Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
Everyone who wants to write also wants to join a writing group—or at least they should. You see, if you take a class, you’ll get feedback from only one experienced person (the teacher) and a whole bunch of people with the same limited experience that you have. If you join a group, everyone will have experience, everyone is prepared to give and receive feedback, and your work will improve exponentially.Here’s how it works. Each person submits something. There might be a schedule, like perhaps only one person submits at a time if the group is looking at longer works. Or perhaps, like the group I’m in, everyone submits a limited amount, perhaps a chapter’s worth, every month, and one person is the designated contributor. That means that the designated contributor (we call it “the des”) gets his work read first, so no matter what, they get feedback. We read everyone else’s work in the order in which it was received. Let’s visit, shall we?The group I’m in has existed for about 20 years. We have one member who’s been in it for most of that time, and the rest of us have been in for 10 or fewer. I’ve been in for about three years. There are currently five of us, but last summer, we were eight. People come and go.We meet once a month, on the fourth Tuesday. We call ourselves the FWG for Famous Writers Group because someone back when was optimistic, but it has evolved to stand for Fourth Week Group. We meet at someone’s house. The location rotates. Two of us have extreme locations, being the furthest afield (about 60 miles distant), so we tend to circulate around the others in the middle. We occasionally meet on a weekend at the extreme locations, and we have met at workplaces that had nice cafeterias and restaurants with a quiet room for us. Someone, not the des and not usually the host, is assigned to bring the meal. Some people cook, others stop at nice little ethnic restaurants. I have odd eating habits, so I always bring a salad so I can be sure of eating something. People bring wine or cookies, if they are inclined. The cost of the meal is spread among the attendees. It’s usually around $10 a person for our crowd, sometimes less, sometimes more.While we eat, we have “writers’ week” which is really writers’ month, where we talk about what we’ve been working on since we last met. Sometimes this blossoms into vacation vignettes or diatribes against a phone carrier, but it’s always fun. We start with the host and go around the table clockwise. We are at very different stages this month—one is shopping his finished novel to agents, several worked on chapters for something ongoing, and one (he knows who he is) worked only on his NTE (more about that in a moment). Once the meal is eaten and the table cleared, we get down to work. One person agrees to moderate each piece, which means forbidding the writer to speak in response to a comment, and asking the group the questions that lead the discussion forward.What is it? For new pieces, to determine whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, short story, memoir, etc., and to synopsize the plot. For continuing pieces, we skip this.Read sentences or phrases that stand out. We shout out bits that we’ve marked for this purpose. We often all shout out the same things.What works? We talk about voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, and length, anything that’s positive about what we’ve read.What needs work? We talk about anything that stumped us, made us curious, that didn’t match something we’d read already, and voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, length, etc.We first work through the des’ work, then the rest of the submissions in the order they were received. We rarely run out of time before we’re through all of them, but it has been known to happen. This is the really important part of the meeting, and I will discuss preparing for it further in a moment.When we’ve made it through the submissions, our host puts on tea or coffee and dessert is served. During dessert, we have a reading of NTEs.NTEs are Not to Exceeds, which means that they are not to exceed a single page and they are not submitted in advance. They must contain a phrase selected at the previous meeting. We use to get the phrases from a large stack of defunct business cards onto which someone had copied poetic expressions, but these disappeared when one of our members disappeared without a word. We refer to him often as mythical (half of the current group has never met him at this point) and invoke his name if someone has wandered off the path. He is the mythical disciplinarian if we get off topic or too rambunctious. I don’t remember him actually being particularly stern, but at this point he’s fictional anyway and can’t defend himself.At any rate, now we use a book of poetry, opened at random, and someone blindly points to a line. That line becomes the phrase that needs to be included. Not everyone contributes an NTE, but if you didn’t have a longer submission, you can contribute one of these and keep your status as a “working” writer. After the NTEs are read, we clean up and the evening is over. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It is. If you’re writing historical fiction, as I am, it’s a great testing ground to see if people can follow along to 900 years ago without launching into a classroom lecture. I learn more about misconceptions and assumptions from this group than I can get on my own, because I’ve spent so long steeped in the middle ages. It works for mystery, fantasy, tour guide, and literary writers too. Preparing for the MeetingSubmissions are sent as attachments to emails. We are expected to send a “got it!” response, and sometimes there are formatting issues to iron out. The submissions can arrive anytime from immediately following the meeting to the weekend prior to the next meeting.We are expected to know things like proper formatting for the type of work we submit (it’s different for non-fiction and fiction books, different again for contest and magazine submissions, and different again for cover letters and synopses.) Pretty much anything is fair game for a submission, including cover letters and such, and one of our number has occasionally woven together several of his NTEs. No one is obligated to submit each month, and those who have just completed a long haul (first or second drafts, or publication, for instance) don’t need to feel obligated to submit anything, as long as they contribute feedback. Reviewing the work is the core point of the gathering. It usually takes more than one pass to give each submission a good review. I mark the passages that I like as I go, do line edits because I can’t help myself, and make marginal comments in my nearly illegible purple pen. Some people do these things on the computer, some do one pass on the computer and another by hand. Some people write up separate comments and notes, others write on the back of the last page.