Write On: Writing groups

By Corbin Lewars

In order to have a better sense of a writer community, one of my clients began meeting regularly with a friend of a friend who also wrote fiction.

“Great!” I said.

“Yeah, it was until this.” He held up several pages of his manuscript, now covered in black ink scrawl.

“Oh no,” I said. “Why did you let him do that? It’s not time for that kind of detailed feedback. It’s still a draft, a tiny bud, it needs light and ….”

“Yeah, yeah,” he interrupted, knowing all to well (and perhaps not caring for) my gardening metaphors. “I told him that, but obviously it didn’t matter. And the worst part is, I haven’t written a word since. I started doubting the project, thinking it lacked focus and was too difficult to pull off.”

“That’s the opposite reaction you’re supposed to have when meeting with a writing buddy.”

“But all feedback is helpful right? Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a writer.”

“No, you just need a new writing group,” I said.

“But aren’t we supposed to be able to stay inspired and confident no matter what? You probably don’t even care what people say anymore, you just write anyway?”

“I care immensely, but I also know when and when not to receive feedback. I’m finishing the third revision of my divorce book and in order to stay focused on my vision of it, I don’t show it to anyone. And my novels are baby buds, they couldn’t withstand any feedback because they aren’t even formed yet. All they need is for me to spend time writing them.”

“But you’re always saying how great writing groups are. You’re not even in one!”

“I’m not in a critique group right now, but I’m still in several writing groups. The key is to find the group that serves your needs. But first, you have to know what those needs are.”

Writing Support Groups

For my client, and many writers, the main goal is to be able to spend time with other writers and talk about their projects. They want to be inspired, help staying motivated, and reassurance that writing a four hundred page novel is a good use of their time, as well as achievable. They don’t need constructive feedback at this time, and they certainly don’t need anyone getting out their red pen. If this is the case for you, consider joining a writing support group.

When forming or looking for a group such as this, emphasize the support aspect and make sure it’s very clear that it’s not a critique group. Some people like to actually write during this time; not to share their work for feedback, but to create time in their schedule for writing. At home, we can find other things to do besides write, but if we’re meeting someone else to write, we’ll most likely write. That is, if that’s what all parties agree to. If someone’s main agenda is to socialize, writing probably won’t occur because s/he will chat the entire time. Ask the group what their priorities are. Is it camaraderie, time to write, creative inspiration, support, or a place to bounce ideas off one another? Even if the priorities vary, you could still be a viable group. The first half of the time could be spent talking about projects and asking for ideas and the latter half could be spent silently writing. Those who are more interested in the social part are free to leave once it becomes the writing time.

I suggest finding at least one, but no more than three people, to be in your support group. More than four people becomes logistically difficult and it also takes more time to hear from everyone and address their questions and needs. As for time, I suggest two hours if possible, because that would give you at least an hour to write. If it’s merely for support and idea sharing, an hour would suffice, but an hour and a half would feel less rushed.

Ideally, you could take a weekend together and have a writer’s retreat where you would write during the day and come together in the evening to share dinner and talk about your writing, process, sticking points, or anything else that comes up over the weekend. There are inexpensive cabins on Camano Island http://www.parks.wa.gov/camabeach/ and other islands such as Whidbey http://writersrefuge.com/. A very inexpensive alternate is for one of you to offer up your home for the weekend. Obviously, children, husbands, and housemates would have to be agreeable to this. If you host, don’t be the hostess the entire time. Have everyone bring food to contribute and share the cooking and cleaning responsibilities. Start the weekend by showing everyone where the bathrooms, towels, and coffee are, so you can have your writing time as well.

Submitting Groups/Accountability Buddy

Sometimes, I merely need someone to be accountable to. When this is the case, I’ll ask another writer if we can email each other at the end of the week to say what we’ve written. Even better is to start the week stating what I’ll accomplish and then have to own up on Friday to what I did or didn’t do. I use this tactic when I’m focusing on everything else except my own writing. It usually only takes two weeks of emailing the friend before I’m back on track and can be accountable for myself.

Accountability buddies don’t offer feedback on work, they’re merely someone to report to. Incentives, or belittlement, can be added, depending on your preference. One friend says she’ll buy her accountability buddy dinner and drinks if she doesn’t accomplish her goal; others reward themselves with treats when they achieve their goal. If the actual writing and sense of accomplishment isn’t incentive enough for you, add a treat (or punishment) for yourself to stay motivated.

Waverly Fitzgerald (www.waverlyfitzgerald.com) started a shipping group on Capitol Hill where writers meet once a month to report on where they submitted pieces to and any interesting call for submissions that they have heard about. Her group is full, but you could start your own group. This is similar to an accountability buddy, but for writers who submit work frequently and are aware of listserves and calls for submissions for writers.

Networking Group

Shipping groups offer networking opportunities and leads on places to submit to, but you could create an even more specific group with writers in the same field and genre as you. If you freelance as a copyeditor and write science fiction, find other editors and writers to meet with. Yes, you may be in competition with one another, but you could still end up helping one another. I, for one, don’t copyedit and don’t work with science fiction writers, so even though I am an editor and write fiction, I wouldn’t work with the same clients as the science fiction writing copyeditor. In fact, I would refer my clients seeking copyediting or science fiction guidance to her.

Most writers and editors create niches for themselves, so get to know these writers and support one another with leads and contacts. Two of my friends who write memoir introduced me to their agents. I introduced four friends to my editor and two of them signed book contracts with her. As is true in almost all businesses, it matters who you know. A personal introduction is usually responded to months before a cold email or call.

Writer grrls is a great place to start to meet other writers in Seattle. Email the list manager at seattlewritergrrls-owner@yahoogroups.com to join.

The NW Independent Editor’s Guild is a great place to meet other editors, many of whom are writers as well. Check out their site at www.edsguild.org/

Critique Groups

Most people think of critique groups when they think of writing groups, but as you can see, there are many variations of groups for writers. If you are in a place with your work where you welcome and need feedback, then a critique group is a great place to start. But as with all groups, know what you want before joining. Do you mainly want copyediting feedback or developmental editing? Do you want people to start with the positive, and then say where you could improve? How much honesty and criticism are you looking for? Are you seeking a general, “It’s great, I really liked your main character” or a line by line edit? How much time are you willing to give to read and critique their work?

It took years for me to find a writers group that worked well for me and was sustainable, The key was to find a few (we kept it to 3-4 people) writers who had the same devotion to their craft and desired similar feedback. The same devotion is crucial otherwise you may spend hours on the piece only to have others write something quickly that they don’t have any intention of following through on. You also don’t want to spend hours offering feedback, only to have another member say, “I loved it,” but not be able to say why or give any constructive feedback.

The amount of time you are willing to meet is also something to consider. You may want to meet weekly and other members may only want to meet once a month. Again, this group may still be viable for you, but you may need to join another group as well. If you can find people who spend close to the same amount of time on their writing as you do, you’ll hopefully be well matched in how much time and energy you spend on the group.

Understanding the kind and amount of feedback everyone is looking for is crucial as well otherwise people leave feeling cheated or with hurt feelings. Flesh this out with your group as you are forming so it is well understood. You don’t necessarily need to all write the same genre in order to offer valuable feedback. Some of the best advice I’ve been given was from poets. I don’t write, or even read poetry, but by working with poets, I have learned the value of details and utilizing the senses. I tend to focus on plot and dialogue, but poets have shown me the benefits of slowing a scene down and utilizing imagery. At the same time, they showed me the benefit of being concise, that less is often more, and how to make every word count.

How to Start a Group

By attending classes at Richard Hugo House or hanging out at literary venues such as Elliott Bay Books, you will meet other writers who you may form a group with. Coffee shops are notorious haunts for writers as well, so post a sign at your favorite cafe and have people email you if they’re interested. And of course, word of mouth is a great way to spread the word. Tell everyone you know to ask their friends and colleagues and post a notice on facebook, twitter, your blog and any other social media outlet you utilize. And remember, it may take time to for a group that meets your needs, but don’t settle for one that doesn’t. As you see from my client’s experience, a mismatched writing partner can stop you from writing, so don’t settle. Keep looking until you find the person or group that suits you needs. It will be worth it, I promise.

Corbin Lewars (www.corbinlewars.com) mentors other writers in her office in Ballard and virtually. She is the author of Creating a Life: The memoir of a writer and mom in the making, which was nominated for the 2011 PNBA and Washington State book awards and her essays have been featured in over twenty-five publications including Mothering, Hip Mama and several anthologies. She lives in Ballard with her two children.

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