Writers’ Groups: a waste of time?

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Why Join a Writers’ Group?

Many creative people are just not suited to locking themselves away in a room for a year with only a computer and their thoughts for company. Others just don’t have the confidence or endurance to keep on writing in a vacuum.  In a group, you will always have someone to encourage you when you start flagging, or to fix up a stretch of writing you can’t seem to get right. You also need to have really good systems that everybody sticks to religiously. (NSWWC newsletter, May 2016)

For some years now, I’ve been convening a local Writers’ Group. We started with five members, all working towards publication. Two of our members have achieved their goal, and seen their manuscript miraculously transformed into a real book by a prestigious publisher. This is after extensive editing resulted from the group’s feedback. We even have a grammar queen in our midst!

For me, the main benefits have been the wonderful solidarity and support from the group, and the momentum created by having a regular deadline for that next 2000 words or so. Procrastination and writers block couldn’t survive the positive motivation to produce a first draft for the next meeting. Add to that our delicious morning teas, and the warm friendships special to writers who share the highs and lows of the rocky road to publication.

 

Our Randwick Writers’ Group has the following simple guidelines, which have served us well for the last three years:

• fortnightly (now monthly) meetings on a Wednesday morning, of two and a half to three hours for giving and receiving feedback.
• rotate venues from house to house  – providing a safe and friendly environment in which to share our work.
• submit max 2000 to 3000 words  by the Monday before the meeting, either digitally, or hard copy.
• Option to read aloud one or two pages (it’s helpful to hear your work read by someone else)
• keep feedback constructive, as always. We start with a global review, then focus on what works and what doesn’t, and finish with positive suggestions.

 New Guidelines for Giving and Receiving Feedback

1. The Sandwich Analogy: Say something positive before something negative, then finish on the positive or how to make it better.

2. Give the positives first and say why. Give the negatives next, and say why it doesn’t work for you, and lastly, how you think it could be made better.

3. Take on the task of critiquing with a positive and helpful intention; read carefully, trying to understand the writer’s point of view and creative goal.


4. Consider the basic issues of narrative structure, characterisation, evocative and atmospheric language, vivid setting and believable dialogue.


5. Think carefully about what is not working for you, and what is working, before you offer feedback. Be honest in your feedback; the writer needs guidance, not niceties! 

Guidelines for Accepting Feedback

1. Be prepared to receive negative, as well as positive, feedback.
2. Separate the personal from the product, and see feedback as a valuable opportunity to improve your writing.
3. While receiving verbal feedback, try not to interrupt the speaker.
4. Be ready to respond to negative feedback, after speaker has finished. Give your reasons for your opinion.
5. Rewrite your work in accordance with the feedback received, and see if it is better. If not, stick to your guns!
6. A sure sign that you can write is that you keep going after knockbacks.

 I can certainly relate to this comment from the Blog  ‘Write to Done’:

In my writing life, there’s nothing that’s helped me more than having a circle of writer friends to share work-in-progress with. Setting my own deadlines for finishing a scene or chapter leaves far too much room for renegotiation: committing to a weekly or monthly meeting means I have to meet an external deadline, one that involves other people who’re counting on me to get my work done.

Courtesy Harleysville Books Inc
Courtesy Harleysville Books Inc
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Words of Wisdom by Writers for Writers

Even successful writers have self-doubts. Here’s their advice on how to overcome them: can you share your own strategies on how you keep going as a writer? 

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Helen Garner:

You’ve got two selves I think. One of them is the deep one that can do the work, and the other one is constantly discouraging you and saying: ‘oh come off it, who do you think you are?’Some days when you feel like this you just have to keep on.

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: this is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on the bed. I feel I’m going to be exposed. Other days you start a paragraph and suddenly out it comes, all these ideas streaming out of you and you can hardly keep up.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate Grenville:In writing ‘Lillian’s Story’ there were endless doubts. The pleasure reigned supreme whenever the writing was just a private thing that I was doing for myself. If you ask yourself what your book’s about you get all twisted up, and if you ask whether or not it works you will always find fault with it. Getting into the reviewer or critic state of mind makes me timid as a writer. I start to play it safe, and the writing gets strangled with sheer caution.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Greenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate wrote 30 drafts of he last book, ‘One Life’, which she calls ‘a Story’, neither a novel nor a memoir. Her breakthrough as a writer came when she stopped being a critic, learned to break with convention, and to tap into the Unconscious (in Freud’s sense of the word).

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Garner again: whenever I read Christina Stead I get an electric thrill from the way she breaks all the rules. She can string seven adjectives together in a row. She holds the noun up to to the light and uses the adjectives to make it shine this way and that way. I envy that naturalness,–as if she sat down and out it poured.

I don’t plan very much, because if I do, I start to wield the plan against my instincts, and it acts as a clamp. It becomes a duty, or a trap. It prevents me from being flexible or alert to a fresh possibility.

Linda Jaivin on ‘Truth in Fiction’ Write a novel and the first thing you’ll be asked is if it’s a ‘true’ story. In recent years, readers, reviewers and journalists alike have become increasingly fixated on the question of how much fiction is based on fact. It is as though identifying the biographical or autobiographical elements in a novel provides not just a key to it but validation. Perhaps the better question to ask would be how much fact is based on fiction. Truth in literature, novels and biography alike, is never quite as simple an equation as x=y.

Hannah Kent: To be a good writer you must, first and foremost, be a good reader. How else will you learn what to do? Read as much as possible, as often as possible, and if you read something you like, or something that makes you laugh, or something that moves you in a strange, ineffable way, ask why. Re-read it. Read it aloud. Pay attention to the use of words, and the narrative voice, and the comic timing. If you don’t understand words, splurge on a really great dictionary and look those words up. The more words you know, the greater your control over language.

If there is one quality I have consistently drawn upon to get any kind of writing in print, it was not a gift with language. It was diligence. If you want to write, you have to be diciplined. You have to put the hours in, even when you don’t feel like it. You especially have to learn to write when you are uninspired. You have to take your work seriously, and this means setting aside time for it, preferably on a regular basis. This often means making sacrifices.

What do you think is the most important piece of advice? What works for you? I have italicised the words that most resonate with me: keep going, trust the unconscious, be diligent.

 

Steps to Success

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I found this article called ‘How to Plan and Produce any Successful Project’ by Michael Sternfeld, in a magazine called ‘Living Now’. Here are the steps towards a successful musical production, which could equally apply to the huge task of producing a novel:

1. Carpe Diem – know when it’s the right place, right time
2. Know your core values
3. Imagine big and be outrageous
4. Make an inviolable commitment
5. Be fully engaged and fully alive
6. Learn from obstacles
7. Re-assess, re-evaluate, change
8. Work with your core team
9. Communicate your vision clearly and often.

More about Helen

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“The most compelling thing I’ve read online recently is Helen Garner’s piece in The Monthly, ‘The insults of age’. Garner’s writing is always emotionally intelligent and always delivered with a clear-eyed grace, but this piece – her perspective on what it means to be a 71-year-old woman – is a particular gem. The cultural assumption that the ageing are almost-dead is felt keenly in her anecdotes on how invisible she now is, how patronised, how confronted. But it’s how she describes letting go of a lifetime habit of ‘feminine passivity’ and her subsequent unlocking of a kind of joyous rage that makes this piece beautiful and true and very, very funny.”

This review was published in the Griffith Review for April, in GReat reads: The best of the web from Griffith Review writers and editors. For the full article, see the Monthly magazine online.

Helen describes how, when entering a bar to have a drink with a friend, they were ushered to a table in the furthest, darkest corner of the room. On remonstrating, she was told ‘this is our policy, Madam.’  A policy to hide from view women who are no longer in the sexually accessible zone, who are not putting out signals to men on the prowl, who are mercifully free of the need to primp and pamper, who are free of scrutiny of the body, but have treasures of the mind, and a lifetime of experience, to offer?

See  my previous Posts on Helen’s House of Grief and the Spare Room..

See also Anne Skyvington’s Blog at Write4Publish.wordpress.com for her article on Helen Garner.

Success for one of our members

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Last Wednesday our group met for a celebratory lunch near beautiful Coogee Beach, to acknowledge the success of one of our writers. Congratulations, Garth, on your memoir being accepted for publication by Ginninderra Press. We are all striving towards publication, and are thrilled that one of us has reached that goal. Can’t wait for the book launch!2

This House of Grief

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Thoughts on Helen Garner’s latest book

I’ve just finished reading ‘This House of Grief’, Garner’s latest non-fiction work. It was almost too painful to read at times, not only because of its ghastly subject matter, but also due to Helen’s signature style: holding nothing back, inviting the reader to share with her the horror of seeing a man accused, wrongly or rightly, of drowning his three little sons. This book held a particular resonance for me, because it echoed my own recent experience of witnessing a court case in which two young men were charged, and eventually sentenced, with the death of my fifteen-year-old niece, due to dangerous driving. Yet I couldn’t put the book down, couldn’t wait for the next chapter. Sitting in that Melbourne courthouse, that ‘house of grief’, with Helen, her vivid prose told me I was not alone.

Some people complain of Garner’s writing as too ‘personal’, even invasive. One woman in a former book  group announced that she ‘didn’t’ need people like (Garner) in her life, because Garner sounds too angry.’ We were discussing ‘The Spare Room’ in which anger does play a part, but to my mind only to fuel the exposure of suspect alternative medical practices, and their exploitation of the vulnerable woman in the novel.

See my Post ‘More on Helen Garner’ for some personal recollections.

 

©Dina Davis