Writers’ groups meet to critique each others work and support each other through the process of becoming writers. They help each other out and sometimes develop a real bond. And for this pack of scribbling scribes, it’s clearly working
Lisa Harrington remembers when she got the call. She had noticed the cool kids at the back of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) workshop in Halifax, swaggering with the confidence of professionals in a world of nervous new writers.
Now, she was being asked to join their elite group, the Scribblers. Harrington accepted on the spot and today is preparing for Nimbus Publishing’s fall 2010 launch of Rattled, her first novel. Her fellow Scribblers include Jo Ann Yhard, author of the best-selling The Fossil Hunter of Sydney Mines (Nimbus), Cynthia d’Entremont, author of the dark mystery Unlocked (Word Alive Press), and whose next novel, Oak Island Revenge has been recently accepted by Nimbus Publishing (watch for it late next year) and Daphne Greer, who had a short story included in Nimbus’s A Maritime Christmas. Joanna Butler, Graham Bullock and Jennifer Thorne make up the rest of the group and are all closing in fast on the promised land of publication. All were unpublished when they joined the Scribblers.
Patrick Murphy, managing editor of Nimbus, says he generally gives a slush pile manuscript 120 seconds to wow him and sometimes, he doesn’t even get past the cover letter. If it’s a book from a Scribbler, that changes everything.
“Absolutely. I know there are other possibilities from that group and we certainly have our eye on those people,” he says. “It does give aspiring writers a leg up.”
A Scribblers manuscript will be polished and know its audience and publisher, he says, putting it heads and shoulders above its competition.
Atlantic Books Today sat down with Harrington and Yhard to find out what turns a writing group into a powerful platform for publishing. The Scribblers started seven years ago when a founding core of six finished a WFNS workshop and didn’t want the experience to end. Members have come and gone over the years, but the mission statement remains the same: get published.
Harrington was asked to join a few years ago when the group went hunting for new members at a writing workshop. The Scribblers meet every Thursday at 7:00 p.m. and take turns reading and critiquing the latest chapter in their book. That slays one of the biggest dragons faced by unpublished writers—the lack of deadline that kills so many projects.
“If you’re holding the gun to your head, you know you’re not going to pull the trigger,” Harrington says. “People do it, but I can’t imagine doing it by yourself. It’s way better when you have six other voices.”
“When we don’t meet, we don’t write,” Yhard adds.
Meetings last up to three hours and are held year-round, apart from Christmas and summer breaks. The bracing dissection of the writing liberates new authors from a second albatross: without an audience, an author can’t know how a reader will react to the writing.
“It’s a trust thing,” Yhard explains. “Breaking in new members takes a little bit of commitment.”
Feedback can be technical advice about writing that’s too clichéd, relies on too much action inside of dialogue and repetitive sentence structure, or it can be major revisions such as changing the point of view. When a project is completed, one or two members do a full read and edit.
“You can’t be a princess about your writing,” Harrington says. “It always makes it better. You’re just so many steps ahead when it’s done. [Publication] was always the goal for all of us. Not to do exercises or stretch your mind.”
Harrington’s book is a mystery and the group helped make sure the clues matched the puzzle and the twists popped off the page convincingly.
Wary of book clubs that turn into snack clubs, the Scribblers stay focused on writing. The chat before a meeting officially starts turns to tips on markets for writing or interesting articles on the craft.
“We’re not into each other’s personal lives. We don’t want to hear about the kids. It’s like “Law and Order”: we stick to the story,” Harrington says.
That also reminds the group of their identities as writers, not just parents, spouses or office employees.
“We don’t think of ourselves as hardcore, but I guess, comparatively speaking, we are,” Yhard says.
The other thing the group does well is celebrate success, be it d’Entremont’s winning the WFNS’s Joyce Barkhouse Writing for Children Prize in 2006 or Harrington inking the deal for Rattled. The first thing Yhard did when got her acceptance letter was email the Scribblers. The custom is for the lucky writer to bring the champagne to a special meeting of the group.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” she remembers. Harrington took a more low-key approach. At the first meeting after her good news, she plunked a bottle of bubbly on the table.
“We went, ‘What!’” says Yhard, and started the celebrations all over again.
Success means a slight gap has opened up in the group, as some are working on projects that have publishing deals awaiting them and others are still working to get in the door. “Everyone tries to be happy for everybody and genuinely are,” Harrington says. “You just hope it’s going to happen for everybody. It’s hard, because you want it, too.”
“Everybody wants it so badly,” Yhard agrees.
While the Scribblers are all operating in the same general genre of writing for children or young adults, other writing groups take a different approach. Kathy Mac teaches creative writing at Saint Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and is a member of four writing groups. She’s also the author of the Roseway Publishing poetry collections The Hundefräulein Papers and Nail Builders Plan for Strength and Growth.
The Wolf Tree Writers has been meeting monthly for 20 years and Mac’s been on board for eight. Some members are published and some have no ambition to publish. The group’s goal is to support writing as a creative outlet. Stand and Deliver Poetry Workshop does what it says on the tin, meeting weekly at STU to develop performance poetry skills, while the “mostly defunct” Halifax Poetry Workshop gathers annually when its members are all in Halifax. The new Word Shop in Fredericton came out of a STU creative writing class.
“They’re very different, but they’re all based at heart on you bring your work, you pass it out and you get feedback,” Mac says. “The ambition is to make the work better. It’s also a support group.”
Her Halifax group provided a vital boost when her writing dreams were flat-lining. “Those four or five women were my audience,” she says.
In her vast experience, five to seven members is the magic range. More than that and you need very long meetings just to cover everyone. Fewer than that and you won’t get enough feedback to make it worthwhile.
“You can see [new writers] realizing the discrepancy between what they thought they’d written, what they thought they were communicating and what people were actually getting out of it,” she says of how groups work.
Mac recommends the “sandwich” approach of saying nice things before and after critical comments. Even then, her groups tend to question the writer’s decision and discuss other approaches, rather than bluntly say it’s wrong.
“Writing is a craft. You learn it, you learn it and you learn it—and it’s hard,” she says.
Tips from the Scribblers:
- Build a group that gels. Start with a workshop group that works. Add from there.
- Gather writers operating in similar genres so you all understand the medium. Not necessary, but helpful.
- Meet weekly and get down to business.
- Bring writing to every meeting. Kick yourself hard if you fail to bring writing one week.
- Celebrate success with champagne. Bring your own champagne.
This story was original publishing in the fall 2010 issue of Atlantic Books Today