Novice middle grade and young adult novelists looking to share their work and gain feedback from fellow writers have a new opportunity to consider. Enter Story Guild, a national program in which participants read from their unsubmitted novels and discuss their writing with their peers and a host author. The program will launch its first season this spring in six cities across the country.
Story Guild is the brainchild of children’s author Jonathan Auxier (Sweep), who was inspired by his own experience as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon 15 years ago, when students read from their thesis scripts that they had crafted over the summer. “Not only was this a great way to induct the incoming class, but it also was great experience for returning writers,” he said. “They had to discard their old, beloved stories and use what they’d learned on something totally new.” It was then that the seeds of Story Guild were first planted.
Now an instructor in Chatham University’s MFA program in Pittsburgh, Auxier has noticed the limitations that young writers face in the classroom: not being able to share a larger piece of work and get real-time feedback from their peers. With this in mind, he decided to launch a pilot Story Guild program with a group of MFA graduates, and within three months, participants walked away with a set of pages for their new book and helpful notes to take them to the next step.
Auxier maintains this practice for his own writing, hosting a group of trusted friends to listen to the first 60–80 pages of his next book and comment on his work. “The feedback is invaluable, as is the chance to hear my story read aloud,” he said. “There’s no faster way to tell when what you’ve written hits a false note or starts to bore an audience.”
One of the key components of Story Guild’s format is the leadership of the host author. For the program’s first season, Auxier reached out to potential hosts via Twitter and chose all those who responded. He believes the allure of serving as a host author lies in its flexibility. “I’ve found that a lot of writers have a passion for teaching, but between touring and deadlines, they are unable to find the time. Story Guild is built for them,” he said.
To help make hosting as simple as possible, Auxier has created a packet that steps them through the process and a guide Technically two separate things: the packet teaches the host authors how to get started and includes pre-drafted emails they can use to invite writers and then there’s a formal guide for hosting workshops for running workshops, and encourages any writer interested in joining to reach out. “We’re not picky,” he said. “If you are a professional writer and want to participate, Story Guild wants you!”
One such writer that answered the call was Caroline Carlson, a friend of Auxier and fellow Pittsburgher. “When he mentioned that he wanted to give published authors a chance to support emerging writers in their local communities, I knew right away that I wanted to be involved,” she said. Having earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, she recalled faculty members who provided valuable feedback that served her well in her formative days as a writer. “I’m hoping that through Story Guild,” she said, “I’ll be able to give up-and-coming writers some of the same insight and encouragement that I was lucky to receive as a new writer.”
Another Story Guild participant, Aaron Starmer, will serve as a host author in Burlington, Vt. Having met Auxier five years ago during a book festival, the two realized they shared similar passions. “We both think a lot about the craft of writing and the role of storytelling in society,” Starmer said. Recalling his own foray into children’s book publishing, Starmer said he lacked connections. “I didn’t have enough experienced people around me to bounce ideas off of,” he explained. “I hope I can share some of what I’ve learned about writing for children and young adults. It’s an opportunity I wish I had access to 10 years ago.”
The Value of In-Person Feedback
Providing criticism in person, as opposed to virtual networking and online forums, is what Auxier believes is Story Guild’s strength. The added bonus of having that feedback come from professional authors in a writer’s hometown offers even more value to the unpublished writer. “There is something magical that happens in a live discussion; I often find that my best comment is one made in response to someone else’s comment,” he said.
Carlson also sees the benefit of working in a structured setting. “Writing can be a lonely pursuit, but if you participate in Story Guild, you’ll have an external deadline to motivate you, a group of local colleagues cheering you on, and plenty of thoughtful, informed feedback to help you move forward after Story Guild is over,” she said.
With six cities (including Chicago, Boston, Salt Lake City, and Duluth, Minn.) on tap to host Story Guild this spring, Auxier ultimately hopes to have workshops running twice a year in every city that can sustain the program, featuring rotating host authors. “I’d love Story Guild to find a home under a bigger organization like the SCBWI or NaNoWriMo—some place that can help channel new applicants in the program and provide administrative support for authors,” he said.
While that goal may be out of reach for the time being, Auxier is content with the notion of giving fresh new voices a safe place to share their talents. “My hope is that after these workshops are through, the attendees feel enough connection with one another that they might be able to continue reading and discussing each other’s work outside of the Story Guild workshop format.”
Writers interested in being part of Story Guild can sign up online.