Musical Chairs: On Writing Groups

Last time on Mary’s Expression, I posted about a famous writing group, The Inklings. Since then, Anne has written about how to find your own creative tribe. Today, I’m going to share my own experiences with writing groups.

English: Playing musical chairs at the Our Com...

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Finding a good writing group is hard. Joining a new group is like musical chairs. You’re circling, getting a feel of the music, the routine, when suddenly it stops and you have to find your bearings. If you find a space, you have a moment to see who’s around you, how you fit in with the group. But just as you get comfy, the music changes and things get shook up. And the group always seems to be shrinking. No matter how many new people come in, there’s always a good portion who just can’t find a seat, don’t quite fit in. I’ve been on both ends of this.

And what’s a good fit at one point in your life or career may not work for you later. So you have to learn not to blame yourself or the other members if a group simply isn’t working out. Sometimes it’s best just to move on. You can’t always predict who you’ll finally click with.

The first group I was really a part of was Writing.com. It’s not a true writer’s group per se, more of a community. There are plenty of other members to share your work with and get comments from. But it’s huge. The number of members is currently approaching one million. This makes it very hard to get noticed. To get the most out of it, you have to put the work in. Review other members, participate in contests and forums. There are specialized groups formed by members, some for discussion, or games, or critique. I think Writing.com’s best strength is getting feedback on shorter works, poetry or short stories. Downsides to sharing a novel on Writing.com:

  • A free membership is limited portfolio space, so it would be better to upgrade
  • Formatting isn’t as easy as copy and paste. Even the formatting codes are site-specific, not standard HTML, so it takes a lot of effort to get your chapter/book presentable
  • The first chapter trap. With such a variety of members, it’s easy to get a lot of comments on your first couple chapters. Almost impossible to get feedback past chapter three unless you find a dedicated writing buddy or group. (Really, this is a drawback of most online groups.)

I’m still a member of Writing.com, but I don’t put the time into it that I used to. As I focused more on novels, I started looking elsewhere.

I’ve tried a few other online writing groups. Dreaming In Ink is one of the better. They are very strict on getting in regular critiques. This isn’t a bad thing, and has kept the group strong, but when circumstances came that I was no longer able to keep up, I moved on. Who knows, I may go back someday. They have a great system going for them.

For poetry, I was very lucky to be in at the start of this group, The Poetic Muselings.

Last year I started my own fantasy group, Society for Arcane Gibberish Authors (SAGA). We’re still fledgling, and open to new members. So if you write fantasy, and want a more casual group, check out SAGA.

One thing I’ve learned over the years, is that an online group has different dynamics and strengths than a local group. Online groups are great for the line edits, the nitty-gritty stuff. It’s super easy to mark up text and share with someone. But in-person groups are good for those moments you simply need to talk over a plot point, or brainstorm. I definitely recommend a local group or writing buddy. Even if you don’t critique each other’s work, talking with other writers is priceless.

When it comes to local groups, I’ve had a rough road. The challenge is finding people with the same skill and dedication. With my first group, only two of us wanted to write as a career, for the others it was a hobby. Since the dedication wasn’t there, the group eventually fell apart. With my current group, we’re struggling with scheduling so more people can come, and getting more members.

A game of the non-competitive version in one o...

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So whatever route you go, online or in person, there will be challenges and downfalls. Sometimes you have to hold your spot in musical chairs, and sometimes you have to give it up. And sometimes you have to hold on to each other and do your best not to fall off.

Do you have a good writing group? How long have you been together? If not, I wish you the best in finding one! 

 

Next time on Mary’s Expression (March 5): Freeing creativity.

Inklings and Writing Groups

English: THe Pub Eagle and Child in Oxford, wh...

Did you know that some famous fantasy writers were part of a writing group? The Inklings was a group of literary enthusiasts who encouraged writing fantasy. The four most prominent members were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Other frequent members included Tolkien’s son Christopher, C.S. Lewis’ older brother Warren, Roger Lancelyn Green, Adam Fox, Hugo Dyson, Robert Havard, J.A.W. Barnett, Lord David Cecil, and Nevill Coghill. Warren Lewis described the group as “…neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections.”

Who are these people?

English: Round sign at the Eagle and Child Pub...
  • C.S. Lewis is most known for the Narnia Chronicles.
  • J.R.R. Tolkien  is known for the epic Lord of the Rings.
  • Charles Williams wrote a total of seven novels, including “War in Heaven” and “All Hallow’s Eve”.
  • Owen Barfield mainly wrote philosophy, on topics such as the evolution of human consciousness. He did, however, write one fairy tale: “The Silver Trumpet.”

The Inklings usually met at Lewis’ college rooms or at the Eagle and Child pub (popularly called the Bird and Baby) in Oxford England. Meetings took place on Thursday evenings. They would read and talk about each other’s works in progress, discuss fantasy and philosophy, and enjoy the company of friends. The pub meetings were more for fun; they wouldn’t read manuscripts, but sometimes read bad poetry to see how long they could last before laughing.

The group started in 1933 and met regularly for the next 15 years. Everyone benefited. Tolkien continued to work on Lord of the Rings at the encouragement of C.S. Lewis. Each writer improved their work from suggestions by other members. Their discussions led to essays, lectures, and other works in the attempt to legitimize fantasy and fairy tales as more than children’s stories, to be seen as liable literary pieces.

What does this mean for me?

Writers can find similar benefits in today’s writing groups, whether you join an existing one or create your own, online or in person. Friendships can be made when you find someone with similar interests. Sharing work will improve your writing and critiquing skills. Or perhaps you only want to discuss literature. The Inklings showed that a writers group doesn’t have to always be serious, or have any sort of leadership. All it takes is a group of people with something in common. Next time I’ll talk about my own experiences with writing groups, and how you can find your own.

A fun, related bit of trivia:

Lord of the Rings Online is an online multiplayer game based on Tolkien’s Middle Earth. While my husband and I were playing, we came across an interesting quest chain from a hobbit named Ronald Dwale. At one point you have to fetch his lost paper. The sheet of paper starts out: “In a hole there once lived a boar. No, wait, that’s not right.” The second ‘R’ in J.R.R. stands for Ronald, and his story “The Hobbit” happens to start very similarly to this paper: “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

The final part of the quest chain is Missing the Meeting. If you own the game, I encourage you to go experience the quest yourself, but the basics is that Ronald Dwale is unable to attend the next meeting of his writing society. You have to deliver his message to The Bird and Baby Inn. “With the return of my lost paper, I really should get started on my new book, but I haven’t an inkling how I should reach my friends in time to tell them of my absence.”

When you visit the Bird and Baby Inn, you see the following “Inklings” in the back room:

Jack Lewisdon ((C.S. “Jack” Lewis))
Carlo Williams ((Charles Williams))
Owen Farfield ((Owen Barfield))

So if you ever happen upon this quest in game, enjoy the developers tribute to the Inklings.

(Originally written for a Writing.com Fantasy Newsletter)

Next time on Mary’s Expression (Feb 20): Delving deeper into writing groups.