The Tongues of Men

A novel in redraft by Gabriel Smy

On writing groups

Spot the odd one out

I’m in a writing group. Just about (I can only make one in five of their weekly meetings). But even at that infrequency the benefits are evident.

Here’s how it works:
  • Each week three people submit a passage of prose or poetry of up to 3,000 words.
  • Everyone reads the submissions during the week and critiques them – usually printing out the passage and scribbling all over it, or doing the digital equivalent.
  • We meet for 2 hours in a cafĂ©, each member giving a potted version of their feedback before handing over (or emailing) the notes to the gallant recipient. Why gallant? Because each writer must remain perfectly silent while his or her work is critiqued.
Simple, no? But effective. Here’s why I like it:

It’s a deadline

Writers need deadlines. And whether they manage to meet them or simply enjoy the whooshing sound they make as they fly by, regular deadlines bump up the productivity. Especially for the first novel, when there is (sadly) no publisher or agent breathing down one’s neck, or film studio desperate to start production.

It’s a terrifying prospect preparing a chapter for critique by a group of perceptive writers, but one that sharpens the wits and gets the job done.

It’s feedback

I’m going to post another time about what to do with feedback on your writing (when I’ve figured it out); but it’s a good thing. Writers can be blind to obvious mistakes in their own work: repeated words, inadvertent shifts in the point of view, slips in continuity. On more grey areas, like style, characterisation, voice, length, believability, story, it helps to get the opinions of other readers.

You don’t have to agree with their comments, especially as members disagree with each other. But feedback of any sort makes you think: about what you’re trying to do, how it’s coming across. It picks up on the obvious problems (how I wish I knew about this group 3 years ago!) and makes you question your motivation and execution.

Besides, hearing, “this is the sort of book I could read late into the night wanting to know what happens next,” is the type of comment that keeps me going.

It’s inspiration

Writing a book is the most boring thing I’ve ever done. Look at me, sitting at a table on my own, hour after hour, day after day, huddled over a little screen.

The writing group gets me out of the house. It presents me with the work of talented writers, in all sorts of forms and styles and genres. It keeps my critical faculties sharp, keeps me reading, keeps me thinking.

And it’s more than just the work of other writers – it’s the human connection too, the solidarity. Some of the group members have been published; we all want to be. We have different lives but face the same challenges, of inspiration, research, juggling work and family, of improving the quality of our writing, of getting our books into print.

We’re on the same page.

Go ahead and start one

The great thing about a group like this is its simplicity. How hard would it be to start one yourself?

I guess the group needs to be a workable size. Usually there are 6-12 of us who make the meeting. A dozen bouts of feedback take a long time to deliver, and even longer for the submitter to assimilate afterwards.

The other trick is to find other writers who are equally ambitious and talented – you want to encourage and stretch each other. You need to be able to take criticism and give it. The group I’m in is excellent at this, talking straight and taking it on the chin.

I’d sum it up as being committed to succeeding and helping others to succeed.

You can follow half of the writing group on Twitter and Alex and Azadeh have blogs.


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