How to Start a Writer’s Group

Wannabe Pride welcomes guest blogger Antony Wootten!

Hi there, Wannabe Pride readers! Like many of you, I am a self-published author, and I’d like to tell you about something that I think could benefit all writers. I have to admit, it’s not something everyone will relish, and some will think it’s definitely not for them. But it is something worth immersing yourself in; the impact it has on you may well be unexpected, and most likely will be immeasurably positive if you approach the experience in the right way.

When I was living in London (UK), I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a writers’ group (the Willesden Green Writers’ Group, to be precise. I’m sure they won’t mind me mentioning them!). I already considered myself a writer, although in reality, I was a primary school teacher. I had written several novels, which had been languishing on my computer’s hard drive for years, totally unseen and unknown by the rest of the world. I had no idea that writers’ groups existed, so I was intrigued and excited to join.

The group met every week in the local library. I don’t know how many members there were in total, a great many I think, although they were never all there at the same time. Sometimes more than twenty would turn up, and sometimes it would be less than ten. In each session, we went round the group, taking it in turns to read out a story, poem, section of a novel, or some other piece of writing they had produced. The rest of the group would listen or read (members were advised to bring print-outs so that those who wanted to read at their own pace could do so). Then, the listeners would give feedback on what they had heard.

If you’ve never been to a writers’ group before you might think the whole process sounds nerve-wracking and potentially humiliating. And, to be honest, you may well have to put up with a bit of that. If your fellow writers are just kind and complimentary all the time, you will learn nothing. Even the best writers need to hear the opinions of readers in order to hone their skills and develop their work. But, if you are prepared to listen to what others say about your writing, you will become a better writer, no matter how good you might think you are to begin with.

There’s a caveat to this: in a writers’ group, you will often hear a range of conflicting opinions. My advice is that you listen to everything, and filter it all through your own considered opinions. You are the writer, and the one who ultimately has to make the decision about what works and what doesn’t. Your fellow group members are not there to tell you how to improve your work, they are there to tell you how they think your work could be improved. They will not always be right. They will not always agree. You will not always agree with them. But, whether or not you like what they say, it is vital that you at least consider it. Sometimes, you will hear advice you flatly disagree with. If everyone else disagrees with it too, it’s probably worth discounting. If, however, other people agree with the advice, it’s almost certainly worth bearing it in mind. Sometimes, your fellow members will hit upon something you had completely failed to notice: a plot-hole, a contradiction or continuity error, dialogue that doesn’t sound right, imagery that doesn’t convey what you want it to convey, pacing problems that you hadn’t noticed, humour that fails to amuse, a missed opportunity, a boring bit. Chances are, you will have been too close to your writing to see those things yourself, but they may leap out at other people. That is the beauty of joining a writers’ group.

I remained a staunch member of Willesden Green Writers’ Group for several years, and the experience was immeasurably valuable: I made some fantastic friends; I heard some wonderful stories, novels and poems, and, crucially, I learned how to write. If I had never found that group, I’d have continued to write, without exposing my work to the views of others, blindly believing it to be good, and not realising how much I still had to learn. Worse still, in my naivety, I may even have self-published it, and it would have received embarrassingly terrible reviews! Just thinking about what could have happened makes my toes curl.

So, hopefully you now want to join a writers’ group. But what if there isn’t one near you?

Well, eventually, my life led me away from London, and away from the writers’ group, to the rural climes of Grosmont, North Yorkshire, where my wife and I still live today. In total contrast to London, where we had both lived for well over a decade, Grosmont is a tiny country village, through which a steam railway runs, and if there are twenty people in the local pub no one can quite believe how busy it is. There was no writers’ group here. So, around the town, I put up notices asking if anyone would be interested in joining one. I left my contact details for people to take, and I waited. At first, there was a small glimmer of interest, mostly from people I already knew, and who, really, were just being kind; they were responding to my plea more out of pity than anything else. “Of course,” they all said in one way or another, “I don’t write. But I’ll come along anyway, to see what it’s all about.” I really didn’t think it was going to take off. But, about six writers, as well as some non-writing but interested supporters, came to the first meeting. It was held in the village’s slightly strange and very tiny real ale bar (yes, Grosmont has both a pub and a bar!), against a backdrop of locals chatting over their pints, and some brave folk actually read out pieces they’d written. Some of it was stuff they’d written as teenagers, or an extract from a memoir, or even a magazine article. And, to my enormous surprise (I say that because of the low expectations they’d all led me to have in the build-up), the writing was good!

Over the coming weeks, several new members came along, and one or two original members fell by the wayside. Now, almost two years on, we have a solid core of about nine writers, as well as a few guest members who join us when they are in the area, and we meet every fortnight to listen to each others’ writing and offer our feedback. For a tiny little village like ours, nine regular members is pretty good going. After less than a year, we published a collection of our short stories. This was an incredibly exciting community project – we funded it partially ourselves, but were also given very generous sponsorship by several local businesses and organisations. Initially, we had two hundred paperback copies printed up, all of which we have now sold, and we are working our way through our second print-run. Not only that, but we are likely to publish our second book in the not too distant future! And, despite the initial, very self-deprecatory claims about their own writing abilities, at least six members of the group have written – or are well underway with – a novel, and the others have amassed huge collections of excellent stories. I am blown away by the talent and commitment of this group of writers.

I originally set up the Grosmont Writers’ Group because I wanted a bunch of writers who would be able to offer me advice on my own writing, and who would all benefit from each other’s feedback too. But, just as with the Willesden Green Writers’ Group in London, I’ve found the Grosmont Writers’ Group also provides two other things: a great range of interesting fiction, and a great range of interesting friends.

So, I cannot recommend highly enough the benefits of joining a writers’ group. And if there isn’t one near you, start one yourself!

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Antony Wootten writes under two names: his own name, when writing for children, and David Hall, when writing for adults.

As David Hall, he has recently published ‘And I Wish I’d Asked Why’ (currently only on Kindle, but paperback will follow), which Red City Review described as ‘a collection of eighteen amazingly compelling short stories’. He has also written ‘Gordon Medley’s Final Frontier’, which he refers to as a Sci-fi Adventure Space-Opera Comedy Star Trek Parody, a genre which few have tackled previously… Find out more here: www.antonywootten.co.uk/davidhall.html

As Antony Wootten, he has self-published three books for children roughly aged 9-12: ‘A Tiger Too Many’, which is a novel set during the second world war, about a young girl’s desperate crusade to save a tiger in London Zoo; ‘Grown-ups Can’t Be Friends With Dragons’, a novel about an unhappy young boy who meets a strange creature in a cave by the sea; and a collection of limericks, which is called ‘There Was An Old Fellow From Skye’. Find out more here: www.antonywootten.co.uk

Follow Antony on Twitter: @antonywootten

and on Facebook: AWEskdale

 

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