Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What Makes a Good Writing Group?


The contagious period of my recent cold behind me, I trekked out Sunday, armed with Kleenex, to two writer meetings: one for PB writers; the other for those of us who write MG or YA novels. Normally the two groups' don't meet on the same Sunday, but this time they did, and it was a busy day to say the least. Busy, yes, but well worth the crowded day.

In the PB group, which met in the morning, I got so many ideas for the next re-write of a PB that I submitted, I can hardly wait until tomorrow, when I'm going to tackle it yet again. This will be the 8th rewrite, normally something that would have me sighing, "AGAIN?" But I'm looking forward to it, since I have a newer and better focus.

In the late afternoon group, I've been submitting chapter rewrites of an MG novel I rewrote last year. The book's been on the back-burner for awhile, since a minor character turned out to play a bigger part, and I needed to know her better before placing her in later scenes. While waiting, I wrote another book (a chapter book); luckily the research for that gave me some information I needed for this character.

Back to the afternoon critique group: My fellow members are high-level writers, avid readers, and their pithy critiques open up new avenues of thought. You know how it is when you write alone: you get into that mindset where you no longer see what you've made clear, what you haven't, etc. If you are in a good group, the real help comes from seeing your work through other eyes than your own.

So what makes a good group? Five things, in my opinion.

1. A good group is supportive. By supportive, I don't mean hand-holding. The group that tells you your work is brilliant as it is, your MC is the next Harry Potter, and you are just wonderful... well, that group might make you feel elated, but they aren't really helping you grow as a writer. The support I'm talking about is when they notice what works in your manuscript and cheer you on in the ongoing task of becoming a better writer, developing your work to its shining best.

2. A good group also tells you what's not working. What was in your head may not have made it to the page. Or you've repeated information in ways that are overkill. Or your scene could use heightened conflict. The points you read in good books and articles on writing are points a good group will pick up. Still, even though you try to apply advice you read, let's face it: on your own, you can get in a rut. With only one viewpoint (yours), you might think you've applied that advice to maximum effect when you've only scratched the surface. It's always useful to hear from informed readers.

3. A good group has knowledge to spare and share. In other words, they are as serious about writing as you are. Consequently they, like you, read about the craft, read about the markets; they bring all of what they know to the group. They are, in short, a small network. They offer the kind of contacts and info on a small and personal scale that blogging, FB, and Twitter offer on a vaster and not always personal scale. It's true: many heads are better than one.

4. After examining your work, a good group leaves you enthused about the possibilities. This is probably the most important way in which they are supportive. Group members root for each other, even while pin-pointing problems. A win for one (a publisher, an agent, whatever) is a win for all. Consequently a good meeting leaves members wanting to go home enthused and motivated to do even better work.

5. A good group, to work effectively, should be small enough for steady give and take. In each of the two groups I belong to there are five members. That's a nice number for what we hope to achieve, since we all are productive and contribute regularly. Because we are small, we have time to read each other's work, reflect on it, devote our best thought to critiques, and even, in some cases, to re-read and comment on individual's pieces online between meetings. The larger the group, the harder that is to do.

And there you have it: My five criteria of a good writing group. What are your five? Or do you have even more? Or even less? Let me know your thoughts.



3 comments:

Rachna Chhabria said...

Loved your post, Elizabeth. I am sure a good critique group can nudge our manuscript closer to the best it can be. I am yet to join a critique group, so I have nothing to say about it. But, as I have critiqued many writers' works I feel we improve everytime we critique some elses' work.

Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

I agree, Rachna. The skills you develop while critiquing the work of others you can apply to your own manuscripts. In the meantime, I'm sure there are other writers in Bangalore. Why not start a group of your own? Advertise in some way. You would be a great contributor to such a group!

Kimberly said...

I agree with all your points. I believe rooting on and sharing information are necessary for a great group!

Fantastic post!