Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Chopsticks
  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
June 2010

How to Find a Good Writing Group

I'm going to start first talking about groups I've been in, and how they worked or didn't work. Then I'll talk about some other thoughts I have on writer's groups. This is a common question for beginning writers who are mystified by how to get into a "cool" writing group, since they know there are groups all around, but don't know how to get into them as a beginner. Many groups are groups that have been around long enough that everyone has gotten published. These are often the groups that are the most noticeable. But the beginning groups are the ones where most beginning writers will fit in best. More on that later.

Since about 1990, I've been in four formal writing groups. The first one was critters.org, which is still a working group on-line. The rules for the group were that you submitted a manuscript and then you earned points by commenting on other manuscripts so that your manuscript moved up in the cue. And then you got comments and it started all over again. This is a well-run group, but it had some disadvantages for me. There was such a huge number of participants, that it was hard to feel like there was any personal connection with the comments. In some ways, I know that this can be useful for other writers because they just want a general feel for what works and what doesn't. For me, I needed more nurturing, more a sense of hope that what I was doing mattered, and I didn't get it here. Maybe I didn't stay long enough to make the connections, but I think in-person groups work better. That's just my experience.

The second writing group I was in was "Walton's Mountain." I'm calling it that in retrospect. It was started by Rick Walton, and it was originally at his house which is on a hill, and we often met outside, looking out over Utah Valley. It moved to other locations in later years, but I remember it best there. This was a group interested in children's writing. Most of us did novels, either middle grade or YA, and most of us wrote contemporary fiction. But there were occasional speculative elements and also we did a picture book now and again, partly because Rick was a picture book writer.

"Walton's Mountain" was a completely open group, by which I mean that Rick would invite anyone he met who was interested to join the group. We had people come in and read us very long, terrible pieces. I felt sympathy for them because my first time, I read about 20 pages in my worst, oldest piece that I thought was literary but mostly was just boring and incomprehensible, and yes, laughably serious about itself. There were self-published people who complained about the traditionally published looking down on them. There were people who had written one children's book and were sure we had the secrets to enable them to get it published, if only they could talk us into it. But they had no intention of writing another book. And we had people who came and read us the worst kind of didactic children's books and insisted that their books were really what publishers should be selling, not all that "other drivel."

I was in "Walton's Mountain" from 1994-2002. I went from being a beginner to being a published author of a contemporary children's novel in that group. I also learned from that group (people who did not particularly care for fantasy) that I was best at writing fantasy. Then I moved away from the group and while we occasionally get together for dinner, I'm not involved in critiquing anymore. Some of the people in this group included: Carol Lynch Williams, Randall Wright, Ken Baker, Kristen Chandler, Laura Card (aka Dene Low). Everyone who stayed with the group for four years or more ended up being published. People who wrote regularly, who submitted regularly, got better. If this is a surprise to you, it shouldn't be. People who stopped coming, people who came irregularly, or people who only listened while others read and never read their own work -- largely have not been published.

This is the main thing I think "Walton's Mountain" did right. An open group of members, kindness in general, and the assumption that if you keep coming, you will get better. We all brought something to read if we wanted a critique and read out loud for 10 or 15 minutes, and then wrote down comments from the others. There was no commitment outside of the night we met and we met twice a month.

We had a few rules, but mostly they were unspoken. The first rule was, simply, we only read children's books. I know many people who claim that you can get useful comments from any average reader about any kind of book. I am sure this is true, to a certain degree. But there are a significant number of things which are expected in one genre which are decried in another genre. For example, romance demands that you describe both hero and heroine's features and their clothing. Saidism tags are part of the genre. You have to do them well. In contemporary, too much focus on clothing and too many saidism tags are bad style. You may not get useful comments if your readers are expecting the wrong thing.

The second rule in "Walton's Mountain" was that you don't get to cry when you read your own work. If you're still crying about it, you're not ready to hear criticism about it, and you need to get distance to make it better. This sounds harsh, but it's true. Another rule was, you don't argue with people who are trying to help you. Again, this was unspoken, but I consider this the first and only rule in writer's groups. No one pays the people who come to group. They are doing this as a favor. If you have a question about their response, you may ask it politely. Otherwise, be quiet and listen. You can choose not to write down any comments you think are ridiculous. No one will know.

A final rule of a writing group that I learned from "Walton's Mountain" is that there is a limit on how many times it is useful to bring a piece back to group. I think that limit is twice. It might be once. I'm not sure. But never ever bring a piece back a third time. Why not? Because the same people who read it before are going to see what you did that they told you to do and what you didn't do that they told you to do. They will be annoyed at what you didn't do and they will be pleased with what you did do, and they will only be able to comment on that, and not only the piece as a whole. This means that you'd better be sure when you bring a piece that it's as good as you can make it. If someone tells you something and your response is, "I knew that was a problem already," then you are abusing your group.

The third writer's group I was in was called "Apex," and went from 1996-98. Originally, it was Dave Wolverton (aka David Farland) who started the group and hand picked us all, though he came only rarely the first year and not after that at all. We all understood that he was a working writer and had to actually, you know, write his own stuff. And also he was better than we were, so whenever he had time to help us, we appreciated it. But honestly, we became a more cohesive group once he was gone and we had to depend on each other completely. A lot of beginning writers think that the best writer's group they could find would be one full of professionals who could give them tons of help. But it's like getting into the swim lane with the faster swimmers. They are going to run you over if you can't keep up. It won't be pleasant, for you, or them. A lot of what they tell you will be over your head, or offensive. It will feel like you don't belong, and you probably don't. No one tries to be mean, but you can hardly breathe.

"Apex" worked by sending out printed copies of the manuscript to be read (either a full novel or a partial) the month before. Or sometimes, by sending out a short story by email. The idea behind this was that there would be a lot of comments written on the printed page, and it was the financial obligation of the writer who was getting the critique to pay for this. A shorter manuscript could be critiqued overall, without reference to page numbers. The members of this group were Michael Carr, Grant Morgan, Arlen Card, and later Laura Card. I am afraid that I rather monopolized this group. I always had a full-length novel manuscript to be read. I wrote a lot and I didn't have any idea what I was doing.

I think the other members were sometimes frustrated by me, although one of them eventually said that he thought that if any of us was going to make it, it would be me, because I was the most persistent. I think unspoken was the assumption that I was not the best writer in the group. To this day, I think this is a correct assessment of the talents of the writers in the group. Grant and Michael were far my superiors in world building and style. We bonded over rejection letters and the frustrations of trying to break in. They laughed at my naïve belief that if I wrote well enough, I would succeed. They were convinced that going to conventions was the way to get published. After writing, of course. In the end, I suspect the truth is somewhere in between.

I have very fond memories of this group. I still remember Grant telling me that when he got most ready to quit, he reminded himself that he could either choose to spend his free time watching TV or writing, and he chose writing. Watching TV was what most of his other work friends did with their time, and he didn't see anything wrong with it. He just wanted more. I have thought about this idea many many times, and I think Grant was right. Michael was the one who taught me that the way to begin a novel was with a conflict, but a small conflict, not the major conflict that would move the whole plot forward. Just a conflict big enough to show the protagonist's character and to reveal the world s/he lived in.

Michael ended up moving away for work in 1998 and Grant faded away. Laura and I got reabsorbed by "Walton's Mountain" for a time. Then it became "Gnuberry" and focused on YA. This group proved again the reality that those who keep writing become published. Those who don't, even if they are more talented, can be beat by sheer persistence. I sometimes regret the fact that I haven't seen books by Michael or Grant because I loved their work so much. But they were just the first of many talented writers I have met who have chosen to do other things with their time. There is nothing wrong with this. Writing is a choice. Writing is a hard choice. Good luck to those who choose other things.

The fourth writing group I was in started in 2002, and it came out of the Orson Scott Card's Literary Boot Camp that I went to. Afterward, we shared stories around and critiqued them for each other, and shared news. I wrote a few stories, but was mostly working on novels, so I was in the periphery of this group. It's still going on, expanded by other years of Boot Camps, and is now Codex. I still lurk on-line now and again, mostly interested in the business kinds of questions that are raised. I like to meet people so that faces and names can go together. It is still hard for me to feel like a name on-line is a person, but it's a great way to keep connected to people I meet at conventions only once or twice a year.

So, you want to find a writing group? I know Hatrack manages some. There are local chapters of SCBWI wherever you are for children's books. Any local convention you go to will allow you opportunities to talk to other aspiring writers and set up a meeting place. How do you find a good writing group? Mostly by making it yourself. By working hard, and being generous with other writers and taking the time to be kind in your critiques and not say everything that is wrong, but only a few of the glaring errors. And then you will generally receive the same treatment yourself.

Your group will probably lose members as people give up on writing or simply leave because there are too many personality clashes. You don't need to uninvite them, as a general rule. You don't want to make the group into little subgroups of "us" and "them." When the group gets too small, you will have to look around to find others to fill the spot. It may morph into a new group, or die entirely and you will have to start another. Don't worry about any of this. That's the natural course of things and you don't have control over it. What you do have control over is yourself and your own work. As long as you keep writing, and you are willing to read other people's work, you will find useful groups to be a part of.

I am not in a formal writer's group anymore. Instead, I have a large group of writing friends and reading friends to whom I direct this manuscript or that one and ask for comments. I am willing to return the favor when asked, and I try to do it promptly. I still follow the rule of not arguing, and I also try to be positive. More importantly, when we meet in person, we spend time talking about the business, about the difficulties of being writers. We laugh at ourselves and yes, we gossip a bit. I even run an on-line newsletter where I collect the marketing information for everyone in the group and send it out to librarians and bookstores who want it. I help make sure the group's needs are served, and not just mine. That's the way it goes.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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