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18 January 2014

Are Writers' Support Groups Useful?


It depends on the support group.

I’ve been a member of four or five during my writing career. One was large and hierarchal; one was a loose assembly of whoever turned up on the night. All of them met monthly – except the one I belong to now, and I have belonged to it for – shock, horror - 25 years.

Hornsea Writers meets weekly except for Christmas when members have two weeks off for good behaviour, but we are expected to arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the second week in January with a piece of work-in-progress to discuss. Yes, just because we don’t meet, doesn’t mean we don’t write… and edit and polish and…

It is this dual ethos of grit and professionalism that has made members so prolific and brought such rewards. Our published work covers a wide range of fiction genres as well as non-fiction and journalism, so we have fingers in a multitude of pies. Information we glean is fed back to the group, sometimes across the table, more often via our internal Yahoogroup messaging service, leaving meetings for their true role: to read aloud and group critique work-in-process. And when they do… changes in tense or register, repeated words, incorrect word choice for character, passive verbs, convoluted sentence structure…

We may write, edit, polish and read aloud in the safety of our own office spaces, but reading aloud to members who write notes as they listen throws the work into sharp relief before anyone says a word. Many a potential new member has been left shell-shocked merely listening to us, and it is one of the  reasons why membership is now by invitation only.

This willingness to mark everything has raised our individual standards, and it works to our advantage. A piece heralded by ‘There’s something wrong with this but I can’t put my finger on it,’ will prompt a host of closely argued recommendations that the writer can act upon. I have a blind spot the size of the Houses of Parliament when it comes to using lie, lay, laid, and lain that no grammar resource seems able to illuminate, but I know members will correct my lapse before it crosses other eyes.

Much has changed in 25 years. Publishing no longer means print, it also means audio and digital download, and viewing a global, rather than merely national, market. Occasionally it means side-stepping publishing houses, and some of us are that new breed of hybrid author and indie author-publisher. The trick is to be flexible, and to keep a finger on the industry’s pulse.

If I were starting out today would I still seek a support group of like-minded individuals with drive? Certainly. But I’d seek it on the internet as well as within walking distance.

In its Jubilee year, Hornsea Writers has launched a collective web presence to augment members’ individual platforms. Some might say ‘about time’.

2 comments:

  1. Well said, Linda. And wasn't it fun setting this up?
    Like you, I've belonged to other groups - one of which was organised by a domineering and opinionated spinster who viewed all men as potential rapists and said so, another was run like a class and another was so informal that the pub we met in became simply the reason to have a drink and little work on writing ever got done. Hornsea Writers has been a real help for me, though.

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    1. 'Fun' is one way of putting it, Stuart.

      Regarding writers joining groups, I think the trick is to test drive a few and not give up at the first obstacle. Let's face it, when we start we really have no idea of what we actually want from a group, or what we can give. Which is the most important element, I feel.

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