Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Writers find our community – now what to do with it?

Last Friday’s post at this site reprised the discussion about the need for community among writers from a panel of North Texas authors. But panel members didn’t stop at convincing their audience at Interabang Books in Dallas that they needed a community. They offered suggestions on where to find those communities – and what to do after saying “I do” to them.
Internet searches will turn up possibilities such as the DFW Writers Workshop, whose alumni include panelists Melissa Lenhardt and Arianne “Tex” Thompson. And creative writing classes such as those that launched panelist Blake Kimzey’s career in short fiction. 
Lenhardt used community to hone her Stillwater mystery series and award-winning historical fiction series. Panelist Kathleen Kent, author of historical fiction and more recently, the Edgar-nominated crime novel, The Dime, has lent her aura to a number of literary venues. Kimzey even went from taking classes in creative writing to founding his own group of writing classes, Writing Workshops Dallas. 
But leave it to fantasy writer Tex Thompson to bring North Texas’ abundance of literary communities into a single tent. Well, nearly a single tent. At last count, WORD (Writers Organizations ‘Round Dallas) included at least 30 groups, many immortalized on the tray of cupcakes provided for the audience gathered at Interabang.
Lenhardt (l) and Kent
Like Lenhardt, Thompson initially discovered the DFW Writers Workshop, and through it discovered introductions to still more writing groups. 
“People would stand up and make announcements about other groups, and I started to wonder, how many (writing) groups are there?. . . People want that community, it’s scary to drive somewhere in the dark to an unknown organization,” Thompson said.
And to alleviate the “driving in the dark” fear, WORD last spring brought together more than 300 group members to sample what each has to offer. WORDfest – the 2.0 version – repeats this year, Saturday, March 24, on the Tarrant County College Northeast Campus in Hurst, Texas. 
In the meantime, all the discussion of “writing communities” at the Interabang meeting no doubt left some audience members uncertain exactly what those communities have to offer. And what might be expected of them if they join one. 
Will they get to – or have to – read their own writing out loud? (No small concern considering that writing is one of the most introspective of human activities.) Will they be expected to judge other people’s writings? (See above concern again.) And what are the rules, if any, for either of these?
The good news is, as Lenhardt said, the DFW Writers Workshop group she picked, “‘got’ me in a way my family didn’t.” 
Still, how does a newcomer, a writer in a group of writers, “know when to show your work to someone else?” discussion moderator Jordan Smith of the Writer's League of Texas asked.
“I don’t think anyone should show anybody your first draft,” Lenhardt said, “because it’s terrible! Send it as polished as you can. That’s basic courtesy.”
Except, of course, when that writing rule, like many others, needs to be broken. Which she confessed once to doing when hard-pressed by a deadline. Still, it’s an exception she tries to keep as exceptional as possible.
On the other hand, Kimzey noted that he had been forced to show first drafts when he first started attending creative writing classes. With no more than a set of story vignettes in hand, the pressure of completing complete narratives before showing them to readers would have felt overwhelming. “If I hadn’t been sharing my first drafts, I’d never have finished anything.”
Whether first draft or third – or later – panelists still emphasized the value of having more than one set of eyes on their work before attempting publication, or approaching literary agents.
“You’re so close to your work that you don’t even know your own soft spots,” Kimzey said. 
And speaking about feedback, “Do you have any tips for it?” Smith asked.
“When I accept another writer’s manuscript, I owe a responsibility for honesty, offering my advice and being open about it,” said Kent. “(But) more than anything else, I try to be kind. As you become comfortable in your writing, the dime will drop. . .” (pause for laughter) “. . . and something will resonate. I take everything seriously, but you are the final arbiter of your work.”

Thompson also came in on the side of kindness from one writer to another. When talking to another writer one on one, her first rule is to say, “Thank you for much for entrusting me with this.”
A statement soon followed by, “What are you excited about? (Because) if you can’t get excited about their work, you probably shouldn’t be critiquing.”
“How important is genre when showing someone your work?” Smith asked.
“DFWWW is all-genre, so anything goes,” Lenhardt said. “I have found that having a real breadth of experience is a help. Personally, I think the best thing about a feedback partner is that they’re a good writer.”
Once writers have found a community, and received their own help, what can they do to pay that support forward? Smith asked.
“Buy their books,” Kimzey said. “Send them a kind note. Tell them how much a book meant to you. If it’s a peer, read their work and give them honest feedback.”
And don’t underestimate the power of little things, Thompson said. “If you’re (socially) awkward, volunteer to put the chairs up after a meeting. People will love you!” 

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