If you’ve been in a writing group, you know how valuable it is to have a community of writerly peers to debate craft with, to vent with about rejection and rejoice with over triumphs, large and small.
But what if, beyond feeling like family and supporting you through your next round of revisions, your writing group was powerful? So powerful, in fact, that the manuscripts emerging from it regularly went on to land major publishing deals and launch the type of literary careers most of us only dream of?
It may sound too good to be true. But in the Boston area, a cluster of modest, hard-working novelists formed a writing group back in 2012 that has played a key role in catapulting authors including Celeste Ng, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich and Grace Talusan into the literary limelight. And under the deceptively unassuming name “the Chunky Monkeys,” this writing group on steroids has just recently seen 3 of its members simultaneously achieve stunning — almost unheard of — success:
- Sonya Larson’s story “Gabe Dove” was published in Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Short Stories 2017 .
- The debut novel The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer sold to Little, Brown in late September, in a highly buzzed-about, 7-figure deal that followed an intense bidding war and was covered by Entertainment Weekly and the Boston Globe.
- Chip Cheek‘s debut novel, Cape May, sold in another major deal – pre-emptive – to Celadon Books in the new Macmillan imprint’s first acquisition.
Not to mention the ongoing accomplishments of other “Chunks:”
- Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, came out this past September and debuted at #7 on the NY Times bestseller list. Celeste’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, topped Amazon’s Best Books of the Year list for 2014.
- Grace Talusan’s debut essay collection, The Body Papers, won the 2017 Resless Books competition and will be published in the fall of 2018.
- Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s memoir, The Fact of a Body, came out in May 2017 to much acclaim, including by the New York Times.
Let’s take a moment just to say: Wow.
While such a feat may seem completely unfathomable, the secret behind this concentration of rare literary accomplishments is something that should be pretty intuitive to WU-ers:
Departing from the pervasive image of the irascible, shut-in author type, these authors all attribute their accomplishments to involvement with…each other.
I had a chance to talk about this with a few of the Chunks last month. It turns out that the group started off much like any other writing group. The members had hardly any accolades back then. The thought of starting– much less finishing or selling — a book seemed like a far-off dream to most of the group’s members. Over bags of off-brand Cheetos from CVS, they toiled together with no sense of competition or navel-gazing; just a desire to bring one’s “A-game” as an artist. They respected one another’s artistic talent, rigor, and commitment to hard work.
As Sonya Larson told me:
The great power of the Chunks is members’ genuine desire to help one another throughout their projects and careers — through the highest high’s of snagging a book deal or winning some cool award, but also through the lowest lows of struggling to sell a book, or nail a point of view, or resurrect a lifeless essay.
A writer’s life has so few wins, and it’s been essential to have the Chunks buoy one another in those winless spans. They’ve helped me “get real” with myself, game-plan a project, and discuss craft in a very exquisite and soulful way. We hold each other to very high standards, and that seems to be paying off. We started keeping a spreadsheet of “Yayable Things” that were happening for us a couple years ago, and then we just stopped because there were too damn many. They include huge book deals, NEA awards, major fellowships, appearances on Seth Myers, cold-calls from The New Yorker. The list also includes important news of our personal lives– the Chunks having babies, changing jobs, moving, undergoing surgery and illness and loss. We babysit one another’s kids and do each other’s laundry when we’re sick. We are writers, yes, but always friends first. And that, to me, is the special sauce.
Of course, there is a little more to the Chunks’ superpowers than meets the eye: most of the members hold MFAs, and all are actively involved with GrubStreet, the largest independent creative writing center in the U.S., based in Boston — as instructors, staff members, even students in the occasional workshop or class.
Although all of this may seem a bit inaccessible to to the masses, there’s a lot we can all learn from the Chunks’ model, and many ways to put some of those lessons to use powering up our own writing groups. Here’s my take:
Seek a broader writing community and get involved
Some of the best writing groups emerge from relationships forged in classes, workshops and seminars. You don’t have to live in Boston; there are writers organizations across the country, and many, like GrubStreet and Sackett Street Writers in New York, offer classes online.
Hold each other to high standards
It might be tempting to dish out praise and compliments while keeping your honest critiques to yourself, but doing so will not help your peers — just as hearing only positive feedback won’t help you. Balance comments about what you liked in a writing sample with constructive criticism. If this exercise is new to you, taking classes or workshops will help you learn how to communicate effectively about the craft of writing.
Try to include a few agented or published authors
Published or agented writers bring a valuable publishing industry perspective to the table, along with experience giving and receiving feedback to share. Writing classes and workshops are a great place to meet them.
Invite published authors to give guest talks and critique sessions
Can’t seem to get a published or agented writer to join your group? Invite an author to join you as a guest instead every now and then. A local author with a new book out would surely be thrilled to stop by your group, talk about his or her latest title and offer comments on some pages sent over in advance by one or more members of your group. Repeat a couple of times a year. The same thing can also be done remotely with authors anywhere, by google hangouts or Skype.
Share feedback from professional manuscript consultations
Plenty of organizations, including GrubStreet, offer manuscript consultations with published authors for a reasonable fee. Encourage the members of your group to get manuscript consultations from time to time then to share the feedback with all.
Approach your writer’s group with the same level of commitment you’d give to any other serious, long-term endeavor such as grad school, or a job. It may be fun and entertaining to go, but that doesn’t mean you should see it as something you can turn on and off like the TV. Create and stick to a regular schedule. Show up for every session. Go home and work those pages. Give it your all. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Are you in a writing group? What’s its special sauce?