Writers Abroad Blog
What is the best way to use writers' groups?
Posted by Hamish Macdonald

I am exercised about how to get the very best out of Writers' groups. Having been on a waiting list to join the excellent Writers Abroad my excitement at being accepted, and a honeymoon of creative exhibitionism and pleasure in giving and receiving feedback, has settled to a certain nagging ambivalence.

Rather akin to what follows the madness of 'being in love' I am experiencing a sneaking anxiety about regression to 'la quotidienne'. That is to say, replacement of that blissful intensity by the daily grind of the ordinary and accountability. I experienced a similar waxing and waning with a writing group that met together in person weekly. Though mostly rewarding my attendance became at times dutiful rather than driven.

To get the best out of a writing group requires 'giving' as well as 'receiving', the mutual exposure of practice, and of sharing examples of writing, to develop and sharpen our craft. Positive feedback, and (a step further) celebration of even minor accomplishments help fan the flames of our egos and motivate our endeavours. However, there is a critical point - and I sense this from more established writers - where there develops a tension between the obligations of fellowship and conservation of creative energy. The point where dalliance to break the loneliness and isolation of being a writer becomes a test of altruism or virtuosity or generosity versus selfishness. Or perhaps the critical point is when "success" opens up a worldly pond (an Ocean?) of literary reviews, festivals, and a fan base, where attention now focuses on a follow-up publication leaving behind the Writing Group as an acknowledgement in the preface of the first?

The nub of my ambivalence is about aspiration. In turn, aspiration is about genre. My ambition is to write a successful novel. My declared writing aims for 2016 are already biting me in the bum. Is a writing group truly the best place to seek support for such a venture? Submission of chapters of a work in progress arguably is as risky as showing a partner. It is an intimate act of unveiling an unfinished part of the whole in which the wheat among the chaff may not be self-evident. Also, it is a 'big ask' to read and feedback on whole chapters rather than submit short pieces.

So far, I have found Writers Abroad very generous with their time. I have received constructive and useful feedback. But am I riding my luck and have I made best use of people's time? More important are there ways of making their valuable time more useful for me?

Regardless of advice to discard unhelpful suggestions or ideas, and despite putting on a 'brave face', feedback of any kind usually flattens me and calls for a darkened room, hot towels and Mozart. It takes me days to pick myself up, dust myself down, and a good dose of cognitive behaviour therapy to winnow the positive from the perceived negative, and to convince myself that I am 'a writer' who will find a reputable publisher for a novel. The implications of feedback on one of my current works are so dire that I am now engaged in an 8th re-draft converting from third to first person and cutting 27,000 words. Perhaps a lesson on being careful what I ask for! In swoops of despond I turn my hand to the occasional muse to rescue self-belief. But this is no substitute for a day's disciplined work. I have become shy of re-exposure. Nevertheless, I may ask for indulgence again at some time to look at a sample of a rewrite .

Or maybe not. Perhaps the trick is not to submit chapters but extracts where a problem or a difficulty is suspected, or openings and endings? What other focus possibilities are there? Dialogue ? Action scenes? Tension moments? Movement? Creation of atmosphere? Pace? Ideas for lightening up over descriptive passages? Good versus bad sex? Characterisation. Humour?

Key is not to waste people's valuable time and to make feedback manageable for as many people as possible. Might a forum for 'Novels in Progress' replace the 'Chapters Forum' in which those submitting work specify the focus or requirements? Would this help avoid the use of criteria more applicable to other genre such as the Short Story or Flash Fiction? If a whole chapter really requires feedback on shape, form, or content could it not be submitted as a longer piece as a work in progress?

Perhaps, to get the very best out of Writers Groups one should start by not being precious or taking oneself too seriously as writer. But I suspect that within all those who profess that their predominant urge to write is 'just for the fun of it ', there does lurks a serious writer, if not an entirely serious person. Are there statistics for Writers Groups that show a breakdown of the representation of professional writers, aspiring professionals, and 'just for the fun' of it enthusiasts and amateurs? It would surprise me if any serious research into one has been done, or even allowed, as it would be like an intrusion into a magic circle where dreams, fantasy, simple pleasure, and real success happily coexist (albeit with some occasional envy). In any case, what is the dividing line that makes a professional? Making a living from writing? Being published? Having qualifications? Reputation?

For sure, a Writing Group is not a comfort blanket for unrequited ambition, nor a stepping stone that guarantees progress. For me, at best it is an invaluable, supportive network that unlocks potential. To catch a glimpse of potential can make the difference between a good and a bad writing day. But what am I overlooking and what opportunities am I missing in a Writers Group that will help me get more out of it for writing a novel?

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