it nobody would ever say his name?

Avoid a flat narrative; be sure to have a beginning, middle and end, with a climax in there somewhere. The one objection I have to this novel is that there doesn’t seem to be any climax. It goes something like this: 1) Lead gets indoctrinated 2) Lead wanders, meets female demon 3) Lead goes to Oblivion City 4) Lead and demon fall in love 5) Things start to go badly in Oblivion City 6) Lead and demon escape Oblivion City and go elsewhere; the end. While this novel has several interesting points of conflict along the way, there’s never that big moment where everything is on the line, the situation looks hopeless for our hero, but then at the last instant, our hero prevails.

Jeffrey Thomas has written several novels, including Deadstock, which was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award and Monstrocity, a finalist for the Bram Stoker award. Clearly, the guy is no slouch. I learned a lot from reading Letters from Hades and I imagine I’ll be dipping into the J. Thomas canon in the future.

Getting It Right Enough

Cat says "What absolute twaddle."I recently came upon a section, the first one featuring Tanya—waitress, shaman and romantic interest extraordinaire—as the viewpoint character, that I just couldn’t turn loose. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in making it perfect, but I needed it to be good enough to build more story on top of.

In seemed to me that most of the writers I’d read or heard from said that its best to forge onward, full steam ahead, no matter what. Roz Morris even advises leaving your typos to be corrected later on. Lawrence Block is the only writer I’ve heard that advocates getting it right, or at least as right as possible, the first time around.

I originally started the section with Tanya in her apartment, getting a visit for shamanic services from a timid little man named Mr. Thomas. Mr. Thomas had nothing to do with the story otherwise and was really only there to discover lead character Colin’s inert body in the bathtub, hopefully causing the reader to ask what happens next. The scene dragged on and I kept thinking, “Get to the bathroom already, you sap!” Besides that, I realized that if Mr. Thomas showed up in the story now, I was going to have to clean him up later on.

So I 86’d Mr. Thomas before finishing the section. On to round two.

With Thomas gone, now I could bring in Doc, a character who shows up in the first section, who interests me and who I know is going to figure into the greater scope of the novel. That felt better. I could delve into Doc’s character a bit and build a relationship between him and Tanya that would round out her character, too. I got further into the section, but stopped again before it was done. There was something wrong I couldn’t put my finger on at first, but at last my finger landed… in giant pile of twaddle.

The section was dripping with useless babble. My favorite example is a fairly lengthy description of a sort of river of light. That sounds a little cool, maybe, but then hippos and chimaeras and stuff start to float by in it and it’s just ridiculous. More important, it was completely unnecessary. I went back again, stripped out the twaddle and finished the section with Doc discovering the inert Colin. (Not dead, just inert—let’s be clear here.)

What with all this rewriting, I was fearing that was slipping back into my old habits of perfectionism, but after some reflection I had a little epiphany. I wasn’t worrying about the beauty of the writing or the typos or any of that while I was reworking, and that’s the kind of thing the writers I consulted warn about. Instead, I was solving a story problem, the kind of thing that’s sure to crop up again and again as I cobble together this novel. And I’ve even left the solution a bit clumsy—as I think the writing authorities would say I should—it will need plenty of polish later on.

Now I can move on with the story feeling like I’m building on a solid foundation, because I didn’t get the section just right, I just got it right enough.

Writing Lessons from Reading: “Inferno” and “Escape from Hell” by Niven and Pournelle

It’s a good thing I decided to check out some other novels set in Hell as I started writing Thin Spots, otherwise I might have stuck with the original title, “Escape from Hell,” which is already the name of one of the books I’m taking writing lessons from in this post, a novel by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Hey! There’s lesson one already: Check out the genre before you get started, so you don’t repeat exactly what somebody else has done already, in title, content, or some other embarrassing way.

Inferno and its sequel, Escape from Hell, concern the adventures of Allen Carpenter, a writer who falls to his death and, after some time in an urn, finds himself in the Vestibule of Hell. In Inferno, he follows Benito Mussolini (no, I’m not kidding) to Hell’s exit, but instead of leaving, decides to stay and show others the way out. In Escape from Hell, Carpenter learns enough about his own nature to make a try for Heaven, and out of Hell he climbs (up Satan’s hairy old leg, no less).

The Hell described in the book is faithfully based on the one found in Dante’s Inferno. It makes a fascinating setting, from the packed dirt field of the vestibule to the frozen lake at Hell’s very nadir, where Satan sits imprisoned.

And lo! Check out lesson two: A little (or a lot of) creative theft is a wonderful thing, when properly executed. I found the following quote from T. S. Eliot on Keith Sawyer’s blog: “ ‘Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.’ He then goes on to say that good stealing is usually from someone far away in space and time.”

Niven and Pournelle have gotten creative theft right in these novels. Dante is certainly removed in time from them and they’ve managed to put the setting to a different use. Whereas Dante, in his Inferno, is primarily an observer, Carpenter is a questioner; he wants to know who built Hell, why they did, and why anyone deserves eternity there. Carpenter also has the nerve to try rescuing people from Hell, an angle I’m pretty sure Dante never considered.

There was a gap of thirty-three years between the publications of Inferno and Escape from Hell, and it seemed to me that the second book, while still plenty entertaining and populated by the likes of Sylvia Plath, lacked the energy and originality of the first. Maybe that’s just me—I did read them in rapid succession, after all—but it seemed the authors didn’t bring much new to the setting the second time around except some detail about the Forest of Suicides and the addition of exploding souls (the souls of suicide bombers, don’t you know).

Maybe there are a couple of lessons here. Lesson three: Be careful when you revisit something that you bring real freshness to it. Lesson four: Not everything you write has to be the bee’s knees—write it, enjoy writing it and hope others enjoy reading it. If they do, great; if not, it’s no disaster as long as you’ve been primarily writing for your own enjoyment (part of my personal writing philosophy—maybe not so great if you write fiction for a living).

Finally, lesson five: Do your research. The acknowledgements section of Escape from Hell discusses the multiple translations of the Inferno the authors delved into to ensure they had a tight handle on the setting, which, in books like these, is practically one of the characters.

Whatever lessons these novels hold, they’re both entertaining, not dark in tone despite the setting and great examples of how a classic can be reworked in the modern day.