Not every writer needs a writer’s group, but I do. I’ve found that gathering regularly with at least one other dedicated writer to discuss work-in-progress has helped sustain me over the years.
Before my first novel was published (Moose Tracks, to be reprinted soon), I started with a group of two. Me—and my friend, Lois Berg. We first met at a writing workshop and our instructor suggested that we try forming a small writer’s group since we both lived in northern Minnesota. Though we lived two hours apart, we each drove halfway once a month and met for several hours at a little cafe. We shared our fledgling stories, offered feedback, and kept each other’s writing dreams alive.
Now, twenty years later, I am part of two writers groups. One group meets annually; the other is a local group that meets every week or two.
In the waning days of summer, I gather with writers on Mallard Island on Rainy Lake. It’s my summer writers’ group, this group of a dozen children’s authors from the Midwest. Over the week, we meet each evening in the “Big House,” chairs in a circle, and we take turns reading.
Locally, I meet regularly with a half-dozen writers of various genres, from magazine writing to historical novels to poetry to non-fiction children’s books. It’s a group of talented writers that stretch and inspire me. Knowing that we’re meeting again soon helps to push me. I want to hear what others have written, and I don’t want to miss the chance to try out new material on willing ears.
Writers groups, however, are not without risks. As a writer, you are bringing raw material–be it a first chapter of a novel or a fresh poem — and subjecting it to the opinion of others. For some, this is terrifying. If you get resounding praise for your work and the encouragement to “keep going!” — well, nothing feels better. But what if the group members are clunky in their responses, or worse yet, hurtful? What if the comments somehow shut you down? That’s the real risk. Groups can be helpful, and they can be harmful. So how do you make sure your group works for you and not against you?
Here are a few rules for making your group stay healthy and helpful:
First, offer only positive comments.
Be kind. There’s always something positive to find in someone’s work. So what did you like? What worked? It might be an overall sense of the story’s direction, or a phrase or line that was especially strong. If a piece grips your attention, sometimes the best praise is “I want to hear more!”
After positive comments, offer questions.
Don’t say, “I didn’t believe that part” or “I’m so bored.” Instead, try rephrasing as questions that the author can tackle later, such as:
How could you make the kitchen scene more believable?
What could you do to raise the tension in this story?
What’s at stake for your character?
How could you make the reader care more?
When it’s your turn, jump in and read.
That means no excuses and explanations. Don’t start with, “Well, this is really bad and really rough. And I was up late and I’m sure it’s terrible, and blah, blah, blah.” Your manuscript must speak for itself without explanation.
Keep your mouth shut and listen.
Stay open to comments. Don’t get defensive. You shouldn’t have to explain anything. If a group member doesn’t understand a sentence or paragraph, or is confused about where you main character is at a certain time . . . whatever the question . . . listen.
Jot down everything—praise and questions.
You may think you’ll remember everything, but this is stressful stuff and I promise–you won’t remember it all. If you use a laptop, as I do, just write everything down as fast as you can. Later, you’ll be glad to see the encouraging comments along with those that point out more work ahead.
Remember, you’re the author of your own work.
In a writer’s group, writers leave their fingerprints on the work of others, but the work is ultimately yours. After the meeting, sit with the comments you receive. What rings true for you? Which things do not sit right with you? Follow your gut. And don’t be afraid to try a revision, just in case the questions prove helpful. I’ve found they usually are!