Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Writers' Circles: a Vital Part of a Writer's Life

Every week, I’m reminded how vital a writers’ circle is in the professional life of a writer.  Not only is it made up of a group of people who understand exactly what you’re going through, it’s made up of people who are ready, willing, and able to help you through the tough times—on the page and in your career.

I’m lucky enough to be a part of two writers’ circles: one at home, and one at school.  Both groups function differently, but are equally important.  My “home group” has six members who meet weekly, exchanging the latest chapter or short story via email.  At the meeting, we take turns reading the work we emailed out.  Reading aloud helps with flow, allowing you to catch phrasing that is awkward or finicky.  This is especially true if someone other than the author is reading.

After story time is finished, each attendee has the opportunity to ask questions about the overall concept of the chapter, how it fits into the novel, character development and so on.  She points out what she thought worked, and what tripped her up.  Finally, she comments on things like word choice, comma placements, confusing references, etc.

My “School group” is much smaller, consisting of only three people.  We send out between 15 and 30 pages each per meeting (single spaced!) then spend 1 hour per piece shredding the text.  This is a line-by-line analysis made up of comments like “you need a comma here;” “this sentence makes no sense;” “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do with this image;” “your formatting went wonky;” etc.  This kind of group is great for writers on the brink of sending work out to agents and publishers—it’s basically free editing.  The best part is, if you find the right group, you won’t be wasting your time with ego stroking.  My school group says “If there’re no comments, it’s good writing.”  There’s nothing worse for a writer who wants to be published than a friend who reads the book and says “I really liked it.”  That’s not constructive in any way (even if it does make you feel good).

Beyond the basic function of acting as a forum for writers’ to test their work and get suggestions for improvement, the writers’ circles act as support groups—cheering when a member gains accolades; commiserating when a contest is lost; sympathising when family members reduce efforts to “writing your stories again?;” and understanding the hardships of trying to make a career out of words while you try to make a living “in the real world.”  Many of my group members are parents, spouses, students, and employees.  Having that writers’ time once a week gives them the opportunity to develop as authors, not as moms or wives or workers.  I was reminded of this last function tonight, as I took a break from studying labour law (the exam is tomorrow) to attend at least a portion of my home group’s meeting.  Just being in a room with others who struggle to balance writing with work calmed me down, cleared my brain, and gave the information I’d been studying all day time to simmer into what I hope will prove to be a cohesive understanding of unions, unfair labour practices, and remedies by tomorrow.  I also received some great feedback on my newest short story—an offshoot of The Harper’s Word.  Thanks to the group member who slogged through the reading of all those wonderful vowel-less Welsh names! (Here’s just a sampling of the character names and titles she dealt with tonight: Pencerdd, Maeldderw, Annwfyn, Achren, Llwyfan, Cyoeraeth).  My father is Welsh, and even he struggles with them. 

But back to writers’ circles …

It’s important to note that not all writers’ groups are the same, and not every one will fit you or your style.  I have left writers’ circles in the past for a variety of reasons—including personality clashes; methods of critiquing that just didn’t work for me; and group members that refused to take criticism, insisting instead on wasting time by justifying their work in response to every comment.  Don’t feel like you have to pick a group and stick with it, because as vital as writers’ circles are, the wrong sort can be equally detrimental.  There have been times where I’ve walked out of a circle wondering why I bother putting fingers to keyboard—then I have a home group or school group meeting and remember why.  I am a writer, and my circles confirm that and improve both me and my work every time we meet.

If you already have a writers' circle, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean.  If you don't, and you are looking to improve, I highly recommend looking for a group to join.  Writers' communities, like the Writers' Community of Durham Region (WCDR), the Writers' Community of Sympcoe County (WCSC) and the Writers' Community of York Region (WCYR) typically have links to local circles on their webpages.  You can also try looking at your local library.

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