Monday, 31 August 2015


In September, the year’s rhythm changes. The summer’s visits and visitors have gone. In their place comes that urgent need to get that work-in-progress not only progressed but blooming well finished! Yet, even as you slide into blissful solitude, alone with your screen or notebook, that dreadful anxiety starts to bite and you find yourself needing what Anne of Green Gables called a kindred spirit.

There’s a special value in friends who don’t see writing as a glam & easy task, who don’t consider you obsessive when you’re maunder about your work and who might even be able to help with some of your writing problems. So, pondering on writerly support, I started asking around about the different ways to find such help.

For a start, I expect there’s a Writer’s Circle near you. I was once involved in a local group and now sometimes speak at such gatherings. Each group will have its own energy, ethos, ambience and range of members and if these combine to offer what you want, that’s great.  Many run to a traditional format: a programme of talks, workshops, competitions & adjudications, with regular manuscript evenings in between. Such evenings can be interesting and sociable but, in my experience, this busy pattern doesn’t quite suit a focus on longer fiction. I’ve also met rather mixed responses to writing for children & young people and to being published, but maybe that was me. Even so, with patience, you might find a kindred spirit or two there and can meet up quietly in your own time.  I still have a couple of good friends and now and again we do just that.

Or there’s a “Writing Practice” Group. The variant I’ve heard about is probably invaluable for providing motivation and keeping you writing in low or fallow times. Such groups meet monthly, weekly or whatever suits them. How do they work? One person – not always the same organiser – introduces a starting point or writing exercise. Then everyone writes on that topic for a certain time, and afterwards there will be time to read out work.  I’m not sure these groups aim for publication – this is writing practice just for yourself and for the pleasure of being like a student again: a blessing when you’ve been got at by too many author visits.

Many writers find themselves what’s sometimes called a  Writing “Buddy”. Personally, I am not fond of the “buddy” term as it always sounds sporty and formal and cheerful and the very opposite of my writing mood. 

However, I’ve been asking around and finding out about people’s writing friends - and “how it works”. The most formal arrangement was described by my first contact, who met her buddy for lunch on a regular basis. Originally they’d been tutor and student but now as friends, they helped each other. Although one was published, the other wasn’t yet “although she is a terrific writer, and though they both wrote children’s fiction, their work was very different, They arrange to meet whenever they have a WIP that’s stalled, or are near the end of a project or just need support and they swap draft chapters and talk about the pieces when they meet. “We are honest (the mss are always covered in red) though we are quite careful of each other.”  
Over lunch, they toss ideas about, treating each other’s work with sensitivity but also making use of each other’s strengths - “ X is great at planning and plotting” -,as well as discussing grammar & style and what they’ve read that might be useful or that might be in a similar vein.  This buddying sounded ideal and efffective but it also came with a warning:  “Beware of getting too dependent on your buddy”. It may not be easy to deal without the support of such a relationship if other circumstances suddenly make meetings impossible.

My second writer met up, every six weeks, for lunch with two friends she’d made on a writing course twenty years before. They'd chat, commiserate and very occasionally, when the work needed it, share writing. 

She said “You need to choose your writing buddies carefully. You have to be on the same wavelength.” I
It certainly shouldn't feel like this:

A third writer meets up with her writing friend whenever they feel the need, sometimes just posting a message on Facebook asking if the other is free. She says “neither of us feels tied to it. We meet when we have time and it is very flexible. They meet for two or three hours during which they chat about anything that is ongoing or that they are having problems with. Occasionally they will ask the other to read their work, if there is something on which they’d welcome thoughts, but they are “both very busy and are wary of intruding on the other’s writing time”.  This writer’s friend writes historical and women’s fiction, as well as being a successful playwright – maybe at one time almost acting as an informal mentor? -   but now the two clearly value their writing relationship and both are interested in working in YA and fantasy. “I find it really useful. It helps to get another view on things, to have someone to talk things out with. It has to be someone I can totally trust.”

The fourth writer has a brother for a writing friend.  Two “historical writers”, they began by read each others work and chatting about writing when they were out walking. Although one is an experienced author and the other a new, unpublished writer, they value each others strengths: “He is an artist and so has that sense of balance, pattern and structure and reads wisely”.
I found the next stage of the partnership interesting. They had both reached a point when their writing felt stuck so for a while, after the walks, they went into a pub, bought a drink and wrote in silence for an hour. Afterwards, “we could talk and the talk was often about the books and the problems we were having.”  Their talk was usually about problems with planning and plotting. They do not read their work aloud, nor look at each others work unless asked.  
This writer’s comments offer a good analysis of why support, even the very best, can be unhelpful as well as helpful. “We are both reluctant to read each other’s work in progress, as we feel that too much advice at such a delicate stage can knock you off balance and send the work in directions you never wanted it to go. I’ve found this, in the past. Sometimes the better the advice, the worse I can be – because you’re more inclined to try and follow good, experienced advice, even if it’s wrong for you or for this particular book. For this reason I’ve always avoided writing groups. It’s not that I think they couldn’t advise me – it’s that I fear I’m too suggestible and would run after any and all advice and become utterly confused.”
It was clear that all these different forms of writing friendship were subtly tuned to each pair’s particular personalities and needs. Empathy and patience were as much a part of each mix as writing craft.

Online Critique Groups.
Sometimes it’s just not possible to meet other writer in person, and this is when the online critique groups are a good thing. Although the groups are confidential, a couple of writers gave me some general feedback on how their group or groups work. (Thank you!)
            One explained that she joined a small online critique group because she wanted an independent view of her work. Over time, that original group grew, split into smaller groups and developed a YA off-shoot. A crit group requires a serious level of commitment so limiting the membership to eight or ten people makes keeping up with everyone’s efforts an easier task.  Each member is supposed to submit up to 3,000 words each month and everyone is expected to offer them their critique, which will depend on the stage the ms is at, as well as any particular requests from the author. Some members now have publishing deals, so the group is currently considering if they need to make changes, especially as some members are now writing middle grade and/or picture books, not just YA. Needless to say, each member will have a different writing style too.

How do they share their crits? The long, detailed comments are posted on the group’s private blogger platform but, as one of the writers said:  “Recently we’ve been geared towards longer pieces of work, which we email through the associated Googlegroup.”  The members do try to meet when they can. “Due to geographical practicalities, it’s not often, but it’s lovely when we do”.  Each month, they chat on Skype and/or share various issues on a private facebook group. I was most impressed by the involvement and support these groups established and I’ve seen for myself the close bonds between SCBWI friends and members. As I was told:“We are incredibly supportive.  Many of us have been published since the group was set up.  It’s lovely to feel involved in someone’s published book, especially when mentioned in the acknowledgements!”
However, you do need to find time to do your own work and do that month’s crits properly, as well as wording your comments so that you don’t offend anyone. “A good crit group needs to spring from careful honesty – there are ways of saying things and it’s only your opinion – try not to give or take offence!” My contacts were enthusiastic about what they got in return: “The free and often brilliant techniques as well as the support, general advice and friendship.”
These account of SCBWI crit groups helped me understand that the organisation’s not negligible subscription could be money well spent, although other critique groups are available. I’ll end this section with one final comment:“Critique groups are wonderful when they are working well, but it can take time”

Finally, three more quick suggestions:

If distance is a problem, an Email Group can be wonderful. One of my favourite support structures is a simple, small and confidential writer’s email group. At the most basic level, the “members” – friends would be a better word -  report in daily on their word count or their progress on their written work. The group’s aim, originally, was not to be another “discussion” group but purely a group that offered encouragement and motivation - and a kind of listening ear. The group’s not very strict and every so often, other topics creep into the emails - the sorts of frets and rants of frustration you can only share with other writers and the big and small successes that it’s a joy to share - but after a short burst, the group will self-sets itself too: everyone knows the main purpose is to get the words done. Confidentiality and trust are essential, but wise words, commiserations and practical advice are there when require. 

If you are stuck, try a Performance Group or Class. Sometimes it’s good to practice new skills or try out another form of writing. My local theatre, for example, ran a weekly writing group, originally with a tutor, later without. Twice a year, the theatre put on a “new writing festival” where a dozen or more short themed plays were performed as well as a special evening when two or three longer pieces were staged. These performances gave the writing group a focus for their work and skills, at least until the theatre was put under new management. I know of a Poetry Writing Group that meets in a pub and performs their poems once a month. There’s nothing like facing peril together to bond a group’s members. Although neither group is about the writing of a novel, both heighten an awareness of the sound of one’s own writing.

Lastly, there is always a slightly sideways step: a Writer’s Reading Group which offers support, if of a slightly remote kind. Some writers who’d been part of the Playwriting Group moved on to other, different personal work. It was soon clear that the styles, interests and life matters made it impossible for them to continue as a whole “writing group”. However, wanting to keep in touch, they became a poetry reading group. Each month, they meet to study a particular poet, bringing along examples of poems or, on other evenings, reading a mixture of favourite poems. This central focus keeps the door sociably open, allowing for personal writing to be discussed as well as keeping the writers alert to the power of words.

Enough! There are many other forms of support, including writer’s lunches and gatherings, not to mention Writer’s Conferences like those in York and Bath this coming weekend or various writing retreats, and . . . and . . . 

Yes, writing is a solitary life – and most writers love that aspect of it – but sometimes it’s necessary to come out of the shadows and say hello to the wider world of humans. What seems to be important in all these writing groups and partnerships? Sharing what you need to share. Fairness, respect for each other and each other's strengths, skills and differences. A certain equality of purpose and values. Sensitivity, good manners and friendship - as well as quite a large amount of food and drink!

If you have any good examples of writer support, do tell us about them. Thanks –and special thanks to all who helped with the content of this post.

Happy writing!

Penny Dolan


Julie Sykes said...

Great post Penny. There's a lot of good advice here for published and unpublished writers.

Pippa Goodhart said...

There are different times and stages to each writing project when different kinds of help and advice are needed. I find it really useful to chat about story ideas, both to clarify my own ideas and to get reactions and suggestions. I then like to keep rather private until I've got a whole story sweep to be read by somebody else. Does what I intend to be a surprise moment actually come as a surprise? It's that first fresh read of something which can only be done once by anybody that's of the most value because that's how a potential actual reader will experience the story. And I also try out passages in a writing group, and that's always helpful. It's nice being beyond the stage of minding too much when people are very critical. Usually I realise that they're right. Sometimes I think about it, and stick with what they didn't like. Either way, it's useful ... but you do need to cultivate a fairly thick skin! Excellent blog, Penny.

kathryn evans said...

I value my crit group so much - I'm also a member of a face to face SCBWI support group - they serve a slightly different purpose in target making and encouragement - I wouldn't be without either of them!

Nick Green said...

A kindred spirit is invaluable, absolutely. But for me, never a group. Too much of an introvert. More than three people in one conversation and my head overloads. A large group is only acceptable if I can form a little faction at the end of the table.

Penny Dolan said...

Interesting to hear about all your different needs & solutions - having a variety of options seems to help. I prefer smaller groups, Nick. Too big and the teacher in me starts to come out, not the writer.

Joan Lennon said...

Interesting ways to get outside your own head - thanks for this, Penny!

Steve Gladwin said...

Nonnywrimo has been wonderful for me. Initially set up by Nicola Morgan as a closed facebook group to do the nanowrimo thing a month early, we have continued from there purely because we wanted to. 35 approx people in search of deadlines, ideas, chocolate and the odd St Bernard with a rescue barrel. Whinges are allowed but we try not to duplicate anything which might just as easily be said on Balaclava. They've helped me write a book and a half and are always there with commiserations. I'd recommend the idea to anyone.