For a long time I was one of those writers who holed herself up and wrote. And then submitted, got rejected, had an occasional acceptance, and went on to write a bit more. I was one of those who told herself, “I don’t need a critique group, or beta readers, or whatever. I’m fine on my own. Writing is meant to be done alone anyway.”
And when you look at “great” writers (whatever your personal definition of “great” is, and whoever you consider to be “great”), it’s difficult to imagine that Austen or Dickens or Twain or Faulkner or Hemingway ever gathered around a table and handed out copies of his latest work for others to give feedback on. But at the same time, don’t we also have that romantic notion of them hanging out in cafés with other writers or whatever? Having dinner parties or something? At the very least giving their families and friends a few pages to read now and then
Honestly, I haven’t done my homework here, so I have no idea how any of those writers worked, whether they closely guarded their manuscripts up until publication or shared them with others. But while I’m sure many writers do fine on their own and without input from anyone outside of an eventual editor (and if they self-publish, maybe not even that), over the last year I’ve personally discovered the great glory that is a writers group.
Each Thursday, barring holidays and any other personal obstacles, we meet to discuss our projects. Prior to Thursday, many of us email chapters or short stories or poems to the group for feedback. But some Thursdays we have nothing specific on the agenda. We might brainstorm through someone’s plot problem or just do some general shoring up of someone’s crushed ego in the face of multiple rejections.
Yesterday I received a rejection, and today I was still down about it. So down I didn’t even want to go to writers group; I figured I’d be bad company and utterly useless to my fellows. However, moping around the house was failing to make me feel any better, and so I decided to suck up and go. And my group met the challenge of giving me space while simultaneously drawing me in so that by the time I had to go pick up my son from school I was laughing and didn’t want to leave.
In short, a good writers group is like a good group of friends, but better than that—they’re a good group of friends that understands the particular foibles of being a writer. The highs and lows, the struggles and joys. And they can point out things that are in your blind spot. When you think you’ve written something stellar, your group can tell you gently and patiently that, yes, it’s good but still needs work after the first draft. It wasn’t born perfect. (We always think our babies are beautiful, but in writing they never are. All newborn novels are ugly.)
For the time being, I’ve shelved the project that was rejected, and again my group is very good about treading that line. They tell me it’s fine but also encourage me to come back to it later because it has potential. Gentle but firm pressure, like someone with a hand at your back urging you forward.
Of course, having the right group is key, too. A bad writers group is worse than none at all. I can’t help you there. I got lucky, basically tripping into this one. I connected with one member at a writing conference and she introduced me to the rest. Which just goes to show that writing conferences produce tangible rewards as well. But that’s another story.