This year’s Writing Groups Open Night celebrated the many writing groups hosted at Writing NSW. It was great to hear from some of the convenors of our writing groups, who spoke about the value of their groups and what they offer members.
Children’s author Lisa Nicol gave a wonderful talk about what the Monday Night Children’s Writing Group has meant to her and her writing journey for the past eight years:
So you want to join a writers’ group?
I first joined the Monday Night Children’s Writers Writing Group at the beginning of 2015. Six months prior, my long-term partner and the father of my three young kids had walked out the door and I had unexpectedly become a single mother.
To put it mildly, I was in a state of shock. But there were three things that got me through that difficult period. In hindsight, they not only got me through, they transformed my life. The first was a manuscript I had sitting in my top drawer that I’d been tapping away at. The second was – I say unapologetically – a raging anger that no one apart from me was going to decide what I could and couldn’t do in this life, although that had now become a lot harder. And the third was Monday Night Writer’s Group where every fortnight, I would meet up with a bunch of people who all shared a passion for writing stories that would delight and entertain children.
I can still remember my first group. The introductory email had informed me each member reads their work aloud. A daunting prospect. As I waited my turn, my nerves were so full-bodied, I struggled to hear the other writers as they read their pieces. Not surprisingly, I struggled even more to give useful feedback. Eventually, it was my turn. Nerves jangling, I started reading, fast, and I read my entire story from beginning to end, despite it being well outside the 1,000-word limit. The regular members must have been gritting their teeth. Rolling their eyes. Here we go….
Of course, in truth, I was trying desperately to impress. The story didn’t work without the ending, so I just kept going. If they were annoyed – which they had every right to be – they did a good job of hiding it. Instead, they politely told me a publisher wouldn’t touch my story with a bargepole and then provided constructive feedback on what I would need to change if indeed I did want to see it published one day. I argued the case for my story. How could my story be unsuitable for children? It was in fact inspired by a game my seven-year-old boy and his best friend made up. Of course, they were right. I was just too attached to my story – and all the work I had put into it – to see it. Even to this day I have never suffered swifter nor stronger rejections. The publisher’s horror howling at me out of the screen. Turns out the world of children’s literature wasn’t quite ready for a gunman in the grandstand – even an imaginary one. I’m sure they still aren’t. But I didn’t know that. Truth be told, I didn’t know much about writing for children at all. I certainly knew nothing about the industry side of things. All I knew was I had these ideas and I wanted to write stories that I hoped children would love.
Despite the terrible news this story was unlikely to ever see the light of day, I was eager to return to writer’s group the following fortnight. There was a novel I had been working on in the tiny windows of time I had available to me. It was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while but I had little confidence in what I’d written. I’d spent a lot of time rewriting, unable to decide if what I had written was good or terrible. So at the second group I read from the manuscript, then entitled ‘Dr Boogaloo’s Family Clinic of Musical Cures’. Still out to impress, I picked a passage I thought was good rather than a passage that would benefit from the group’s considered feedback. But at least this time I stuck to the word limit. So I read and the group listened. I was surprised to discover I could physically feel them listening. They were also laughing in all the right places. It appeared the writing was doing what I intended it to do. The writing was working. And reading it aloud, in front of an audience, I myself could hear what was and wasn’t working, loud and clear. It was thrilling. And validating. And exceptionally useful from an editorial perspective; The group were not only writers who enthusiastically shared my passion, they were also sharp, incisive editors. And so generous. The feedback I got for that piece, and the entire novel as I returned fortnight after fortnight, was life-changing. Slowly I realised I did have a voice. And my faith in that voice grew and grew until it was strong enough to stand on its own two feet and strut about and take risks.
That novel became Dr Boogaloo and The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter. It was published by Penguin Random House in 2017. In 2018 it was a CBCA Notable and more importantly, last year, the income from that book – published five years ago – kept me afloat. In China the book has sold, I’m not sure of exact numbers, but I think around 70,000. It won the Shenzhen Reading Month, Top Ten Children’s Books of the Year 2021. And currently it’s being adapted for the screen as a musical by Yve Blake of Fangirls fame for Mark Gordon Pictures, the people responsible for films like Saving Private Ryan, Speed, The Day After Tomorrow and TV series such as Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy. Currently, they are making a series of Narnia films and TV shows for Netflix.
Dr Boogaloo would probably not exist without Monday Night Writer’s Group. Attending the group not only gave me faith in the work and myself, it also gave me structure and momentum. I had to turn up every fortnight with new material. It propelled me through the work. When writing a novel that sort of support is invaluable.
And I guess support is a good way to describe what attending a writer’s group has given me. It has borne some of the weight. It has held me up. Writing is a brutal occupation. Or hobby. It is not for the faint hearted. I can stand here today and rattle off my bio which on paper sounds vaguely impressive. I’ve had three children’s books published with Penguin Random House. I have deals for two more. My work has been published internationally and translated into four languages. There’s a film in the works and an American agent. But the bulk of what I deal with is rejection. Rejection is a staple of my writing career and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that sometimes it gets me down. Sometimes it makes me feel pretty terrible about myself. I sour on my work and lose faith in my ability as a writer. And sometimes I believe I should just give up. But then I go to writer’s group and I read a new piece and get a positive response or a few laughs. Or I talk about the rejections I’ve had and a table of writers with the same dreams – so they understand exactly how it feels – commiserate with me and agree these folks making the calls and decisions must be a bunch of complete and utter numpties. And I feel a bit better again. And fortified, I get back to work.
Although there must be some writers out there whose work is never rejected, I think for most, rejection is a mainstay. Publishing is a fiercely competitive business. Getting published is hard. And nothing is ever guaranteed. That is why it is essential if you are a writer, to enjoy the process of writing. Sometimes, that can be hard to do. Especially on your own. But it is much easier to do with a bunch of people with shared experiences and dreams. It is much easier to do with a bunch of people who delight in your successes and are outraged at your rejections. It is much easier to do with a group of people who offer up suggestions for other editors or agents who might feel differently about a recently rejected piece of work. A bunch of people who offer ideas to help solve a plot problem, refine a pitch, smooth out a clump of prose, weed out crappy dialogue or articulate the essence of your story, which until just then had completely eluded you.
It is much easier to enjoy the process of writing from within a community of like-minded souls. True for all things in life. So you think you want to join a writer’s group? Go on. It’s a good idea.
Our Writers’ Groups
Members of Writing NSW have the advantage of joining the diverse range of groups that span many interests and levels of experience. If you would like to know more about joining our writers’ groups, visit our Writing Group information page.
If you are looking to join an established group rather than start afresh, it’s recommend you test a few out to see which one is the best fit. Before signing up to a group, ask the convenor if you can attend as a visitor until you find the one that’s right for you.
Haven’t found your dream group yet? Try starting one. We have developed a handy resource with a list of tips that you can find here.
If you have any questions about our writers’ group program, get in touch via our contact page.