Writing is, by its nature, a solitary occupation. Gone are the days of the impoverished poet sharing a garret only with the muse and starvation. But there are plenty of us writers huddled in a corner with a cup of coffee and a laptop/tablet/other device, struggling to get some good words down before real life in whatever form – day job, children, animals – intervenes, making progress impossible. We are for the most part individuals working separately. Sometimes we relish the freedom isolation brings, the quiet uninterrupted time in which to focus on our work in progress. Sometimes we feel very much alone, and not in a good way – into that loneliness can creep a crippling self-doubt. Is my work complete rubbish? Can I ever finish this project? Why am I even doing this?
There’s the internet, of course. Peer groups abound there, some useful, some less so. Our own Writer Unboxed Facebook page is one of the good ones. Trouble is, going online while trying to get words on the page can be self-defeating. You check a couple of good posts on WU. Then you see a cute cat video. Then you just have to find out the football scores, and then you spot a message that needs a reply, and then someone knocks on the door and your writing time is over. And you’ve achieved 200 words instead of the 1000 you were aiming for.
I’ve been a published writer for 17 years now, and a career writer for about 14, since I packed in the day job. I guess my peer group was out there all that time, but for most of those years I didn’t link up with it. That was my loss. There are so many good things we, as writers, can do for each other, but we may fear joining groups for all sorts of reasons:
- I’m a genre writer / an unpublished writer / a self-published writer – mainstream writers will look down their noses at me. OR, I’m a well-established professional – this would be a waste of my time.
To the first: if they do, that’s their loss. Find peers with whom you can be mutually respectful. There is no need for everyone to be at a similar level of experience (unless it’s an advanced critique group.) There’s no need for everyone to be following a particular path to publication.
To the second: A little humility wouldn’t go amiss. Writing is a life-long journey. We can always get better. Also, maybe you can help them.
- Meeting up with my peer group will eat away at the writing time I guard so fiercely.
Why not meet up to write together? More on that later. Also, critiquing each other’s work or discussing books and writing will help you hone your craft. Even if you meet purely to socialise, you’re likely to end up talking writing.
- I live too far away / can’t get to meetings
Consider starting a writers’ group in your local community. Investigate online options, but be careful – online groups are many and varied. Consider what you want from the group. Is it friendship, a broad discussion of books and writing, or critique (gentle or rigorous?) Consider what the group expects from you, eg a certain number of critiques given in a certain time frame.
- I have a genuine terror of crowds / groups / social interaction
The online group is probably your best choice. On the other hand, a small, friendly group that meets not far from where you live might be possible for you. And beneficial.
- I don’t understand fantasy/science fiction/romance/crime/literary fiction/insert other genre here, so how can I discuss or critique it?
It may be time you broadened your reading material. Joining a group and chatting to other writers can help with that. Cross-genre groups can work brilliantly provided members are open-minded.
Peer groups for writers can take as many forms as the members choose to give them. They certainly don’t all include critiquing. Writer Unboxed is a peer group. Critique groups usually are peer groups. There can be groups of fans or groups with a specialised field of interest.
I chose this topic to write about because I’ve recently joined a peer group formed for the express purpose of getting words down on the page. It’s a face to face group started by a local writer, and most members are writers of fantasy, science fiction or horror, mainly because genre writers know other genre writers and that is how word spreads. Numbers quickly rose from 4 to over 40. There are mainstream-published, small press-published, self-published and unpublished writers in the group. We meet on a Saturday once a fortnight at a large library, where we have a quick coffee then head into the library space to write in silence for three hours. At the end we have another coffee and debrief.
It is astonishing how these simply organised sessions help with focus. The presence of so many hard-working colleagues close by makes it essential to use the time well – nothing worse than your peers looking over your shoulder and discovering you are playing Plants vs Zombies or watching animal rescue videos. Some people choose to share their word count for the session, but that’s not compulsory. The group communicates via a closed Facebook page, and if new writers want to join they ask for an invitation. It’s simple but effective.
Joining a professional body such as RWA (Romance Writers of America, Romance Writers of Australia), or SFWA (you can guess that one) or SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) can help you find your peer group. In the case of the romance writers’ organisations, you will find a very strong network of sub-groups and a highly supportive and accepting ethos. SCBWI is an international organisation that provides excellent opportunities for networking with like minds.
On a smaller scale, you might organise a writing weekend with a few friends, if you can get away. A holiday house, country walks, some solid blocks of writing and a couple of bottles of wine afterwards … What could be better?
How does your peer group help you?