Monday, January 25, 2016

How are those writing resolutions holding up?

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? If so, did any of those resolutions include goals for your writing? Perhaps, like me, you already have particular projects in hand, and you have resolved to see them finished before the year is out. Or maybe you simply decided that this will be the year you finally get serious about writing. Either way, if you’re like me, you find that it’s already nearly the end of January and you have done little to follow through on your resolutions.

If that’s the case, don’t lose heart. The year is still young, and there's plenty of time to make some headway. If you need some encouragement – or accountability – try finding a writing partner or a stable writing group to help you maintain your resolve and make progress toward your writing goals. The Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group is here to help you, offering camaraderie, encouragement, and charitable critique. Our next meeting is Tuesday, January 26, at 7:00 p.m., at the University of Dallas.  Join us, and get the help and encouragement you need to follow through on your writing resolutions. Find details of our meeting time and place here. I hope we see you there!

If you don’t live in the area but still need a little guidance or encouragement, check out some of our popular blog posts, in the sidebar to the left.

Monday, January 11, 2016

New Year, New Meeting Time?

In the three years or so since our writers’ group was first founded, we’ve seen many people come and go, with a few faithful stalwarts who faithfully attend meetings. Some come with a vague but insistent feeling that there is something God is calling them to do, perhaps through writing. Others have projects in hand and seek some encouragement, advice, or companionship as they bring their writing projects to fruition. Many are beginners in the writing life, trying to develop habits that will help them follow through on their inspirations. We have tried to make writers of all levels of experience feel welcome and supported.

At present, we are reconsidering our meeting time (and place) for our regular, monthly meetings. Lunchtime on a Tuesday is perhaps not the most convenient time for busy people, for whom writing is not their main activity. So at this week’s “second Tuesday” meeting, January 12 (usual time, usual place), we’ll be discussing whether it would be better to meet on a weekday evening or a Saturday morning, rather than at lunchtime on a work day. If you want to get in on the discussion, please attend or – if unable to attend – contact Nancy Ward and let her know what time would suit your schedule best. Do you live in Tarrant County and find it difficult to get to Dallas for a meeting? Let us know. We can’t please everyone, but we’d like to accommodate as many potential members as possible.

For those of you who are “with us in spirit,” even if you are unable to attend meetings, keep in touch. Contact Nancy Ward to get on the email list. (You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.)


After welcoming two new members at the January 12 meeting, and discussing feedback from those present and those on our email list, we have decided to leave our meeting schedule as it is for the time being.  Remember that our meetings are free and open to anyone who wishes to attend. If you would really like to connect with Catholic writers in the Metroplex area but find it impossible to attend either of our monthly meetings, please let us know.

Monday, November 16, 2015

November meeting: Change of Date

DFW Catholic Writers meet Tuesday, Nov. 17, 7-9 p.m., University of Dallas, 7-9 p.m.

This month, to accommodate the Thanksgiving Holiday, the “fourth Tuesday” meeting will actually take place on the third Tuesday, November 17. We will meet at the usual place, the University of Dallas Science Building, (building 5 on this campus map) room 42, right next to the Math dept downstairs. Hope we see you there!

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

This Week: Launch party Monday, writers' meeting Tuesday

Nancy Ward, founder of
DFW Catholic Writers Group
The founding member of our writing group, Nancy Ward, will be launching her new DVD, Sharing Your Faith Story, at Sacred Heart Books and Gifts (at the corner of Coit and Campbell in Plano) on Monday, October 12, from noon to 1:00 p.m. Drop by for refreshments and a live interview with Dave Palmer of KATH 910 AM radio. You can learn more about Nancy and her faith journey on her blog, Joy Alive in Our Hearts.

If your Columbus Day calendar is already full, you'll have another opportunity to meet Nancy the next day, Tuesday, October 13, at our regular second-Tuesday meeting of the DFW Catholic Writers Group at the usual time and place. All are welcome at our meetings. If you have a piece you'd like some feedback on, bring 8-10 copies to share. Or just come to report on what you're working on (or would like to work on), or seek advice and camaraderie. We hope to see you there!

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Meet us at the University of Dallas, Tuesday evening, 22 September

Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group meets 09/22/15 at the University of Dallas

Now that fall is here, we will resume our fourth Tuesday evening meetings at the University of Dallas in Irving. Please note that we will be meeting in a different room during the fall semester: Room 42 of the Haggerty Science Center, next to the Math Department office (building 5 on this campus map). If you want to mark your calendar for the entire semester, our meetings at UD will occur on September 22, October 27, November 24, and December 22, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Of special interest this month -- the University's English Department, along with the Office of Career Development, will be presenting a special Writer's Panel to discuss “Building a Career in the Literary World.” This event will take place from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 September, in the Gorman Faculty Lounge. Speaker's will be:
  • Dr. Kimberly Johnson, poet, translator and literary critic, Professor at BYU
  • JK Nickell, Senior Editor, Southwest: The Magazine
  • Gabbi Chee Cotherman, Assistant Editor, Southwest: The Magazine (Alumna – BA History, Concentrations in Journalism and Spanish
  • Alan Kinsella, Freelance Business Writer with clients including Accenture, Alcatel, Deloitte, Johnson & Johnson and more
Members of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group have been cordially invited to attend this event, which is open to the public. Why not take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to learn more about the ways one can actually make a living writing?

For those who find daytime meetings more convenient, our second Tuesday lunchtime meetings continue as usual at the Half-Price Books store in Dallas on Northwest Highway. Here are the details of time and place. Both the Dallas and the Irving meetings are free and open to all who wish to attend.

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What Pet Rescue Saga can teach you about writer's block

Writing is fun if you know how to deal meet your goals
Writing can be a lot of fun, but only if you learn
the strategies that will help you meet your goals.
I have a guilty pleasure, and its name is Pet Rescue Saga. I started playing this game on my Kindle several months ago, as a way to give my mind a break from constant writing, planning, and planning to write. I’ve never been one to get addicted to mindless games, but I’ve found this one is a a pleasant way to kill a few minutes while I let my mind spool down to an idle hum.

Seasoned writers will tell you that a little “down time” is necessary from time to time, to let your creative mind work through all the problems encountered while the rational mind was beavering away at your Work-in-Progress. I’ve found it very helpful, when I get stuck or bored or otherwise at an impasse, to take a long, leisurely walk, or get a good night’s sleep, or even play a little Pet Rescue. Often, afterward I find new ideas pop into my head about how to move ahead with my writing project. Not only does the game give me a pleasant break, however; it has also taught me some important things about the writing process.

Having a plan helps

When I first started playing Pet Rescue Saga, I paid little attention to what I was doing. This game is a variation of the tried-and-true “match three” sort, with a few extra twists thrown in. On the face of it, it’s pretty easy and mindless. A lot of people think of writing that way — you know what you want to say, so you just right it. Easy-peasy, right?

Not really. When I started with this “mindless” game, I played mindlessly, using the “poke-poke-poke” method. I gave little thought to the goal of any particular level, and didn’t bother to work out a strategy to meet that goal. Not surprisingly, I didn’t make a lot of progress playing this way, any more than I meet my writing goals by doodling on the keyboard. Doodling has its place — particularly when you’re just trying come up with ideas, but writing by the seat of your pants is not likely to get you very far in the long run. For that you need some kind of plan. You need a strategy for achieving your writing goal and for overcoming any obstacles that may get in your way.

Working around the blocks

There are ways to prevent and get around writer's block
You can run into a lot of obstacles if you write without a plan.
But there are strategies for getting around writer's block.
One of the key features in Pet Rescue Saga are the iron blocks that often get in the way. The goal of each level is to “rescue” the little pet avatars by getting them to the bottom of the screen. The iron blocks can make that impossible. They can’t be destroyed by matching, and they can gang up on you and bar any further progress. Writers, of course, know all about being “blocked” — that awful feeling that you know what you want to achieve but you just cannot seem to get there. Perhaps your mind goes blank as soon as your fingers touch the keyboard. Or maybe you reach a point in your writing where every word you write seems to take you off in the wrong direction, and you want to give up in frustration.

When that happens, take heart. Maybe what you need is just better planning and creativity to get around your blocks. Much as I can plan ahead and maneuver around blocks in Pet Rescue, when I'm writing and find myself stuck on a particular section, I often get unstuck if I switch to a different section. Or I might spend some time in my writing journal thinking through what’s hanging me up and why — often just by asking “what’s blocking me here?” I can uncover problems that I hadn’t been consciously aware of. Once they are discovered, it is a lot easier to work around them than it is if I just sit at the keyboard staring at the screen, determined to blast through my writer’s block by sheer determination. That strategy doesn’t work any better  when I’m writing than it does when I’m playing Pet Rescue Saga.

When you get stuck, regain your perspective by remembering what your overall goal is, and looking for new ways to get there.

Using obstacles to your advantage

In Pet Rescue Saga, as you advance you find that the game keeps presenting new kinds of obstacles. One particularly insidious one that cropped up about the time I passed level 100 was something I call “virus balls.” These are prickly-looking, bilious green things that multiply by transforming nearby blocks into more virus balls. When I first encountered them, I nearly despaired. Each turn there were twice as many virus balls, and that many less of the colored blocks I needed to match in order to create a path to freedom for the pets. How can you possibly win in a situation like that?

Turn apparent obstacles to your advantage
A little creativity can help you
turn obstacles into advantages.
Instead of giving up, though, I kept trying, and eventually I noticed something encouraging. The virus balls could be destroyed by matching, just as the regular colored blocks could. It took me a while to figure out how this knowledge could help me, but eventually I realized that sometimes it was easier to let them proliferate on one part of the screen, while I worked my rescue magic on another part. Then, when I had wall-to-wall virus balls, I could destroy them all with a single click, clearing the way for the pets to drop to the bottom of the screen and escape.

In this way, I took an apparent obstacle and made it work to my advantage. Believe it or not, writers can do something similar. When you run into apparently insuperable obstacles that keep proliferating and won’t go away no matter how you obsess about them, it might be better to focus on something else for a while. Sometimes just letting go of the obsession allows your creative mind to come up with solutions. In fact, often the “virus balls” that seem to be eating up your writing project may simply be roadblocks thrown up by your own subconscious mind, trying to steer you toward another part of the writing process that needs attention. In Pet Rescue, I sometimes found myself so intent on destroying the virus balls that I forgot that my real goal was to free the pets; once I re-focused on that goal, it became clear to me how the virus balls themselves could help me reach it.

Sometimes, a change is as good as a rest

If your present writing project gets stale, try taking a little side trip into something different.
If your present writing project gets stale,
try taking a little side trip into something different.
There’s a good reason games like Pet Rescue Saga, and its sibling, Candy Crush are so addictive — the game designers seem to have a good idea of how the mind works and what we need to keep us going. One of the things I like best are the little “alternate realities” built into the game. In Pet Rescue Saga, as the player progresses from level to level, his avatar travels along a path through an enchanting, fantastical landscape. Occasionally, though, in one corner of the screen, a little symbol appears which, when clicked, takes you off the path to a little island where you can follow a different path for a while (these island visits are only available for a couple of days, then they disappear). Visiting the island is always an optional side trip, but when the opportunity arises I always take it. I find it refreshing to take a break without actually quitting, and the island path is always short, pleasantly challenging, and loaded with extra rewards. I find that when I return to the main path I am more than ready to plow ahead on the long, winding road of the main game.

About two and a half years ago, I began my first big fiction-writing project, a science fiction novel that I hope will be the first of a long series. As much as I enjoyed writing that story, it was a long slow, slog, and the longer I worked at it, the farther away seemed the day when it will be ready for publication. Finally after three and a half full drafts, I wondered if I would ever finish that book, but I didn’t want to be a quitter. I needed something to refresh me and renew my enthusiasm for this mammoth project, so I decided to put it aside for a while and write some short stories, projects that I could finish in a relatively short period of time. I desperately wanted the satisfaction of seeing a project, even a small one, to completion.

So right now I’ve got the first draft of one short story finished (”literary”), another story plotted and planned (mystery), and as a result I find that I’m getting all sorts of exciting new ideas about my science fiction novel and series. It seems I have discovered for myself what the designers of Pet Rescue Saga already knew — that sometimes it’s better to take a side trip rather than abandon the journey altogether. If you find yourself wearying of a long, involved writing task, try doing what I did — work on something else for a while. Don’t quit writing, but put aside the project that’s gone stale and pick up something that will let you breathe new life and enthusiasm into your writing. You won’t be abandoning the long slog, you’ll just be taking a little time “on the island.”

It’s more fun with friends

Find a writing group, in person or online, for mutual support
and to keep your writing game fresh.
One of the reasons games like Pet Rescue Saga have become so popular is that, in this age of social media, they allow you to connect with your Facebook friends, compare your scores to theirs, and ask them for extra lives when you are stuck on a tough level. Of course, you’re not really with your friends — you are glued to your tablet or smart phone, just as they are to theirs, perhaps in another city or even another country. Still, just knowing that your friends are enjoying the same game makes it a little more fun.

Writing is, of its nature, a solitary business, but sometimes it can be too solitary. I find that, just like Pet Rescue Saga, my writing journey is more enjoyable, and I make more progress, when I get together with writer friends from time to time. I just joined an online writer’s workshop to connect with mystery writers, and this Tuesday, July 14, I’ll be attending the monthly meeting of the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group. All Catholic writers in the area are welcome. Here are the details of time and place. Maybe I'll see you there.

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Truth About Becoming a Writer

Quintilian quote
For thousands of years, writers who wished to be
great knew they had to revise, revise, revise.
In the two or half years or so since our Catholic writers group was first formed, I’ve seen a lot of would-be writers come and go. All of them had valuable experience and insights they wanted to share with the world through their writing. When I think of those who attended for a while and then drifted away, I wonder if they are still writing, even if they no longer attend our meetings. I hope so. But I suspect some became daunted when they began to realize that writing is a lot more difficult and complicated than they realized, or perhaps not as much fun as they imagined in their initial enthusiasm.

I can understand this. When I first jumped into writing a novel, I knew I had a lot to learn, but I was confident in my basic writing abilities and eager to get started. Now, more than two years later, I’m still learning. In addition to gaining skills in characterization and plotting, though, I have learned (or re-learned) some hard truths along the way about the writing craft, facts that each writer must deal with along the way if he or she is to persevere and succeed. Here are some of them.

Good writers are made, not born.

Brett Favre did not throw a touchdown pass the first time he picked up a football, Thomas Tallis did not make the angels sing the first time he hummed a tune, and Flannery O’Connor spent years revising her work to produce the weird, wonderful tales for which she is famous. They all may (or may not) have been loaded with natural talent, but even they had to devote years to developing their skills. They learned from others with more experience, and heeded expert advice in order to improve, and then they practiced, practiced, practiced. The rest of us must do the same. It requires a lot of humility to become a good writer.

Learning to do anything well takes time.

Probably the most useful thing any of us can learn is this: learning takes time, and it involves a lot of failure. Did Mozart walk away in disgust the first time he hit a clinker? Even Shakespeare was once a schoolboy, learning how to write a decent sentence. Every experienced writer will tell you that your first draft, no matter how carefully planned, is likely to be pretty awful, but that’s what revision is for. The first draft is like that lump of clay the potter throws down on his wheel — it has to be shaped and reshaped before it reaches the perfection the artist envisions. It takes a lot of perseverance to become a good writer.

It's not as easy as you think.

Learning anything new is uncomfortable at first. Learning to write is not as simple as learning to swim, it’s more like learning to build a bridge, or to dance the lead in Swan Lake. A lot of different skills have to be learned and practiced endlessly, a lot of basic principles need to be internalized through that practice. It’s hard at first, but gradually what seemed complicated and unnatural gets into your mind’s “muscle memory,” and you’ll be able to do effortlessly those things that, when you are starting out, must be done deliberately with great care and a lot of painful toil.

You should start small and build your skills, and your confidence.

Remember those projects you made in junior high art or shop class? The soap dish painfully modeled from clay, the wooden plaque you made for Mother’s Day? Your teacher knew that you needed to start with something small, so that you could enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that would spur you to take on bigger challenges. I’ll bet the greatest cabinet maker probably started out learning to plane wood and create a single dove-tailed joint. Many beginning writers would do well to start with small projects — a paragraph or two for the parish newsletter, a well-crafted blog post — before taking on more complicated ones. After two and a half years of working on my first novel, I realize that I probably should have started with a short story. So I’ve put the novel aside for a while, and I’m devoting my creative energies to producing a good short story suitable for publication.

Writing is a process, not an event.

I’ve written about this before on this blog, but I’ll mention it again now, because this is the biggest mistake inexperienced writers make — they quit before they are finished. I used to run into this attitude with my students: “I got it turned in on time, so I’m done.” But my job was to teach them not just to meet deadlines, but to write something worth being read, so I had to walk them through the whole writing process, which often took weeks: first comes invention, when you discover what it is you want to say, and how you want to say it, then drafting and revising, learning to see what is working and what isn’t, what needs to be trimmed out and where you need better details or more explanation, how your ideas can be better organized to make a clearer point, etc. And only after that has been done should you worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all those other nit-picky details  that put the final polish on the piece. If you try to skip parts of the process, it will show.

This is another reason I put my novel-in-progress aside for a while. I could see that I would need to write at least one more complete, fresh draft before I would be ready to revise and polish — the process seemed that it would never end, but I really, really wanted to finish. I need the feeling of finishing the process, but I knew I couldn't rush it — so I set the manuscript aside and started something new (much shorter), and have been using what I learned from novel-writing to draft and polish my short story. In this way, I hope that taking the time and care to produce one well-developed, carefully polished short story will help me make the next draft of the novel my last.

Sure, I could have done what too many people do these days: I could have set some arbitrary, self-imposed deadline for myself and scrambled to meet it, convincing myself that the book was done (in fact, I did that, when I submitted the third draft to a prize competition last year). I could have said my novel was “good enough,” and self-published it on Amazon. But I know it’s not yet ready for prime time. I’ve stepped away from it to be able to return to it with a fresh perspective, to be able to see it with the “fresh eyes” that are so crucial to recognizing any remaining deficiencies.

If you want help getting fresh eyes on  your own Work-In-Progress, or help and encouragement with any part of the writing process — or if you’ve already learned these “hard truths” about writing and can share your experience with others — you should think about joining a local writing  group, such as the Dallas/Fort Worth Catholic Writers Group. Why not join us at our next meeting, Tuesday, June 9? Here are the details of time and place.

If you want to make sure you never miss a meeting, contact Nancy Ward  to get on the email list. You can also sign up to receive all blog posts by email. Just fill in the form in the right-hand sidebar.