A few years ago I quit my job to focus on writing. Prior to my last day, and in preparation for my new career as a novelist, I took a day course on how to write the break-out novel from respected New York agent Donald Maass, and picked up a few writing books (all of which gave different advice). I researched and outlined, and, once I actually quit, wrote every morning. Some days were easy; some were hard. After about seven months I had nearly completed my 130,000 word, young adult fantasy novel. (Alarm bells may be going off for some of you at this point, but not me; not at the time.)
I was quite pleased with myself. Clearly I had this writing thing mastered and my novel would shortly become subject of a bidding war between top publishers, resulting in a hefty advance and mass publicity. (Okay, I didn’t really believe that, but wouldn’t it be great? I mean, it happened to Jacquelyn Mitchard, so I can’t be faulted for harboring unrealistic hopes, can I? Especially since such examples were cited prominently in the “Business” sections of my writing books.)
At about this time a booklet arrived in the mail; a brochure for the continuing education program at the local university. And what do you know—they were offering an introductory creative writing class, one evening per week. Now, I hadn’t considered taking such a course right off the bat because that would’ve meant sharing my work and, gasp, possibly reading aloud, things my inner, insecure, introvert self balked at. However, after having completed most of a novel I felt ready. I enrolled in a class taught by Rosemary Nixon, a gifted writer, editor, and teacher.
I’m sure you can guess what came next.
The awful realization that my novel was crap. Okay, not all crap, but mostly crap. Full of abstractions, wordiness, and repetitive phrases. Reliant on clichéd language and generic description. Derivative. Telling rather than showing. The chapters I wrote after taking that first class are noticeably better than earlier chapters, and on my first editing pass I cut 27,000 words without even blinking. I have done four more editing passes since then and could probably still cut 27,000 more words. What it needs is a complete rewrite. It currently resides in a drawer.
Gods how I wish I would’ve taken a class earlier. Or found a good writing group. I have since done both, and they’ve helped me immensely.
I don’t have much to say about classes other than take one if you feel like it could help you—particularly with the technical skills of writing. Make sure you find an instructor you respect and who is good at what they do. A lot can be learned from the literary authors who often teach such courses (and it’s awfully fun to make them read your witch or alien stories), though you may have to move on in order to develop genre skills such as plot.
What I want to talk about are writing groups: where can you find one and what they can do for you. I belong to both a formal, local writing group with between 30-40 members, as well as a more informal, online writing group (the Inkpunks). I greatly value both.
Finding a Group
I found my first writing group by checking out the links on the Writers Guild of Alberta website. The Guild itself seemed too big to be of much use, but through them I found a smaller, local group called the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (“IFWA“) and soon began attending their meetings the first Thursday of every month. That was two years ago.
A simple Google search will likely yield a multitude of options for you. For example, just to see what would happen I Googled “North Carolina Writers” and came up with the North Carolina Writers’ Network, which has several links to specialized writing groups. For people living in smaller centers or people who are shy, there are no doubt also many online options, though I’m not familiar with these. I am aware of at least one novel (and I’m sure there’re dozens more) that was co-written by two members of an online writing group, so I know they’re out there. The only online connections I’ve made are through twitter, which is a great place to meet other writers. Search around and see what you can find.
What a Group Can Do For You
By far the most important benefit of a group is skills development. There is simply no substitute for having your work read and critiqued by other people, or for doing exercises, reading your work out loud to an audience, and discussing writerly topics with others who share your passion. Ideally your group will have a mix of levels. You can learn much from critiquing the work of others not as skilled as you, but also need stronger writers to point out the flaws in your work and push you to improve. If things get too comfortable or you are receiving only praise, it may be time to move on.
Support and Advice
Okay, this is pretty important, too. We all feel down sometimes, whether because we’re discouraged over rejections, disappointed with our lack of progress, or convinced our latest work-in-progress is hopeless. At times like these it is invaluable to have friends you can lean on; friends who’ve been where you are and can help pick you up. I can’t tell you how many times my fellow Inkpunks have cheered me up with supportive words, funny videos, or just a sympathetic ear.
On the other hand, sometimes we also start feeling sorry for ourselves, procrastinating, or making excuses. It’s great if you can count on these same friends to give you a swift kick in the butt (yes Christie and Sandra, I’m looking at you) when you need it. This is my new, personal favorite tool for keeping my friends accountable. It may creep them out, but it works!
Finally, writing group members can be an invaluable source of market information, whether it be suggesting a market for a specific piece, informing you about new or previously unknown markets, or warning you away from suspect ones.
Oh, and they can tell you that not only won’t you get a $500,000 advance for the first seventy pages of your debut, young adult novel, but that it’s a great, bloated, behemoth with little chance of getting published at all. You know, in case you’re wondering about such things.
As part of a group, you can also help organize in and/or participate in writing-related events. IFWA, for example, develops and populates panels at the local F/SF convention; holds a workshop led by the convention writer-guest-of-honor; organizes in-town, free writing retreats; and hosts events such as barbecues and a bad F/SF movie night. All of these are great ways to learn, network, stay motivated, and have fun.
Obviously the portrait I’ve painted above is a very positive one–perhaps naively so–but that’s been my experience. I’m sure there are horror stories out there, of corrosive politics, too-harsh critiques, too-flattering critiques, differing levels of commitment and work ethic, cliques, etc. A group should feel safe, supportive, and useful; if not—leave. It might take some patience to find a good group, but there’s one out there for you. And if you can’t find one, start one yourself!
For more information on how to find, create, and/or run a critique group, refer to The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, by Becky Levine. I have not read this book myself but have been told by Calvin Jim (a fellow IFWA member and friend), that it is invaluable.
I’d love to hear about your experiences and/or ideas!