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World builders, crisp hoggers and a kitten on a fatberg

By and
Essay | 14 minute read
Writers’ groups. They provide literary types with valuable motivation and support in their pursuit of an often very lonely occupation. And sometimes, they’re a little bit bonkers. Authors Dan Brotzel and Alex Woolf pay tribute

The classic image of the writer in film and fiction is a tortured genius slaving away in splendid isolation. Think Misery and The Shining, think The Ghost, Best Seller, The Word is Murder. In literary biography too, we have Orwell on Jura, Kerouac in his mountain cabin, Proust shut up in his cork-lined bedroom, Emily Dickinson speaking to visitors through her bedroom door. And that’s before we even get to the full-on recluses such as Pynchon and Salinger.

And yet, when people start to write, their impulse is often deeply social. You only have to look at the welter of writers’ courses and editorial services available today, and the blizzard of motivational messages on Twitter, to see that most aspiring writers want support, guidance and company for the journey. Part workshop and part self-help group, writers’ groups can offer all that and more.

The Writers Online website lists around 280 writers’ groups in its UK directory, but the total figure is probably much higher. These groups can provide a fabulous framework for literary development. But this is writers we’re talking about, which means they can also present wonderful case studies in communal eccentricity. Between us, we’ve been members of several. So what’s the appeal? And how do you make them work?

Alex’s first group was in Brighton. It was run by a South African novelist and creative writing teacher who lived in a caravan with his dog. He had no money and very little commercial success, but we all thought he was brilliant and hung on his every word. Among our number was a doctor writing a hospital-based novel and a fantasy writer who had spent over a year on his opening chapter, reading us a different version each week. Alex was so nervous on his first visit that he nearly sat on a cat (it was white on a white sofa).

Alex was a complete beginner, and is amazed now at how generous the others were to him. These Brighton writers seemed to have created the template for the ideal group, but Alex struggled to find anything like it when he moved to London. The groups he joined were too large, too formal, too cliquey, too often a platform for certain egos. There wasn’t time for everyone to read, so comments were superficial. Eventually, with a few friends, Alex decided to form his own.

That group now has a core of about six, with another half dozen who come when they can. Our squad includes novelists and short story writers, poets, a dramatist, a screenwriter. Genres covered include domestic realism, steampunk, YA and epic verse. Three of us have just completed Kitten on a Fatberg, a farcical novel-in-emails about a very eccentric – and totally fictional – group of writers. It’s an affectionate hymn to the phenomenon, expressed in true British style through the media of slapstick and sarcasm.

When we looked around for other examples of writers’ groups in film or fiction, we found very few. Jacob Scipio’s short film The Writers Group offers a hilarious tableau of contrasting characters and joyous creativity in unexpected places. In Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction, our diarist heads up the Leicester and Rutland Creative Writing Group, though he doesn’t rate his fellow members much. The elderly Gladys, for example, writes soppy poems about cats: ‘Poor Blackie’s up in Heaven / God took her life away / He said, you’ll go to Devon / And have a holiday.’ Over time, the group dwindles to just two. As with our book, satire rubs shoulders with pathos.

Positive peer pressure

Anyone serious about writing eventually has to deal with exposing their work to others. But groups are not writers’ natural forte. They live in their own worlds, and may initially have little experience of sharing their work, let alone getting it published. It is not uncommon to hear a member announce: ‘No one else has ever read this.’

Reading for the first time is a high-stakes moment. It can take real courage to get the words out… but then the group steps in, responding to your nerves with support and encouragement. Afterwards, the feeling is tremendous. I did it! You come away with a new impetus to write more and read again. This ongoing support is as valuable for experienced writers as it is for newbies, especially at times of self-doubt or creative blockage.

Then there is just so much to learn from the act of reading out loud. The quality of attention in the room is a powerful indicator of what’s working and what isn’t. You start to become aware of sections that drag, of scenes that aren’t landing, of gags that aren’t funny. And it’s always disconcerting when what you thought of as a poignant study of grief and loss has everyone in stitches.

Best of all, perhaps, writers’ groups give better halves a night off. Even the most long-suffering wife or boyfriend may, over time, struggle to fake interest in the fact that you have decided to change the main character’s name in your cozy mystery from Prudence to Prunella, or that in your new speculative novella you will not now introduce the robot killer rats until after the eclipse of the seventh red moon. By going out every couple of weeks and sitting with a group of like-minded obsessives who don’t mind you spouting bits of your epic slasher fanfic bildungsroman for half an hour (on the sole condition that you let them spout too), you will be doing wonders for your relationship.

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Writers’ groups often start off in cafes or pubs. But although you may be able to find a quiet nook or alcove, there is always the possibility of unwanted eavesdroppers or hecklers. This can be awkward, especially if you have finally screwed up the courage to read out that daring new plushophilia scene.

So groups often migrate to homes, to the sort of safe space that can nurture the extraordinary creative intimacy that can develop between writers. (Also, it’s just fun snooping around other people’s houses.) In our current group, several of us live in quite similar houses, and meet in quite similar living rooms. Sometimes I feel as if there is just one room that we all share, which floats around the neighbourhood as we read, in a single timeless capsule of literary becoming. But then I look at Alex’s paintwork or Martin’s classy bookcases, and I realise my own place is in far worse nick. In one room, a rabbit sits in the corner in a large cage with a wheel, which she occasionally thrums violently during readings. A critic? A fan? Who knows.

Comfy chairs are important – but not too comfy, to avoid the risk of nodding off. (Oh come on, we’ve all done it.) Booze is a common feature of writers’ groups. A glass of Malbec or a crisp cider can help lubricate a lively evening, and the debutant(e) in particular can be excused a touch of Dutch courage. But excess consumption can diminish the ability to listen, which is what these groups are really all about. And of course not everyone drinks.

Snacks! Put out too much food, and nothing gets eaten. Not enough, and there are greedy eyes following the one paltry bowl of Monster Munch round the room. My name is Dan and I am a notorious crisp hog. There. I’ve said it.

The luvvie factor
In our group, people have read out plays, film scenes and even a panto script, with members all taking on different parts. But in time even hardy prose practitioners can be tempted to see each reading as a performance. They start to bring along only their most polished pieces, they learn their lines beforehand, they put on different voices, they go full am-dram on the thing.

Of course, some people are simply better readers of their own work than others. But the challenge for the rest of the group is to judge the writing on its own merits, and not be swayed too much by the performance, however mumbling or hammy. As a fellow member once wisely said, ‘I always bring along something I’m not happy with.’ Dare to read an unpolished, unperformable story with a great start but no ending, read a piece in an unfamiliar genre, read something you’re stuck on. The feedback may be less glowing but ultimately of more practical value.

Quality v quantity

Perhaps the ideal type of writing for a group reading is something self-contained like a short story or poem. A poem may be quickly despatched, but then it can be read two or three times, to discuss the nuances that emerge. On the other hand, anything over 3,000 words is probably pushing it; as well as the time it takes up, it’s harder for listeners to remember all the points they want to raise.

Instalments from novels, especially with a complex plot, can require lengthy summaries at the start to catch everyone up. Also, people miss meetings, so you forget who’s heard what. The long-form writer may sit awkwardly silent as people speculate on where their novel is going (‘Which one was the baddie again?’ ‘Is Griselda the one that’s half-elf??’), or frustrated because people are assessing an arbitrary chunk without being able to see the whole. And if the writer wants to have their work judged in the round, it’s often hard not to give away spoilers, dammit.

You don’t have to read actual work at all. Writers can discuss a plot instead, run through an idea, talk about a difficult rejection. One writer just bought along a list of phrases they wanted to incorporate into their next work – it was a raw and inconclusive list, but the act of turning up and reading it out was for him a vital milestone in helping him to climb out of a long trough of creative self-doubt.

Genre and sensitive material

In a writer’s group you’ll always be exposed to styles and genres that aren’t your usual cuppa – but you owe it to the writer to listen non-judgmentally and assess the work on its own terms. Our group always benefits from being able to absorb new members and occasional visitors too. It’s gratifying when people get to know your work, but without change things could get too cosy. It’s good to shake things up, hear new voices, be creatively threatened by new perspectives.

Over time, writers may feel more confident about reading some of their most personal or daring stuff. Respecting each other’s work is crucial, but if someone feels that the material crosses a line they obviously have a right to discuss that reaction too. We’ve had some very lively debates, one triggered recently by a scene of sexual violence which, while obviously not gratuitous, was certainly very troubling. Here again, the group can embrace differences but ideally also assert some common sense. In one group Alex was in, on the other hand, a listener condemned an entire piece of work because it contained a single swearword, FFS.

Giving and receiving feedback

Writer always agree, in theory at least, that feedback can help them improve. But we are tender plants. Maybe you don’t agree with the feedback you received, or you feel it wasn’t given in a helpful way. Or maybe you want to say something that you think is helpful but you dare not because the writer in question tends to get very defensive. Or maybe you’re just in a sulk because you said some really nice things about their story but now they’re pulling yours to pieces…

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Approaches to feedback differ wildly. Some people sound like literary critics, others come across as fans, still others talk of arcs and inciting incidents. The best feedbackers are able to articulate an initial emotional response, then layer over that a more technical assessment of what worked, and what might have worked even better. Great feedback always starts with what the writer is trying to achieve, rather than simply telling the writer what you, as a reader, would like them to have written. It’s not always easy. But there are certain universals to look at, such as good storytelling, giving the reader pictures, engaging the emotions, keeping the reader entertained or in suspense or amused.

If you really dislike a piece of work or just feel indifferent to it, it’s probably best to pick on something you can be constructive about, and leave further comment to others. Talk about something specific and fixable. The praise sandwich is useful here. ‘I thought the flying cyber-goats were really spooky! But I did wonder if we needed those first ten pages about the history of your planet’s currency? Great ending though!’

Sometimes you might not know what to say, perhaps because you lost the thread or you’re struggling to think of anything positive. There are several strategies that can save you at such moments. You might, for example, make a comparison: ‘Ooh, that reminds me of Malcolm Lowry / Bird Box / Margaret Atwood’. Seasoned feedbackers have phrases that work in multiple contexts, such as ‘I think that story will stay with me for a long time’ or ‘Have you read any HP Lovecraft?’ If all else fails, ask them what their process is. Writers can bang on for hours about their process.

Learning to embrace feedback is perhaps the most important part of the whole thing. The writing life is full of rejections and disappointments, after all, so it all helps build resilience. You’re writing for your readers, not for yourself, so the group offers an early bit of market research or user testing. You learn about the darlings to murder, the longueurs to cut, the bits that to you are daring ambiguities but to everyone else are just plain confusing. Often the feedback tells you something you half knew already; other times you hear a contrary view that only serves to confirm the rightness of your own approach. The whole of writing is learning the difference, a lifelong study.

Self-righting vessels

Writers’ groups have a wonderful self-righting ability. If one person doesn’t get what a piece was trying to do, another will have a useful perspective. If someone looks a bit bruised, another will step in with a positive thought. If one person has provoked an outburst of general gushiness, someone else will intervene with a critical caveat (this will be the sort of person who never gives 5 stars on a feedback form).

United by their love of words and stories, these groups sail forth in their ramshackle vessels on the open seas of doubt and obscurity, weathering tempests and doldrums in search of that elusive land of publication. Their crews are people who have emerged from the solitude of their respective imaginations to offer real-world support to others who are often quite unlike them except in this one essential belief: writers need writers.

Writing group types: a spotters’ guide

The crap dad – writes blatantly semi-autobiographical short stories about a man with a very similar-sounding name to the author, who is always letting his kids down because he’s tapping away at his computer or checking to see if his latest self-published flash has broken his record for retweets (currently stands at 4).

The social writer – this very engaging character can, if left unchecked, extend the group’s usual smalltalk preamble to fill up the whole evening. Which they are quite keen to do, as they haven’t actually brought any work along.

The screenwriter – can explain any piece of work in terms of set-up, midpoint, stakes, choice points, inciting incident, and positive/negative charge. Which is quite a feat when you’re feeding back on an ode.

The world-builder – spends half an hour every time explaining the new developments in the universe they’ve just devised before reading an out-of-sequence sub-sub-plot bit from an obscure section of Volume XI (Rise of the Darkling Dragon Lords)

The quiet poet – unassuming and quietly spoken, she shuffles in, pulls out an unruly sheaf of papers, and just about musters the courage to say ‘here’s a thing I just put together’… Then she reads out some verses of devastating beauty and truth that leave the rest of the group on the floor.

The self-help creative writer type – sees writing only as a vehicle for self-actuation, so all feedback that is less than 100% glowing is uninteresting, except as a way for me to learn something about myself from the way I responded to your feedback of me.

The sentimentalist – repeatedly weeps as they read their very long story about a baby dinosaur that has lost its mum.

Kitten on a Fatberg, by Dan Brotzel, Martin Jenkins and Alex Woolf, is a farcical novel-in-emails about a very eccentric writers’ group