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Novelists share goals, and find a binding purpose

Writers (from left) Lynne Griffin, Hannah Roveto, and Amy MacKinnon, and Lisa Marnell via phone, share critiques. Writers (from left) Lynne Griffin, Hannah Roveto, and Amy MacKinnon, and Lisa Marnell via phone, share critiques. (Boston Globe Photo / Rose Lincoln)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kathleen McKenna
Globe Correspondent / February 28, 2008

Lots of people would like to write a novel someday, but precious few will ever sit down and do it. For those who do, odds are that their novel will never find its way into the bookstores.

Four South Shore women are defying those odds, together. And they're helping other writers do the same.

Amy MacKinnon of Marshfield, Lynne Griffin of Scituate, Hannah Roveto of Duxbury, and Lisa Marnell, formerly of Duxbury, connected in fall 2005 at a meeting for writers sponsored by the Duxbury Free Library. They realized they shared a dream - to finish their books and get them published.

The women - all working mothers in their 30s and 40s - began meeting every two weeks to critique excerpts from one another's novels and discuss the publishing business. From the beginning, they said, they were convinced their efforts would pay off.

A scant two years later, they did. Both MacKinnon and Griffin sold their books to major publishers last fall. And Marnell and Roveto are poised to follow in their friends' lucrative footsteps.

The group's collective success, Roveto said, can be chalked up to "incredible positive energy and an incredible work ethic."

They set ground rules at the start and stuck with them. The women meet every other Monday, usually at MacKinnon's house. Meetings are serious (read: no wine). The first hour is devoted to verbal critiques of 20-page excerpts submitted beforehand, usually via e-mail, by two of the four women. During critiquing sessions, the writer whose work is being discussed must keep quiet and listen to her feedback, which is always constructive.

"It's intense feedback, but it's never cruel," said MacKinnon. "We really care profoundly about each other's novels."

In the second hour, the women discuss business, such as workshops they plan to attend or agents they want to approach. They also talk about the blog they created a year and a half ago, now consistently one of the top 10 blogs listed on the Publishers Marketplace website. Known online as The Writers' Group, they update the blog (writersgroupblog.blogspot.com) daily and share technique and inspiration with a far-flung writing community.

Christopher Castellani, executive director of Grub Street Inc., an independent writing center in Boston, said the harmony, efficiency, and success of this particular group is unusual.

"I've honestly never heard of anything like it before," he said. "Two of the four have done phenomenally well, and the other two are right on the same track. They're very fortunate that they found each other."

Last September, St. Martin's Press snapped up Griffin's novel, "Life Without Summer." The book, about a grieving mother whose daughter was killed in a hit-and-run accident, is slated for a winter 2009 release. (This is the second book for Griffin, a parenting educator, whose nonfiction book, "Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment," was published by Penguin Books last year.)

Less than two weeks after Griffin shared her good news, Shaye Areheart, a division of Random House, bought MacKinnon's book "Tethered," which, she said, is "about an undertaker who does not believe in God." The literary suspense novel will hit bookstores in September.

Marnell - who recently moved to California with her family but remains active in the group with the help of a speakerphone set in the center of MacKinnon's dining room table - has secured a New York literary agent for her first young-adult novel, and is editing her second. Roveto is editing the final draft of her novel before seeking an agent and publisher of her own.

Both Roveto and Marnell said their friends' success has bolstered their confidence about their own publishing prospects.

"I really feel less pressure" because Griffin and MacKinnon "both got book deals so quickly," Marnell said. "I have no doubt that Hannah will be published. And as for me, yes, I think it will happen."

The quartet was attending a Grub Street event when MacKinnon suggested that they start their blog.

"It's been a great marketing tool for us," Griffin said. "The number of hits we get keeps increasing week by week."

Each woman writes a weekly blog post about the writing topic of her choice. MacKinnon, a former contributor to Globe South, recently wrote about the heady experience of writing the acknowledgements page for her debut novel. A post by Marnell included an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem and thoughts about living in the moment, both in writing and in life.

The blog also features regular interviews with published authors, including Hallie Ephron, Chris Bohjalian, and Gregory Maguire, as well as numerous links to other writing-related websites.

In April, the foursome will speak at Muse and the Marketplace, a two-day Grub Street event that helps fledgling writers connect with agents, editors, and other writers. During a panel discussion, they plan to advise attendees about finding supportive writing groups of their own.

All four women agree that writing groups do more harm than good if the criticism is either too harsh or too gentle.

"It's hard to strike just the right balance," MacKinnon said. "We all feel very lucky."

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