ive our Vast Imaginations
group a cursory glance and you might wonder what kind of glue keeps us together. After all, on the surface we seem more different than alike. Take the age spread, for example. Some of us are retired seniors with travel on our minds. Others are two or more decades younger, rooted at home with families to tend. Listen to our discussions and you’ll hear different points of view on everything from parenting to social justice. Our cultural backgrounds are diverse. So too are our career paths, educational experiences, and personal goals. Even when it comes to writing – supposedly a common thread – we differ in our interests. Some write YA novels, others picture books, short stories or narrative non-fiction.
With so many differences, what keeps us together? What keeps the Vast Imaginations machinery humming and why does our group work when others sometimes fail? While there may be a dozen reasons, not the least of which is Suzanne Costigan, our founder and a major driving force, here are a few of the ingredients that contribute to our success.
All members present, we are six in the group. Six is ideal – not so many that individual voices cannot be heard, but still large enough for a healthy exchange of ideas
While our target audience is fairly broad (beginning readers to young adults), Vast Imaginations members share a common focus. Rather than aiming for a general audience, we write stories for youth, a group that has its own needs, interests, emotional concerns, relationship quandaries, and even language. Narrowing the parameters of our writing sharpens the boundaries of our discussions.
We meet every second Tuesday at the same time and same place, and we follow a well-honed structure that Suzanne instituted from the start. We begin with a quick-write and follow that with an instructional segment. Next we have a round of critiques, questions and discussions about pieces submitted by 2 or more members. If time permits, we end our 2 hour meeting with another quick-write. The established format keeps us rooted and focused, and the fact that we meet at a consistent time and place helps us stick-handle other commitments around our Tuesday meetings.
Ask any of us what we hope to gain through Vast Imaginations and I expect you’ll hear a one-note refrain – we all want to hone our craft, become better writers, and learn from each other. Built into each meeting is a learning component, a 10 to 30 minute segment where we dive into a writing topic, plumbing the depths to learn more about point of view, characterization or other subjects. Besides adding to our knowledge, the learning segment gives us common ground for future critiques and discussions.
We set individual goals for our writing, but we also have a vested interest in making the group work. A few months ago, for example, Melinda suggested blogging, and then once we had sunk our teeth into the concept, she created the site with Christina’s help. We take turns submitting posts, and while some do more than others (Christina also handles writing prompts while Suzanne manages weekly grammar and punctuation entries), we all contribute, recognizing that the site belongs not to just one person but to the entire group.
While the format of our meetings is structured, there is flexibility within the group, too. Our blog topics for example, are purely our own. We have no prescribed list of subjects to follow, no style manual other than the restrictions of the blog form itself, and we do not need the approval of others before we post material although we are free to consult other members in the group if we wish. Because a number of us travel, often for long periods, meetings continue with whoever can attend. Those away receive e-mail updates, and when possible contribute with critiques and blog entries. There is an understanding that we all have lives beyond the group itself, and that are if one member cannot make a deadline or isn’t ready with material for critiquing, that’s okay as long as we communicate with each other. Most times someone else rises to fill the void.
No doubt there are plenty of other reasons for our group’s success. But I am interested in what makes other writing groups tick, too, or conversely why they might have failed. So, blog readers, what do you see as ingredients for success or the pitfalls to avoid? How does your writer’s group function? What advice do you have for those seeking to join a writer’s group or bravely aiming to establish an entirely new one?
Larry Verstraete (www.larryverstraete.com) is a Winnipeg educator and author of non-fiction books for youngsters. Currently he is working on a novel for middle grade readers, and relying heavily on the advice of his Vast Imaginations colleagues to smooth its rough edges.