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Golden Rules for Writing Groups

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Some geniuses write alone. Without a single word of encouragement or criticism, these annoyingly self-motivated authors emerge with a fully formed masterpiece ready for publication. For the rest of us, being part of a community of other writers helps us polish our work and find new publishing opportunities – not to mention helping us maintain sanity in a world where words are cheap and writers are seen as financial fools in the thrall of some ridiculous bohemian mythology. Having friends and colleagues on the same journey makes us feel a little less weird, and makes the trip more fun – especially if there’s wine, cheese and gossip involved.

Without my writers’ group, my unfinished novella would still be gathering dust in a bottom drawer, pushed out of mind as I pursue a million little freelance deadlines producing ephemeral journalism. Instead, with the support of my group, a reworked version of my book, now crafted as a memoir, ‘Fallen’, will be published by Affirm Press in May. It’s the book I’ve been gestating for eight years and it’s finally being born, with huge thanks due to Jo Case (‘Boomer & Me’), Rebecca Starford (‘Bad Behaviour’), Estelle Tang (‘Rookie’ magazine) and S.A. Jones (‘Isabelle of the Moon and Stars’). These talented and generous fellow writers have inspired, encouraged and critiqued me, and read so many drafts of certain chapters that they must know them by heart, poor things.

The Golden Rule applies well to most situations in life: Do unto others as you would have done to you. But here are some particular virtues that might be applied to writers’ groups:

R E S P E C T – Respect!

Our group is now in its third year and this is no doubt due to the fact that we not only like each other, but we respect each other as writers and editors. We’ve all been published widely and have commissioned and edited work by others so we have a shared understanding of the painstaking process of working with words. But even if you’re all beginners, or a mix of established and amateur writers, a respectful attitude towards each other’s writing styles and tastes – however different they may be from your own – is an essential ingredient.

Trust – because you’re being seen in your tatty underwear

Showing up with an early draft of your writing is a humbling experience, akin to being seen in your less-than-sexy undies. Your shy little psyche is in full view and hopefully you’re exposed to kind people who have enough vision to see that your odd, misshapen creation can be made into something more elegant and beautiful. As my mother used to say when she was in the middle of sewing me a dress: ‘Fools and little children should not see things half done.’ So, a measure of maturity and tact all round is called for when you’re dealing with works in progress.

Honesty – don’t tell me comforting lies

It’s all very well to give encouragement and compliments, but you’re also there to make the writing better. When something isn’t working or needs more development (in your humble opinion – see ‘tact’ above) you need to be brave enough to say it – preferably administering chocolate while doing so. And if you’re given difficult feedback, take a deep breath, put ego aside, and ascertain whether there’s truth in the criticism. At the same time, you are the author of your own work and it’s your name attached to it. Your writers’ group is not responsible for your mistakes and missteps and when the crowds go home, we’re always alone with our own work. Sometimes you need to ignore the criticism and pursue your own vision of how your work should progress.

Diligence – make deadlines and meet deadlines

Whether you gather fortnightly or monthly, it should be regular and it should be a priority – though admittedly our writers’ group goes into enormous hiatuses, we always regroup eventually when we come into sync again. As writers we desperately need the urgency of deadlines in order to overcome our own self-doubt and lethal procrastination. (Or is that just me?) In my writers’ group, we email our work around several days before we meet, and there’s a flurry of writing to meet that deadline. We print out each other’s submissions and mark them up to be given back on the night along with verbal feedback. We take each other’s work seriously enough to do this homework properly, and it’s wonderful to see red pen marks all over your piece, showing that another reader has really engaged with it. (Ticks, exclamation marks and comments like ‘love it!’ are obviously more fun than crosses and ‘not sure this dialogue works’, but it all helps to improve your writing.)

Hope – and the importance of owning your own envy

In any writer’s group there will be more successful and high profile members, though hopefully you will all have your turn in the sunshine. In the immortal words of Dire Straits, ‘Some days you’re the windscreen; some days you’re the bug.’ When one of your group has a huge win – signing with a great publisher, getting a chunky advance or just generally being flavour of the month in literary circles – it’s natural to feel like a bug, wrestling with your own ugly jealousy and feelings of failure. It’s important at these times to feel the feels, let them pass through you, but don’t let them mar your genuine pleasure (believe me, it’s there, deep down) at seeing your friends succeed. Remind yourself that there’s enough good stuff to go around, and success breeds success. Let your envy spur you on to work harder at your own work and don’t waste energy finding excuses or pulling others down.

Gossip – or the value of shared information

Such is the sexism of our society that when women talk, we call it gossip, but when men talk, it’s sharing information. An important function of our writers’ group is the informal chatting, not just about love lives, kids and travel plans, but about books we’re reading, struggles we’re having with our day-jobs and news we’ve heard from the publishing world. News like: Who’s hiring in the lit world? What writing prizes and competitions are open for submissions? Do you need an agent? What are the freelance pay-rates at certain publications? There’s also occasional juicy talk about scandals and sexism, nepotism and exploitation, and which bestselling book is seriously overrated. But my lips are sealed on these matters. Mostly, we try to be nice. See the Golden Rule above.

About Rochelle Siemienowicz

Rochelle Siemienowicz is a film critic, journalist, editor and columnist. Her work has been published widely, including in ‘The Age’, ‘The Big Issue’, ‘Kill Your Darlings’, ‘Screen Hub’ and SBS Movies. Her book, ‘Fallen: a memoir about sex, love and marrying too young’, was published by Affirm Press in May 2015.

This article was originally published in The Victorian Writer.  

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