(First presented as part of In Good Company (a writing workshop) at the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, this past September.)
reate your own Writing Group
Why do we need a physical writing group when the internet has so many opportunities for networking? Read on and find out!
Tolkien belonged to “The Inklings.” Virginia Woolf to “The Bloomsbury Group.” Dorothy Parker to “The Algonquin Round Table.” Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein to the “Shakespeare and Company Writers.” And I’m thrilled to belong to the Winnipeg-based, Anita Factor.
Our group sparked to life almost six years ago during a series of workshops by the dynamic Anita Daher (writer, editor, teacher, and now actress). Attendees connected not only with Anita and her lessons on craft, but also with each other. Friendship underlies our passion to succeed as writers of children’s and YA books. This group experience has become a defining part of my own identity and growth as a writer.
Here are the basics of our Anita Factor Group.
Time and place: We meet every two weeks at a local bookstore (which we’ve pre-arranged). We take turns facilitating the approximately two hour meeting. Other possible venues? Library, cafes, homes. We use homes only for special occasions, like Christmas parties , etc. We don’t want to encourage baking and coffee-making. We’re writers, not Martha Stewarts. During the years we’ve been “in session” we might have only cancelled two or three times.
Membership: There are currently eight active members. (One is in merry England for a couple of years. And we miss her vivacious participation.) We find this number to be at or near its limit. Larger might become awkward. Be warned: as you develop your group and become successful, there’ll be plenty of people wanting to join. Encourage them to form their own groups.
Format: We take turns ‘leading’ our session. The leader is also the time-keeper. We begin each meeting checking to see who has readings. Then the facilitator can keep her eye on the clock to make sure everyone has equal opportunity to share.
Next, the week’s leader shares a writing lesson that they’ve prepared from their readings online or from a workshop they’ve attended or a book they’ve read. Sometimes these lessons include handouts. Other times, they include a short writing exercise. Often they are a hoot! We then share our spontaneous work, and hoot some more. This teaches us to turn off our internal editor and not be afraid of criticism. It’s great exercise to build those creative muscles and our confidence.
We then get down to the sharing of our work, taking turns with our critiques. We close the session with “writers’ news.” In the past two years, there has been some awesome, exciting news, and sharing it with our peers is especially thrilling. Other times, many times, the news is not so good. And commiserating disappointment with peers can be as comforting and satisfying as the sweet desserts we often end the evening with, in our favorite local café.
The Critique: Our group doesn’t print out copies for each member. We focus on developing our listening skills. However, I wouldn’t rule out print copies. It can help. If a member can’t make it, we’ll often email a copy of the work because it’s frustrating to miss a chapter of a work in progress.
Before the reading, we ask the member what we should be looking out for. Sometimes we’re asked to ‘be gentle’ because it’s a rough draft, other times we’re asked for a more specific criticism. Does this move the plot forward? Is this character being consistent? Does this action seem plausible? Does the dialogue sound authentic? Where are the ‘speed bumps’?
Speaking of gentle, we are never not gentle. But giving a shallow thumbs up is also not part of a good critique. We try to be specific with what works and what doesn’t work.
Fun! Yes, we play, we laugh and we relax. We learn to not take ourselves too seriously. I read an article about how the hunter and gatherers discovered the advantages of hunting and gathering in groups. Supposedly, they too used humor. All were equal and all looked out for each other. An image of baboons nit-picking each other comes to mind. Yes, we nit-pick at each other’s words, but it’s done in a friendly way. We get to know each other and we know what we’re trying to do and therefore we can say, it’s working…your novel is moving the way you want it, or it’s not. And if the emperor has no clothes on, we aren’t afraid to say so, because we’re also they’re to help him get dressed. Yes, we definitely stress the fun part. We laugh at ourselves and joke with each other. Who would think that writing could be so enjoyable!
So, you know how when you buy a red car, you suddenly see red cars everywhere? It’s the same with when you prepare a post on writing groups, suddenly you notice the topic cropping up all over the internet.
Here are two online experts talking about the power of a writing group:
Jeff Goins: “Every story of success is really a story of community. Your greatest work is hidden in relationships. You just have to tap into it by putting yourself around the right people who will draw it out of you. The network of your group benefits you by creating opportunities in the literary community (readings, workshops, publishing opportunities).”
I especially connected with Todd Henry’s post about the power of writing groups. He talks about the three M’s. Mirror, Muse and Mentor. “As Mirrors, a good writing group will reflect the unvarnished truth. It will tell you things that you might not want to hear. But because it knows you so well, knows where you’ve been and where you’re trying to go, you can accept that reflected truth.
The second M is The Muse. A good writing group inspires you, helps you connect to resources, helps you restructure your ideas, come up with solutions to plot or character issues in your writing.
The third M is Mentor. This is the handholding part of a writing group. Others can recommend publishers, or give you perspective on how to move forward with your writing career. It’s action-oriented.”
And I think that’s what a writing group does. It brings you into a flesh and blood local world of real books written by real people. It’s a good solid place to be, whether you’re just starting out, or established.
Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones says: “Kill the idea of the lone, suffering artist. We suffer enough as human beings. Don’t make it any harder on yourself.”
Our peers are our first readers. So get thyself out of thy literary attic with thy solitary laptop. Connect with local writers! Nobody said that being a writer would be easy, but together we’re all stronger. We don’t bite. Well, maybe a little. But we give hugs, too!
As the Anitas, we make the rules that work for us. We set the agenda. We are all equals, all empowered with the passion to write. There’s not a right or wrong way to nurture a writers’ group. This is what works for us. Flexibility and adaptability are key. Our Anitas have busy lives, but we’ve made writing a priority and we’re supporting, persevering and succeeding.
“Separate reeds are weak and easily broken; but bound together they are strong and hard to tear apart.” ~The Midrash