Writing group ideas; the uses of "was"
Published: September 25, 2007
|My writing group needs some inspiration and structure. Can you suggest activities or formats that have worked with other writing groups?|
Writing groups take many different forms. As a first step, clarify your group's goals. Do you want to use the time to critique works-in-progress? Or to develop skills, begin new material, experiment? Do you want to focus on the progress of longer work and the challenges of the writer's life? Perhaps your group values more than one of these options and wants a combination. Discussing expectations and goals can help you establish (or reinforce) your group's purpose and keep the experience relevant and productive.
Groups interested in critiquing works-in-progress often thrive when there is a set schedule in place, so that each writer knows well in advance when she will have work up for consideration. Writers should distribute their work in the session before it is to be discussed in order to give everyone an opportunity to consider it thoughtfully. Some groups with shorter works--like flash fiction or poetry--will present the work and discuss it during the same session. I prefer distributing ahead of time with even the shortest work. Sometimes the true realizations about a piece come not in the immediate reaction, but in the thoughtful contemplation afterward.
Many groups critique with a free-flowing discussion, but if this feels daunting or unfocused, you can go around the room and let each person have his or her say. Another option is to designate a leader, someone who asks questions and brings up points of concern for the group to address. Then change leaders when you switch to a new manuscript. Many groups find it useful to have the author listen during the critique and ask questions at the end. Others let the author be an active part of the discussion of their own work. I prefer the former, as it allows the writer to really absorb how the work was received before contributing to the discussion.
Groups that are interested in learning and experimenting can focus on writing exercises. These can be done during the meeting or in preparation for it, and members can share and discuss responses. Designate a different person to bring in a writing exercise each time. Seeing how others respond to the same prompt can be both instructive and inspiring. There are many excellent resources of writing exercises, and your group might even work through a book together. Gotham Writers' Workshop's Writing Fiction has exercises that reinforce specific lessons about the craft of fiction. Poet's Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux has informative chapters on writing poetry, each followed by a series of exercises.
If your group has a variety of different needs, you can still work together with just a bit of compromise. One good approach is to run the group where each member gets a block of time to discuss or address what is important to him or her. You might designate two people for each session, with each writer having half the time to direct the session. One person might want her work-in-progress critiqued. The other might use his time to bounce ideas off of everyone regarding the next steps in his novel. Another might use her session to discuss a short story she read that intrigued and puzzled her.
The success of a group depends upon how well it meets the needs of its members. So make sure to clarify those needs up front and stay open to the possibility of change as your group moves forward.
I've been cautioned to avoid passive sentences with "was." But is every use of "was" passive?
Passive verbs always include some form of the verb "to be" (including "was"), but that doesn't mean all uses of "was" are passive. That's a bit like saying all cakes include eggs; therefore, any recipe with eggs will result in a cake. Like the egg, "was" has a variety of uses. For example, it can act as a linking verb:
He was a teacher.
And it can be part of a past progressive construction, which shows something happening in the past at the same time something else happened:
She was running down the stairs when the subway pulled into the station.
So how do you know when a sentence is passive? When the subject doesn't perform the action; instead the action is done to the subject. For example:
He was chosen by the team.
That same sentence would become active by making the subject the doer of the action:
The team chose him.
While "was" is commonly seen in passive voice, other forms of the verb "to be" can create passive voice, too. For example:
The peanuts will be shelled by Ann.
(Active: Ann will shell the peanuts.)
So don't automatically implicate "was" when it comes to determining passive voice. Look at the role of the subject: Is it doing the action? Or is the action being done to it?
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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