Truly one of the shrewdest decisions an author can make is to participate avidly in a writers’ group or club. A writer is like the man in John Donne’s poem: “No man is an island/Entire of itself,/Every man is a piece of the continent,/A part of the main.” Almost always, a writer will produce better work during or after membership in a writers’ critique group than that writer would produce in isolation. Looking back over the last few years of my life, one of the best choices I made as a writer was to join a fiction writers’ group, and to participate religiously in its meetings, readings, and critiques.
A reading and book-signing by writer Tosh McIntosh in May 2012 at Bookpeople, Austin’s iconic independent bookstore, led me to one of the most meaningful and worthwhile activities in my recent life. Small talk at the signing table with Tosh, his wife Ann, and Austin writer and editor Cynthia J. Stone turned into an invitation to attend NIP, or Novel in Progress. Over a year later, I joyfully count the blessings from this meeting, and they are many indeed. I couldn’t design a better format and culture for a writers’ group than what I found days later at my first NIP meeting. The group meets every other Sunday for two hours. Members spend the first hour contributing their prepared critiques of a volunteering member’s 25-page submission. One by one, each member addresses the submission, and neither the featured writer nor the other NIP members can interrupt or comment on the critique. After a short break, the second hour commences. The roundtable opens for interactive discussion between the featured author and the other members. The session adjourns after the upcoming featured writer hands out copies of his or her submission (the moderator also emails copies to the members that night). This is the NIPsters’ “homework.” They have two weeks to read it and produce their critiques. The writers depart and many reconvene across the street at a café for drinks and informal discussion.
What I have found is that one NIP member will never catch all the typos and shortcomings and offer all the nuggets of good advice for that particular session, but each member sees something different, brings different life experiences, and offers unique criticism. For example, Tosh is a true details guy: his decades as an Air Force officer and flight instructor imbue him with an analytical nature that misses very little. Award-winning novelist Brad Whittington (published in both traditional and independent formats) may offer a shorter critique, but Brad will often share invaluable advice with the featured writer. The sum of all of the parts (usually 12 to 18 members show up) becomes a very rich, multifaceted critique a NIPster could receive in an MFA program or at a top-tier writers’ conference. But in this case, a NIPster invests no cash, only the time and brain power required to aid a fellow writer with a good critique. I often wonder what my life would have been like had I not stopped in that Friday evening in May to grab a macchiato and head over to hear a local novelist read from his work. I would still be writing, I’d still be reading, but I can imagine how much further behind on my writer’s journey I’d truly be. And without certain special friends I will now have for a lifetime.