Writers' Critiquing Groups I've Loved, Ditched, and Infiltrated
I've mentioned that I'm a fan of writers' critiquing groups. It can be a great source of feedback as a writer and you can learn a lot by critiquing other writers work. That being said, it's not without it's pitfalls and any group has to be manage (I'm still a member of the Kensington Writers' Group unless they formed a splinter group and didn't tell me!) Here is an article I wrote that appeared in WestWord the Writers Guild of Alberta magazine and on ezine articles. A couple other articles I wrote are on ezine: "Atticus Catticus and Why Writers Should Follow Deadlines" and "What I learned from Simon Cowell - Developing the Voice of your Character." Check them out, but in the meantime ...
‘What do I know from Kosher?’
Lessons Learned from a Cross Cultural Writers’ Group
“You don’t understand my culture.”
That was a cry heard often from one member of my fiction writers’ group who was Muslim. Nearly every point of criticism was met with it during the first two years the group was together.
“If the story doesn’t start until chapter five, I won’t get far enough to discover your culture,” was my response.
By virtue of the diverse world we live in your writers’ group is likely to be filled with people of different ages, and religious and ethnic backgrounds. Having started and ditched two writers’ groups and infiltrated a third, I’ve learnt a few things along the way. The experience of being in a writers’ group needs to be respectful from a personal perspective and worthwhile from a writing perspective.
Lessons Learned from membership in a Cross Cultural writers’ group
Respect is integral to any writers’ group and especially a cross-cultural one. My first writers’ group in Toronto in the 90s was composed of one devoutly Muslim woman, three orthodox Jewish women, two Catholics, and two women researching goddess-based cultures. It led to interesting conversations, friendships, and new dining experiences (like finding a restaurant that would accommodate everyone’s religious dietary requirements).
I had previously worked as a broadcast journalist and traveled over a large part of the world. I had even done a radio documentary about Egyptian Muslim women, so I, and others, had our own views on religion. But given that we had come together with the purpose of writing and critiquing each other’s work to grow as children’s writers, we respected the religious choices of others.
It seems that lack of confidence is the bane of all writers. It is intensified when religious or cultural beliefs encourage humbleness and discourage boastfulness. This can affect a writer’s view of themselves and their writing. Confidence in the fact that you are a good writer is not boastfulness; it’s maturity as a writer. However, bragging that you’ll be the first in the group to get published is just that – bragging. It’s not a race; every writer develops at their own pace.
I used to think that it was the responsibility of group members to boost each other’s confidence. I no longer think that. The members of the writers’ group I started in Calgary made a concerted effort to boost the self-esteem of an older member who’d had one book published and nothing since. I eventually realized that she was the only person who could boost her self-esteem. It’s great to be positive and encouraging but we all need to come to the table with healthy egos intact.
It’s important to realize that the group is where you get feedback. Don’t let non-writers like your spouse, sibling, or parent read your manuscript. I gave an earlier draft of my middle grade manuscript Dead Frog on the Porch, to my childhood best friend. The main characters are twin girls. My friend phoned me angrily one day to tell me that “One character is you, the other character is me, and your character is picking on my character!” My response: “Honey, it ain’t all about you.” That was funny. But I’ve seen more writers let the ink dry in their pens after a confidence crushing comment from a spouse or brother who may have their own agenda, but aren’t writers or editors. If you just want to hear that your work is great, give it to your grandma or child, they will be so thrilled that someone they know has written something they will praise it to the hilt.
Lessons Learned from Managing a Cross Cultural writers’ group
Writers join groups with the goal of publication. If you’re a beginning writer it’s best to join or start a group after taking a basic course in your genre. If you’re actively seeking publication or already a published writer, a writers group can be a valuable tool for getting feedback on the final draft before sending it out to publishers.
A writers’ group can also act as a motivator, setting deadlines to get that next draft before the group. It can be many things, but above all it needs to be professional and intentional. While great fiction often stems from personal experience, there is a clear distinction between fiction and journaling. A fiction writers’ group may not be the place to work through your personal issues. In a cross-cultural group, while learning about other cultures is a bonus, don’t let the meetings denigrate into sharing stories about culture, customs, and religion unless it is directly related to the writing.
The focus of group discussion should be on giving and receiving feedback to further each member’s growth as a writer. Trust between group members takes time to develop but is essential to the exchange of open and honest feedback. Feedback doesn’t have to be harsh. Make it about the work and not about the person. One woman with school aged children told us how they gave feedback in grade five – it would focus on what they liked or what worked and what they wondered about or what was missing. For example: “I wonder how the character feels when that happens?” It gets the point across without destroying the sometimes fragile ego of the aspiring writer.
You’d think politics would have no place in a fiction writers’ group. One time, the Muslim member wanted us to critique a book that painted a Nazi character in a human light. The Jewish members of the group felt uncomfortable with this and I, as the unofficial leader, spent a lot of time on the phone mediating the situation. People carry their cultural identity and baggage with them to the group. The intent of the group, and the reason why people are there, needs to be managed in a professional way. When cross-cultural tension threatens to destroy a group it needs to be addressed.
I described myself as the unofficial leader. I didn’t want to lead, but I had started my first two groups and felt responsible for keeping them on track. Some groups need a strong facilitator, for others it is best to do things by consensus. Let the group decide how to best meet its needs. At first you may need critiquing, then expand to bring in guest speakers, do writing exercises, discuss current markets, or critique published work in your genre. It’s also best to let the group decide on the tough questions like who gets to join, and what happens when a member doesn’t participate over a long stretch of time.
It’s a good idea to appoint someone, or take turns, to keep the meeting on track. This includes starting and finishing on time, limiting each person’s time, and keeping the discussion on topic. If meetings have broken down to discussions about root canals, showing of vacation pictures, and complaining about spouses, it’s time to re-focus.
What’s the shelf life of a writers’ group? I took too much ownership in keeping both groups I started together past their ‘best before’ date. How long should a group stay together and what happens if some members of the group are more serious than others? Do some people only participate when they want feedback on their work but don’t provide feedback to others? Have you been sworn to secrecy about your membership in a splinter group? There’s bound to be a little bit of the above in every group at certain times.
The group I started in Toronto came to a natural end after three years when I moved to Calgary. The group splintered into a handful of the more serious members. I ditched the group I started in Calgary after a visit to a writer-in-residence at the library helped me realize that I had outgrown it. I left the group members holding a plate of uneaten Samosas and infiltrated the Kensington Writers’ Group (KWG). Groups change and evolve. Let them, they may be better in their new incarnation.
“I have a daughter who’s almost your age.” This from an older member of my Toronto group after we’d been friends for a while. Neither of us had noticed that there was nearly twenty years difference in our age. We’d meet outside the group to discuss writing, critique each other’s manuscripts, have dinner and talk about life. I respected her as a writer and thought of her as a friend. It is the same for other members who are closer to my age but from different religious and ethnic backgrounds than mine. I’ve become friends with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met in my day-to-day life. I’ve learned about their cultures and developed a respect for them as people. As writers, isn’t that what it’s all about?