I went back to my writers' group last night after a year away. We meet in the upstairs of a sweet coffee shop in a distinctly sketchy part of town - definitely the kind of place where you carry your keys in your hand on your way to the car and lock the doors behind you as soon as you're in. But then, I am also a little paranoid.
HOWEVER, walking through the Valley of Sketch is hardly the point. The writers' group had changed composition from last year, with a few people I still know and more that I did not. I guess there is a natural ebb and flow - the group gets too big, not everyone gets to read in the time allotted for the meeting, people drop out and the group gets smaller, and then more people come.
I read chapter seven of SHARDS. I got some good feedback: great dialogue, need more visual description, love the characters, the female character in the scene could be more hostile and angry. I tend to downplay the female characters a little, I guess, because I don't want them to be just another irrational, stereotypical woman. My characters are a little neurotic and quirky, but honestly, that is how I see everyone. If you met my family, this would make sense.
I enjoyed the other readings too. There was a pretty rousing chapter of an action-adventure novel, a beautiful piece about observing gulls on the beach (the kind of detailed description that I don't think I could ever settle down enough to write myself), a chapter from the memoir of a former priest who left the church with a nun he had fallen in love with... overall, just good stuff. It's fun to hear such a variety of stories in one place.
The problem with writers' groups (for me) is they are most effective for short pieces - a story, a scene, a poem - something that can be read in your fifteen-minute spot of fame that week. Several of us are reading novels, in excerpts, which allows you to polish a scene (and ensures it stands on its own), but it doesn't give you a good sense of the overall flow of your piece. I have some friends reading the novel for fun, but I wish I could get a good literary critique of it.
I do love the group, though. Writing is so solitary, it's fun to socialize and talk about your writing. In small doses, of course... eventually you have to shut up and get back to the keyboard. :)