For a long time I’ve had a fear.
It’s not of clowns, chem trails, GMOs, or global warming. No, it’s much more pedestrian. Writing groups. Yes, yes, I know – I’m a writer. I need to be in a writing group, a gathering of likeminded individuals who can give my work the kind of intense, educated, impartial feedback that it needs. How am I supposed to call myself a professional if I can’t stand up to the sometimes brutal, unsparing scrutiny of my fellow wordsmiths? Because I’m sensitive, dammit!
But I have put myself out there. A lot.
My first and for many years best critiquer was also my best friend, Joe. She read every scribble, cheered my musings, gave me story ideas, fawned over my characters, and encouraged me to write on and on. Her enthusiasm did me endless good. But, she wouldn’t give me her real opinion about plot, characters, and story, and I craved that. Eventually we grew apart, and I sought other options.
My search led me to the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SFF) Workshop. This was in the olden days, when critique partners found each other via printed newsletter, and corresponded by exchanging letters. Through the postal system. On paper.
One of my critique partners was an incarcerated Indiana man – (the hubster didn’t much appreciate my correspondence with a jailbird but I figured Indiana was an awfully long ways away and the chances that he would appear on my doorstep wielding an axe were relatively small). Another was a Texas woman named Laura. Laura was a prolific writer who whipped out a dozen novels a year, all equally wretched. She had a similar opinion of my stumbling efforts. We continued shuttling manuscripts back and forth, scribbling in the margins with red pens, for a couple of years, but we had such a fundamental disconnect that our correspondence petered out.
I read writing books, attended writing classes, sat eagerly through writing conferences. At one conference the esteemed editor Ginjer Buchanan savaged my work and that of a writer by the name of Janet. Janet and I struck up a long friendship that included exchanging manuscripts and bemoaning our lack of progress with publishing. Dutifully, I submitted my work to agents and publishers, and got rejected, ignored, and discouraged. While my prose did improve due to sustained effort, writing began to come harder and harder for me.
Writers tend to cling together like frightened baby pandas, and I am no different. I still wanted a good writing group. I met a number of talented women writers who relayed horrifying anecdotes about their experiences in writing groups: people who disliked genre work, who pooh-poohed self publishing, or who out and out told participants that they were doing it all wrong. All of it. Wrong.
I fell into disillusionment after that, and soon into debauchery. I began writing fanfic. No, I won’t give you the username under which you will find this, nor I will admit the percentage of pornographic work I created, except to say that it is in the low mumble mumbles. Writing fanfic had certain benefits that went beyond payment: community, enthusiastic acceptance, and just plain fun. I slowly regained my love of writing and began working on original fiction projects again.
I decided at this point, in a fit of menopausal joie de vivre, to join not one, but two critique groups. One group was filled with knowledgeable writers in my genre. Although I met some amazing fellow writers, I craved more specific feedback on story structure, on whether the story really worked as a complete, effective, satisfying unit. The many hours of effort it took to reciprocate soon became burdensome, and I dropped out.
The other critique group was SHEG.
From the beginning, SHEG was different. For one thing, everyone sort of knew one another. Anne knew me through social media, and she explained, with infectious enthusiasm, how the works of Larry Brooks and Shawn Coyne on story structure were fundamental to success as a storyteller, and we could figure out how to apply these principles together. Sue and Anne, the SHEG founders, knew each other from a former job. Sue invited her freelance writing colleague John. This group of four proved ideal: at our biweekly 2-hour meetings each of us has 30 minutes to discuss our project, brainstorm story ideas, and identify roadblocks.
What I’ve found in SHEG is an open, engaging spirit, a willingness to learn, grow, and experiment as writers. By parsing the inciting incidents, plot points, and climaxes of the novel format, we help one another internalize and consciously use timeless storytelling techniques. Everyone in SHEG really cares about helping each other craft the best possible stories. As in other writing groups, SHEGGERS read one another’s submissions and give feedback, yes, but we go way beyond that by discussing the obstacles we’re encountering, the inevitable trip ups, the “does what I’m trying to do here work?” questions.
We share motivational writing books, ideas, and encouragement between meetings as well. One tool we’ve found effective is the writing sprint. We agree on a start time and write for thirty minutes, uninterrupted and focused. Knowing that others are writing along with me makes it a powerful, productive exercise. Every time we do a sprint I find myself cranking out the words and tackling revisions.
SHEG’s model is not set in stone. Though we have our meeting format and our manifesto, members are open to new resources and new ideas. We all have different means of internalizing writing techniques, and different approaches to story creation, and we all respect each other’s ways.
It is profoundly motivating to know that every other week I need to turn something in to the group to read. Committing to take concrete action on my work by the next meeting has helped me build a steadier writing habit than anything I’ve tried before. I’m making consistent progress, and am finally getting a handle on the elements necessary to do fiction “right.” What’s more, I have a group of trusted allies who will honestly and supportively share with me what is working and what isn’t. And it feels really good.
Years ago, a friend told me about her search for a mate. She hadn’t succeeded in that search until she was in her 50’s, after many years of dating. Her assessment of that search has stayed with me. She said, “Once you find the perfect one, all the others are just a waste of time.”
Turns out that’s true for writing groups as well.
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