Tag Archives: Writing Group

A Birthday for Our Writing Group

There’s nothing like a good celebration for reminding us how much we have achieved. Our writing group decided to turn our performance project into a celebration for our fourth birthday. It is always good for a group to celebrate. And for a birthday party we needed cake.

Celebration

Founded four years ago in September 2013 by the librarian, a group of writers have met every fortnight, on a Saturday morning, to read our work to each other, receive critical comments and discuss issues and challenges we face. The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, filmmaker. Some are established writers, others are beginners.

Two years ago we published a collection of our writing, Gallimaufry, covering our costs by selling copies, suggesting they made good seasonal presents. We could have repeated the success and produced Gallimaufry2, but we wanted to get our work heard in a different way. We like to stretch ourselves to see what we can learn from different experiences.

We chose a live performance, but many in the group did not have confidence to read to the public, so we limited our audience by invitation. And then we set about arranging the event.

Organisation

Our group prides itself on its loose organisation. We have no leader, no secretary, and any decisions are made by whoever is present at a meeting. Action is taken by volunteers, who scope out venues, bring equipment, agree to take on roles, and to undertake tasks.

When we reviewed the event, one of our writers reflected that we organised the Birthday Celebration much as we write. There is an initial idea, we explore it further, perhaps taking a turn around a short deviation, revisiting the ideas, and then moving forward tweaking and polishing as we go.

And so it was. Someone found the function room above the local pub, we all brought something to read up to a limit of 10 minutes, we drew up the programme together. By email we ensured that it said what people wanted it to say. We worked out that we needed to pay £3 each to cover the cost of the venue, but we didn’t want to make a profit. What would we do with it?

One of our technical experts provided a sound system, I brought a music stand, someone else provided a light to clip to the stand. Our radio experts have recorded the event to draw on for their local radio programme. And Thelma provided the cake. We set about inviting our audience.

Celebrate!

And on the night it was all a great success. We had loaded for success, by asking Thelma to launch us with one of her Tasteless Verses.

And we were off! Poems, short stories, memoirs, all steered by our two MCs. My own contribution was a section of a long short story. We pride ourselves on the variety of our writing. Thelma was also our closing star reading more verse before we did a round of story tag involving willing audience members (aged 9 – 93). There was plenty of laughter, intense listening, nervousness and sense of achievement. The evening had a delightful air of playfulness and lightness. We did it! We entertained about 40 people for an evening.

And what did we learn?

Performance is different from reading within the group. It needs more polish and practice.

We realised that the attentiveness of the audience was partly due to the close listening we practise in our normal sessions.

And we thought perhaps we might go on tour next: to village WIs, church tea or coffee concerts, libraries, schools, any one who will have us really. Or do something else new to us. Or both.

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Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop

Gallimaufry. Say it out loud to hear the skip in the middle of the word, like a sedate court dance. Gallimaufry is a late medieval word, probably from the French, meaning a ridiculous medley, or a hodge-podge of odds and ends. It is the title of the anthology by The Totnes Writing Group. We took delivery of 100 copies on 1st December last year. The group had been working towards this for about four months. The copies were impressive: the cover and the piles. The writers present felt immense pride at an ambition achieved, and a successful project completed.

228 Galli cover

The Group

The group was started in 2013 as a library initiative – those libraries again. (see next post on 5th February). The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, film maker. Some are established writers, others are beginners. A motley group of 15 writers had produced a collection of 36 poems, short stories, memoirs, reflections and illustrations. My own contribution was a short story.

228 Writers group

Most of the stress of the project was carried by Fiona Murray who edited the book, dealt with the printers, and all the complaints of writers who had commas and fonts adjusted without their say-so.

Why we did it

Writers like having readers and for many it is the reason they write. Although members read their work to the group, which is important, many of us also seek a wider audience. We began to ask ourselves, why don’t we publish a book of our own writings and then used the skills within the group to find a way to do it.

The anthology provided protection and support for those who love writing but do not want to stick out and who suffer from lack of confidence about going public with their writing. It’s a bit like singing in a choir, one of our members observed. If we publish again we hope more writers from our group will contribute.

What the group learned

At our New Year meeting the group identified the following learnings:

Feedback from our readers suggests that the diversity of themes, styles and genres is an attractive feature of the collection. We did not have a theme although if a writer wanted one we suggested ‘Totnes’. This is pretty much how our group operates – loosely.

The cover and overall professional look added greatly to the attractiveness of the anthology. The silk collage used for the cover was made by Fiona Green, a member of the group.

Writers selected the pieces they wanted to contribute. The editor did not choose what to include. We set an initial 2000 word limit and later, when we worked out we could include more for the same costs, a few people contributed additional material.

The experience of writing is lonely. Our warm, supportive group made one aspect of writing – the production of the anthology – a social process for our writers. Social support is something we all value in the writing group.

Writing is often ephemeral and the production of the collection meant that words took a more permanent form for the contributors. Seeing our work on paper, and alongside the other contributions, made us feel more confident about our writing. It has also made us question our current practice. At the moment the writer reads aloud their text for which they want feedback. Perhaps we should have hard copies of the written text because seeing a poem or short story in print is different from hearing it.

The production of our anthology has made us question the purposes of our group. Are we in a new phase? Do we want to launch into another publication, even one in a different format, or do we want to focus a little more on writing processes?

What we need to think about if we do this again

Some of our practical decisions indicate a lack of experience. We could have thought further ahead about costings, publicity and sales. Since our purpose was not to raise money, but to provide a platform, some of that seemed less important. We still have a dozen copies from our print run. We are on the point of breaking even!

The sales team having some success.

The sales team having some success.

Our frustrations (carried by our noble editor) about the printer’s inability to make corrections without causing further unwanted alterations to the text suggest we need to build in more time and more support for proofreading. We wanted a local printer, but we might look for a more responsive one.

And what would be the purpose of a further publication? Do we want to be cherished by the local community? Do we want to be better known as a creative group, and to contribute to the local creative community?

Overall

We learned so much about publishing that I would recommend the process to anyone who wants a modest platform for their writing.

I acknowledge the contribution of our discussion within the group about what we learned in the writing of this post. However I have not attempted to define what the group thought. We are a diverse lot and we seldom agree on everything, but this project was A GOOD THING.

Gallimaufry, edited by Fiona Murray, 87pp. Price £5. Published December 2015.

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The distracted writer

Members of my writing group claim that it is really really easy to get distracted from writing. Writers on twitter agree, judging by the number of motivational tweets that drift through my timeline. It seems that writers prioritize plenty of other things above the crafting of words. And they need inspiration to get back to the pen or keyboard. And they need moral precepts and finger-wagging little post-it notes of exhortation. Or do they?

 

Spider’s web document by Iago One via Wikimedia

Spider’s web document by Iago One via Wikimedia

Most of the members of our writing group are women, so domestic duties featured high on the list of reasons why they hadn’t achieved what they wanted to do since our last session. [Just in case you think I am, I’m not saying men don’t have domestic duties.] We talked about other reasons as well. Here’s a round-up.

  1. Household responsibilities

Caring for other people, children, partners and older folk, the constant demands, the pressures of tasks to be done repeatedly by frequent deadlines, mean that our members have great difficulty in finding a decent length of time to devote to their writing. Not just the time, but the time in some quantity, and not when they were exhausted or up early to carve out a few moments. I read about a woman who wrote her first novel in her car while waiting for her children on their various activities.

Other writers in our group got fed up with waiting in for deliveries or tradesmen who never show. Then they have to spend time chasing up alternatives and, in my case, feeling especially pathetic when I fail to get repairs done in the house. A directory of tradesmen for writers (ie reliable, cheap, and local) would help everyone.

Dripping tap by Willem van Aken, CSIRO via Wikimedia

Dripping tap by Willem van Aken, CSIRO via Wikimedia

And a Domestic Bill of Rights that entitles writers to time for their writing would help some writers, time without interruption, when they still have energy and head space to write, without being cobbled together from five or ten minutes segments. Or other people in the household taking on tasks. Or no doing them.

2. Computer problems

It is surprising how often this came up as an issue for writers. When the computer isn’t working it not only means the classic tool for writing is not available, but time (again) needs to be spent getting someone to sort it out.

And even if the computer is working okay, there are still the distractions of emails and the seductions of the internet. My own weakness is to allow research to take me far, far away from the original enquiry. Apparently there are apps to turn off distractions while writing. Can’t quite see why a person wouldn’t just turn off email, twitter and internet. But it seems from evidence on twitter that they can’t.

3. Overload of ideas

Here’s a more interesting distraction – too many writing ideas. This is about the process of writing, getting the ideas lined up so they can be dealt with. Definitely a notebook is necessary to help with this distraction. A note wont run away, especially if it’s good. Save them up for all those occasions when ideas and motivation disappear. Automatic writing (also called splurging) might help anyone suffering from too many ideas. It helps clear the mind and might clarify writing priorities.

4. Lack of ideas

You hear about writers who have no idea about what to write. They want those starter exercises. Random ideas prompted by a picture (see Write one Picture a post from the past), a randomly selected phrase from a book (page 68 is always good for that), and good old automatic writing. This is when notebooks come into their own. Or the less inspiration –dependant writing activities like formatting, close editing for accuracy.

I wrote a post called 10 things to do when you don’t know what to do. More ideas there.

5. Losing your folder

‘I don’t know where my writing folder is,’ Mavis told us. Small and large disruptions challenge writers. Moving house effectively interrupts writing for a while. So do other life-changing events, like giving birth, a new job, painting the living room.

6. Inner Voice

‘You should be writing’ You should have finished that section by now. You should be writing 3749 words a day. You should. You should. I’m trying to stick to Oliver Burkham’s non-resolution for the New Year: cut yourself a very good measure of slack. (Other people too but I’m thinking of writers here). Writers are too ready to beat themselves up. Be human. Take your pen (or keyboard) and start your line of letters, and they will turn into words, sentences and ultimately into something that you can call writing. And sometimes you cant. Don’t add to your troubles with guilt.

7. Holidays

Paris Plage 2003 by Benoit Darcy from Paris, France via Wikimedia

Paris Plage 2003 by Benoit Darcy from Paris, France via Wikimedia

In my non-fiction writing project my fellow writers express some guilt when they go on holidays. Lucky them, they seem to go on more extended and exciting breaks than I do. But they need refreshing too. I should follow their example.

Some very useful related material can be found on Toby Litt’s blog: 9 things you need to write a novel.

Do you have any distractions, correctives or approaches to add and help the distracted writer?

 

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The Writing Group Contract

I have been meeting with two other writers every month for just over a year. Writing courses can forge relationships that feel significant for the participants; together writers hear the work of others, struggle with them to help them improve their work, encourage them, want to know more about the progress of writers with whom they have formed a bond. Not surprising then that at the end of every writing course someone says, ‘let’s stay in touch’. And someone else says ‘let’s meet again’.

Lynda, Katerina and I got together after a writing course at City Lit. Occasionally another participant joins us, but we three are the core of the group. Our normal practice is similar to other groups’ no doubt: one person emails about 2000 words on which they are working to the others. We give feedback on this. We also find time to talk about aspects of writing, where we are, what we do about this problem or what we find useful about some practice or other. And we recommend useful activities and books.

47 Wr group

On the last occasion we met we included a very tasty supper, discussed a scene from Lynda’s novel, and I asked Lynda and Katerina to answer these three questions:

  • What do you want from a writing group?
  • Can you give some examples of what the writing group has helped you with?
  • Any advice for writers?

Perhaps like me you assume you know why people belong to writing groups, but I decided it was time to check out my friends’ reasons and to write about it on the blog. Here are their answers.

 

What do you want from a writing group?

K: When I write I appreciate feedback and want to be involved with like-minded people. It’s my connection to writing, as a part-time writer I need it. And nice people.

L: I want feedback. I love being forced to be brave and give things to people to read. Doing that with clever, sympathetic and reflective people – that really helps. I like being in the situation where I can talk about writing without being self-conscious.

K: Me too. I don’t have people to talk about writing with. Do you?

L: Yes. And no. This is what’s special. I do have friends and family members who want to read my writing, but I don’t want them to in the early stages.  I want to wait until I’m fairly happy with what I’ve done. It’s super with people who are contracting to read early drafts and be honest about them.

I worry about family and friends not being honest. And if they were honest and didn’t like what I showed them, I’d be upset – at least until I was confident about it myself.

K: Yes, it’s frustrating to give someone a piece and they just give it back and say ‘nice’. I don’t want ‘nice’. Friends and family can’t give you constructive criticism.

In the group we’re all going through our own stuff, and reading other people’s and you can bring in where you are with your stuff, your problems,

Can you give some examples of what the writing group has helped you with?

K: It made me look at planning my novel – that time we looked at a timeline and chart and I went away and did something similar for mine. It was in my head but it was nice to get it down.

L Practical, detailed comment from people who read your writing carefully.

K: It’s nice to know what does and doesn’t work, whether the reader gets a particular message. Or if they haven’t got the point.

L: It’s useful knowing how other people are reading what you are writing, especially early on.

K: Different readers see different things.

L: I am very unselfconscious when I write, it just comes out. There are the inevitable contradictions, confusions and other people can point these out.

Any advice for writers?

L: Oooooh it’s so presumptuous to give advice. But how about: write first as if nobody is going to read it. Get it all out.

K: Believe in yourself, even through the bad bits.

L: Write through the doubts.

K: That’s good. You should enjoy it.

L: Say to yourself – be strong. Isosh as they say in Ethiopia.

 

So if you belong to a writing group what do you get out of it? What are your experiences?

 

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