Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Comfortable Fit

By Deborah Sharp

It was a Tuesday in the distant past, and I was trying out another writing group. A fellow aspiring novelist read what he'd labored over, something about Russian immigrants and snow.

My God, this room is cold. Is that an ink stain, or are my fingers actually turning blue? I glanced around the air-conditioned room. Maybe I'll move. Wonder if that side is any warmer?

My interior monologue on the AC thermostat didn't bode well for the reader, or for my membership in that particular group. I'm a huge supporter of writing groups, but it's important to find the right fit. When I left journalism six years ago to try my hand at writing mysteries, I heard the same advice I now give beginners: Join a critique group. There's nothing like getting other eyes -- or ears -- on your work. But finding the right group is easier said than done.

I worked harder at finding a writing group than I did at finding a husband (Thanks to my persistent husband, Kerry, for finding me!) Choosing a group, I was like Goldilocks and beds. One was too hard; the next was too soft. One was too big; another too small. One group hadn't even moved beyond talking about writing. It was less a critique group than a support group.

Me: My name is Deborah, and I'm addicted to the idea I may write someday, just not today.
Group: Hi, Deborah!

Another group fancied itself Serious Novelists. They all wrote Literary Tomes about Important Themes. Now, if y'all know anything about my Mace Bauer Mysteries, featuring Mace's wacky mama . . . Serious, Literary, and Important do not immediately come to mind. One member was writing about a post-apocalyptic world, after almost everyone died of the plague.

Woo-eee, sounds like a knee-slapper! After 20 years as a journalist, I'd had enough sad stories. I wanted to write fun, frothy books. The serious group clearly wasn't the group for me.

All this is not to say you have to find writers working in your exact genre, with your exact style. I ultimately found two groups in Ft. Lauderdale, and I still pop in occasionally (the pace once you're published makes regular attendance more difficult). Both have members with a wide range of styles, including Young Adult (YA), historical, and even a few Serious Types. The key, for me, is the mix. Not too lofty; not too lowbrow. Similarly proficient in the basics, like punctuation, spelling, and the ability to write in paragraphs. Supportive, but also willing to give honest critiques.

Your writing group should be like a favorite pair of shoes. You wouldn't buy a pair you couldn't walk in, would you? (Okay, I've done that ... but still). The shoes don't have to be perfect, just comfortable.

How about you? Do you go to a writing group? What's the best -- or worst -- thing you've gotten out of it?


Janel said...

Last week I went to the library and got a two page list of local writing groups. I haven't attended any meetings yet, but I hope one of them will fit!

Deborah Sharp said...

good for you, Janel ... that's exactly what I did when I was first searching for a group. Bookstores are another good source, as they often have groups of writers as well as readers' groups that meet. Hope you find a comfortable fit.

Beth Groundwater said...

I absolutely love my critique group. We've had members come and go over the 10 years that I've been involved with it, but two of us have been with the group since the inception. The other one is Robert Spiller, author of the Bonnie Pinkwater math teacher mysteries.

We have 5-6 members, meet twice a month, and have a time limit of 30 minutes to discuss each submittal. Of the 5 original unpublished writers who joined the group, 3 are now published in book-length fiction, 3 in short stories, and all 5 have won or placed in writing contests. We really pulled each other up in quality!

Darrell James said...

Deb- My group has been together for more than eight years. At some point, I think I outgrew the need for their support. I still stay in touch with them, but have moved on to letting my editor be my biggest critic.

Keith Raffel said...

Deb, When I had a day job a writing group worked for me. I'd write a chapter a month or so. Now though, I write a few chapters a week and I could never inflict that much on even my closest friends.

G.M. Malliet said...

Can't do writing groups...much too inclined to listen to everyone's advice and then have to expend energy filtering or un-listening.

Alan Orloff said...

I love my critique group--I need some outside eyes to let me know if I'm on the right track, and to plug up those inevitable plot holes. And the refreshments we serve at meetings are good, too.

Lois Winston said...

I was in a critique group for several years. There were 4 of us. One left because she was writing category romance and wanted to be with a group of like-minded writers. Another left because she couldn't accept any criticism of her work, no matter how constructive.

That just left Karen and me. We were critique partners for a long time. We often joked that we were twins separated at birth. We had the kind of critiquing relationship where we each instinctively knew what needed tweaking in the other's work.

Beyond critiquing, it was one of the closest friendships I've ever had, and the weird part is that we never met. Karen was living in Europe at the time. Her husband ran one of the American schools.

Karen and I planned to meet finally a few years ago. Her husband was retiring, and they were moving back to the States. She died suddenly about a week before they were scheduled to leave Germany.

Ever since Karen died, whenever I write myself into a corner, or something isn't working quite right with a scene, I have to stop myself from shooting off an email to her. I don't think I'll ever have that kind of writing relationship with someone ever again. She was one in a million, and I miss her terribly.

Deborah Sharp said...

hey, y'all... thanks for the thoughtful comments. Beth: that's quite a list of accomplishments. The group I belong to in Ft. Laud., led by Joyce Sweeney, has also had much success. I think Joyce has had 20 plus of her little lambs published over a period of 12 years. We have magic bean ceremonies each time to mark the passage. Keith: Wow! that's a pretty good clip you keep up. I feel like a slacker! Darrell: yep, editors are like that! Gin and Alan: interesting y'all have exactly the opposite takes.
Lois: Lovely, lovely story. What a wonderful testament to your late critique partner, Karen. She would have loved it!

Keith Raffel said...

Ah, Lois. What a shame.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Oh Deb...this could be a story about me! I think we're like chair is too small, the other is too big. We need the one that's just right!

Kathleen Ernst said...

I've been with the same critique group for about a dozen years. I haven't been able to attend often for the past couple of years, and like Darrel, I rely most on my agent and editors ...but the members of my group have become such close friends I can't break all ties.

I couldn't agree more with the main point--in any case, you need to find the right fit!

Cricket McRae said...

Great post, Deb. I love seeing everyone's experiences with writing groups. Lois, your story about Karen is so moving. Thank you for sharing it with us.

I had one Horrible Critique Group, a couple of quite decent ones, and now the best ever. So good in fact that even when I moved a thousand plus miles away we kept our regular meetings going on Skype. It's not the same as an afternoon at Tully's Coffee followed by an evening at the Latona Pub swilling Shakespeare stout, but it still works. I wouldn't trade them for anything (at least not anything I can think of off the top of my head).
Hearth Cricket

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

I am probably one of the few people in the writing world who isn't thrilled with writing/critique groups in general. In fact, I consider it writing by committee, which can endanger your personal voice. When I first started out, I tried visiting a few and found the ones I encountered usually bullied by one individual who set herself/himself up as THE WRITING GOD WHO KNOWS ALL. One such "leader" told me flat out I would never be published unless I took private tutoring from him. BTW, I now have 18 book contracts and to date he has NONE. And I have friends who almost stopped writing because of the "constructive" feedback they were receiving from their group.

But that said, a lot of writers get a great deal of help from such groups. And it is very early manuscripts, no matter if it is in a group format or via a friend or two who will tell you the truth.

Deb is right. If you do join such a group, it must be the right fit or you and your writing will suffer, and what's the point in that?