By Mark Alpert
I’ve been a member of a writing group since 1993. It hasn’t been the same group of people the whole time; members have come and gone over the past quarter-century, too many to recall. But belonging to a critique group was an important part of my journey to becoming a published novelist (which happened in 2008, with the book pictured above) and has continued to inspire me in the ten years (and nine more novels) since then.
The group started as an offshoot from an after-hours fiction class I took at the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. The class instructor was a novelist and clever capitalist who realized that the combined tuition fees of the dozen students in her class were far greater than what the West Side Y was paying her to teach us the basics of fiction writing. So she invited half the students to meet at her home instead. It was a win-win for everyone except the YMCA: we paid her a lower fee for more attention to our work, and yet she ended up earning more money overall because the Y wasn’t getting any of it.
After a year, though, the writers in our group realized that we didn’t need an instructor anymore. The feedback we got from one another was the real benefit of the meetings. So we started gathering in our apartments on a rotating basis (and we managed to stay friendly with our erstwhile instructor, who hopefully thought of us as fledglings who’d successfully left the nest). We usually met once a month, which gave everyone enough time to write about twenty pages of fiction. In the earliest days I guess we must’ve used the U.S. mail to distribute our pages to everyone in the group in advance of the meetings, but that method seems so primitive now that I can’t believe we ever did it. Just think of all the postage we’ve saved since email was invented!
The ideal size for a writing group is probably between four and seven people. If there are too many members, it becomes impossible to read and critique everyone’s work in a reasonable amount of time. But if there are too few, you won’t get the main benefit of a writing-group critique, which is a kind of mass-audience objectivity. If only one or two people are reading your work, you run the risk of getting hopelessly idiosyncratic responses that tell you more about the readers’ tastes than the quality of your writing. But if four out of the five people in your writing group are telling you that something in your novel is bad, then in all likelihood it really is bad and you need to fix it.
Our writing group has had some enviable success. At least six members have become published authors. One won the prestigious Rome Prize, which offers a yearlong fellowship at the American Academy in Rome. And there have been calamities as well; over the years, two members have died tragically young. Others have stopped writing fiction or moved away from New York. But the group goes on. We’re meeting again next week. I just sent out emails distributing a fifty-page chunk of the Young Adult novel I’m working on. (That’s way too many pages, but I’m hoping everyone will forgive me.)
Even more than the constructive criticism, I love the idea of having a regular audience for a work in progress. I know how certain people in the group will respond to something I’m writing, and I can often anticipate their comments and revise the piece accordingly before they even see it. And I’ve made some great friends in the process.
I’m wondering, though, how common these groups are, and how long they typically endure. Has any other writing group out there reached the 25-year milestone? If so, please let me know!