Writing is a bear – and getting that first article, story, or book published is truly a dragon. For centuries solitary authors have tilted their pens at long rows of shadowy publishing houses that appeared to have no transoms – let alone doors.

Yes, there are literary agents, but by and large this group remains as aloof and inaccessible as the publishers themselves. Typically they have to be brought in chains to sit down with an unpublished author. And don’t look to them to sell your magazine story. As amply published author Stephen King noted in a footnote to one of his short stories, written for Playboy: "My own agent refuses to fuss with these short pieces because there is no percentage in it."

But there is a place to go for hope, encouragement, perspective – and, yes, success stories. Writers groups allow authors to meet their fellows, and receive leads, critiques, and even some much needed comfort.

Beyond a chance just to crawl away from the keyboard, writers join groups for two reasons: to get some advice on improving their product and get tips on selling it. Not every group does both, and the unaffiliated author needs to sample and select. But among the fertile literary soils of central New Jersey there are several categories which provide help for writers at all levels of experience.

Writers support groups. Linda Aldridge writes evenings in her Hamilton home after days as a paralegal. She is an avid, disciplined author who has recently finished her first novel and is working on the next. Writing is not yet her career, but she has recently published her first magazine piece. Aldridge meets monthly with a small number of other hard-working amateurs to share information and to read each others’ work.

Each member at each meeting hands out copies of his most recent pages. The works are sometimes read aloud as time permits or taken home and studied by the others, who return and critique at the following meeting. For Aldridge, the meetings provide some third party objective editing, and just as important, a prod to keep working. Group members know that people are expecting pages each meeting and it forms a gentle deadline for them.

Aldridge’s group was formed by students of a Mercer County Community writing class.

Literary societies. Centered around towns or libraries, such gatherings tend to draw a delightfully eclectic mix. The would-be romantic writer may glean the name of a publisher or agent. A salaried reporter comes to find another outlet for his pen. The idle scribbler ventures in to see if he’s got the right stuff. And in our area particularly, renown authors appear to give their latest chapters an airing. All genres and experience levels jostle together in this great networking resource.

The Plainsboro Literary Society meets the last Monday of each month, at 6:30 p.m. at the Plainsboro Library. Moderated by author and head librarian Ginny Baeckler, each writer who feels brave enough is allotted time to read several minutes of his latest work. "We try very much to be gentle and helpful here," says Baeckler. "There is no pecking order or publishing requirement. We even have some high school writers." The society also boasts several well known authors, including Ed Leefeldt, who read his latest, "Lighter Than Air," and Allan Grayson, who read his "Miles End."

While such groups tend to focus primarily on improving works in progress, Baeckler runs a short workshop in getting published and the initial social half hour of each meeting can prove a productive place to garner leads.

For professionals. It was a freelancer’s dream. Experienced medical writer Robin Rapport responded to a query from the Medical Society of New Jersey. She wrote the single piece they requested, and the society liked it so much that it led to a monthly series of feature articles with her byline. Several of these articles caught the eye of an UDMA executive, who hired her to write the UDMA-Public Health department’s annual report. It is a giant task that she has undertaken for the last three years now.

The launching pad for this avalanche of assignments was the Professional Writers Alliance of Mercer County (PWA) – an organization for which Rapport has just completed a term as president. Founded in l997, the PWA advertises itself as designed for "experienced, professional nonfiction writers." The group of about 50 members connects through its meetings and online at www.PWAwriters.org. Authors seeking to have their work critiqued should search elsewhere, but virtually every other support and service is provided for the person who follows the scribbler’s trade.

For a professional like Rapport, it is the perfect answer. A native of Lansdale, Pennsylvania, Rapport was led into writing through a rather intriguing education. Attending Syracuse University, she graduated in l975 with one major in social anthropology and another in performing and visual arts. She then completed graduate work at New York University in media ecology. "A person who lives and pens in the world of print will view things differently – and live in a different environment than one who creates, say, for the camera," Rapport says.

Following her graduation Rapport undertook the daunting task of doing public relations for HMOs. Finding a niche in the medical field, she wrote for Blue Cross/Blue Shield and many large pharmaceutical firms. Crossing media boundaries, she wrote brochures and annual reports, as well as television commercials. She even directed "Atlantic City Alive" for WTBS. Today, she and her husband Greg run Rapport Communications, a communications and marketing firm founded in Lawrenceville. Rapport frequently receives assignments through the PWA and also has hired PWA members to work for her firm.

"We do not really encourage people to join Professional Writers Alliance just to find work," says Rapport. "There is so much more here." In addition to several social functions, the group gathers regularly at various luncheon meetings in restaurants and in the evenings at local libraries. "Perhaps it’s because we are nonfiction people, but the atmosphere is very noncompetitive," says Rapport.

Between meetings, writers can meet online through the special members-only site. "Does anyone know an accountant who deals well with freelancers?" "How do I break this agonizing writers’ block?" Every conceivable tip and problem of the trade gets hashed over. And then, of course, there is the matter of new work. Leads are shared and assignments often handed off.

New members, upon paying their $50 annual dues, are asked to submit some published writing samples and a resume. These can be placed on the PWA link "Pens for Hire" – a categorized directory for those seeking writers. PWA also offers a similar Speakers Bureau.

Workshops. Classes at community colleges, adult schools, and other organizations provide a great chance to hone skills, obtain free editing from a master, and find comrades in the trade. Princeton YWCA’s long established "Sharpening the Quill" series attracts well-known area authors who teach and critique. Beginning Saturday, August 6, author Lauren B. Davis starts off the summer workshops with ""What is a Story? Learning to Lie." Cost: $45. Call 609-497-2100, ext. 317.

Area Writing Groups:

Delaware Valley Poets, Lawrence Public Library, Darrah Lane, www.delawarevalleypoets.com, 609-882-9246.

Garden State Horror Writers, Monmouth County Library, Symmes Drive, Manalapan, www.gshw.net, 973-625-9512.

Network of Writers and Artists, Bridgewater, www.nowa.org, 908-722-1632.

New Jersey Poetry Society, Cadwalader Branch, Trenton Public Library, 200 North Hermitage Avenue, www.njpoetrysociety.org, 609-882-4784.

New Jersey Romance Writers, www.njromancewriters.org, 856-767-7188.

Sisters in Crime, Jamesburg Senior Center, 139 Stevens Avenue, Jamesburg, www.sistersincrime.org, 732-521-5646.

The Writers Room of Bucks County, 4 West Oakland Avenue, Doylestown, www.writersroom.net, 215-348-1663.

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