Monday, October 31, 2011

Growing a Bigger Heart: Writers Groups

Writing groups? According to Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: "At worst, they will suggest that you have no visible talent whatsoever and should not bother writing anything ever again, even your name." At the best, you grow a bigger heart.

About ten years ago I was desperate for someone who wasn't my husband or my mother to read my early pages to see if I shouldn't beg for my job back or commit myself. After all, who believes they can actually write a novel? I needed a dose of reality.

So I attended a one-day romance writing seminar organized by a local writers group. I had no intention of writing romances, especially after outlining a story on a half-sheet chart as the teacher had suggested, but I'd gone to the seminar with quite another purpose in mind--to find a critique group to call my own.

At the end of the seminar, one of the organizers asked for writer news, like Grand Junction is the hotseat for all that's literary in North America. I stood up, swallowed hard, and asked for anyone interested in starting a critique group to talk to me afterward. It turns out I'd been sitting with the only three women at the seminar interested in starting a critique group. It was a divine seating arrangement.

We've been together for twelve years. Imagine that.

Anne writes about changes she saw in four of her students after they'd become a group: "...helping each other has made their hearts get bigger. A big heart is both a clunky and a delicate thing; it doesn't protect itself and it doesn't hide. It stands out, like a baby's fontenel, where you can see the soul pulse through. You can see this pulse in them."

A critique group, which may sound too editorial for you, or a writers group, which may sound a little ambiguous, is an absolute necessity for a writer. (Actually, I think all Christians should be in a writers group.) This is where I learned to see the best in what others offered and to speak the truth in love about their homely "children" without eviscerating them. It's also where I learned to hear the truth spoken in love...and to listen. In other words, my heart got bigger. And my writing improved.

Our critique group's motto is something like this: We love each other enough to tell the truth about our writing and believe we are capable of choosing what to listen to and what to do with what has been said, even if that means totally ignoring everything.

Here's a typical conversation when my work is being critiqued. I'm the quiet one:

"I wasn't quite clear on what you were trying to say here, Patti. Did anyone else have a problem?"

"I was totally confused. Is the girl trying to scale a wall or emote on the history of bricklaying?"

"I loved it. I cried my eyes out. Although, you may consider taking everything out about the wall. You have twenty-three metaphors and two similies in this passage alone. Maybe limit yourself to one a chapter."

"I'm a little confused about the relationship between the baker and the rapper."

"I found the premise of their relationship flakey." Lots of laughing. "Sorry, no, really. Perhaps the rapper's brother knows the baker, maybe they served in the war together."

"That's brilliant! That way the whole motivation for what happens between the rapper kid and the girl makes sense. You should use that."

"Did you mean to use the word "emigrate" here or did you mean "immigrate?" According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "emigrate" is when someone leaves a country to live somewhere else and "immigrate" means to come to a certain country. But then, this is another one of your extended metaphors. You could delete that whole page without losing any meaning."

"Are you bummed about the metaphors?" She holds up a page from my manuscript. "Check out all the smiley faces. I loved the way you developed these characters. However, you are a little heavy-handed with the clever descriptions, and check out how many prepositional phrases you have in this one sentence. But, overall, this is your best writing yet. This is a New York Times best seller in the making. If anyone can get this passage to work, you can. I love what you're doing here."

"Me too."

"All it needs is a bit of tweaking, kiddo."

I may not feel loved at just that moment, but I do after I've gone home in a funk, tossed and turned in bed for hours, and finally gotten up to read my critique group's margin notes. Clearly, they looked at my manuscript with the intensity of surgeons. If my literary slip is showing after I've revised, it's nobody's fault but mine.

Are you in a writers/critique/blood-letting group? Online or in person? What is the greatest benefit of a writers group? Pitfalls? How did you find your group? Do you have a bigger heart?


BK said...

My most faithful and true group is the in-person group I formed back in 2004 because my area didn't have one. We're still going strong.

I have also been part of 2-3 online crit groups. While I gained valuable advice during those times and remain in contact with some of those wonderful folks, I have found that online crit groups eventually disintegrate after a while without the physical presence of the others so I've made it a rule not to do online crit groups again (unless it's a one-time arrangement).

I have heard nightmare stories about nastiness in crit groups but have never experienced it. The people I've participated with give fair and balanced assessments. Sure, it may be painful to hear some of the feedback sometimes but it is never mean-spirited and always worth considering (and often right on).

Only negative to being part of a crit group? In my life, I just can't write regularly. I can go months (or even a year) before I have something to submit (like if I'm taking classes on web design and have to focus all my energy on that). So I often feel a lot of guilt because I don't regularly have something to submit. But someone else in the group always has something on the burner so it works out.

Being part of a crit group also makes me more social. I'm 200% hermit by nature, so my crit group forces me to get out and about and act like a normal socializing adult. 8-)

Patti Hill said...

Good Morning, BK! Thanks for your input, especially about the online groups. I've never tried one but was curious. I'm the only one writing on a regular basis in my group. I feel like I'm abusing them, although they promise I'm not.

Jan Cline said...

Great post and Im so glad you are touting the benefits of these groups. I am currently trying to rebuild my little group after taking a break. I initially started the group to help some church friends with their writing. Turns out none of the 10 of them were serious about learning a craft and all dropped out one by one. A whole new group has emerged and I sense that this bunch will grow in knowledge and in numbers. I long to have a group that will engage in all the things you talked about.
My problem is that as the leader of the group, I dont always get critiqued. Im the timekeeper, organizer and teacher, so my own writing is the first to go when we run out of time. I dont mind so much as long as they are learning and I learn by hearing all the comments.
I also have heard horror stories about some groups and my first priority is to nurture relationships and build trust. It's good when it's good!

BK said...

Hey Jan, have you tried setting time limits for each piece? That way nobody who submits for a particular session gets ommitted. One of the things that helps with that is making sure the person receiving the critique does not interrupt until after everyone has given their feedback. Otherwise the receiver has a tendency to interrupt with questions and things can drag on indefinitely.

When new members join our group I give them a copy of our Critique Guidelines.

Judy Gann said...

A timely post! Today I'm heading the rest of the way home from a weekend retreat with two of my online critique partners. We brainstormed our WIPs, laughed, played, ate fabulous food, all in a gorgeous central Oregon setting. What a bonding experience! Our only regret was that Sarah, our fourth member, wasn't able to join us.

When I decided to try my hand at fiction, I prayed for 4 mths. for a critique group with at least one published novelist. God provided three. We're been critiquing online for over two years.

Each of these ladies brings her unique strengths to critiquing my work. They are at different stages with deadlines, but we try to submit a chapter a week. I'm the slowest--a newbie inching her way through her manuscript.

The fact that it's an online group hasn't been a problem for us, BK. But, I can see advantages to in-person groups, too.

Bonnie Grove said...

Alas, with these pointy teeth, I fear no group would have me. :(

Susie Finkbeiner said...

My friend and I tried a crit group at a big box book store. There were about 25-30 people there. And they were out for blood. So we started our own. Our goal is to make each other the best writers we can be.

We set up a start date and just invited our friends, who invited their friends. Location has been an issue for us. But, fortunately, I think we've found a good spot. It's so nice to be able to get together, share our art and a cup of coffee, and just be writers together. We have very little drama. And a good mix of genres and genders.

They help make writing a little less lonely.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, Bonnie...we'd have you. But you'd have to promise to put the mini marshmallows over your fangs.

Patti Hill said...

Thanks to all for chiming in. You're doing a great job directing your answers to each other. That makes us a writers group, don't you think?

I have a good friend who has once-a-month writers retreats at her house. Folks bring their laptops and a thermos of coffee and/or tea and scatter to write and then come back together to critique...and then more writing. I would really like to try this.

Jan Cline said...

Hi BK,
Yes, I do have guidelines with the time limitations, but I haven't instituted the no comments till everyone is done critiquing thing. I know that would really help. Thanks for that suggestion. I know other groups that do that too. I'll give it a try.

Megan Sayer said...

I'd love to be part of a critique group. It's been one of my goals for this year, although so far to no avail.

There are a couple of writer's groups that run in Hobart - the first time I tried to go to one nobody showed up except for me and another man looking for the same group...turned out they'd changed the time and date without updating their website or their listing with the Tas Writer's centre.

The second group I went to was...interesting. I don't want to be negative or derogatory towards people's writing, but I'd say the group is geared towards hobbyists and people who are exploring writing for the first time.

I'd love to be a part of an online one, but even that I've found hard to know how to join or where to go.
Does anybody have any tips on how to find a good online group? Thanks : )

Patti Hill said...

Don't give up, Megan! Pray, pray, pray! Our church has small groups around interest areas, like quilting, hiking, gardening. They do their thing and study the word. We also have a writers group that I attend as I can. Maybe something like that?

Kathleen Popa said...

I'm going to sleep tonight with visions of Bonnie with mini-marshmallows on her pointy teeth.

Love it when that happens.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Oh how I long for a writers' group! But I am so shy I am waiting for one to knock me over the head (talk about a hermit). I think, when I have a free moment I'll look up some guidelines for writers to follow in a group. Maybe this will inspire me. At least the longing is there.

Jan Cline said...

I started doing a once a year writers retreat as an extension of my writers conference. Our first retreat was such a wonderful experience - we all came from difference genres and experience but we came together in the spirit of love for the craft. It was a weekend to beat any writers group experience Ive ever had. Our next one is in May and I anticipate the same result. I will probably end up doing more than one a year as interest is growing. You should try it!

Kathy said...

I have been involved in a writer's group for over 2 years. It has given me direction and an education into how to write. At first poetry was my venue but now I am trying to write a fiction. The group is very friendly and give good advice. I can choose to accept their critque or not but it brings me insights into how I can write something of worth. We are expanding our group to 6 people and concerned that it may be too large. Three people are "drop-ins" but I value each person's sharing.