Moment of truth

down-the-road

Silk’s Post #90 — Tomorrow (Tuesday) the 5Writers will get together to talk about where we go from here as a writers group. Over the four years that our current membership has been together, I think it’s fair to say we’ve all learned a lot about writing. But we’ve learned even more about ourselves, and about the value, challenges and rewards of collective creative effort and mutual support.

It has been an incredible experience – one that I would encourage other writers to seek.

What have we actually accomplished? I can only testify to our progress since I was invited by colleagues I first met at the Surrey International Writers Conference to join the group in 2010 – after our founder moved on to bigger and better things as bestselling crime thriller author, Sean Slater. I missed those first, inspiring days. But since 2010, here’s a brief recap of our evolution:

For two years, under the optimistic banner “Future Bestsellers”, our focus was a regimen of critiquing each other’s first drafts at a rate of 30 pages per month. We were all roughly in comparable stages of our projects. We put a lot of work into each critique, typically providing margin notes, summary comments (usually anywhere from 3 to 6 pages), and a face-to-face presentation/discussion. Thus were 10 books fully or partially critiqued. And we weren’t shy about it.

This feedback was critical to me. You might say it tore the veils from my eyes and forced me to look at my own work in a different way. Some sessions I would leave with soaring spirits, others with a heavy heart. But because of the caring and supportive environment our group has cultivated, and the honesty and intelligence of its members, I always left a meeting feeling that I’d learned something of great value that would help me become a better writer.

In retrospect, I believe that the even more important lessons were learned when critiquing the writing of others. It’s so much easier to see what works and what doesn’t work in someone else’s manuscript than it is to see it in your own. But if you have an open mind and are honest with yourself, you’ll recognize those same characteristics – both flaws and successes – in your own work. It’s a revelatory process.

But routine can be an enemy of creativity. So, two years ago, we decided to re-invent the group through the 5writers5novels5months challenge, which we launched on September 5, 2012.  This began with the wild idea – dreamed up virtually on the spot – to each write a novel in five months, and blog about the process. If you’ve been following us for a while, you know how it went. The mission to complete five novels on deadline was partially accomplished. The mission to start a blog that might be interesting to writers and others has been a whole education in itself, and, I think, a pretty successful venture. The mission to create a learning experience was absolutely accomplished, culminating in a fantastic, week-long writers’ retreat in Whistler, BC in June 2013, where we delivered full-book critiques (and ate a lot of candy bars).

But the publication mission is still to be accomplished for the 5Writers.

Over the past year, we’ve each pursued our own writing agendas and kept blogging, while a number of other priorities have kept the 5Writers extraordinarily busy. But now, the break’s over. We’ve come up with a number of ideas for again re-invigorating our group and challenging ourselves as writers. We’re ready for a new phase. We’re getting fired up. We all want to go that final mile on the road to publication.

And that new plan starts tomorrow. A meeting of the minds. A celebration of how far we’ve come, and a re-commitment to how far we still need to go. A new jolt to our comfort zones. And hopefully … a moment of truth.

Stay tuned!

One endless year wiser

desk-insetSilk’s Post #51 — One year ago today, as the DW (designated writer) of our critique group’s first post, I clicked “publish” and 5writers5novels5months launched itself into the crowded blogosphere.

“Let Us Tell You a Story …” introduced our crazy, self-imposed challenge of each writing a novel in five months, and our even crazier hope of getting at least one of them sold within a year.

It’s now 365 days and 245 posts later, a good time to reflect on our journey. What have we accomplished? What have we learned? And what are we going to do next?

5writers-9-5-13

Accomplishment #1 – happy anniversary to us

First and foremost, we’re still together. Through all our individual personal changes, challenges, triumphs and frustrations this year, the 5writers are (in today’s parlance) still committed to a deep and meaningful relationship with each other. We held an anniversary meeting on September 5, 2013 to celebrate, re-charge our batteries, and plan a new group literary venture for 2014.

Can’t tell you more now. Very hush hush. But watch this space for details of our next ridiculously idealistic and ambitious scheme in the new year.

The writing life is no place for realists. Much too hazardous to their sanity.

Accomplishment #2 – OMG, we’re actually blogging

A couple of our 5 had a bit of blogging experience. I wasn’t one of them. This whole blogging venture was – let’s call a spade a spade – a total crapshoot. Could we organize 5 different writers in 5 different places with 5 different lives to create a blog with any kind of continuity, and somehow sustain their efforts week after week? As 5 of the millions of unpublished writers out there, did we really have enough to say that people might be interested in? Could we attract any followers? Could we keep them?

As it turns out, we could. Okay, we’re not a trending phenom, but a few hundred of our valued readers keep sticking with us, and we promise to keep working hard to make it worth your while.

So, our sincere thanks to you. You keep us going, and hopefully we help you do the same.

Accomplishment #3 – over 323,064 words and counting

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that only 2 of the 5 finished their first drafts by the designated target date of February 5, 2013 (Joe and Paula). By the time the 5writers got together for our big Whistler critique fest in June, Karalee had finished her first draft, and Helga and I submitted partial manuscripts. As a group, we got over 300,000 words on paper, and critiqued every one of them.

And now, of course, we’re changing probably 150,000 of them, and adding another 300,000.

Ugh. Math. A writer’s least favourite subject.

My big, fat, life lesson

Personally, I’ve learned as much about myself in the past year as I’ve learned about writing. And that’s a lot.

Though I’ve been writing pretty well all my life, I came to fiction late and with great trepidation. I thought I had my eyes wide open by realizing at the outset that it would be a steep learning curve. I knew I knew how to write, but I didn’t know if I knew how to tell a story.

I not only underestimated the expected storytelling learning curve, but I was blindsided by all sorts of other learning curves I hadn’t anticipated. Like the extra determination it takes to start a whole new career when you’re 60. Not a hobby, where success is measured purely in terms of personal satisfaction, but a career, where success is also measured by satisfying an audience.

Let’s face it, most writers will never be published. There. I’ve said it. But if you’re writing to be read, then publication is the goal. And for me, the reality of what that really means finally sank in this year. It means:

  1. I have to actually finish the first draft.
  2. I have to then figure out what’s wrong with it (there will be lots), and polish it to a level that outshines the gazillion other unpublished manuscripts out there as I compete for the attention of an agent, editor and publisher.
  3. I have to go through the torturous snakes-and-ladders process of finding and selling to the abovementioned gatekeepers, which also means …
  4. I have to have another book, or more, in the works immediately.
  5. I have to repeat ad infinitum to feed either the slush pile or the bookshelf, depending on my degree of success.

Okay, we all know this stuff. We’ve read it. It’s been hammered into us by experts at conferences. We’ve discussed it ad nauseum. But internalizing the reality of this commitment – making it part of one’s life mission, because nothing else will really suffice – is another thing altogether. I had a long, long list of things I was eager to do when I retired from my “real” career. This year I had to realistically face whether writing was to be one of many pleasant pastimes, or would become another “real” career.

Everyone who writes has heard the famous writer-at-a-cocktail-party story, broadly ascribed to a lecture given by Canadian lit queen Margaret Atwood:

A brain surgeon meets a writer at a cocktail party.

“So you write?” says the brain surgeon. “Isn’t that interesting. I’ve always wanted to write. When I retire and have the time I’m going to be a writer.” 

“What a coincidence,” says the writer, “because when I retire I’m going to be a brain surgeon.”

I’ve been harbouring the secret suspicion that I’m really just a naive “brain surgeon” who thinks writing is easier than brain surgery – something to keep me amused and purposeful in my retirement. This year’s 5writers challenge has forced me to come to grips with my ambitions. What kind of writer am I – really?

My decision: I’m still teetering. My heart says, “career”. My head asks, “do you really want to work as hard as you did during the 40 years you had your nose to the grindstone?” Because that’s what it will take to become a writer who gets published, gets read, achieves commercial success.

Like the majority of that huge community of unpublished writers out there, I haven’t really committed yet to writing being my life’s absolute, number one, top priority. But, like many of them, I thought I had already made that commitment. This year taught me that I have not.

And that, ironically, is real progress.

I’m acutely aware that I’m part of a generation that wants it all – a ridiculous impossibility. Time is a cruel taskmaster. To do something really well, you have to feed your dream with your blood, sweat, tears … and time. You have to give up other things.

I am a writer. I will write for the rest of my life. Because, as Maya Angelou wrote, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

But the question remains: what kind of writer will I be? My “5writers year” has been endless. That is to say, I’ve not yet typed “the end” in the story I began on September 5, 2012. When I do, I can make a new beginning.

Hopefully by then I’ll be wiser about what kind of writer I am.