by Ekaterina Fawl
Writing is a lonely pursuit. There’s really no way around it: when it’s happening, it’s just paper – or the screen – and you. We have the company of our characters, of course. We draw constant, invaluable mentorship and inspiration from our favourite authors. But there’s nothing quite like sharing your stories with actual real people.
Unless you’re already a successful writer, swamped by fanmail, you might struggle finding readership. Your Mum might read your latest masterpiece, but you might not get much more than “That was nice, dear” in terms of feedback. It might be time to discover local members of your secret tribe of mad scribblers and join a writing group.
Finding one might be a little tricky unless they’ve been promoting themselves online, but here are some places to check:
– Any place that holds book club meetings (check local libraries, coffee shops, community centres, book shops)
– Any place with a knitting/sewing circle or any kind of craft workshop – there’s a significant overlap between makers and writers, and even if they don’t know of a writing group in the area, you might make some writer friends there, perhaps a seed of the writing group you’re going to start!
– Your NaNoWriMo regional group. Your can get in touch with the Municipal Liaison volunteers for your area via nanowrimo.org website, all year round, not just in November, and they’ll put you in touch with the rest of the local writing scene. The regional forums on the site might have information, too. Please don’t be intimidated by the nature or magnitude of the NaNoWriMo challenge – you don’t have to take part, most of the participants never finish or even undertake the challenge themselves. Most of us are there just to mingle with the like-minded people!
Have no doubt, they’ll be delighted to have you. Writing groups are always eager to welcome new people – or should be, anyway! Every group needs to evolve and grow, but this is especially vital for the groups that exists specifically to exchange feedback on creative writing. Without constant influx of new voices, styles and ideas, a small tightly knit group with a stable core runs a risk of merging into a single unholy mutant entity, creatively speaking. Without people even realising what’s happening, everyone’s writing styles would begin converging together, into a single default voice. People would begin stepping away from ideas that they know wouldn’t be well received by the group, and start pandering to the tastes of the core members. Consciously we might be appalled at the very suggestion we could be doing that, but our subconscious mind knows that’s the way to get enthusiastic, engaged readers, even if that’s only three or four of our group buddies, and our subconscious mind drives a lot of our creative choices. The more diverse and balanced the writing group is, the stronger and more authentic every writer’s voice will be.
What actually happens at writing groups? Every one of them is unique, of course. A lot have a very simple, informal rules: some of the attendees would volunteer to read out loud a few pages of their writing, and everyone else is invited to offer their thoughts. There’s no obligation to read or provide feedback. The atmosphere is usually laid-back and social.
On the other end of the spectrum there are groups that have much more structured approach. Group members would share their work with the group some time in advance. For example, if the meetings are once a month, you might have to submit up to 10-20 pages a week before. Some groups would not allow you to attend a meeting unless you’ve submitted a piece that month. Every attendee has to prepare feedback for each submitted piece according to the group’s guidelines, and at the meetings everyone takes turns to deliver their feedback until all the pieces have been discusses. That way every attendee gets a lot more in-depth feedback, but it means a lot more prep work for everyone and a lot more admin for the group moderator. Things at the meetings can get intense and nerdy.
Each group finds its own balance somewhere in between based on the needs and time availability of its members, and of course it keeps changing along with the members and their circumstances. If you’re lucky enough to have several local writing groups to choose from, after a few meetings it would probably be clear which one is for you.
If there’s no writing groups in your area, why not start one? All you need is a room (in a pub, in a coffee shop) that would be reasonably quiet for a couple of hours, and a few people who are into the idea. An optimal meeting size for a budding group is 4-8 people – I find that allows the best depth and variety of feedback. With more people than that the meetings would go on for too long, and although you can have great, productive meetings with less, you wouldn’t get the same creative buzz in the room.
For many beginner writers the very idea of sharing their work with a room full of strangers, opening themselves up to their criticism and scrutiny, might sound horrific. But most writing groups have “Don’t be mean” written into their rules, so there’s really nothing to fear. Personally, I had found the idea of critiquing someone’s work to their face, setting myself as some sort of authority over them, even more intimidating! But this is why writing groups aren’t officially accredited MA creative writing programs (even though most of the workshopping done at writing groups might be quite similar to what happens in those classrooms). All the members of the writing group are peers, even if some of them are published and successful and some aren’t quite sure yet what the commas are for. Everyone is a student and a teacher at the same time. A completely uninformed newbie critiques are incredibly valuable, because most of the potential readers would be just as casual and clueless. A feedback from someone who’d been writing for years is gold, and it’s free!
And, honestly, it’s all such great fun. You’ll have people in all seriousness saying things like:
“I’m just wondering what population density of dragons this ecosystem can really sustain.”
“No, sorry, I checked and self-adhesive labels definitely predate World War 2.”
“Your character teleported across the room here, since it’s a fantasy story I thought I’d ask, was that a mistake or a plot point?”
“I’m just saying, if I, personally, was designing giant mutant predators, I’d base them on ants.”
Of course, even though every thought, opinion and emotional reaction from the readers are precious to the writer, there’s an art to offering good, helpful and valuable feedback. But before we get into that, next I’d like to explore an even more important skill: how to take the feedback you’ve received and use it to polish your stories to high shine. Coming soon: the art of taking criticism.