In Conversation: Sarah Nickerson

Jill Prewett talks to Sarah Nickerson about her Zürich writers’ group.

Wintery landscape with logs

Hello Sarah, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m a Canadian transplant to Switzerland. I came to Zürich two years ago to work on my doctorate in computational astrophysics. On the side I write science fiction and fantasy. I’ve managed to get a few short pieces out there and I’m currently shopping around a novel, fingers crossed.

And you’re a founder member of the Cafe Schober Zürich Writers Group. How did it start?

Wow, you make it sound so official! Back when I lived in Toronto I was a part of a writer’s group with other speculative fiction authors and loved it. When I moved to Switzerland, I was feeling isolated being an English writer with German all around me. I went to a reading at the English bookstore with lots of other writers. I collected the emails of random people who also wrote and we got together again to read each other’s work and critique. This has been going on for a year now. Those random people turned out to all be awesome people!

Can you expand a little on how it works, how often you meet, what you do, etc?

Usually we meet twice a month. Those who have it send out work prior to the meeting, then we read it, and we meet to go over everyone’s piece to discuss what worked and what did not. We also discuss writing in general and catch up on how
everyone has been doing since last meeting.

Are there any genre restrictions?

There are no genre restrictions, not even format restrictions! We see everything, from novels to short stories to screenplays and essays. There’s historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy, literary, children’s books, and more. It is quite healthy, I think, to see outside of one’s writing box and look around. I had never critiqued screenplays before, or even spoken to anyone who wrote them, and I find learning about the process there gives me a greater appreciation for the different skill sets and conventions that go into the different forms of writing.

Wintry landscape with river

What’s the advantage to having a writers’ group?

Writing is a very solitary process. Sometimes, you can forget that there are others going through what you are, in different stages on the same road. The companionship of other writers can be motivating in itself. I love talking to writers about their writing. I want to see how they write and what thoughts went behind the material I read. It gives you ideas for different approaches, and different eyes for your  own manuscript. It is difficult to get a good critique from people who are not writers or editors. They might say that they liked this and not that, but usually not why they feel this way. Other writers can zero in on your problems, because chances are, they’ve had them too.

What about rules of behaviour?

I don’t think we need to set down any rules yet! Writers are generally well-behaved creatures.

What advice would you give to someone thinking of establishing such a group?

Group dynamics is key. The most important thing for a successful group, in my mind, is that everyone can take criticism of their work. It does not matter how good a writer you are when you join the group, but how much you are willing to improve does matter . The writer who starts out with lesser skill, but learns from feedback and is critical of her work will get further than a more skilled writer who thinks they don’t need any critique. By the same token critiquing should be friendly and in the spirit of helping to improve the work. Unfounded bashing of another’s piece benefits no one. For your group to work you need writers who want to improve from it and writers who give out constructive critiques.

Winter landscape with trees

And what have you personally learned from working with other writers?

 I have gotten to read outside of my comfort zone in detail. It is fascinating to get close to people who write these diverse pieces and see the detail and work that goes into them. It shows what we all have in common and our differences are no so great. Most of all though, it is just plain motivating to see others writing. It keeps my own writing on the ball.

Author: J.J. Marsh

Writer of The Beatrice Stubbs series, founder member of Triskele Books, columnist for Words with JAM magazine, co-curator of The Woolf magazine, Bookmuse reviewer, blogger and Tweeter. @JJMarsh1

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