If it weren’t for my first writing group, I wouldn’t be a published author today. About eight years ago, I had just finished up my degree at Utah State University in English. I was on a high because I had done really well in my courses and it had spurred me to keep writing. Then a friend called and asked if I knew of any writing groups she could join. Well I didn’t know of any, so I suggested that we start a Paradise Group. She liked the idea. She asked a neighbor who hadn’t lived here long, but taught English at the university. I asked my good friend Kathy, whom I knew liked to write and we set the first meeting.
The first time was a little frightening. Reading and waiting for a response is intimidating, especially since someone in our group was a teacher at Utah State! Fortunately, we all clicked. At first we thought we’d meet twice a month, but for this group, some busy with young children, and Anne busy with teaching classes that was too often. So instead we rotated houses and met once a month. We always had something to eat—usually muffins and fruit, tea, or juice.
I began my first novel only I didn’t know it was a novel at all. It started with just two pages of a story, but when I hit eighty pages we all knew I was writing a novel. Every month my group gave me encouragement and said they couldn’t wait to hear more. Often I would wait until the day before group and continue my ongoing saga. That two page story evolved into a published novel, "A Question of Trust."
The other members of my group haven't published novels, but still have written some great stuff, all publishable. Julie usually writes uplifting essays about parenting, but occasionally surprises us with the gem of an emerging suspense or mystery. Each of Kathy’s stories ends with us wanting to hear more. Her imagery is rich, her writing flows, and her characters are endearing, but then the next month, she usually starts something new. Anne is the same way. I love her stories. They remind me of two of my favorite authors, Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Tyler. We have all become great friends, which means we need to allow a lot of time for our meeting. In truth even though it began as a writing group it has evolved into a support group and sometimes it’s time to go, we’ve talked from 10 AM, right through lunch and children are getting off the bus and then we hurry and read our pieces. Still if it weren’t for that wonderful group of women encouraging me, I sincerely doubt I would’ve ever gotten around to writing my books. We have include one more member, Jeannie, who is a much better writer than she gives herself credit for being. I always listen to her feedback.
My other group is a little more serious about the writing and business end of things. Right now there are three of us, all published authors. I feel it imperative that this group hears my story, because although we like each other, we have not evolved into a support group. And even though we are friends, they have no qualms about telling me where my writing sucks. Josi Kilpack is amazing at seeing plot holes and asking for motivations. Janet Jensen, whose book "Don't Marry the Mormon Boys" is coming out soon, is excellent at technicalities and giving ideas on enriching the story. Also she is really big on avoiding the passive voice. They both are looking at my story with the idea of being published, so the criticism is important. I have a habit of liking everything, so I try to look deeper when giving feedback. In this group, too, if we aren’t careful we talk too much and don’t allow enough time for feedback.
If you are at all interested in writing, I suggest you either join a group or start your own. If you start your own establish rules right from the start. Make the group a priority—in other words, schedule other appointments around it, not the writing group around your appointments. If needed set a time, and allow each writer substantial time to read and receive feedback. Let each person in the group talk. If someone in the group is shy about jumping in, it might be because they feel intimidated—ask them for their opinions. When giving feedback—always start and end with something you liked. Criticism doesn’t have to be critical. It can be, I liked this character because… and I would like to see more of … I was confused about … My favorite part was …
The writer must go home feeling good about their writing, but have specific things they feel they can improve on. Even after listening to the members, don’t always take their opinion over your own. Work on feedback while it’s fresh in your mind. Examine and then decide if they are right. If more than one person in the group says the same thing, it’s probably valid. However, sometimes people jump on the bandwagon and say something just because someone else does. That’s why for me having two groups is great. If members of both groups say the same criticism than I know I need to work on that.
I wouldn’t trade either group and I work hard to keep them both going and make them a priority. My groups are the highlight of my week. They've given me confidence and the desire to succeed. But most importantly for me, I have cherished friendships.