Monday, January 21, 2008

The Writing Group

One of the best ways to move your writing along is to have good readers, and a writing group can fit the bill. Read my last entry for how to find people you can trust. Make arrangements for a comfortable and convenient place to meet, a place with good light at a time that works for everyone. My group meets at our local library every other Wednesday morning. Because we have flexible schedules, we're able to meet as the sun is rising over Mt. Abe and shining in the big library windows while we lounge on upholstered furniture in the reading area. We've tried meeting at houses of members, and that's fine if someone is willing to provide the space, but the library is central for all of us. If you decide to meet in the evenings, the library may also be able to accommodate you. Some groups have dinner meetings, but I find that a meal distracts from the work you've set out to do. You can define your own purposes, but my fellow writers come to work on writing, and we budget our time so we can fit in all our business within our scheduled time. If someone wants to bring a little snack, that's fine. But, for us, the discussion of our writing is most important.

I suggest you limit the size of your group to half a dozen writers so that everyone has a chance to speak. You can invite eight and expect that a couple won't be able to make every meeting. Four writers means that I'm getting comments from only three other writers, which doesn't offer enough variety of opinion for me. You might start with a larger group and expect that some will drop out. Committing to a regular schedule of writing is very hard for most people. The real writers will hang in there.

At your first meeting, make introductions and let everyone talk for a few minutes (keep time if you must) about their writing projects and their writing objectives. Then set up a schedule you can keep. Once a week is a whale of a commitment. Once a month is not nearly enough. My group used to meet once every three weeks, but we found that we wanted feedback more regularly than that, so we agreed to every other week, which works well for us. Make sure that everyone understands that being in the group means commitment, loyalty, and confidentiality.

All groups function differently. In my group, we have a rule that we email our work to each other by Sunday night before the Wednesday meeting. That gives us a few days to read and mark up the pieces. We also write a brief note of explanation for the reader and hand her the manuscript back after discussing the piece. Having the story ahead of time allows me to go more deeply into the spirit of the work and give the writer better comments. We have a length limit of 20 pages, double spaced. Often early drafts are less than that, and sometimes the pieces run over. We're flexible with the length rule. If a writer wants to send a huge chunk of, say, a novel, she needs to make sure it's okay with the group before she sends. Exercise courtesy. Don't take unfair advantage.

Make sure someone with a watch keeps time, and allow about a half hour for each piece or however long you need to fit in all writers within your time frame. When we discuss a story, we begin by having the writer read a paragraph so we can hear her voice and how she inflects. Usually she will pick out a strong section of the story, and we begin by talking about that. A "leader" generally emerges in each group, someone who makes sure everyone is involved and one or two speakers aren't dominating the discussion. You may become that leader.

Always always always begin on a positive note. There is something worthy in every story, essay or poem. Bring the strengths to the front of the discussion because once the train of negativity starts rolling down the track, it picks up speed and is hard to derail. Everyone needs to toss in a positive comment before questions and suggestions. We are all sensitive about our writing, and we all are trying to do our best. Be sure to acknowledge the heart behind the words.

While the work is being discussed, the writer is silent. The tendency is to defend our work, the precious offspring of our muses. Defense is a waste of time. The writer needs to hear what the readers like and don't like, what they agree or disagree about, what suggestions they have to make the writing stronger. Afterward, the writer can clarify, ask a speaker to elaborate or, yes, defend the piece.

I also exchange comments once a month with another writer. The two of us meet either at her place or mine, and we have tea and a snack and read our pieces aloud to each other. In a large group, I find I get distracted when I try to listen, but with one other writer, it's not a problem, especially if the meeting place is cozy and private. While she reads, I take notes on phrases that impress me and questions that arise about something in the story. Usually the pieces are no more than a dozen pages. When she finishes reading, we discuss her purpose, how well she had addressed it, and what she might do to tighten. Reading my own story aloud, I always "hear" things I miss when I'm just looking at the words on the screen or page.

I hope it's obvious that I enjoy my writing group. I even socialize with a couple of the members. But you don't have to be best friends. You just need to respect each other and honor each individual's best intentions when it comes to writing.

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