Years ago I heard a story that has stuck with me. Back in West Virginia, a good man stopped going to church. After a couple of years, a preacher stopped by the man’s cabin in the mountains to invite him back, and the man argued that he no longer needed it.
A fire was burning in the hearth and had died down, so that only hot coals shimmered in the fire. The priest took a pair of tongs and pulled a coal from the fire and set it on a stone in front of the hearth. Within a few minutes, the coal began to cool and its fire died.
The priest needed only to raise an eyebrow, and the man got the lesson. Sometimes we can do more together than we can alone.
I got to thinking about this about a year ago. I was talking to my son, who works as a counselor for writers, and he mentioned how very often, when a writer changes one little habit, her entire writing system unravels.
For example, he mentioned one writer who would play a game of solitaire for a few minutes before he wrote. Soon that game consumed whole hours and whole days. The writer’s schedule was unraveled by one bad habit, and my son simply has to tell him, quit playing solitaire. And that reminded me of on international bestseller who once told me, “I lost two years of my life playing Civilization.”
You see, people often go through phases where they write wonderfully. Maybe they’re doing something subconsciously—like reading good books, or writing in the morning when their bio rhythms for writing are at a peak, or they’re writing in a genre they love—and suddenly they change and magic stops flowing. My son once said that in many cases, he identifies that change and then tells the writer simply, “Go back to what works.”
The same, I have seen, may be true with writing groups. I’ve been in several of them, and recently I started the Apex group. I started it because I perceive a need for such a group, one where talented individuals share their passion, their wisdom and triumphs.
Years ago, I read a letter in which Ernest Hemingway had been trying to figure out a title for one of his novels. He had searched in vain for one, and asked some of his friends for help. He went first to one writer, someone who later won a Nobel Prize, and asked some advice that didn’t work. So he asked another writer—who offered up the title “The Sun also Rises,” and that worked. Coincidentally, that author also won a Nobel Prize.
So here were three writers in a writing group, exchanging advice, and all three winning Nobel Prizes.
Similarly, I would have loved to have gone to Oxford eighty years ago and hobnobbed with the likes of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien about writing fantasy. And the notion has often struck me that in today’s world, we’re free to find our own partners in writing inspiration—our own Hemingways and Tolkiens. I know one fine author who works as a shepherd in New Zealand. He’s a long way from anyone who might heat him up, but in today’s world, he can reach out via the internet.
Yet writing groups so often fail. They don’t always fail due to bruised egos. I belonged to a nice one in college, but after college I moved away and it became too inconvenient. A number of other good writers also moved away, and all of us, like simmering coals removed from the fire, lost some of our heat.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about group dynamics. What is it that you want in a writing group? Here are a few thoughts.
First off, let me explain that any one person might fulfill several roles. In other words, you might be able to fill three or four roles. Just as you can be a loving father, a tough soldier, and a devoted son to your mother, you can fill any of these roles listed below. In fact, to some degree you have to fill all of them. Yet if you are in a group with others who help support you, you may be stronger together than you are apart.
Some people are engines. They get groups started and keep them moving at a solid pace. These are the people who set goals for themselves and encourage others, then blow past goals without even thinking.
The Idea Generator:
Years ago, I asked some writing students to help come up with ideas for some short films. In a class of 20 students, I got several excellent ones, but soon I noticed that almost all of them came from one person, an author named Dan Wells, who has since become famous. He just has a gift for great story ideas, for seeing interesting situations that others don’t recognize. He recognizes ideas that are stale and finds those that are fresh and exciting.
The storyteller is someone who envisions how to instantly transform a good idea into an original story. Not only does this person have deep insights into the human condition and understand character motivations, they understand the possibilities with stories. When a character is confronted with a problem, the storyteller sees a dozens ways that the protagonist could try to resolve that problem, and of course how those attempts could be hilarious, heartbreaking, or revelatory.
This person has a love for words on a micro level and an ear for poetic diction—for meter and internal rhyme. This is the kind of person who might be moved to tears by metaphors or who quickly recognizes a sentence that is not right for a character’s voice or a word that has the wrong connotations. I’m not sure why, but many great stylists seem to be terrible storytellers—and vice versa.
The professor knows everything. He or she is like Norm on the television show “Cheers.” Want to know a little about Acadian languages? Ask Norm. Want to know the seven types of Chinese unicorns? Ask Norm.
The accountant is a person who recognizes opportunities to make money with writing, who is always searching for ways to publish in new formats or to win awards or be first to publish in a new magazine. They may be great time managers, too.
I think that I’ll stop here. You may see other interesting character types that you need in a writing group. For example, I think that every writing group needs a bailiff—someone to maintain order and, if necessary, throw out a person who is disruptive or not performing. Maybe every group needs a priest, too, to help settle disputes and heal fragile egos.
The thing is, a group need not be large. You could one of those rare writers who is a solitary genius, but more likely you will find that others are great help. You might be an exceptional stylist, for example, and find that Lucy’s input is still valuable.
In other words, I suspect that nearly all of us would be better off in small, manageable groups. It’s easy for a good group to grow too large, so that writers are critiquing manuscripts instead of creating new ones. In Apex, we have a large group of people from all over their world, but many of our writers are finding, for example that they are doing well in smaller groups that meet for brainstorming sessions or writing sprints or to critique manuscripts. All of those are really worthwhile.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you notice a kind of person who fills an interesting role in a writing group, send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Much appreciated!
Our Apex writing group is about to enter its first year and is expanding. I’ve seen tremendous growth in several writers who finally have written books–one person finishing a first novel after twelve years. Another writer finishing and publishing eleven novels this past year. Others have begun to win awards, hit bestseller lists, and receive rave reviews.
If you’re a coal that would like to share some warmth come join us at www.apex-writers.com.