Writing Groups

A couple of weeks ago I attended the semi-annual retreat held by my writer’s group.  It took all of Saturday and most of Sunday.  There were eight of us.  We each read aloud from a piece we’re working on and the others read along silently and then critiqued the work.  By Sunday afternoon, we were all tired and at the same time energized as hell.

I’ve been a part of this writer’s group for eighteen years.  We have a name.  We call ourselves Crème de la Crime.  We’re all mystery writers.  Some of us are published, some are very close to publishing, and some probably never will publish.  Whenever I’m asked what I consider the most important element in my development as a writer, I always begin with Crème de la Crime.

In 1992, when I sat down to begin work on the manuscript that eventually became my first published novel, Iron Lake, and decided it was going to be a mystery (because I was desperate to be published and I stupidly thought any moron ought to be able to write and publish a mystery) I found myself stymied.  I wasn’t a great reader of mysteries at that time.  My father was a high school English teacher, and he raised his children on literature with a capital L.  Growing up, I didn’t even read The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew.  So I didn’t know the first thing about how write in the genre.  What did I do?  I took a course at The Loft (a well-known center in the Twin Cities, devoted to the written word) called, I believe, How To Write A Mystery.  The class was taught by Mary Logue, a marvelous writer in many genres, including mystery.  It was a great experience, and I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  When the class ended, ten of us who’d been students decided to form a continuing support group, and Crème de la Crime was born.

For eighteen years, we’ve met every Thursday evening to critique one another’s work.  I recall vaguely that in the beginning some adjustment was necessary for all of us.  Hearing your work criticized is never easy, and learning how to critique effectively is a learned skill.  Some of the original group didn’t survive the adjustment period.  Those of us who did have greatly strengthened our editorial ability over the nearly two decades of our association.

Every writer needs a good editorial eye.  And writers need to hear constantly that whether they’re published or not, the path they’re on is worthwhile.  (Our culture views success in so narrow a focus that publication and huge sales seem to be the most gauge of writer’s ability; what a travesty!)  A writer’s group can provide both these very necessary forms of support.

That said, not all writer’s groups are beneficial.  Like any human association, a writer’s group can be dysfunctional, and if you find yourself in one of these, get out as quickly as you can.  In my own mind, there are a few elements that can ensure the success of a group.  First, all members should be focused on the same genre.  Poets or essayists, for example, or even many literary fiction writers don’t have the frame of reference to critique a mystery effectively.  A group should meet regularly, and members should be willing to make that time commitment to the group.  And finally, writers should learn how to critique; there are a number of resources out there with good suggestions in this regard, but the bottom line is be respectful, be encouraging, and be honest.

I wish good luck to those of you searching for a group, and I hope sincerely that your experience is as profoundly beneficial as mine has been.

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