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A Writing Group that Works

By Mary Constance, Flickr CC

Please welcome guest Judy Fogarty [1] who lives, writes, reads, and runs on the historic Isle of Hope in her native Savannah, Georgia. She holds a Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance and Literature from the University of Illinois and has served as marketing director for private golf and tennis communities in the Savannah/Hilton Head area, including The Landings on Skidaway Island, Berkeley Hall, and Callawassie Island. She is a devoted—even rowdy—tennis fan, as anyone who has had the pleasure—or displeasure—of watching a professional match with her will attest. Breaking and Holding  [2]is Judy’s debut novel. She is happily at work on her second, enjoying as always the invaluable support of her husband, Mike, and children, Colin and Sara Jane. 

Breaking and Holding traveled a long, tedious road to publication with too many revisions and disappointments to count. The novel wouldn’t be in print today were it not for the wisdom, encouragement, and camaraderie of my writing group, The Savannah Scribes. Every serious writer deserves the same kind of unfailing support, and I’d love to help others find it.

Connect with Judy on Twitter [3] and on Facebook [4].

A Writing Group that Works

One writing group. Four years together. Six women working in different genres. And since August 2016: three novels sold (two already published and the third scheduled for June); a non-fiction book deal signed with a major university press; an extensive essay published; and a memoir currently in submission to agents.

What factors have contributed to the success of the Savannah Scribes? Perhaps it’s one of our mascots: Penny Lane, a Pomeranian; Gussie, a Boston Terrier; or even Gus, a pig. Perhaps it’s brain-food: the homemade chicken and dumplings we love. Maybe it’s the mornings after our meetings and the emails we write, in which we sound like we’re gushing but are totally sincere in thanking each other for wisdom and feedback.

Though all of those are possibilities, here are a dozen other criteria that you may find helpful in sustaining, improving or establishing a writing group.

  1. A writing group works when its members work—hard! Find writers who share your level of commitment and will put as much time and effort into reading your submissions as they put into writing their own. In our group, we read and reread submissions many times prior to our meetings, provide summary comments as well as particulars in the margins, and try to give the kind of substantive feedback we ourselves hope to receive.
  2. Attendance arises from commitment, and meetings should be sacrosanct. Writers in our group don’t miss without reason. In fact once, when traveling, one of us participated in a meeting by Facetime. We placed a cell phone upright in a wine glass and slid it around our table, allowing her to see and be seen by all. While vacationing, others have emailed comments from Maine and even India.
  3. Start small, maybe as small as two or three. Expanding is easy but reducing a group can be painful. Decide how often you want to submit, how many hours you can devote to critiquing, and how long it will take your group to individually present feedback. The Savannah Scribes started with six members, and we have stayed at six. We begin our meetings with dinner at 6:00 p.m. and quickly move on to the evening’s two submissions, each of which may be as long as 40 pages of fiction or as short as a magazine article, newspaper op-ed or query letter. By the time we go around the table with comments, it’s usually 9:30 or 10:00. If we had ten members, we’d be there all night.
  4. Schedule. Choose a time and day of the week for meetings and the optimal frequency for getting together. Set your dates in stone—or something close to it—and stick to the schedule, even when all can’t be present. Our group meets biweekly, on Wednesday nights, with submissions due the Friday before.
  5. Gourmet Club, Happy Hour, or Writing Group. Make your group meetings more businesslike than social. “We are not a dinner club,” my fellow Scribes are fond of saying. Though we do eat, there’s no pressure for a writer to be a stellar hostess when our rotating schedule bring us to her house. True, we savor those chicken and dumplings but are just as happy with take-outs on paper plates. Alcohol? Abstain. Your responsibility to the creative process is too great for even slightly fuzzy thoughts or communication. For the Savannah Scribes, no wine, no beer and no cocktails at meetings, but we can flat knock out the Pellegrino. Four to five bottles a session is our norm.
  6. Adopt a procedure for meetings and maintain it. Standard workshopping requires the submitting writer to become a listener, answering initial clarifying questions but otherwise remaining silent until all readers have given feedback. Then the writer has the floor to ask questions, explain what he or she was trying to accomplish, and ask for ideas. When submitting, many in my group record discussions on their iPhones for playback later at home if needed.
  7. From overarching matters of structure or plot, to character development, style and nitty-gritty line-edits, provide as much input as you can in the method that suits you. Some in my group use track changes; others print hard copies, handwrite notes, and highlight lines and paragraphs with bright colors usually reserved for coloring books. Be honest in your feedback—completely honest but never brutally so. Don’t make critiques personal and don’t take them personally either. More than once I’ve left a meeting disappointed but never devastated, and without fail, a bit of morning-after reflection has shown me the wisdom in the recommendations I received. I’ve also left meetings so exhilarated by feedback, that I wanted to go to work instead of to sleep. On one occasion, a group member even suggested a line of dialogue that made its way into my novel and remains one of my favorites.
  8. Value the Differences. Don’t expect the same comments or even the same type of comments from everyone. You’ll be disappointed. Writers are individuals who work differently and see things differently. Each has his or her own strengths, and that’s the beauty of having others you trust evaluate your work. I myself am usually in the weeds, marveling at those who can read the same submission and take a 30,000-foot view. I learn as much from the comments given to other writers as from comments given to me.
  9. Apart from the procedures already mentioned, I’d suggest one rule: Never apologize for your work. For us, shitty first drafts are as acceptable as final ones. Apologies are not only unacceptable, they’re outlawed. We’re writers. We all struggle. We all understand.
  10. Though nonessential, retreats are worth a try. They can be enjoyable and productive, as the Scribes learned while spending a weekend at the beach. Had you walked into our cottage you would not have guessed that six women were staying there. Instead of chatter, you would have heard only the busy clicking of fingers on keyboards all day long.
  11. Writing, Submitting, Marketing. The creative, right-brained writing process is one thing. Submitting to agents is another, and marketing your published work and brand is yet a third. Chances are you’ll discover within your group a social media or public relations guru, or an experienced blogger or website copywriter. Use your resources and share your personal expertise and the lessons you’ve learned in all aspects of the business of writing.
  12. Finding a Group. A creative writing course may be the best place to start. Through a series of classes and workshopping experiences, you’ll be able to learn much about a fellow student’s ability to write, to give and receive feedback, and his or her devotion to the craft. Conferences and recommendations from other writers also provide opportunities for putting together or enhancing a group.

I can’t close without a word about friendship. Though not necessary in a successful group, for the Savannah Scribes, friendship has become an asset. We may see each other socially on occasion, but for the most part, our bond is a Wednesday-night phenomenon. Over four years, we’ve faced down many of life’s challenges together. We’ve listened, encouraged, and consoled one another, celebrated and laughed a lot too. Though we’re not a gourmet club, the dinner hour at the beginning of each meeting has given us a relationship outside of our manuscript pages. It’s meaningful time. We love it, but we never hesitate to bring it to a close, take out our laptops and edited pages, and get to work.

Are you part of a writing group? What makes yours work—and what tips can you offer?