In today’s post I take a look at writer’s groups to try and gain an insight as to how they can help your writing career. I’ve never been a member, but after speaking with so many proponents during my Author Interview Series I want to know what all the fuss is about.
So what do you get from a writer’s group?
Alison McBain from the Fairfield Scribes tells me you first need to figure out what you what from the group and describes her experiences with the types of groups out there.
There are several different types of writing groups I’ve run across, and while they can be helpful to authors of different levels of writing, they are fairly different in their goals.
1) The encouragement group. I think this type of group is very valuable to many writers, since there is a lot of rejection in this business and it’s always good to have a group of people stumping for you. The only drawback is usually you won’t get any sort of in-depth critique, since the group doesn’t want to discourage anyone.
2) The discussion group. Also a great group for beginning writers or writers who want to improve certain areas of their writing. This is a good place for writers in the planning stages of their work. It focuses on discussion ABOUT writing rather than the nitty-gritty work of critiquing pieces already written.
3) The “writing exercises” group. Group-led writing time in a roomful of other writers, often with themes and prompts to get the ideas flowing when writers have no clue what subject to tackle. I find this kind of group quite helpful for writing poetry, since I can sometimes get stumped in subject matter with poems.
4) The “reading aloud” group. I find this type of exercise very helpful, since I’m a nervous speaker. You get up and read your work in front of a group of people and they potentially give light critiques on it. Hard to get in-depth critiques on a piece that’s being read aloud, but it can be very helpful to hear your own writing. Where you stumble in reading your work out loud, that’s often where the reader will stumble when reading it to themselves. This type of group often also help you with your presentation style – they let you know if you’re speaking too quickly or too quietly, etc.
5) The “tear your work to pieces and make it better from the ground up” group. Ahem… that would be the Fairfield Scribes.
Wanting to find some more balance to the views of the Fairfield Scribes, I contacted my local writer’s group, Slough Writers and spoke with Terry Adlam, comedy writer and chairman of the group for 28 years. I started out by asking which category the Slough Writers fit into.
Slough Writers are very much as a writer’s support group. The type of support we offer is varied and can range from alerting writers weekly to writing competitions and opportunities, new markets and encouraging members to submit their work. We say that a submission, no matter the outcome, is a success, because you got you work out there.
Regarding critiques, we have about four Manuscript Evenings per term where we encourage members to read out their work, whether it be complete or not. We listen, and then offer constructive criticism with the emphasis on ‘Constructive’. We also are keen to point out that the criticisms are only the personal thoughts of one person and will differ from member to member and that it is up to the writer what they do or do not take on board as in the end it is their piece of work.
We always have someone ‘leading’ the sessions to ensure that the feedback is constructive and any comments that stray from that aim are questioned or curtailed in the most constructive way.
Obviously if the writer wants a severe criticism we offer a less public forum through our ‘Round Robin’ critiquing where the writer can send their work to another member of the group for a more in depth report with less punches pulled. As I said, a first Manuscript Evening can be daunting, but to reiterate, we are there to support and encourage not destroy.
PC Keeler, also a member of the Fairfield Scribes, offered his take.
I think the Scribes have a more ruthless, publication-oriented streak. We go through every piece we review with the critical lenses turned up to maximum, because hearing the tough feedback is how you get better output. It also means that when someone calls out a section, from a single word choice to an entire scene, as being particularly good, then you can feel very proud, and try to write more like that in the future. I haven’t consistently been at many other writing groups, but most of the ones I see are just too large to get down into the weeds like we do, and a lot of writing groups are writing support groups, not critique groups.
What’s the key to choosing a writing group?
When you join a critique group, make sure they’re good. If everyone applauds and says “Oh, you’re so brave for writing” and you leave with nothing but a warm glow, then it’s not a critique group; that’s a support group. Ideally you want people who will say “Well, I see where you’re going with the plot, but did you know female characters are allowed to have personalities nowadays?” Or something along those lines. If one person says it, consider it. If three people all say it, they’re probably onto something.
Terry, how does Slough Writers find new members?
They tend to find us! We have a website where most hear about us and we are quite active in the local arts community, so our name and profile is mentioned quite a lot. We tend not to do much advertising for new members as our membership is quite large at the moment and although we would never turn new members away, it is a comfortable number for our meetings, ensuring everyone can get a say and the opportunity to read out their work.
Having been Chair for the past 28 years, I am always amazed at how the membership not only changes but also keeps quite constant with little effort on our side. It feels very organic, as one member leaves, so another joins. Like most groups, membership does fluctuate, but I guess we have been pretty lucky over the last 28 years that that number has kept fairly constant.
PC Keeler, how did you find the Fairfield Scribes?
I had decided to take some time off work to try to write my first book, Migon, and after a few months I wanted to get some eyes other than mine on what I had produced. Plus, being a bit of an introvert by nature, I noted that I had an awful lot of days when the only time I talked to people was during commercial transactions, and I thought I really ought to do something about that. I searched for groups on Meetup, and paged through quite a few “let us tell you how brave you are for writing your memoirs” groups before I found the Scribes, whose improvement-based philosophy was exactly what I was looking for.
What else do you people get from being in a writer’s group, other than the writing advice?
In addition to being a writing group, the Scribes are also a boundlessly entertaining social gathering. I visited Victoria Falls and downed a pint in a London pub as a result of being in the Scribes, and I have a profusion of extremely libellous stories available about meetings and members historical. When we look for new members, the culture fit is a key element. You can’t really bring out the metaphorical chainsaws and hack someone’s work to bits in front of them if you’re not friends enough to take it without offence.
Terry, what would you say your members get from the group?
Confidence, experience, help, advice , feedback, writing opportunities, a place to experiment with their writing, the chance to meet other writers, a place to discuss the art of writing, , fun, friendship, companionship and in some cases, love. Above all, a couple of hours a week where writing is all that matters.
Another aspect is the chance to meet other writers. I don’t have to tell you that writing can be a lonely business and the chance to meet up with like-minded writers once a week in both the meeting and afterwards in the bar is a great help and motivator.
Our termly in-house competitions offers the opportunity for members to write to a specific brief, but also to have a try at a form of writing that they would not normally try. These can range from Short Story writing and Articles, Poetry to Drama and all stops between. One of my favourite stories is of a new member who told me quite categorically that they would never write poetry. Never had and never will. Just could not see the point of it. The next year they won the in-house poetry competition and the year after that!!!! We like giving writers the opportunity to write out of their comfort zone.
A lot of writers I know are introverted, at least with their work. Would you say that was true of your membership and how do you think people overcome that aversion to talking about their work?
It takes all sorts to be writers and we do have our introverts as well as our extroverts, but I would say that a high percentage are very happy to read out and discuss their work. I would like to think that is down to us being a very informal, relaxed and friendly group. We never claim to be somewhere writers come to learn to write, there are plenty of courses for that, we always say that Slough Writers is there to ‘Support’ writers. If you enjoy writing then that is all that matters, you do not have to be published to join the group and no matter what genre you write in you are always made welcome.
The big hurdle for every new member is that first time when they do read their work out to the group on one of our Manuscript Evenings. This is a daunting task, and we’ve all been there, but once new members find out that we are not there to rip their work apart but to encourage and support them, they relax and are ready to show us more their work.
Has the group published collectively, i.e. an anthology of works?
The Slough Writers have self-published two anthologies. The first was called ’40 years – Write On’ to celebrate our 40th anniversary in 2007 and ‘Gold Anthology’ in 2017 celebrating out 50th anniversary.
Over the last 5 years, some of the members have got together and have produced a Drama Showcase to raise support and monies for a local library in Burnham. This began as one evening of reading of plays and over the last five years has now grown to two evenings of 5 to 6 one-act plays fully staged with actors and lighting and not a script in sight. The evening also includes a glass of wine and a buffet and are generally sold out to a capacity audience of 100 people per night.
The Fairfield Scribes have just released their second anthology, When to Now, containing short, time travel themed stories from hard sci-fi to the surreal, from literary to fantasy. It’s an amazing anthology, and I’m so proud to have had a small part in putting it together and working with these lovely, talented writers.
There are 18 stories by 17 authors. The shortest story is a flash fiction piece, about 950 words, and the longest story is a novelette and about 16,000 words. We have a steampunk story that follows a Victorian time traveler back to Viking times. There’s a daughter who’s trying to figure out her mother’s murder and how it relates to her mother’s research into time travel.
We have a story about woman who gave up her son many years ago, and has to face, once again, the trauma that changed her life. And we have a story about a young girl who learns that a time traveler can’t change events in the past, no matter how much she may want him to.
Terry, how would people go about joining Slough Writers? Is there a long process involving capes and funny handshakes?
A love for writing in its many forms is the only requirement and you don’t need to have been published. All the details are on our website at www.sloughwriters.org.uk but basically just pop in any Monday evening that we are meeting on. You can attended for two meetings to see if the group is what you are looking for. If it is then it is a membership subscription of £36 per year.
Alison, how can people join the Scribes?
There are several hurdles to jump through before you can call yourself a bona fide member of the Scribes. And then there are two levels to the Scribes itself – the “writer” level and the “illuminati” level.
Our group meetings are organised through Meetup.com, so anyone wishing to join has to go through there (it’s free to join). We have a questionnaire to fill out about your writing experience and goals. We only accept writers into the group who are looking to get published – that doesn’t mean that you have to already be published at all! But that must be what you’re aiming for. With each application we receive, we discuss the application in the group and vote whether or not the writer makes it to the next step.
After the questionnaire, if the answers fit the group dynamic, we’ll ask for a writing sample. Again, this doesn’t mean the writing has to be ready-to-be-published work. We want to see two things from the sample – one, if you actually HAVE writing that can be submitted to the group (sometimes the applicants have an idea for a book, but haven’t actually written anything), and two, if we feel that your writing has a minimum proficiency in word craft and is something we would be able to critique. Again, all the members at a meeting will vote whether to move the writer to the next stage after reading the writing sample.
The meetings take place one night a week. The Fairfield Scribes is an in-person group, and so that means people generally have to live within Fairfield County to be active members. If the writing sample passes the group vote, then we invite the potential member to the next meeting.
Often, this next step is where we scare off the most members. We’re a boisterous group of people with a decided sense of humour. While we’re serious about our writing, we tend not be serious about much else. We’re not an MFA program, but we do work closely together on various projects, so it’s important that every writer in the group knows not only how to write, but also how to laugh. Critiquing can be hard. GETTING critiques can also be hard. But a sense of humour helps with both of these.
First meeting, we throw potential members into the deep end. The critiques we give in the group are in-depth line edits, in addition to over-arching developmental critiques, so it can sometimes be a bit intimidating. The second meeting is to determine if the applicant can take a stab at critiquing in a similar in-depth style. That doesn’t mean we all give identical critiques – far from it! Each of us have our strengths. (I’m the “repetition” queen. If there’s repetition within 20 yards of a story, I’ll find it and root it out by asking for a synonym/rewrite.) The third meeting, the applicant is in the hot seat – they have to submit work to be critiqued and go through our in-depth editing process. The fourth meeting is to make sure they come back AFTER being critiqued.
After the fourth meeting, if the writer has jumped through all of our hoops, they will be inducted into the Fairfield Scribes. And once a Scribe has been a member of good standing for at least six months, they may be offered a position to join the illuminati – the editors. By that’s on a case-by-case basis, since being an editor can be a fair amount of work and not everyone in the Scribes has the time or inclination to do it.
Thank you Alison, PC Keeler and Terry for taking the time to talk with me and help me understand all about writer’s group, all their forms and how they can help people like me to become better writers. I wish you all the luck with your writing in the future.
When to Now from the Fairfield Scribes is available to buy on Amazon, and you can download the Slough Writer’s anthologies from their website. If you have any experiences you would like to share with writer’s groups please leave a comment and of course if you would like to join either of the groups featured you can visit their respective websites for more details.
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