During one of my earlier flirtations with writing, before I finally ran out of excuses and began taking it seriously, I attended a meeting of my local writers’ group. It was held in our small town library, after hours, and the place was empty, quiet and dim. Five or six people turned up. I was one of two newbies. The others were regulars, and meetings were held once a month. I had little idea of what to expect.
What happened was that the regulars read their work aloud, and everyone agreed it was very good. Once we had run out of work to read, the conversation ran dry. About an hour in, the meeting closed with friendly anticipations of meeting again in a month’s time. I did not go back. They were lovely people, but I wasn’t sure of the point.
Looking back, the failure of my experience was partly my fault. The first thing to remember about belonging to a writers’ group is that everyone shares responsibility for ensuring the group benefits the members. If you don’t like what’s happening, you’re free to speak out. If no one listens, it’s probably not worth sticking around.
What Writers’ Groups Offer
Feedback is gold dust to writers. How else can we know how others are interpreting our work? But beware. Neil Gaiman offers excellent advice on this: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
At the Taipei Writers Group we have a ‘don’t argue about it’ policy. The thing to remember is that feedback is opinion; just readers giving responses. There’s little point in trying to persuade someone they got it ‘wrong’ or filling them in on what they ‘missed’. As Gaiman says, a response from a reader is nearly always right, though sometimes hearing feedback is painful. That’s okay. As Gaiman also says, “if you are making mistakes, you’re Doing Something.”
A large part of attending a writers’ group is (or should be) reading and critiquing others’ work. Through reading critically and discussing revisions and the writing process, your own work improves.
Writers are the worst procrastinators. Days, weeks, months, years, entire lives are spent putting off writing. (Incidentally, a couple of excellent books for chronic procrastinators are The War of Art and The Willpower Instinct). If a writers’ group meets regularly, this can be a powerful motivator to writing – and finishing – work, so that you have something to present.
There are few other occupations other than writing that entail endless hours of sitting at a desk with only fictitious characters for company. While writers are often introverts, everyone needs some social interaction sometimes. Who better to spend time with than people who share similar interests and can empathise with the struggles and heartaches you endure?
Neil Gaiman spent his early career writing book reviews and conducting interviews in order to make connections to help him get published. Forming a friendship with comic-book writer Alan Moore was one of his stepping stones to writing the Sandman series. A writers’ group is a web of experiences, abilities, knowledge and connections. Maybe one member has software expertise and can help with formatting your work, another has a background in journalism and can write rocking press releases, or another is a trained artist who can offer a professional appraisal on a book cover design. When the Taipei Writers Group put together Taiwan Tales, we pooled our respective areas of knowledge, and learned plenty in the process.
I love belonging to the Taipei Writers’ Group. There’s no doubt that my writing, motivation and satisfaction with my work have improved due to attending meetings.
How about you? Do you belong, or have you belonged, to a writers’ group. Did it help or hinder you? Do you have any writers’ group horror stories?