Thursday, March 23, 2006

PH: Small Group Success for Writers

Jesus taught us the power of small groups. He started a love revolution with His first little band of brothers. I am privileged to lead women’s small groups at my church. While I came to the Lord at one of those old fashioned altars, (yes, I know that dates me) I finally found my steady plane of faith when I joined a small group. No more up and down faith or Lone Ranger Christianity. I finally knew that I was headed in the right direction spiritually after a year of immersion under the gracious care of my first small group study. And then, thankfully, better yet, gratefully, I still carry fond memories for my first small writer’s group. In the same way that small study groups got me on the right path biblically speaking, my early writer’s group provided those same advantages for my writer’s craft. I have to say that my writer’s group helped me find publication in record speed.

I’ve seen writer’s groups come and go. While attending residencies, I’ve eavesdropped and
gathered up information about those groups that have died on the vine. Even published writers benefit from a good group. But I’d suffice it to say that there are measures your group needs to take to keep the meetings fresh.

Here are some guidelines that should help you to take the pulse of your group, or be of some assistance if you’re thinking of starting a critique group:

• A strong moderator will help keep the group on course and not allow the discussion to get bogged down in personal problems, recipe swapping, or dog talk. There’s plenty of time for those topics at the bridge club. A writer has to learn to treat his/her work like a business, so getting right to the topic of writing is paramount.

• Do begin with a brief talk on a subject relevant to writing fiction. It could be a ten minute talk on plotting or a discussion on how to develop believable characters. There are many how-to books available providing you with years of topics. I would try and teach only one new thing, two at the most, per meeting. With many writing topics, you will need to spread out the topic over several weeks.

• When critiquing, encourage members to deliver the news in the manner they would like it delivered to them. At the same time, honesty is going to help each writer cut through the haze and find clarity. Starting with a brief summary of what you think the member’s story is about throws light into those dark, uncertain corners. I’ve often heard a writer say, “I had no idea that was what you would get out of my story. That was not my intent at all.” And then they would return with a revision that was more on target with their aims. Pointing out what is strong about the manuscript at the beginning and end of the critique helps the writer to feel that their writing is not a complete washout. When you deliver the harder “middle” news, they’ve been given a lifeline of hope already. While marking up the manuscript for the writer is highly recommended, kindly use a gentler color of ink. Red is so, well, you remember when grade school teachers did that, I’m sure.

• While you may not have a published author living in your area who can come and visit your group for a Q&A, remember that there are many authors who are providing live chats online in cyberspace. A couple of times a year, I accept the call for Q&A’s and topical workshops online. For book clubs, if they want to set up a time for a live discussion, I can sometimes work that out too. They put me on the speaker phone. It’s much cheaper than providing accommodations for the author. I give a brief topical chat based on the group’s interest in fiction, and then there’s a Q&A. When you invite your group to come together online or visit with an author through a live phone chat, it could pump a fresh well of thought into your meetings as well as giving the leader a break.

• In my state, there are writer’s havens where you can attend book festivals, conferences, even go on writer’s sabbaticals. By checking those out for your group, you could arrange field trips that will refresh you as a group. At most writers’s conferences you will also meet publishing experts and agents. Teaching your group to network and to build a healthy relationship with published folk will help them to feel closer to the industry rather than isolated. You want your group to be a “freeing agent.” Your goal is to see each member find publication.

• A word of caution regarding choosing the group you will join. Your moderator should be making every effort to find publication and to make inroads with improving her craft. If your group leader seems to be in a recycling mode with information, or spends too much time promoting herself, then it could be she is using your group to gain kudos instead of honest critique.

I always feel a little wounded at the end of a good critique. It’s not so bad once you embrace the inevitable. Then I go back and do the job of real writing and that is revision. A healthy writer’s group will major on revision and progress.

If you have found or founded a critique group in your town and want to crow, please feel free to share the news. I recently found a couple of resources, but recommend you carefully research your group before joining:

Patricia Hickman admittedly bleeds on a regular basis through critique. She will hold a writer’s craft workshop online June 9 at


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