by Zoë Sharp

This week’s been a bit up and down, in a mild kind of a way. Firstly, I went back to the wonderful library at Poulton-le-Fylde on Tuesday evening to do a talk. One of the librarians there, Ken Harries, has just retired, but turned out for the evening anyway, and Linda Robinson and the rest of the staff made me very welcome. Always nice when the turnout’s good enough so they have to bring out extra chairs. I think we’ve all done events where the staff outnumbered the audience …


That was the ‘up’ part. They even put me under a sign that said ‘Young People’ – what’s not to like?

Then, Wednesday, I was due to go to my writing group, which meet in a friend’s house about forty miles away. Long way to go for a writing group, I know, but this is the remnants of the Lune Valley Writing Group, which is now sadly defunct. The little local library where we used to meet in Caton village has even been closed down. It was this group who followed me through the trials and tribulations of writing my first novel and getting it into print. There’s now only four of us who meet with any regularity. They’re all excellent writers, who – vitally – don’t pull their punches when it comes to criticism, and I find their input extremely useful as a book progresses.

As I’m just about to dive into the next Charlie Fox book, I was looking forward to our meeting, even though it means getting home about midnight and I knew I still had this week’s Murderati blog to write (and, if I’m honest, no clue as to a topic). But, I was due a contact lens check in the morning, otherwise they can’t keep supplying me daily disposable lenses by post. I used to wear the permanent tinted lenses, which were brilliant, but eye problems – including a warning that I might completely lose my sight – put an end to that. So, important to have the regular check-ups, just to make sure nothing’s amiss.

But, this still meant we had all afternoon to kill, as it wasn’t worth doing the eighty mile round trip home and back again for a 7:00pm start. And then, at 18:04, I get a call on my mobile to tell me that two people can’t make it, so the meeting’s cancelled.

Ah well, that’s life. No point in getting upset about it, but I admit to a regretful moment about an afternoon spent wandering when we have mountains of things to do at home. Time lost, after all, is the one thing you just can’t get back.

And, on the bright side, it has given me a topic for this week’s blog. Writing groups. Are you a member – or have you ever been a member – of one? What did you feel you got out of it? If you stopped going, why?

When I first moved up to this neck of the woods, I looked for a local writing group, and one was just forming, but it seemed to me that the organiser wanted to use it as a platform for her own ideas on teaching us to write, rather than simply letting us bring our own work for feedback from the rest of the group. I know a certain amount of structure is good – a topic for next time, if people are stuck for what to write about – but it wasn’t what I was looking for, and I regret that I didn’t last long there.

The trouble is, I don’t live in a big city, and there aren’t lots of writing groups to choose from. And I’ve never been a member of one where anyone else was writing crime. So, I’m starting to wonder about joining an on-line group.

But I don’t know how that works.

The big problem is the written word. If someone says, to your face, “That piece of dialogue really doesn’t work for me. It’s clunky. It sounds like the writer needing to get information across to the reader, rather than two people talking.” Then you pick up on far more than the words. Body language, tone, emphasis, facial expression, all help to soften down the criticism into something you can process and accept. Dashed off in an email, it sounds like a damning condemnation.

Somebody once said there are six ways people can read a letter. Some people write things that are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and find themselves being taken much too seriously and causing great upset or offence. I know adding smiley faces to emails is supposed to be a bit naff, but I do it all the time now to show I’m only making a jokey comment that is not supposed to be taken literally. Having had someone ring up and yell at me down the phone for a throwaway remark I once put in an email, I’m now very careful about these things. It doesn’t always work, of course, and I know I often put my foot in it. Where do you think the heading ‘Changing Feet’ came from?


So, that in itself makes me wary of joining an on-line writing group. The whole purpose of on-line is that you don’t meet, so how do I know if the general personality of the people whose opinions I’m soliciting will fit in with my own ideas? You make decisions about people within minutes of meeting them, but how long does it take for those same opinions to form when all you have are emails or comments? Do people reveal themselves more fully in their writing than face-to-face, or do they hide behind the words?

And quite often I used to take along to my writing group the bits I wasn’t sure about. If you write something that you instinctively know is good, you’re happy with it. It’s the bits you have sneaky doubts about where you want a second – or even third or fourth – opinion. Do I really want to release unfinished, possibly dodgy bits of work onto the Internet? Who knows where it might end up, and what damage it might do?

Paranoid? Me?

So, I’m looking for advice and information, people. Can you recommend a good on-line crime/thriller writing group? If you’ve had any bad experiences of on-line or face-to-face writing groups, care to share? And just how do the damn things work, exactly?

This week’s Word of the Week is postiche, an adjective meaning superfluously and inappropriately superadded to a finished work; counterfeit or false. Also a noun meaning an inappropriate hairpiece or wig.

39 thoughts on “Face-to-Facebook?

  1. Jake Nantz

    Hey Zoe. I tried the online writing group thing, but the honest truth is I don’t know how to trust that I’m in a good writing group, versus a bad/unhelpful one, because I really can’t tell about the people when it’s just their responses in an email/on a message board. If you’re worried about your stuff being out there on the net, you can go through google documents and it’s pretty safe. I do live in a relatively good sized city, and I still have no idea where to go to find a good crime writing group. The only one I was ever a part of had some pretty good criticism, but I couldn’t keep up because of grading/work at school.

    just my $.02

  2. JD Rhoades

    My experience in college creative writing classes forever put me off the idea of sharing my writing with anyone but my closest friends before it’s done, and then only rarely.

    I think I’d hate it even more online.

  3. Alli

    I have been a member of an online writing group for five years. It has been an extremely positive experience and has help me grow as a writer and person. This group came about from a larger on-line writing group – it splintered off initially as a group to report words done on a daily basis. We all got along so well we ended up sharing ideas, seeking opinions, critiquing, etc. Some of us live in remote areas, some have young kids and find it difficult to get out of the house – so online works well for all of us.

    I have been lucky enough to meet 4 of the 6 other members face to face. Unfortunately one of our members passed away recently and the support for each other through this really difficult time is amazing. We honour our member who passed away by writing the best books we can. This group has grown into a bunch of honest and loyal writers – some multi-pubbed, some seeking first publication – no matter where we are in our career, we support each other and give honest feedback. I wouldn’t be where I am in my career without them.

    And Zoe, I’m with you on the smiley faces – naff as they are, I use them to lighten things up. šŸ™‚

  4. Alli

    Oh, and I want to add that the online group is a closed one – so you can share information freely and know people outside the group can’t access it.

  5. Louise Ure

    I would never have written my first book without the help of my writers’ group, led flawlessly by the inimitable Gillian Roberts. But things changed after the first 18 months or so. I became the only published mystery author, one woman turned her piece of fiction into a fabulous memoir that hit the best seller lists, and a third married Otto Penzler. The group dissolved after that, probably based on our different priorities and direction.

    I’ve never been tempted to try again, online or off. Not sure i could replicate the magic of that group.

  6. Dana King

    I’m slowly departing a group I’ve been a member of for over ten years. They were a great help when I was getting started, but their tastes in style and content are very conservative, and the comments I’ve received over the past couple of years too often would tend to pull the writing back toward the middle of the road. My crime fiction is much grittier than just about anyone there would read or write, so I used to hear a lot of, "Do you think you can get away with that?’ which has more recently been replaced by silence and comments on punctuation. (Maybe you should use a period there instead of a semicolon.)

    It’s also 40 miles each way from my house, and almost directly on the opposite side of the Washington DC traffic vortex. That takes a lot of the fun out of it, too. (And it has been fun. A nicer group of people you’ll not meet.)

    I’ve never joined an online group for all of the reasons cited above. Several of the members in the group I just mentioned now routinely email our writing to each other for comments, which seems to work all right, as we all know each other from well before the email group.

  7. Sarah

    I’m in a writing group – have been for over 5 years. We’re unfortunately down to 3 members and i’m the strongest writer there, so i don’t find it very helpful, except for catching typos etc. But i still go because they’re my friends.
    I should really find a more advanced writing group to supplement with. Sigh.

  8. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Jake

    You’ve hit my worry exactly. How do you judge whether you should be taking notice of the comments you receive or not? Well, I suppose the best way is to look at the quality of the material you’re being asked to read by other members of the group, and work things out from there. On the other hand, one of the best teachers I ever had on the subject was (IMHO) one of the worst writers, so how do you work that one out?

    Your two cents’ worth is undoubtedly worth more than a mere two cents, though ;-]

  9. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JD

    I didn’t do the whole college thing, which could be fortunate or unfortunate, depending on your POV. However, a very successful crime writing friend recently read through a rejected typescript and pointed out, with insight and a brutal honesty, exactly why it had been rejected in the first place. Oh boy, he nailed it, and I’m SO grateful for that kind of honest opinion, even though he’s been worrying about having offended me ever since. If anyone asks me for an opinion, I hope I have the bottle to be as straight about it, because I found it really has helped a LOT.

    And, of course, Andy reads everything as I go along, but by the end he’s so close to the whole thing that it’s good to have somebody come at it cold.

  10. PK the Bookeemonster

    Not a writer, etc., etc….
    It sounds more convenient to have an online group in your situation, Zoe, being in a non-metro area. And the thought comes to me that an online group really has to stand on the writing itself rather than visual face-to-face cues. However, in order to facilitate interaction, you could use one of those online meeting software things like gotomeeting.com in order to share the works but use the phone for give and take. It would be in the convenience of your own home, typically, and at convenient times for everyone involved. The only thing taken away is the travel time and everyone has to supply their own snacks/drinks. šŸ™‚

  11. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alli

    Thank you for sharing what has obviously been a very positive experience for you. I’m so glad you found a group of like minds. Can I ask why your little splinter group broke away in the first place? And are you all interested in mystery/thriller writing, or all kinds?

  12. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Louise

    It sounds like you had a talented bunch in your first writers’ group – yourself included, definitely! Do you think it was the feedback that was so valuable, or the encouragement to keep going? After all, writing your first book is such a huge leap in the dark, and at least after that you do have a certain suspicion that, having done it once, you might just be able to pull it off a second time …

  13. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Dana

    I know exactly what you mean! The first writing group I ever went along to was full of academics who were either trying to write the Great Literary Novel, or poetry that my Other Half brilliantly described as, "Twelve lines of cryptic crossword clues …"

    Anyway, I took an early Charlie Fox action scene to read out, in which I seem to remember had her beating the crap out of somebody with a desk telephone. When I’d finished reading it, there was a kind of shocked silence that went on long enough for me to realise this was probably not the group for me …

    If people are lost for comments, then picking up typos or grammatical errors is an easy get-out. But I’m always left with the suspicion that, if a piece of writing is good, you always can find some fine-tuning point to make. If it’s terrible, you sometimes don’t know where to start. So, if people say nothing in response to something I’ve brought along to read, guess what I think they’re thinking …

  14. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Sarah

    Difficult to pull away from people who are your friends, but if you’re not getting the feedback you feel you need, are you asking the right questions? Have you tried reading a scene and then asking, not "What did you think of that?" But: "What do you think is happening here? Have I got this character’s motivation across clearly? What do YOU think his/her motivation is in this scene?" After all, your fellow members are readers as well as writers, and asking their opinion on the pure page-turning or enjoyment factor might give you what you need?

    And if I’m trying to teach anyone to suck eggs, I apologise. I shall go out into the garden and eat worms … ;-]

  15. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi PK

    That’s an excellent halfway-house suggestion – thank you. I’m always worried that comments I make will be taken out of context, so I spend ages writing and rewriting them, whereas you can chat about it with someone much faster and in a more relaxed way. Maybe I should investigate Skype again, although it was so tweaky when I last used it that I gave up in the end.

    Aw – other people’s snacks are good ;-[

  16. Alli

    Hi Zoe,

    The group splintered off because we were part of an online group of 500+ writers. Yeah, I know… We all write different genres – paranormal, suspense, mystery, YA, women’s fic, thriller… Everyone has their finger on different pulses and it can be very interesting. I like they fact we all write different genres, somehow we all gel and can still exchange/ask for information that pertains to all genres. And as I write cross-genre (Paranormal Thriller) the different opinions are invaluable. Thanks for asking!

  17. Alafair Burke

    I should disclose that I’m also just not a writing group person, but am trying to think like a writing group person for the purpose of imagining an online writing group, and I don’t like what I’m imagining. Even for people who pride themselves on good writing, the process of critiquing something in writing just isn’t the same as talking through something face to face. If you wind up doing it, let us know how it goes.

  18. Alli

    Alafair, I would like to let you know that if you have the right CP, then it can work an absolute treat critiquing on paper/email. My two CP’s live miles away from me (I’m in Canada and one is in Oregon and the other is in Australia) and we have managed to critique each other’s work successfully without upsetting anyone. Granted, I may be very fortunate in having found two wonderful CP’s. It is possible to do well without the face to face connection, just maybe not a common occurance.

  19. Louise Ure

    Zoƫ, I count both their enthusiasm and their advice in the "win" column. About half of them were superb at ferreting out motivation and pacing and the other half corrected punctuation. But they were all encouraging!

  20. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alli

    500+ members?!? Holy cow … but if you’ve found just two CPs (and I’m assuming that’s Critique Partner or something similar, and not a reference to Unix programming) who ‘get’ what your writing is about, and what you’re trying to achieve, then that’s brilliant, and the time zone differences must mean that you can get feedback at any time of the day or night ;-]

  21. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    Yup, that business of gentle criticism in writing is always a tricky one. If I’ve written an email reply or letter to somebody that I want Andy to check for me, he always insists on reading it himself, rather than letting me read it out to him, because then he gets exactly what’s on the page, without my tone or emphasis. Can’t do that with on-line critiques, unless you invent a whole host of new emoticons …

  22. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi Louise

    I think every writer, regardless of success or number of books written, needs encouragement as well as advice at some point or another.

    And punctuation correction, of course.

    There’s a story that Lynne Truss, who wrote EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES, was on her way to a speaking engagement in London by taxi, and the driver asked her where she was going. She told him about the book she’d written and he wanted to know what it was about. "It’s about punctuation," she said.

    "Ah," said the driver. "In that case, I better get you there on time …"

  23. Alli

    Ah yes, CP does mean Critique Partner (sorry if there was confusion!). Love the story about the taxi driver, by the way.

  24. BCB

    Zoe, I’m sitting here rolling my eyes at you [fondly] [ šŸ˜‰ ] and your assertion that the written word is too easily misconstrued. Are we not writers? Surely we are better equipped than non-writers to make ourselves clearly understood in writing? But I do absolutely understand what you mean about having written comments taken the wrong way (or even in person). I’d have been ostracized completely by now if not for emoticons.

    I’m not in a critique group and have never felt the need to be, though I have solicited feedback from individuals on occasion. I’m just too much of a loner. But I think it would be very helpful to know ahead of time the personalities as well as the editorial/writing abilities of any possible group partners. I know online critique groups can be done quite successfully.

    One other thing about written v. verbal feedback. A great deal of what I hear doesn’t register in my brain. I’m very visual and need to see things. It would drive me crazy to have to listen to verbal feedback about my writing. I’d MUCH prefer to see it in writing. It might help for you to determine which type of learner you are (visual, aural, kinetic — most of us are some combination, but one is usually predominant) and base your decision on which type of feedback works best for you.

  25. Murderati

    What a great post!

    I’m in a great critique group, but it’s in person, not online. I do know of an excellent resource for online critique groups – Guppies, the "Great Unpublished" group that’s a subset of Sisters in Crime. They have several online groups that are genre specific.

    I think it’s much better to have someone, or two, that you trust to share work with. I can openly and proudly say that without Miss ZoĆ«, I wouldn’t have been able to nail my British character, Memphis. He breathes because of you, dear.

  26. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi BCB

    I’m sorry if I exasperated you, even if only in a fond way ;-] But I’ve never been one of these writers who sits alone in a darkened room for six months, pounding the keys, and at the end brings the thing out into the world and says, "Here it is – what d’you reckon?" I like a bit of feedback just to reassure me that I’m heading in the right direction as I go.

    And I found your comment interesting about the writing/editorial abilities of the other group members. To me, that’s not as important as being keen readers and not afraid to speak their mind. After all, I’m writing this to be read and enjoyed. It’s primary function is to entertain readers, and most (but not all) of my test readers are not writers. I find their comments just as valuable, if not more so.

    On the other hand, I do appreciate that writers look beyond the story to the mechanics beneath, and if something’s not working, they’re likely to be able to tell you where the fault lies.

    I hadn’t heard the different types of learner before. I think I’m a mix, definitely. I like to chat about things, then get the main points in writing, otherwise all I remember are the problems!

  27. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi JT

    I have heard about the Guppies – in fact, I met various members of that terrific group at Mayhem this year.

    As for Memphis, you are entirely welcome! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about him and am glad that a) I could help and b) I didn’t offend you with any of my comments.

    You see, we’re back to that again, aren’t we? ;-]

  28. BCB

    Zoe, it wasn’t an exasperated eye roll, more of a laughing with you one.

    I guess I see the value of critique from two different views: if I want feedback about the actual writing (technical aspects, that is), I’d want it from writers who had sufficient knowledge/experience to be helpful. But once a work is ready for beta reading, absolutely I’d want to find non-writers for that. Some of the most helpful feedback I’ve gotten came from non-writers.

    My awareness of types of learning came from a talk given by the incomparable Claudia Dain. It was fascinating information and really helped me understand why certain methods work best for me. You can google it for more info, but here is one interesting site:


  29. Zoƫ Sharp

    Hi BCB

    Thanks for that – I’ll certainly look it up. My attitude to learning has always been something akin to throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks …

    Maybe that’s why I dipped out of school so early!

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