The write stuff
For aspiring local authors who want to workshop their writing, there are plenty of opportunities
Writers who compose their wonderful prose or poetry without peer review have a curious habit of remaining unpublished. These authors tend to write things that make perfect sense to them and very few others. This incomprehensibility is natural, given the human brain’s inclination for making conceptual shortcuts. And equally natural, it will probably suck.
Thankfully, Northern Nevada wordsmiths, literary masters in waiting, budding Robert Frosts, and J. K. Rowling wannabes can polish their works with the help of writers’ groups. These groups give authors the chance to hear what others think, to smooth out their clunkiness and to catch absurdities. Be willing to listen; take the criticism like a grownup; and watch as your project goes from confusing to compelling.Lone Mountain Writers
Western Nevada College, Carson City. Free membership. (775) 445-4284.
Of all the groups I visited, this one had the liveliest proceedings. Group leaders had hot flashes. Novelists had books about dreamy guys who dream about killing their girlfriends during coitus. There were evil Swedish drug lords, zombie dogs, garage sale murderers and a hero “coming to terms with his necrophilia.”
Western Nevada College professor of English Marilee Swirczek runs the Lone Mountain Writers and does so with energy and enthusiasm usually seen in fashionable young girls waiting in line for tickets to a Twilight movie. Her hands fly as if directing some horribly discordant orchestra, and I counted at least seven varieties of smile. Swirczek’s cheerleading is contagious and allows her to continuously recruit students from her creative writing classes. One former student, Kevin Burns, loved the group and class so much he participated in both for 19 consecutive semesters. She also pours herself into creating traveling exhibits of written word art, the latest of which has been slated for showing at the University of Wisconsin in March.
Lone Mountain’s usual format for critique involves 10-15 people criticizing four, 20-page submissions per biweekly meeting. All submissions are read and corrected before the meeting. This allows for very detailed feedback. Each piece discussed during my meeting with Lone Mountain received thorough, genuinely professional criticism for characterizations, tone, line editing and style. While the critics pulled no punches, they also carried on in a manner more reminiscent of a Super Bowl party than an academic meeting.
“We are kind but precise and truthful,” writer Angela Yocum said.
For fiction, Lone Mountain Writers is the best place to hone your skills and improve your manuscript I’ve found. They accommodate everyone from beginners to writers like Wilma Counts, who has published nine novels. It would be a very dense writer who could not learn from Swriczek’s group.Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
Barnes and Noble, Reno. $75 fee to join and $60 per year thereafter. www.nevadascbwi.org.
This group specializes in literature for kids. That sounds very restrictive, but member and New York Times bestselling author Ellen Hopkins was quick to remind me that the genre encompasses everything from picture books to Harry Potter, stories of fairies to stories of drug addiction and works from 500 words to 500 pages. In fact, Hopkins’ best known work, Crank, is a 544-page long poem dealing with methamphetamine and rape. Another member, Dawn Callahan, said this of her zombie book:
“I was laughing last night as [my character] was pulling the arms off a victim.”
The Reno chapter of the SCBWI, part of a larger organization reaching into several countries, has a diffuse structure. Some of the critique groups within Reno SCBWI cater to illustrators. Some are filled with writers shooting for the elementary school reader. The one I visited featured middle grade (approximately middle school readers) to young adult (mid to late teens). Sometimes they meet to critique each other’s work, but they are just as likely to sit around writing together and mocking the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. In contrast with Lone Mountain Writers, the members of this critique group did not read each other’s work before the meetings, preferring to offer feedback after the author read his or her piece aloud. The schedule for the meeting varies with each of the SCWBI’s several critique groups.
What really separates the Reno chapter SCBWI from other groups is their record on publishing. They tend to shy away from self-publishing and go aggressively after traditional publishers. The group organizes several retreats and large writers’ conferences where aspiring children’s authors can talk directly to publishers and literary agents. If you think you’re ready for big time, you could do much worse than to join this group.
Ash Canyon Poets
Evergreen Mountain View Health Center, 201 Koontz Lane, Carson City. Free membership.
And now onto something that has very little to do with novels: poetry. The Ash Canyon Poets began operations in 1989 and continue today as a highly informal group dedicated to verse. They are largely the product of recently deceased, award-winning poet and short story writer Bill Cowee love of language. Current members regularly appear on anthologies and collections.
These folks know their stuff, too. The technical mastery they displayed dealing with imagery, flow and metaphor reminded me of the nuts and bolts that go into making a Shakespearean sonnet so fun to read. Here is an excerpt from the poem “Flying Home” by member and 2001 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship winner Roy Chávez:
“I am not
the condor of my dreams
gazing down in peace with him self
but a soul rambling the road of death
hiding in the body of mortality
afraid of falling from heaven
I who will never be an angel”
Because this is the least formal of the groups I visited, attendance can vary from two or three people to over 20. They, like the SCBWI, do not require you to critique the submissions before the meetings.
Unnamed Writers’ Group
Reno in various locations. www.unnamedwriters.org. $25 annual fee
I don’t know if Northern Nevada really has an 800 pound gorilla of literary groups, but the UWG is at least a 300 pound orangutan. The membership reaches well into triple digits and Linda Enos’ organization usually runs at least six critique groups at a time. The most rigorous of these groups, the one headed by Charles LaFleur, meets every Wednesday morning at Borders in Reno.
LaFleur’s group includes mystery, horror, literary and romance works. This diversity of influence, he says, provides their greatest strengths.
“We each come at it from a little bit different perspective,” LaFleur says.
Distinct from the other groups in this list, the UWG critique groups usually consist of four to seven members, each of whom submit about 10 pages and all of whom receive feedback from the entire group every meeting. That said, the exact rules differ between each set of writers. This style of critique lets each writer see feedback on a regular basis and facilitates faster progress through novels and memoirs.
So if you want to get better at putting squiggly black lines on pulped wood there’re no more excuses. Help is always within easy reach here in Northern Nevada.