Thinking of a writers’ group? – Elisabeth Hyde

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By Elisabeth Hyde

At some point in the writing process, you may find yourself wondering whether to join or form a writers’ group. Maybe you want serious feedback on a project, or maybe you simply want an audience for some personal journaling. Whatever the case, there are critical factors to consider which can make or break a group.♥

I myself was in a writers’ group for about 7 years. The 5 of us started meeting when I’d just finished The Abortionist’s Daughter and was beginning what would become In the Heart of the Canyon. Once a week we gathered at someone’s house, where we read and discussed our manuscripts over wine and dinner.  Collectively we wrote memoirs, short fiction, novels, and poetry. We were a formidable bunch of women, all of us professional writers with a common goal:  to get the best possible critical feedback for our respective projects.

As my co-member Lisa Jones, author of Broken: A Love Story, says, it takes a lot of courage to form or join a group. Criticism may be rough; you’re inviting third-party opinions, some of which may be hard to hear. But being in the right group can give you courage as well, as it can motivate you to take risks with people you trust – and reach a new level with your writing.

And so based on my experience, here is a very subjective list of things to consider:

  • Level of commitment. Lisa and I agree: a group can only work if people are equally committed. If you show up seeking serious feedback on 10 pages of polished prose, and someone else merely pays lip service to the piece and then moves onto another subject, you’re going to be disappointed. You can avoid this by agreeing beforehand on expectations. If you’re a group of professionals, treat it like part of your job. If, on the other hand, you’d like a loose group where you don’t have to worry about getting too technical with your feedback, speak up beforehand so everyone’s on the same page.
  • Level of skill. This isn’t an absolute, but it helps to find people who are at the same point in their writing life as you. I was once in a short-lived writers’ group with 2 other very talented writers, but I’d published 3 novels and they were just starting out. And it set up a weird hierarchy where I think I intimidated them from saying what they really thought about my work. This isn’t to say that writers at different points in their careers can’t work together; a sensitive beginning writer might provide more astute feedback than her more experienced counterpart. But it takes a certain confidence to battle that hierarchy, and sometimes people are just more comfortable sharing their work with their peers.
  • Feedback. Whatever level you’re at, make it clear from the outset that you’re aiming for constructive criticism, i.e., feedback that demonstrates what works and what doesn’t. As a member, get technical and analyze objectively. Beware the morphologists – writers who won’t recognize your individual style, whose criticism is aimed at making your piece conform to their stylistic preferences. Everyone needs to read a piece for what it’s aiming to be, and help the author get there.
  • Size. We were a group of 5, which was ideal for us – small enough that we had time to read everyone’s work aloud (an agreed-upon 10-12 pages), but large enough that we had a variety of opinions. I personally think you need a minimum of 3, so that you get at least 2 opinions; and I would suggest a maximum of 6 or 7. Any more and you’ll run into too many cooks stirring the broth, so to speak.
  • Frequency. Do you want to meet once a month? Once a week? We met weekly, which worked well because it allowed for a sense of continuity, important because we were all working on longer works. It also motivated us to keep producing, so we had something new to share. But many schedules won’t allow for this, and that’s just fine – again, as long as everyone’s on the same page.
  • Time and place. Figure out a convenient time. High-octane mornings? Tea-suffused afternoons? A little wine over an evening conversation? As for location, houses are good. Coffeeshops are good. Libraries might have space – check with them. We met at one another’s houses, critiquing 2-3 pieces before dinner and 1-2 pieces after. Dinnertime gave us a break in the business end and allowed for a wonderful friendship to develop among us all, which still continues, even though we’ve disbanded. (Although I will admit that the pieces we critiqued after a few glasses of wine might have gotten a little, well, gypped.)

In the end, I was lucky; our group served our needs well. The only downside was due to a little overenthusiasm on everyone’s part. While listening to segments of In the Heart of the Canyon, my friends would often say, “Oh, I’d really like to know more about this character!” The result? An 800-page behemoth that had to be cut by 300 pages.

Just sayin.

Elisabeth Hyde is the author of Go Ask Fannie, due out in April (Putnam’s/US, Hodder/UK later this spring). She has also written five other critically acclaimed novels, including In The Heart of The Canyon, a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a People Magazine Great Read; and The Abortionist’s Daughter, which became a bestseller in Great Britain after being selected as a Summer Read by The Richard and Judy Show. Trained as a lawyer, she worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., before starting to write full-time. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and the best dog in the whole wide world.

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