This post first appeared on the On the Write Track blog.
As a writer, active member and chair of the London Writers’ Cafe – one of the largest writing groups in the UK – Lisa Goll knows a thing or two about how to get the most from participating in a writing community. Here she shares her top tips on finding the group that’s right for you, what to expect on joining and how to survive the writing velociraptors.
For most, creative writing is a solitary art – and it’s no mystery as to why; to create engaging characters, draw vivid scenes and devise believable incidents that will keep readers with you, is best done in the kind of seclusion only a die-hard hermit would envy. But no piece of work (no matter how talented its creator) goes from the page to minds without a bit of the heavy-lifting being done by an outsider. Whether it’s a professional editor, a trusted friend, or your mum – all writers need support, insight and small rounds of applause every now and then because there are just some things that can’t be assessed by the writer alone.
For instance: no matter what you’re writing you’re using words on a page to transfer imagery, action, emotion and meaning into readers’ minds – but how do you know if you’ve succeeded? This is the stuff of pervading anxiety that plagues every scribe. Without knowing how your text is landing in readers’ minds you’re working blind, and that’s never going to yield the best work.
Luckily, this is where writing groups live. But before you rush off to sign up to just any old one, you need to get sleuthing and find out:
1. Is it well-organised?
This can be tricky to judge before you’ve joined but most groups should say something about their last meeting and give information about the next (through emails, website, Twitter etc.) so you’ll quickly see if the group no longer exists or has ‘gone dark’. It can be very hard if meetings aren’t happening fairly regularly, especially if you’ll be expected to change your plans to suit the vagaries of last-minute scheduling.
2. Does is run to a format?
That is, do they share work, chat over drinks or only gather to write together? Again, think about what you want from a group and exclude any that don’t do what you need right now. Bookmark the others though – there’s nothing worse than trawling pages months later for that group that meet on every second Tuesday at 6:15pm for writing sprints at your local and being unable to find it!
3. Is it convenient?
If meetings take place miles away, you’ll soon drop out. They say it takes three weeks to make or break any habit, so if you want to attend something fairly regularly search for meetings that are comfortable journey from home or work. And check where they hold their meetings; is it local pubs, libraries, cafés or at members’ homes? Home groups are normally fine (take a buddy to first meet, if you can) but joining may also mean you sign on to host in your front room.
4. Do you want feedback?
If you decide you want to join a critiquing group, make sure you’ve sussed it out first. It’s sneaky, but try to contact other members beforehand for the real story – if you can. Organizers are sometimes so excited by a new member that they forget to mention that should you read work before the group, it will be torn to shreds faster than a keeper in a cage of velociraptors. On the other hand, beware groups where everything is ‘nice’. Being told something is nice, or ‘I liked it’, doesn’t help you, the writer, improve anything. After all, no one puts their car in for an MOT so the mechanics can wax lyrical about how much they like the chassis.
Organizers are sometimes so excited by a new member that they forget to mention that should you read work before the group, it will be torn to shreds faster than a keeper in a cage of velociraptors.
The best kind of writing feedback is balanced, constructive and, most importantly, specific. I like ‘I really enjoyed the way you have done x, y, z but I found a, b, c distracted me from your story. Have you considered doing e, f, g?’ Offering solid suggestions on how the work could be improved (without trying to rewrite their story in your way) is the most useful thing of all. Lastly, watch out for groups with a policy of ‘everyone contributes’. I’ve heard many harrowing stories of first-time writers being forced to read their work in barbaric hazing rituals that should have been outlawed decades ago.
5. Are you ready to receive feedback?
As any author will tell you (in extremely gory detail), the rigour of critique starts from the moment you first show your work to another to the day your career concludes, but it’s not the easiest part of the job. Asking others to judge your work takes courage, resilience and patience, but if you’re not open to suggestions then asking for it wastes your time as well as theirs. During feedback: don’t talk, actively listen. It’s as easy and as inhumane as that. Nigh impossible when others are discussing your work to remain mute (I know) but nothing else gets you the kind of feedback you can really use.
6. Is it a safe environment?
Sharing your work in exchange for feedback takes guts – but it also should be moderated by a third-party. I don’t hold much respect for online forums where any writer can share or comment on work anonymously as exchanges often descend into the kind of meanness and haranguing that kill dreams. So make sure that, if your work is going to be exchanged, expectations of respectful critique are plain to all. Nothing worse than sending work off and having to swallow a chill pill before you can open your inbox again.
Make sure if your work is going to be exchanged, that expectations of respectful critique are plain to all. Nothing worse than sending work off and having to swallow a chill pill before you can open your inbox again.
7. Is it social?
Alone time is key to any writer’s success – but what about life? If you never go out and meet people how on earth will you invent your next set of believable heroes and villains? Groups that offer organized socialising, not just writing chatter, are so great. Writing is demanding enough so avoid any group with signs of fun-police tendencies – normally indicated if they have a lot of RULES – because having a place where you can rant about your characters running amok, but also about how you would like to climb the Three Peaks next year is a boon.
8. Is it on your level?
If you’re just starting out and the group you’ve found is made up of published novelists it may not be the right one for you. Or, if you’ve completed three novels and have stories being regularly published in magazines, you might find a group made entirely of beginners a bit hard going. If it doesn’t say anything about what stage their members have reached then ask for more information. Beyond that, you’ve just got to try them out. It might be that going to a group of complete beginners releases you from the tortures of perfectionism, or a group made up of published authors may act as powerful motivator if you’re just getting started.
Finally, my advice is always to try out every group until you find what you need. Don’t pay top dollar for any of them though (unless you really want to) and always, always, remember a writing group only works if you’re writing so… get to it!