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Posted October 24, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Pen pals: Writing clubs help members push themselves, make friends

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series about local writing clubs.

By Josette Keelor -- jkeelor@nvdaily.com

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Winchester resident LaMishia Allen gathered with some friends at Samuels Public Library. The scene was casual as the group took some time to reconnect quickly before settling down to work, but their pens were out, their laptops open. They were not there to socialize. They had come to talk shop.

For Allen, 33, and other members of the Literary Geniuses writing group, meeting to work together on their novels is one of the best decisions each ever made -- a decision that inspired them to form a regular writing club.

They become acquainted while participating in National Novel Writing Month, held each November, and for a couple of years met as a group only during that month. Last year, however, they decided to keep meeting every Monday night, year-round, at Bowman Library in Stephens City. Thus began their novel writing club.

"We go back afterwards [after November] and help each other edit," Allen said. During November they also meet at other locations, including at Samuels.

"I just wanted something that was happening regularly that would force me to write ... find my writing voice through those [groups]," she said.

Writing groups have been popping up throughout the area, inspiring in their members new ideas and motivation to keep writing, no matter what.

Local libraries have also tapped into the creativity flowing throughout the area, offering programs like blog writing and memoir writing.

"You name the type of writing and we've had someone suggest one," said Kate Parker, development officer at Handley Library in Winchester.

"Everybody seems to be really interested. I think that job skills for writing would be an excellent topic right now," said Parker, who attends her own local writing group on family history and memoir writing.

The interest in writing has skyrocketed in the area, and organizations are just trying to keep up.

"Something's happening," Parker said. "This is big"

Maggie Stetler, of Winchester, and Shea Finfrock, of Strasburg, have participated in writing groups for years.

Stetler, 64, learned about The Winding River Writers from a friend, who saw fliers for the group, which was formerly known as the Front Royal Writers.

"It's always good to get you going, to give you inertia," Stetler said of the group setting. "Good to connect with other writers and poets."

She offers classes periodically to help people with "reclaiming the voice that is great within you."

The next workshop, "Bucketful of Words," which will take place through the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum in Winchester, will combine poetry and pictures with writing activities "to help people access their creativity and express it in writing," she said.

Finfrock, 32, who has been a member of different writing groups for the past four years, feels the same way.

"The feedback you get is the experience of writing that we kind of live for ... sharing a story," she said.

A 12th-grade English teacher at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Finfrock was inspired to reconnect with her former love of writing after seeing the work produced by her students.

"I think when you hear good writing and you see good writing that's what you produce," she said.

Each month she and three other teachers meet to compare writing and offer constructive criticism. All four became close after participating in the Northern Virginia Writing Project's summer institute in 2005.

"It's teachers teaching teachers," said Finfrock, who last year helped organize the summer institute, which takes place at the George Mason University satellite campus at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. "I found a writing group there and I've been in writing groups ever since," she said, later adding, "And the funny thing is, we're not all English teachers."

The summer institute offered several opportunities for her and other teachers of all subjects to write together and receive advice from each other.

"That was the push for me to start writing again," said Finfrock, who is currently focusing on memoir writing.

Though the group setting offers many benefits, managing to meet in person can pose a problem for some writers who have day jobs, family obligations and other hobbies that make coordinating meetings difficult.

Candace Saunders, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at Frederick County Middle School in Winchester, prefers to write at home and benefit from group contact online through forums at www.twitter.com and www.absolutewrite.com. Saunders, 28, of Bunker Hill, W.Va., is a member of the Romance Writers of America and recently landed a contract to have her first novel published through Diversion Press in Clarksville, Tenn. She hopes the young adult romantic suspense, titled "Stay," will be released next year.

"I'm really big on the Internet," she said, explaining the usefulness of being able to chat online with other writers and even literary agents. The one-on-one atmosphere, albeit somewhat anonymous, can offer just what a first-time novelist needs to keep plugging away when seeking success seems futile.

Saunders sent hundreds of queries and manuscripts to agents and publishers before catching the attention of Diversion Press. Rejection after rejection was discouraging, but she kept at it. She said she gains inspiration from her students who, in some ways, write her novels for her.

"Being a teacher, especially this grade, it really helps," Saunders said.

She pays attention to which books draw her pupils' attention.

"They're one of the main reasons I've started writing," she said. "I saw their reaction to 'Twilight,' [by Stephenie Meyer.] ... I have 11-year-olds sitting in my class reading ... 600-page novels."

Most surprising to her was that boys in her classes were reading the "Twilight" series, which features a female protagonist and is known for its romantic plot lines. Yes, they thought the story line a little sappy, but ... "They were still reading the book. I thought if I could write half as good and [gain] their attention half as much, that would be incredible," she said.

"We have to have people who know kids, know what they like," Saunders said. "I like the young adult genre, I like reading it, and I like getting my kids to read it. Every chapter I write I think, 'Would my kids like this?'"

The Literary Geniuses novel writing group meets at Bowman Library in Stephens City on Mondays at 6 p.m. For information about The Winding River Writers, e-mail Heather Davis at hdavis@jsi.com. Maggie Stetler will offer a writing workshop on Jan. 9 and 10 at the Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, at 54 S. Loudoun St. in Winchester. For more information call 665-0269.

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