Nona Smith's memoir Stuffed, Emptying the Hoarder's Nest was published in 2014 and is in its third printing. Her short stories appear in the Writers of the Mendocino Coast anthologies, At the Edge, Upwelling and Mixed Waters, in several issues of the Redwood Coast Senior Center Gazette, and in various online publications. Nona is currently serving her third year as president of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, and is the trainer of new volunteers at the all-volunteer Mendocino Community Library. At the moment she is working out of her usual medium (as well as out of her comfort zone) on a novel about a detective who has been visited by words that pop out of bubbles and offer her clues.
“Do you really think a writing group is helpful?” my friend Sid asked, skepticism written all over his face. He’s been working on a novel for some time, but the plot is still sketchy, the characters not yet fully formed. It took me a heartbeat to respond. “Helpful? You betcha,” I told him. “In fact, more than helpful. It can be magical.” He raised his eyebrows at me, so I told him about the Write Women, my group of six writers who’ve been meeting weekly for almost five years. We gather, coven-like, in the early hours of the evening at a round wooden table to share our work. That’s where the magic happens. Sometimes Selene the cat joins us, but she always keeps her opinions to herself. Early on, we made some rules. We pledged to arrive at our meeting place on time out of respect for the process. We vowed to come whether or not we had writing to share because there is as much value in critiquing as in writing. As a group we decided our lives were too busy for homework, so we agreed to bring a copy of our work (not more than nine double-spaced pages) for each member to follow while the piece was being read aloud.
Each of us is allotted half an hour to read and listen to critique remarks, although we’re a flexible group and keep things fluid. If someone needs more time, they get it. Sometimes we ask for specific advice about story or craft, and occasionally for clarification about a comment made. But mostly, we listen. The editing remarks are meant to be helpful so they are very specific. We start with the positive, calling out those words or phrases that stick out as poetic, beautifully written and dynamic. We call out what worked for us, made us laugh, made us cry, made us want to read on. When we come to things that don’t work so well, we name those explicitly too: a word that’s awkward or pops us out of the story line, some inconsistency in timeframe or movement, a place where we want the writer to slow the action down so we can see what’s going on. In dealing with the editing comments, I admit I don’t always make the changes suggested. No one in our group does. But I do consider each one, and I have a rule: If more than one Write Woman is having trouble with something, I accept the need for revision. What I’ve found is, invariably, my edited piece is stronger, clearer, more polished (in other words, better) after my writing group has worked its magic on it. So is a writing group helpful? I think I’ll revise my answer. “Sid, experience the magic! Find some writers you trust, meet with them on a regular basis, pay attention to their advice and get your book written.”
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