On Sunday I signed the contract to publish my third novel and then went for a celebratory walk at Kubota Gardens. It happens to be in the neighborhood where my writing group, Rainer Beach Writers, used to meet at a lovely locally-owned spot, Redwing Cafe. The cafe staff were super nice about letting us take over downstairs tables for two hours or more on a weekend morning, always having things I could eat and so many non-dairy options for my coffee that I felt downright spoiled, and never scrutinizing who did or didn’t order much.
More than a nostalgia for the hospitality, though, seeing the cafe reminded me of where I was in my development as a writer when we started meeting there. And the ways in which hanging out with other writers once or twice a month fed me.
Did we adhere to all the sage advice about critique groups? No. Sometimes we wrote to a prompt (not me so much) and sometimes we reviewed each others’ next installments on works in progress. After some months getting established, the critiquers filtered down to four or five regulars. I enjoyed reading the others’ fiction, even though (or possibly because) it was quite different from mine.
Initially, just talking about writing with other writers was a watershed for me. Talking to other readers is wonderful; and I’ve been doing that all my life. But talking to other adults with day jobs and home lives and imaginary people living in their heads? Kind of a revelation, and a homecoming of sorts.
They also talked about things I was and wasn’t doing yet: writing wherever and whenever they could, sharing their work online or submitting it to contests, anthologies and magazines, and attending cons and pitch fests and readings. Not that I wanted to do it all; but it made all those possibilities so much realer than reading about them online ever could.
Writing advice felt entirely different, also. One on hand, I had consumed all the self-editing books I could get my hands on, and attended a bunch of writing/revising classes locally (some free, thank you Seattle Public Library!). So I had a host of do’s and don’ts firmly in mind. But getting thoughtful and constructive feedback, with face to face peer-level discussion, made me accountable in real time. I learned to spot and fix POV fouls before handing in the new section to be reviewed. I let the question “What kind of story are you telling?” fully percolate, until I had an answer that I could explain, in person. And I polished the rough edges off my characters as I viewed their words and actions through the lens each of my critique partners brought to their reading.
Logistics and other factors disbanded us; but not before the support and encouragement of core members pushed me to finish the first novel and submit it to my top-choice publisher. Like the beta readers before them, they made friends with Maji and her supporting cast and shored up my belief that the story deserved to be told. But more than that, my fellow writers looked at the story and helped me see what it needed to be stronger, brighter, cleaner. And to find the courage to pitch it, even knowing its flaws.
These days I hang out with writers mainly at conferences, sometimes at readings, and occasionally at parties. We’re not meeting to critique each others’ work or talk through specific challenges of craft. But there is a familiar comfort in chatting with people who understand the weird ride that creating fiction can be, and who have their own unique twists on making that compulsion fit into the rest of life.
For right now, that’s enough. As I gear up to take on a spec fic project that stretches me well outside my comfort zone, though, I’m starting to look around and see who might be available for coffee and conversation. And some shared critique, or brainstorming and story talk, every few weeks as things shape up. Stay tuned.