By Anna Jean (A.J.) Mayhew, 2012 Fall Conference Faculty, Writing Groups That Work
I lived the first forty-five years of my life in or near Charlotte, where I was born. In the mid-70s I took writing courses at Central Piedmont Community College and made friends who formed the first writing group I’d ever been in—six or seven of us, mostly writers of science fiction and fantasy. The Aardvarks—as we called ourselves—gathered at each other’s houses on an irregular basis, smoked, drank beer, and handed out manuscripts for critique—occasionally we read aloud to each other, but not often. Sometimes we just smoked and drank beer.
I moved to Orange County in 1985, and missed the ’Varks terribly. Occasionally I went back to Charlotte, or one or two of them visited me in the converted tobacco barn near Jordan Lake where I lived for a year, contemplating my navel and writing. In the spring of 1987 I met novelist Laurel Goldman, and joined her Thursday morning writers group. Twenty-five years later, I’m still a member of that remarkable weekly gathering of writers in Chapel Hill, and now lead two groups of my own, shamelessly copying Laurel’s successful method. Over two dozen books and many short stories have been published by those in our groups, and it’s the way the meetings are conducted that helps the members become prolific writers.
Over the eighteen years it took me to write my first novel, The Dry Grass of August, I read the whole book aloud to my Thursday morning group at least twice. When it was as polished as I could make it, I handed out copies of the manuscript to them and to Laurel; they took a month or so to read it and gave me everything from detailed line editing to suggestions about over-arching structure—plot, setting, and character. Laurel read it at least twice more before I began submitting it to literary agents in the winter of 2006. My novel was accepted by Kensington Publishing in 2009, in a two-book deal; it won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction in 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 SIBA Book Award. My second novel, Tomorrow’s Bread, is now in progress.
If I were asked to say just one thing I’ve learned from being a member of Laurel’s Thursday morning group for twenty-five years and from leading my own groups, it would be that I’ve become a critical listener, and not just to the work of others, but to my own as well. Now when I’m writing, I often stop and read aloud (particularly dialog). This has made me a better writer and—an important thing when doing a book tour—I’m confident now when reading my work in public.
On Sunday morning, November 4, at the NCWN Fall Conference in Cary, I will meet with those of you who are interested in starting a writing group, and will share with you the details of what makes a group successful. When I think of the key ingredient, the one thing that distinguishes these groups from many gatherings of writers, I remember my children saying, at bedtime, “Read to me, Mama.”
Anna Jean (A. J.) Mayhew’s first novel, The Dry Grass of August, won the 2011 Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction, and is a finalist for the 2012 Book Award from the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance. A Blackstone Audio book came out in December, and the French translation was published in April. The novel will also be translated into Italian, Turkish, and Norwegian for release in 2013. In February, A. J. was a featured speaker at Southern Voices in Birmingham, AL, along with novelist Scott Turow. Last September, she dined with Governor Beverly Perdue at a gathering to honor North Carolina authors, and is now working on her next novel, Tomorrow’s Bread.
Registration for the 2012 Fall Conference is now open!