I joined the South African Writers’ Circle (SAWC) back in 2007 and am still a member. It has a countrywide membership and sends monthly newsletters to its members. Meetings and workshops are held in Durban, and local writing personalities are usually the guest speakers. Most important, the SAWC has competitions which are entered anonymously. Not only does each entry receive a personal critique, but the winning entry and a general critique are published in the next newsletter. This means that you always have something against which to compare your work and see where you might have fallen down, what the judge was looking for and why he or she chose the winning entry over yours.
For the first seven months I kept my mouth shut, listened to the speakers, fumbled through the workshops, read my newsletters and never entered anything. Finally, I plucked up some courage and entered a competition called First Chapter of a Novel. After all, it was anonymous unless you won a placing. I won first place in my first competition and from then on, nothing stopped me. As my writing grew, I hungered for more.
A year later I enrolled for a postgraduate course in creative writing at my local university, and found myself in a group of nine writers. Four were poets and four wrote short stories, and then there was me, with two mediocre unpublished novels to my name. Over the course of the single semester, we each had to present our new work-in-progress twice, and to comment on the work of each other. We agreed from the first meeting that the environment in which we met was a nurturing one and that no statements could be made without substantiation. We became close to each other and to our two tutors – one of whom tutored the poets and the other tutored the prose writers. We each met with them, one-on-one, throughout the course.
After the course ended, I knew I had become a better writer, but sadly my tutor left the country to work in another university and my fellow students were not interested in any further interaction, as most were continuing with their studies and didn’t have time. I completed and self-published the novella I had written during the course, and continued to write alone, re-working one of my previous novels.
Around that time, Penguin advertised a local competition for African writing, and a number of writers in the SAWC speculated about entering. Four of us made the decision to rework our current projects and enter them. Although we had known each other a while, by the closing date we had formed a strong bond, due to the multitude of encouraging e-mails that flew between us as the deadline loomed.
After the submission date, we took ourselves for a celebratory lunch, and one writer suggested that we meet once a month at her house with our laptops to work on our current projects. As would-be novelists with a common goal and a will to succeed, we didn’t need to be asked twice.
Like my previous writers’ group, we had a policy of nurturing and helping. The first result of those monthly meetings was that we all began to fare better in the SAWC’s monthly competitions, simply because we had had the chance, during the previous month, to read aloud bits of our work to the others and get useful feedback.
None of us made the shortlist for Penguin, by the way, but I think we all won something far more valuable.
Some months later we formed a joint blog in order to get web exposure for that far off day when all our writing careers might take off. We began The Scribbling Scribes in
February 2012, and have developed a good following since then. We each write one piece per month and although we don’t always make our deadlines, we have a few loyal fellow-writers who contribute guest blogs from time to time so that, regardless of how busy we are, a new blog goes up on the site every week.
We still get together once a month and write, eat, drink tea and coffee, and then share bits of our work that we want opinions on. We have been joined by two other writers who have become regulars. Six is a good number to fit around a dining table and still have room for the food. And we’re all still members of the SAWC.
I must say, I think it was one of the best things we ever did, getting our writing group started. To anyone who wants to be part of a similar group, I would advise you to join a large local writing club of some kind. When you’ve been there long enough, find some fellow-writers who are on the same wavelength as you and suggest a smaller writing group. Choose your people carefully. If you start off small you can always add to it, but it doesn’t work the other way around – writers are phobic about rejection. We were lucky with our group and are still reaping the rewards.