Tips from the Writers Coffeehouse

On Sunday I attended the Philadelphia Writers Coffeehouse.  For those who don’t know, this is a group of writers of all levels who meet once a month at a local Barnes & Noble.  It’s a neat way to spend some time with fellow crazies … I mean writers.  We talk about everything from what’s going on in the publishing world to creating author platforms and marketing to tips and techniques to improve your craft as a writer.

The actual Philly Writers Coffehouse

I tend to tune out the social networking discussions because, well, as you can see, I think I’ve got that aspect of the whole thing well in hand.  I also get impatient with discussions about the publishing industry, which I really shouldn’t.  But whenever I hear about the crazy, desperate, creepy, ethically questionable, or just plain tedious things that the traditional publishing world is up to I remember why I am so happy as an indie author.

But the tips for improving your craft?  Oh man did they have some good suggestions!

Here are some of my favorites.  And if anyone out there has tried these things, please let us all know what you think of them.

The coolest and most obvious piece of advice that someone brought up was something we’ve all heard before.  Good writers are voracious readers.  Yup.  But the twist that someone put on this bedrock of writing improvement was that, as writers, we have to be incredibly selective about what we read.  You only improve your own craft by reading the very, very best.  Yes, there’s a lot to be gained from reading things that don’t work so that you can see what to avoid, but the key is to read the very best.

The leader of the coffeehouse asked us all to think about who within the genre we write in do we consider the best.  (Me = Historical Romance = Elizabeth Hoyt, Elizabeth Boyle, Eloisa James, and Lisa Kleypas)  They stressed that we should read and really study the works of the great ones.

Then an exercise was suggested that I just think is cool.

Take the work of one of your favorite top-of-the-line authors.  Find a really good section or paragraph.  Then get out a pad of paper and a pen and copy out the passage word for word.

Apparently the benefit of this is that it helps you to get a feeling for the flow of words, the sentence structure, and the vocabulary that these top-notch writers use.  Writing it out forces you to slow down and focus on each word, each phrase, and how they all fit together.  See what it feels like to write those words in that way.  Pay attention to how paragraphs are started and ended.  If you’re doing a huge long section, or even if you’re just reading it, pay attention to the last sentence or two before section breaks.  If a sentence is set apart on a line all by itself, pay attention to how that feels.

The theory is that if you do more than just read those words you think are great, if you retrace them, you can get a sense for the craft that goes beyond its overall impact.  The suggestion was also made to then try to rewrite a bit of your work in progress in the style of the writer you’ve been studying.  Just to see how it feels, you know.  Another suggestion was to try to rewrite what your favorite writer was saying in their selection in your own words and to compare that.

Kinda cool, eh?  I think I might try that sometime.

The other suggestion that seriously intrigues me that I haven’t tried yet has to do with social networking.

Has anyone used Google Alerts?  Apparently you can track when people are searching for certain terms and where they go.  The suggestion was made that you should do a Google Alert for your own name and for the keywords that describe what you write.  So for me I would look into a Google alert for Merry Farmer, but also for medieval romance or something similar like that.

I haven’t done the Google Alert thing yet, but I think now I’ll have to give it a try.

The other piece of advice that I think is golden that I’d like to share with you today was the importance of having a writers group of some sort.  People talked about their critique groups.  They mentioned that if you want to actually get something out of a critique group you need to let them be brutal with you.  Asking someone to be gentle with your manuscript isn’t going to do you any good.  At the same time, people mentioned that you need to take what people say with a grain of salt and ignore it if it doesn’t feel right.

The importance of groups goes further than critique groups.  Several people mentioned the importance of groups like the Coffeehouse.  Writing can be a difficult, lonely business.  You need back-up.  Even though the room was packed to the gills with more people than should have been there, it was still worthwhile hanging out for a couple of hours with other nutty people who sit in front of a computer for hours for fun.  Some of the writers there are multi-published and relatively famous.  Some have never written a word but are plagued with an idea they just have to write.  Most of us are in the middle.  It doesn’t matter.  Birds of a feather need to flock together.

So there you have it.  Wisdom from the Philadelphia Writer’s Coffeehouse.  We meet every last Sunday of the month at the Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove at noon.  Come and join us next month!

[I was just a little sad this month because Greg Frost wasn’t there, and I have such a huge crush on him. =D]

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8 thoughts on “Tips from the Writers Coffeehouse

  1. That’s an interesting suggestion about only learning from high quality books. I see the use, and I think some people would benefit from it, but my experience has been sort of the opposite.

    For on thing, the better I get at writing, the pickier I get about what I read. The cause and effect is switched. I’m so used to thinking about what does and does not work, that I examine everything. It’s gotten to the point where even when I read my favorite authors, part of me is thinking, “What would I change about this?” I struggle to relax and enjoy reading, and when I do manage to read a book for shear joy, the experience is a useful part of writing no matter how bad the book is. Just knowing the feeling of getting lost in a story so important to creating it for someone else. That awareness of what is and is not good has served me as a writer, but not as a reader.

    Which gets to my second thought, that reading bad books has always helped me. It’s partly what you said, about seeing what goes wrong, but it goes deeper than that. It’s about seeing what goes right in a vacuum. Reading a terrible book, and loving it, tells me a lot about what elements are most important to make a story absorbing.

    I got into writing by reading mountains of terrible online fan fiction, and deciding to add a pebble. Every caliber of writer writes fan fiction, from those who don’t seem to know the language, to some of the best writers I’ve encountered. All that reading has made me acutely aware of all the miniscule steps between bad and fantastic, and which ones matter. I think, in a way, that was what made me a critical reader, although it also made me less critical of my own writing.

    However, fan fiction was an island amid the sea of good books I spend most of my life reading, so maybe the reason the suggestion seems backwards to me is that I’m looking at it from the wrong angle.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. I enjoyed reading it, and I might try that paragraph exercise.

    • Melanie, you should totally come to the writer’s coffeehouse some Sunday. I think you would really enjoy listening to all the cool things people have to say. And it’s free! =D

  2. Thanks for sharing these tips!

    I’ve been reading mostly indie books lately. I think I need to make use of Kindle’s library lending feature, though, and start reading some of the masters in my genre(s).

    I do use Google Alerts. I have it set to send me anything with my name (apparently there’s someone with my name who plays a lot of college sports), Blood of the Dragon (ALL about Dany from Song of Ice and Fire), and Vampire Assassin (Kate Beckinsale, anyone?). On occasion I’ll get a nice little gem that actually relates to me, though.

    I need to find a writing group I can meet with. It’s very hard around here, though. I live in such a small community, I don’t know of any other fantasy writers in the area.

    • Ooo! Samantha! You should totally come down for the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference. It’s the first weekend in May, Friday through Sunday. I’ve already got a room reserved at the hotel and we’ve got room for one more. 😉

  3. I’ve just checked out Google Alerts. Clever stuff, and I’ve set it up, thanks to your advice. I also like the idea of copying out paragraphs from your favourite authors – I might give that a go too. Thanks for this post!

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