Rules of a Writing Fort

It’s fort season.

A few days ago, Dear Daughter had a friend over to spend the night.  When I walked in the next morning, I couldn’t find them or the floor.  Blankets stretched from her bed to the four corners.  Books precariously held the blankets in place from their stations on her vanity, chair and night stand.  DD is almost fourteen (Guess what happens in seven days, Mom?) and has apparently not outgrown the magic of an impromptu fort.

Taking a cue, and a table, from big sis, the littles turned their bedroom into a fort.  Last night they both slept under their beds, which were connected by a series of blankets and books, night stands and card tables. 

It is fort season, indeed.

I understand the joy of forts.  It wasn’t so long ago I constructed them myself with my sister.  They are secret and safe and adventurous.  They turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.  Secrets are whispered, promises made and friendships solidified.  The world’s problems are always solved within the confines of these fabric walls.

At least until the books come crashing down and we are left under a tangle of blankets.  In that one fatal moment, it seems as if the magic never happened.

Over the years I’ve had several writing forts.  Critique groups can be invaluable to any writer, no matter how inexperienced or advanced they may be in the craft.  They also vary as widely as the blankets kids use to create their clandestine worlds.

But, not all forts are happy, safe and productive places.  Some members can be bitter.  Some are unmotivated.  Some want to socialize, while others want the nitty-gritty.  Some cry at the drop of a hat (not me this time, I promise).  Inevitably, somebody stands up or waves their arms in a way that knocks the books off the night stand and we are left with a disgusting pile of rubble and a mess to clean up.

The side-effects can be disasterous when this happens.  Writers return to their closets and vow never to never share their work again.  They fear their writing is no longer valid.  They may even turn in their laptops and notepads.  They can become bitter and distrustful and a harsher critic should they ever erect another writing fort.

So, dear friends, in your vast and varied experiences, what are the rules of your writing forts?  What works and what doesn’t?  How often do you exchange passages, how much and how?  Who do you share your secret handshake and password with?  What tips have you learned along the way to help other writers succeed in creating the best fort of the season?


24 responses to “Rules of a Writing Fort

  1. ok…standing by on this one. I am very interested in the comments you get on writing forts; however, I am yet to build one. Your topics are terrific and timely! j.

    • Thanks Jeanna. One of the best ways to learn in this industry is by watching and listening to others who have been there, are there or are going there.

      That’s what is so great about community. Welcome to ours!

  2. I love the fort analogy. I don’t belong to writing groups, well not in real life. I do put writing “out there” where anyone can read it and comment on it. I do lots of writing prompts every week. I seldom get feedback but they are out there ready for comments of any kind. I do find this scary but I do it anyway.

    Almost every day I enter a “contest” where I write one sentence that is judged by others. I feel so vulnerable there but it helps to build up the “thick skin.” (I wear my heart on my sleeve.)

    I have entered short writing contests so my work is “out there.” I have shared a tiny little bit of my novel. It is too close to me for me to share a lot of it, besides it still needs a lot of editing.

    I put my words out there and I wait. Will someone comment or not? I try to be ready for whatever happens.



    • Ardee-ann,

      It sounds like you are in the beginning stages of opeing your fort up to others. This can be very hard to do, especially if those who climb the ladder may be an assortment of random people from contests, blogs and online journals. You’re pretty gutsy and I applaud you for that.

      At some point, I hope you find a solid group to work with (still working on that myself) to help give you the feedback you need with editing and story development. I have found trusted writing friends to be one of the best assets of this business.

      Best luck on your journey. I have tried to pop by your LJ and comment, but sometimes it won’t let me.

  3. I’ve had so many groups and only two have actually helped me. For a writing group to be successful, members must be honest, but not hurtful. They must take time over their comments or they WILL be hurtful. Most importantly (in my opinion) there must be a mix of abilities. Duh, you say. That’s a given. Yes and no.
    Usually you will have folks who are farther along in their writerly walk than others, you’ll have some who are natural grammarticians, but do you have big picture thinkers and nit pickers? THAT’S where I’ve had problems up until the last seven or eight years. Most wannabe writers seem to be nit pickers. If your group is made up of people who lack the vision to see/comprehend plot holes, character malformations and BIG issues, you need to rethink your group. If you cannot bring in a Casey at the bat for your group, the group will eventually pick itself AND the individual stories to death without any tale getting very close to publication. That’s the very hard (and sad) lesson I learned. 😦

    • Victoria,

      Thanks so much for sharing this journey. Do you think one of the downfalls is how critiques are done? I’ve been in groups in the past where chapter exchanges occur once a month. It makes it hard to get the big picture and easy to nitpick.

      The other issue is finding the right combo. You hit the nail on the head with your comment regarding group composition. I think expectations would also play into this success or failure. At times we need nitpickers–but only after the major construction has been done.

      Great commentary. I’m glad you have a solid group now.

  4. Forts were the best as kids 😉 My friends and I came up with all of these ‘secret’ clubs that lasted for like a week. LOL.

    To be honest, I don’t have much experience with ‘writing’ forts. I’m a newer writer, and so far nobody has read one of my books all the way through.

    Still, I have an unofficial critique group with three members (including me). We have a private group on Facebook where we post a few lines from our WIP that we wrote that day to motivate each to write daily (the main purpose of the group), even if it’s only a few hundred words. We offer help/advice, a listening ear, and our thoughts when asked. We’re mostly there to encourage and motivate each other, so it’s not a ‘serious’ critique group, I guess (super honest opinions, deeper thoughts, both negative and positive feedback, etc).

    We’ve never made a list of rules, but I think there’s a few unspoken ones. Each member is expected to post some of their lines every day and comment on the other member’s work (since it’s just a few lines, not a whole chapter or scene, it doesn’t take long), to be respectful and nice, and to be encouraging. It works for us 🙂

    • Mia,

      That sounds like a great motivational group and an awesome way to earn your writing hide. Taking comments on small chunks of writing is a lot easier to handle than being shot down for a whole chapter.

      This is a prime example of how to match members with their needs. You are all getting what you need at the moment and hopefully your group will evolve as your needs do. If not, there’s nothing to say having two groups is wrong. One for motivation, inspiration and encouragement and another for serious critiquing and beta reading.

      I wish I would have had something like this when I started. It would have made the journey less lonely and a lot more fun.

      Thanks so much for sharing about your group.

      • Absolutely. We’re roughly on the same level of writing, but I’m sure our needs will soon change. When I’m ready for beta reading and deeper critiques, I’ll see if they’re open to the idea of our group changing (if not, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it). It is a fun group, and though I didn’t have the pleasure of our group for my first book or the first half of my second, I’m grateful for it now 🙂 It’s an amazing motivation to write everyday, because if I don’t post, I know they’ll ask why and I better have a darn good excuse. LOL.

      • Mia, that’s exactly what you/I/we need. Nothing is more motivating than knowing others are waiting for you.

  5. I loved forts when I was a kid, but I saw it as more of a lone venture, an escape. If my younger brother invaded my space, he had darned well better bring cookies.

    So for me, my writer’s fort is my writing room where I can close the door and be alone. If husband opens the door, he must either have important news…or a cup of coffee.

    My writer’s group is my energy, my motivator, my moral support when I feel like quitting. I couldn’t do this crazy stuff without them. But attending a critique meeting is like having the blanket pulled off the fort, exposing everything inside.

    • Patricia,

      Love your perspective. Yes, forts can both hold secrets and expose at the same time. They are personal and intimate. Sometimes they give us comfort and other times they make us self conscious.

      And the best thing about forts is that you get to choose who enters and why. Even in your solo endeavor, you have guidelines that enhance your productivity and give you what you need. Who doesn’t need cookies and coffee and a brief interlude in the midst of hard work?

      Your version of your writing fort sounds comforting to my introverted soul! Thanks for letting us peek inside.

  6. My kids build a fort in our Redroom every weekend, sometimes on the weeknights. They are nine and ten. The Redroom is our media room, complete with french doors. The walls are the color of a peeled tomato.

    My writing fort, though, is my office, which is now the baby’s room. I’ll have to hole up somewhere new, soon, probably on the couch in our sitting room by the fire place.

    My fort is more of a cave. I like to write alone. I prefer to critique myself, and perhaps let a couple of betas read my work and suggest changes.

    This year — 2010 — I opened up my cave via blogger and have been making new friends online and experimenting with my method, challenging my assumptions about criticism, and re-learning everything I can about writing science.

    I’m still not sure I like being out in the open like this. I sure wrote some good stuff in that cave, at least that’s what I like to think, and being out here in the open has sure stifled the worms from digging.

    Ever see a coyote in an open pasture, staring around and wondering wtf to do next, not with his tail between his legs, but not with his nose to the trail, either?

    That’s how I feel these days, like my fort no longer has walls or a roof.

    – Eric

    • Eric,

      Thank you for sharing your writing fort with us. I still can’t believe how publicly you opened the door. That took guts, yet it was so valuable for the rest of us to see. You were gracious and honest in your exploration of how the other side lives.

      Critiquing and getting critiqued is not for everyone. Sometimes a good beta is enough. Or, like Mia pointed out, motivation and inspiration might be the passwords for the day. Thankfully there are all kinds of writers out there who share our same needs. Finding them, can be the difficult part.

      The only coyote I’ve seen in nature was the one that howled at me from the desert brush. I think he was confused by a five year old girl taking a potty break behind a cactus in the middle of the night. Although his tail wasn’t down and I’m convinced that if the car hadn’t been idling beneath the underpass, he would have put his nose to the trail and eaten me for a midnight snack.

      I’d have given anything for a bathroom fort that night! Especially one as cool as one from the Redroom.

      : ) cat

  7. Man, I used to love building forts. Being ensconced in a world of your creation, wrapped in it’s magic. What a great feeling.
    I think as far as the writer’s fort, it’s important to always keep in mind that others may not be in the same place you are or with the same mindset. It’s okay for them to ‘be’ wherever they are. When interacting with them, like doing a critique, ask what it is they’re looking for. Like do you want a line by line edit, an overall opinion, or are you looking for something specific. That way, hopefully, we all play nice and everyone feels as though their needs were met.
    Just some thoughts I had. Hmm, maybe I’ll build a fort on my (stay at home and write) vacation. 🙂

    • Lisa,

      I sometimes make forts under my desk. Then I write and my kids play at my feet. We are all together and all happy! I’ll even admit to sneaking in them with the kids just to enjoy the comfort of it all.

      You make a valid point. For critique groups to work, not everyone has to be in the same place with their writing and their needs. They just need to be respectful and thoughtful. Great input and a great reminder.


  8. One of our beds is a four-poster. With four fat rubberbands, a comforter and a tube from wrapping paper to prop it up in the middle, my boys have an instant fort.

    I’m in my first writing fort, as of last week, and am trying it on for size. So far, I’ve been able to hone my own critiquing skills, and am hopeful for some meaningful feedback on my MS. Lately I have been seeing published writers comment that there is a higher chance of success when one goes it alone, but I’m willing to give a critique group a shot. At least for now. 🙂

    • Layinda,

      Interesting comment about the chance of success being higher by flying solo. I’ve not really heard that yet, though every story has at least two points of view. I can see the pros and cons to both sides, but personally lean towards the help. The reason, I wrote for many years before I every shared any of my work. My writing was good enough to get pubbed, but I feel it is much stronger now that I’ve had some valuable input from others.

      The caveat, the critique must have the right focus and the critiqued must have the right mindset on how to process the feedback. Poor critiques or poor response to feeback can destroy good writing and potentially kill dreams.

      Thanks so much for sharing your persepctive. I hope you have luck with your critters and that it helps your writing instead of hinders it.

      hugs~ cat

  9. I love the fort story. I used to belong to an online writing group but a small number of members continuously attacked various people’s work and while you can ignore the odd irrational criticism thrown your way, when it becomes continuous and there is no way to remove the offensive comments it starts to wear you down. Eventually I had enough and decided that I would stick to small numbers of people I know in the flesh for constructive criticism. It is a shame because some people in thie community were amazing at giving helpful advice about writing and sometimes I miss that feedback.

    • Cassandra,

      I always find it sad that something so wonderful runs such a high risk of self-destruction. Some people don’t know how to play nice and ruin it for everyone. Hopefully groups like yours disband before permanent damage is done.

      Thanks for sharing this side of crit groups. I think everyone needs to be aware of the potential pitfalls before going in.

  10. When I was a kid, I built forts in my room to go inside and read without anyone disturbing me… Then I grew up and decided to write one of those books I loved reading so much and found myself another fort, a creative writing workshop and I stayed in that fort for two and a half years. Some of my fort-friends were helpful, very motivating and even protective of me since I was only 19 and the youngest member of the group. Some didn’t even notice I was there, never took me seriously or commented on anything I ever wrote…
    But for better or for worse, that was the place where I learned everything I know about writing, craft and techniques… 🙂

    • Lua,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your story with us. It sounds like your experience was mostly good and I hope you learned some great things along the way.

      Age definitely can be a risk in the writing biz. Not so much for agents and editors or even the buying public. I think the risk comes in with other writers who were afraid to grab those dreams when they were young. They feel a bit put out that others can and do reach forward when they were afraid to. Yet your experience of being ignored borders on rudeness.

      I’ve had young ‘uns in my writer’s groups before and loved the fresh view they provided. Their perspective was quite different than those who had tried to succeed for several years already. And that isn’t a bad thing!

      Good luck as you move forward in your writing journey.


  11. To keep my writing fort aloft, I make sure when I’m giving a critique that I balance constructive criticism with encouragement. Usually there’s something to like in even the most amateur writer’s work: the idea, a turn of phrase, a character…something. I make sure that I point that out with as much explanation and enthusiasm that I point out the “needs improvement” things.

    When I’m up for critique (my critique group is a live round-robin), I don’t comment and I don’t read the written critiques for a week or so after I’ve gotten the verbal ones. I also make sure to thank everyone, no matter how harsh. I know there’s something in there that I can use to be a better writer.

    I really love the fort analogy!

    • Kate,

      It sounds like you have a great handle on how to give and accept feedback. Like you, I am thankful for any commentary on my writing. Even the not so stellar stuff. I also believe that all feedback can be useful. Even the stuff that is way off base.

      It allows us to understand that, right or wrong, others see different things in our manuscripts. Sometimes these odd perspectives hit home and we think, “Holy wow! How did I miss that for so long?”

      Other times they simply validate that we are on the right track.

      Thanks for sharing your experience.

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