Welcome to Zena Shapter: Founder of the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group

In a new series, I’m inviting some of the wonderful writers’ group convenors out there to share a little bit about themselves and the joys and challenges of running a group.

Without further ado, please join me in welcoming Zena Shapter to the stage!

Tell us a little about your writers’ group. 

Founded in 2009 (by me!) we started out as a bunch of local writers meeting once a month to exchange writing experience, knowledge and detailed critiques. Today ‘NBWG’ has expanded to become an award-winning writing critique group committed to its local arts community and various literary-based philanthropic projects. Not only are we committed to furthering our own writing careers, but we have raised thousands of dollars for The Children’s Hospital at Westmead with our writing, we regularly hold free writing workshops for young writers with a passion for words, and have published several emotionally-charged engaging adventure books to raise money for The Kids’ Cancer Project. Read more about us here: http://northernbeacheswritersgroup.com/ . Woo hoo!

What made you start your current writers’ group?  

I was a full-time stay-at-home mum of two toddlers with a freelance copywriting/editing business to run during their day naps and limited transport options. I was time-poor and low on finances, but needed to engage with like-minded others and wanted to learn and improve my fiction writing. There were writing groups nearby who offered great support and inspiration. But I didn’t need support (it can’t get you anywhere if your writing’s rubbish), or inspiration (I had plenty of my own ideas), and my nearest critique group was a good 1½-hour bus journey away. So I decided to set up my own free-to-attend critique group closer to home.

How is the group structured? What happens prior to meetings/at the meeting/after the meeting? 

At the end of each meeting I arrange for 2-3 members to have their writing critiqued by the rest of the group next month. Those writers send their pieces to me and I email them around for everyone to read and critique in advance. At the next month’s meeting we then discuss our findings as a group and give as much constructive feedback as possible. That’s the monthly routine of it. However, now that we have other activities and commitments, there’s administration for those as well.

Has your group undergone any changes since it started?

We’ve grown in overall size, though attendance at meetings remains about the same – members duck in and out as their lives allow. We’re all so busy! Our communal goals have also expanded, from just wanting critiques to writing together, raising money for charity, publishing books and (this year) an anthology, organising writing retreats and running workshops. Up until late last year I was running all that by myself, until I put up my hand and asked for help. Now we’ve divided certain tasks into ‘key responsibilities’ and various members have taken ownership of those roles. We still meet once a month to critique and discuss actual writing, but sometimes there are other meetings as well to further our expanded goals.

How has running a writers’ group supported your own writing process? 

At first it helped me improve tremendously, and I went from placing in writing competitions, getting commended and shortlisted, to actually winning them. Now I’m a competition judge! However, running the group then started to be detrimental to my writing as I found I was spending too much time on organising the group and not enough on my own writing career. With the recent restructuring, there’s a lot more balance now. Yay!

What were some of the challenges of starting the group?

At first the major challenge was finding writers. I wanted to connect with similar others, had an idea what I wanted from them and what I could offer them in return – but had no idea how to find them!

After that, the major challenge was balancing personalities. The group’s original members started off on an equal footing. We all had equal contributions to make and I often let certain personalities dominate meetings. This was a mistake, as their personalities were more confronting than mine and it turned other members away. At that point the group underwent a transition during which I realised I had to step up my leadership.

Sometimes opinions can be just that – personal viewpoints based on no merit or experience. Sometimes writers can show you the error of your writing ways, but then cut you down emotionally. I once had a writer project their own insecurities and frustrations onto me so vehemently they made me think long and hard about giving up, both my writing and trying to lead other writers towards improvement. In the end I decided not to let that happen, pushed through the transition and allowed myself to become a comfortable, protective and supportive leader.

Are there any ongoing challenges in managing the group? 

Definitely! Our group seems to carry good fortune with it, such that the free-to-attend venues we choose for our meetings quickly become popular and the noise level increases until we’re struggling to hear each other. We’re on our fourth venue now, and secretly hope the crowds don’t follow!

The group can also sometimes swell in numbers, particularly after we’ve featured in the local newspaper for one thing or another. When attendance at meetings grows over a certain number, I have to close the group to new members until things die down.

Managing talk time and intensity during meetings is always a challenge. Five years in I’ve learnt to steer discussions until everyone who wants to talk gets a turn – we even have a moment at the end of discussions when we invite our quieter members to speak up and everyone who’s already spoken must remain silent.

Finally, delegating effectively is an ongoing challenge for me personally, especially when it comes to the books we publish as a group. There are tasks which, given the creative support business I now run, I’m simply more proficient at performing. I have more knowledge, know the pitfalls to avoid, and it’s quicker and easier for everyone involved if I do those tasks myself. Sometimes, though, I have to let go of that and give other members a chance to shine.

What is the best thing about running a group? 

Being among like-minded people all passionate about writing and books and story. It’s amazing!

What advice would you offer to someone who is considering starting their own group? 

Check out your local groups first, as you don’t want to waste your time reinventing the wheel. If there are no local groups to fit your needs, then just start something, even with 2-3 others. You will grow. The quicker you get started the quicker you’ll establish what kinds of routines and practices will work for you, both personally and as a group. Good luck! Oh, and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch and ask – I’m everywhere on social media as ‘ZenaShapter’ and you can email me through my website at zenashapter.com

4 thoughts on “Welcome to Zena Shapter: Founder of the Northern Beaches Writers’ Group

  1. As one of the members of Zena’s fantastic writers’ group, I have to say my writing has improved immensely since I joined.

    And if you’re a writer and you’re hesitant to join a group, put those fears aside and find one and join it. If you can’t find one, start one. You can’t improve in isolation.

    One of the proudest things I’ve done as a writer is take part (with other members of NBWG) in the Write-A-Book-In-A-Day competition, raising money for the Kid’s Cancer Project. A truly high pressure test of your writing skills for a cause that can’t be beat.

  2. Really liked seeing your thought processes re handling/management of the group here, Zena! As a former NBWG member, I know I always appreciated your leadership skills and friendly guidance during meetings.

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