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Writer’s Groups Can Crack Your Creativity Wide Open


writersgroupSeveral years ago, I started — with the most noble intentions — a local writers, group. I envisioned a civilized collection of intelligent souls providing support, companionship and, most important, illuminating evaluations of each other’s work.

The reality was something quite different: We had support, companionship, critique sessions and shouting matches, near-fistfights and flying sexual sparks. It was the Peyton Place of writers’ groups.

Why bother?

Because eventually we distilled into a faithful, harmonious core of six to eight serious writers who had learned to graciously accept helpful criticism and to consider the works of others with wisdom and compassion. (Well, most of the time.) Our writers, group’s members discovered, through trial and error, how to put aside the personal stuff and focus on what we really needed to gain from each other.

As a result, we’ve all benefited. At least three members found enough encouragement to finish full-length novels, while others are branching into types of writing they hadn’t considered before joining the group.

Perhaps you’ve reached the why bother?” stage with your writers’ group. Or maybe you sense the group isn’t living up to the promise you envisioned when you joined. One solution may be to find a new group (see the sidebar on page 42). But you and your fellow members can find satisfaction — and perhaps even tranquillity — by focusing tightly on the only purpose for a writers, group.

You Need Criticism

A writers, group exists to provide specific comments and suggestions that will help each member improve his or her work, making it stronger and — ideally — salable. In other words, the group is supposed to provide “constructive” criticism.

Defining constructive criticism is tricky. We employ two different kinds in our group. Hardcore critiques focus on technique: Members analyze each other’s grammar, sentence construction, word choice, plot or character development, pace, and so on. This kind of critique can challenge the self-esteem of beginning writers or anyone else who lacks the confidence to offer in-depth advice to others.

(That confidence can be acquired, of course, through education. Take writing classes, attend writers, conferences, read books and magazines about writing, and study up on grammar and style. Simply being part of a group helps by exposing beginners to what others look for in critiquing a manuscript and how others phrase criticism. Listening carefully to criticism of your own work also helps. As your own writing improves, so will your ability to critique others.)

For writers who are uncomfortable offering hardcore advice, softcore critiques are easier to offer. Such critiques are based on the reader’s gut reaction to the writing; they deal with the emotions and feelings evoked by a piece, or by the issues or ideas behind it. More opinion than. criticism, a softcore critique gives the writer a readers perspective on the manuscript, lets him or her see it filtered through someone else’s consciousness and experience. You may feel that you’re technically proficient, but are your stories moving, interesting, entertaining, provocative@ Those are the sort of questions softcore critiques can answer.

The problem with softcore criticism is the temptation to be flattering and “encouraging,” especially to someone you’re going to be attending meetings with on a regular basis. But you must beg for total honesty from your fellow members, who may, out of kindness, tell you what they think you want to hear. The group must remember that false-positive reactions and too-too-polite critiques benefit no one’s writing.

Another pitfall of any critique is that members sometimes react to a manuscript for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing. A reviewer may be having a bad day or isn’t crazy about you personally. But one of the purposes of a group is to get a consensus; a variety of reactions. Let the critiques of all the members of your group help you gauge which specific comments are really pertinent to your work.

How to Get What You Need

The best writers’ groups offer both hardcore and softcore criticism, and the more the better. Your group’s challenge is to decide on the most efficient and productive way of getting members that necessary feedback.

Start with the basics: How are your meetings run, or more precisely, how does the critiquing take place? In some groups, a writer brings in a single copy of his work, reads it aloud and hears the response right on the spot. This might work with professionals or published authors, but in a group top-heavy with beginners, it can result in pressured, off-the-cuff criticism that’s not always helpful or even valid.

My group discovered that the best critiques come when members have something in their hands to look at. We meet every two weeks, and two writers’ manuscripts are critiqued at each session. Since our meetings run from approximately 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., this allows us to devote a full hour to each writer. At the end of the meeting, the two writers to be critiqued at the next meeting give each member a photocopy of the work to be reviewed. (We try to limit the amount of work a writer may bring in: one short story or a chapter from a novel. It usually runs about 20 manuscript pages.)

For each critique, we go around the table and each member offers his or her comments while the writer listens. It’s a very informal process; other members frequently jump in to offer their thoughts, or the author may offer an explanation or clarification.

To get specific criticism — particularly answers to questions in your own mind — create a questionnaire. This can be an individual effort, in which you list the questions and issues that are most important to you or your group might consider creating a sort of universal questionnaire. Either way, the questionnaire is part of every manuscript that gets distributed. You might simply list topics to be addressed: plot, character, grammar, etc. Or questions may be more specific, such as “Is the dialogue believable?” or “Does the ending of the story evolve naturally?” At meetings, each member can then read his answers to these questions aloud, which will inevitably prompt more discussion.

A more informal group might employ an “oral” sort of questionnaire, with writers stating their concerns as they hand out their work: “This main character doesn’t feel real to me” or “I’m having a problem with the scene transitions.” Other members can jot these questions right onto the manuscript, to jog their memories.

Beware of too much informal discussion, however, a group can easily get off-track. And if the group seems to always be chugging down detours, the best option is to devote an entire meeting to discussing the art of criticism.

Instead of manuscripts to critique, pass out articles about evaluating manuscripts and criticism, as well as a couple great book reviews you’ve read. Discuss the process of critiquing in general, in a friendly, nonthreatening way. Make sure everyone has a clear idea of what good criticism entails. Discuss what types of criticism each of you needs, which comments you’ve each found genuinely helpful, which ones aren’t and which ones drive you nuts. Go around the group and find out what each member believes is his or her weakness as a writer and critic, followed by his or her strong points. Does one member have an ear for dialogue@ Does another have patience for unraveling tightly woven plot lines?

Critical Etiquette

As in any group, personal feelings will creep into your writers’ group. It hurts when someone says your characters are silly or too familiar, or when no one understands the point of your story at all. You’re bound to wonder: Does he hate me? Does she think I’m utterly hopeless? The only way to defuse such feelings is to remember that criticisms are about the manuscript and shouldn’t be taken personally.

But members must also deliver their comments with tact and kindness, and without malice. My writers’ group insists that each person’s critique include one true, positive thing about the manuscript, even if the member must rack his or her brains to come up with it. Still, a good critic can always find something good, even if it’s only a single sentence that catches your fancy, or some glimmer of potential in the plot line. Be encouraging, if nothing else.

When receiving critiques, listen quietly and respectfully. Fight the urge to react right away. (I know of one group that forbids the writer to respond right away.) Keep an open mind an allow the comments to sink in overnight: I often find that criticism that seems way off-base to me at a meeting makes more sense the next morning.

That Special Someone

If you’re in a group long enough, you’ll eventually recognize that one member probably understands your work better than anyone else. This person could become your critique partner, a relationship that I think is the real reward of working in a writers, group. Your critique partner is someone who gives you in-depth help on work you don’t show the rest of the group. And you do the same for him.

This can also be tricky business, depending on your group’s sensibilities. if you think other members might feel excluded or even insulted by your special relationship, you can begin to feel as devious as a married businessperson sneaking off to a lunchtime rendezvous. Our group encourages such pairings, however; it’s natural to gravitate to a person who seems to understand Your work.

We also distribute, and keep up, to date, a members, list with names, phone. numbers and addresses. Though I don’t have a critique partner at the moment, I’ve called up individual members for advice in whatever I consider their particular specialty: pace, plotting, even titles. That kind of resource is one of the great values of a writers, group.

Communicating with others in your field is as vital to writers as it is to members of any other profession. That’s why thousands of novelists, playwrights, biographers and journalists be long to writers, groups. There are few better ways for beginners and seasoned professionals alike to help each other, complain to each other and sympathize with each other.

Just don’t hold your meetings in Peyton Place.

Finding or Forming

a Writer’s Group

Before you can get what you need from a writers’ group, you must be a member of one. Or perhaps you belong to one that’s devolved, beyond any hope of redemption, into a nonliterary gabfest. If so, it’s time to find a new group.

Local writers’ groups don’t often advertise themselves, so ask first at your local library. Many libraries sponsor writers’ groups, or keep listings of the ones in the area. Also inquire at bookstores, colleges or universities , and check community bulletin boards. Attend readings by local or well-known authors, and ask the organizer of the reading if he or she knows of a good group.

In a large, metropolitan area you may have the luxury of shopping around. Call a group’s leader, and see if you can attend a “sample” meeting or two. (Some established groups will be closed to new members, but many others are always looking for new blood.) Most groups will understand that you’re just trying them out — and they’ll be sizing you up as a potential member as well. Don’t talk excessively about yourself or your work at this first meeting, and don’t bring any examples of your writing unless you’re asked to. You’re there to listen, observe and assess the group’s potential.

In small communities and rural areas, there may be only one group to join or none at all. Your choice, then, is to either work with the existing group or form a club of your own.

Before launching a group of your own, you must consider these questions:

* Where will you meet? Your home might be okay, but a public place is better, particularly if you’re dealing with strangers. Check first with your local library; it may be happy to sponsor your group and provide a meeting place. Also ask local schools or churches; my group meets in our town hall’s community room.

* How often will you meet? Most groups I’m familiar with meet twice a month, but you may prefer a group that meets more or less often. Set a day or evening that suits you, and a time — and stick to it.

* What restrictions will your group set? Will the group accept only one type of writer — fiction or nonfiction? Novels or poetry? Will you accept beginners, or “dabblers?” Do you want to limit the group to a manageable number of members? (This is a good idea. A huge group wastes everyone’s time.)

Now you’re ready to issue an invitation to your community. Start with a short, crisp press release, sent to every newspaper, periodical and radio station in your area. “A new writer’s group is beginning in the (your town) area…” State the meeting time and day — but don’t name the specific meeting place — and add whatever other information you feel pertinent (“Fiction with emphasis on novel-writing” or “Serious writers only, please”). End with “Contact (your name) at …” I listed my home phone number, but you might prefer to use a post office box for responses. I got a few crank calls, but I was also able to effectively screen potential members by phone first.

Post flyers, too. List all the essentials (but again, don’t name the meeting place — this will prevent undesirables and lonely nonwriters from showing up at your first meeting) and hang them in the library, local bookstores and post offices, and on university and community bulletin boards. And make your plans known to the librarians, so they can refer possible members to you.

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