Hi. Barb here. Still recuperating from knee replacement surgery, but doing better, thanks.
I just looked back at 5 years worth of my posts on this blog (which is an interesting journey in and of itself) and was astonished to confirm that in all that time, I have never written about my writers group. I’ve referenced them in passing, but never talked about the group specifically.
I can’t believe it. Because there is no question I would not be here, a published author, an editor and publisher, a Maine Crime Writer, without them.
There are now five of us and we’ve been together, in one form or another, for twenty years. It all started in a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. It was an advanced mystery-writing course taught by Barbara Shapiro, author of the The Art Forger. (Her new novel, The Muralist, will be out next month.) Barbara is a fantastic teacher. She taught me things about scene cards and scaffolding that first draft that I use to this day. But in addition to teaching technique, Barbara taught us how to workshop–how to read others’ work carefully, how to critique and how to be critiqued. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
Several of us in the class decided we wanted to continue workshopping our mystery novels–and that it was impractical to pay the Cambridge Center for the privilege. So we formed a writers group. Not one of us had more than a few chapters of our first mystery written. Mark Ammons, Leslie Wheeler and I were in that core group, along with Marge Leibenstein. A year or so later, I was walking in Harvard Square and ran into Kat Fast. She and I had been work colleagues and we had one of those “what are you doing?” “what are you doing?” conversations. When I mentioned I was writing a mystery, Kat’s face lit up. So was she! She became the next to join us. Cheryl Marceau joined several years after that.
Writer’s groups have lots of different formats. Ours continues to be the one we learned from Barbara. One to three people are “up” for the week (depending on number of pages). If you are up, you email your pages out by Saturday evening. Everyone shows up for the meeting on Thursday having read and made extensive notes on the work.
Each reader gives feedback in turn. In the early years when we were learning to trust one another, we followed the rule about mentioning the things we liked first. In our later years we are more apt to get straight down to it. The person being critiqued remains quiet, taking notes. They have a chance to ask questions at the end.
Each of us has different strengths.
Mark teaches drama to acting students at the Boston Conservatory. He knows more about dramatic structure than I could ever hope to. (Six books in and I feel like I’m just beginning to internalize it.) He’s also incredibly visual, which is helpful for those of us who are not, both in making our scenes more vivid and more accurate.
Leslie has the memory of an elephant. She will say, “I don’t like this as much as I liked your approach to this scene in your 42nd draft two years ago.” And you are thinking, “What approach to this scene? Was I actually working on this story two years ago?” And she will be right, every time.
Cheryl is that most cherished of people, an intelligent reader. She will tell you when you are hitting her over the head with something or cluttering your story up with information she doesn’t need. On the flip side, when she says, “I don’t get this,” pay attention. This is particularly valuable to me because I tend to underwrite in early drafts.
Kat is an amazing editor. My Level Best stories always start out as first drafts of 7000 or more words. Working on my own, I can usually get them down to 5500. Then I give them to Kat who takes out the last 500. I usually find a way to add back in two or three. Out of 500. The rest are never missed.
Of course, after all this time, we also know each others’ foibles. Kat doesn’t have a TV and is somehow immune to all print and cyber celebrity news and gossip. When she says, “I don’t know who this Kim Kardashian is. Should you explain?” I know to ignore her.
Others have come and gone. Sadly, Marge died in 2001. I still miss her. Some members have moved away geographically (sniff, sniff, Gin Mackey) while others decided fiction writing wasn’t central to their lives. And we’ve had to fire a few. The most common reasons for firing were people who didn’t actually want critiquing, just to be told how great their writing is; people who were all about themselves, expecting detailed critiques, but not putting the work in for others; and people who just didn’t write. This is a problem, especially early on when building a trust relationship. You can’t critique other people week after week and never put yourself on the line.
How did this wonderful group of people keep me writing? Aside from all the things I learned from critiquing their work and being critiqued by them, I knew writing was the price of admission. If I wanted to keep seeing these people who had come to mean so much to me, I had to keep writing. So I did. Even when the job was busy. Even when the teenagers were demanding. Even when my first agent dropped me and I wanted to crawl into a hole. I kept writing because it was the price of admission.
Not every writer finds a writers group helpful, but this writer did. Invaluable, in fact.
Amazing. It’s hard find a writing group that clicks, let alone one that lasts more than a couple of years.
I’ve found a few that have been over the years. There’s nothing so daunting as sharing work that isn’t finished. Yet the only way to make it suitable for others to read is to get feedback.
I don’t always follow all the advice I get, but the reactions from my writing group help me fix the worst of the warts on my work.
I agree, Michelle. I find sharing work I know needs improvement the most daunting thing of all. I also know if I don’t find the issues I’m not seeing early, it will be much harder to tear apart a tightly constructed, “finished” piece. So I do it, but reluctantly.
This is an impressive group and an impressive story, Barb. Congratulations to all of you for finding an interpersonal partnership that benefits and serves everyone for such a long period of time.
Thanks, Brenda. I am very grateful.
Found this post on Facebook and popped over here. It is wonderful to have such a strong group of writers to help each other. I’ve been in a few critique groups but they did not have the longevity nor the variety of strengths. I’m envious! Of course, I am also shy about sharing my work. Need to get over that. Looking forward to checking out your books and viewing more posts here. Great site.
Yes, I agree, Barbara. It is so hard to share your work. But eventually, you’re sharing with everybody, so best to square your shoulders and get it over early.
What an uplifting post! You remind me how valuable my writers’ group is, not just for feedback, but for the sense that I’m part of a community of readers and writers.
I have noticed something about feedback I’d like to share. My writers’ group has met for more than a decade and includes both experienced writers and beginners. We have learned that one kind of feedback a member of any skill level can make is the way a piece hits her as reader. When someone says a passage delighted her, or something else took her out of the story, that is a solid fact, even if the member doesn’t have enough skill to propose a diagnosis or fix that makes sense to the writer. In our critiques we try to avoid acting as literary judges, grading and evaluating a piece, and the result is a more respectful, and I think, useful form of encouragement.
So true, David. One thing I always say is, “Pay close attention to the identification of problems. Be much more wary of the suggested solutions.”
Often I find I solve the problems in a completely different way. It’s knowing about them that’s important.
There’s also a skill in knowing what kind of feedback people need on a first draft–or a fifth, because it’s often quite different.