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Source of Support : Writers gather periodically to evaluate their work and exchange marketing tips, reading lists and encouragement.

August 27, 1993|SUSAN HEEGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly for The Times.

W riter: insecure, lonely, unappreciated, seeks kindred souls for supportive criticism and companionship, possibly leading to publication.

Ask any word junkie. The isolation of the affliction can be deadly. But writers have discovered the salve of getting together quietly, in private, to share the good, the bad and the ugly.

"It inspires me to keep going," says Ann Shaftel of North Hills, who has toiled over her first novel for 12 years, six of them as a member of a writers group.

The one she belongs to, largely composed of former UCLA Extension Writers' Program students, meets twice a month at members' homes to exchange and evaluate their novels, stories and screenplays. At these meetings, not only does advice flow freely, but so do marketing tips, reading lists and speeches of encouragement.

In the four years of the group's existence, its members have completed books, sold short stories and learned the ropes of peddling novels. In April, Cara DeVito of Los Angeles, one of the group's co-founders, saw her young-adult novel, "Where I Want to Be," published by Houghton Mifflin.

"That kind of success fires us all," says fellow member Kenneth Aubens of Agoura Hills, who writes fiction and poetry under the name Kenneth Ellsworth.

Aubens believes that however accomplished a piece of writing is, "there's usually something that can be improved." He also thinks that "if you have enough commitment and drive, accomplishment will follow."

For these reasons, he says, "rather than sitting around stroking each other," his group focuses on "honest, constructive comments that will keep people moving."

During a recent meeting at Aubens' house, as members exchanged and read copies of their fiction, the suggestions were clear and specific.

"I haven't known how to tell this story," said Rochelle Joseph of Los Angeles, a group co-founder. Although her narrative was warmly received, she was advised to break it into scenes and add more dialogue.

Terry Fain of Santa Monica was given kudos for his crime story, but then sat through a long debate about the timing of its plot. "When I get all your comments home," he concluded, "I'll know what to add."

Members concede that one liability of such gatherings is conflicting feedback. "It's frustrating when people make opposing comments," Shaftel says. "Ultimately, the writer must decide which to use."

According to her group's rules, each member has about 20 minutes to read aloud from his or her work and elicit advice, which colleagues note on their copy for the writer.

Members learn, they say, from others' mistakes, and also from the discussions that evolve. These talks might include considerations of ways to build suspense (Example: "Set up questions to puzzle the reader and answer them later") and how to translate fact into fiction ("Just because it really happened doesn't mean it works in a story").

As Joseph notes: "Outside a group like this, we lose sight of the importance of the process. (Los Angeles) is so product-oriented. The attitude is, if you haven't sold something, you're not writing."

Examination of process may be even more vital to a gathering of poets, says Virginia Anderson of Granada Hills, who belongs to another writers group, the Paradigm Poets.

"Poetry is very intense," she explains, "like a game of chess. You're reaching out to find exactly the right move, the right word to express something precisely."

Aubens, also a member of the Paradigm Poets, compares writing a novel to running a marathon and a poem to a 50-yard dash.

Because of the differences in the disciplines, both Aubens and Anderson think that a writers group should concentrate on one or the other.

Another Paradigm Poet, Jean Zahorsky of Woodland Hills, adds that either kind of group benefits greatly from a mix of men and women of varying ages. "To every passage of life, one brings different experiences," she says.

For those interested in starting a group, veterans suggest limiting size (about 10 for prose writers, 15 for poets) and restricting membership to writers at similar levels of accomplishment. To keep things democratic, they advise rotating the location and thus its leadership.

The key to success, Aubens maintains, is "to gather some serious, passionate people who are also nice and decent and want to progress. With a group like that, I don't see how you can fail."


Information: Although membership in both groups is strictly limited, those interested in information or forming their own group may write Kenneth Aubens, 6055 Calmfield Ave., Agoura Hills 91301.

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