Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Writer's Groups--Literal and Virtual---Carol Brinneman

In November 2007 a couple men working at the mission center where I live were eager to start a writer’s group. Long story short, I seemed to be the only one with experience and time (well, I really didn’t have time) to facilitate it. We started out with little idea of exactly what to do.

We met at my home for two hours every other Thursday at lunch time. Desperate at first, I grabbed my copy of On Writing Well by Zinsser, read a chapter out loud, and we discussed it. I later shared articles from The Christian Communicator and Writer’s Digest magazines.

As both men had already begun writing novels, I offered to line edit, teaching them principles of good writing at the same time. Since I rarely read novels myself, I hopped to it, learning more about fiction techniques.

Another woman, a Christian friend of mine and a former newspaper reporter, joined and brought her expertise to the mix.

A few others joined and left—some in short order—once they saw how “dedicated” we were about getting some serious writing done. They either did not have the time to commit to it or just lost interest. So far, we have invited only people of like background, so that we have the freedom to talk about mission topics. We have four women and two men now, an optimal number, so everyone gets needed attention. I am amazed at how, as a group of reasonably intelligent people, we are able to help each other, no matter our specialties. And yet, I cannot imagine a writer’s group without at least one person who serves as expert.

Soon after we started, our group began sharing writing projects via e-mail. Much of the critiquing and editing pass back and forth digitally, using Word’s reviewing feature. However, sometimes we use class time to edit together as an exercise, especially on short pieces. Some people give general, sweeping evaluations, while others are good at nitpicking.

I have sometimes given homework assignments to motivate members to write more, and sometimes they carry through, if they have time and energy. We also share links to information or interesting stories about writing. It’s impossible to talk about writing without discussing books, so we do note various authors’ styles. Lately, I have decided to introduce some writing practice during the session, using prompts or quiz-type exercises.

In January 2008, “Ann” called me via Skype from South Asia. She knew of me because she served as our mission’s approver for articles mentioning her geographical area. Interested in writing, she had lots of questions. I invited her to join the group as a “virtual” member. I would tape the sessions and e-mail them to her. (I use a Panasonic RR-US395, a nifty, tiny digital recorder, and I’m careful to divide the session into 30-minute “folders” so the recording will not exceed the e-mail capacity limit.) Ann participated fully in our group, mainly via e-mail responses and sharing in editing and critiquing. Now while on furlough in the U.S., she joins us via (audio) Skype. It’s almost as good as her being here in person. The only drawback for the group is that we tend to get fixated on the mic and forget to look at each other.

From what I read and hear, about anything works for a writer’s group. Some groups are extremely disciplined and focused on getting each other’s articles, poems, or novels published. Others are less demanding. One group I know of, mainly young mothers, get together for two hours on Sunday afternoons just to have some quiet time to write!

One local writer’s club I have attended at a bookstore in a nearby city has about 60 in attendance, once a month. A published author speaks, or is interviewed, or a panel shares. Most members meet regularly in smaller critique groups. Writing contests are offered, and winners read their creations at the next meeting. In addition, the club organizes writing workshops (for a fee) on various topics. Club membership costs $30 per year.

Writing groups provide encouragement, instruction, and friendship. My hope is that God will provide every missionary writer-in-training with such a group—literal or virtual.

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