Tag Archives: writers groups

Writers Group Reboot

After a rocky patch last week, my writers group met over margaritas and Mexican food, sans writing. We had one of these powwows at the start of the year, too—I think it’s healthy to recognize when the operation is stagnating and make a plan to reinvigorate the enterprise. Ultimately, we decided to take a break—a month-long hiatus in August. But we also decided to keep meeting regularly, partly because we enjoy each other’s company and would miss catching up for dinner and drinks, and partly to ensure that we don’t just dissolve altogether.

We also discussed how we might take our writers group to the next level, how we might evolve, what we might become.

We agreed, I think, that we should broaden our scope. The few pages in front of us each week are a narrow view of our work, and we need to look at the bigger picture of ourselves as writers. What we’re working on, what we’re struggling with. But also what to do with our writing when we’re done—submitting it to journals, entering it in contests, querying it to agents.

Here’s how one group member put it:

I guess part of my concern is that we are really a professionally geared group and that we do not just write into a void, or just for each other, though that is of course valid … it just feels like we all hope for something more and should encourage each other to take those chances.

We talked, too, about accountability, committing to not just the biweekly group meetings but setting aside time to write in between and reporting back to the group when it’s done. We talked about sharing prompts to kickstart the writing if needed. We talked about collaborative projects.

I can’t say that a lot was decided. I can’t say that we all agreed changes need to be made or what those changes should be.

But I think we can each decide what we need from the group and ask the group to provide it. Thorough and thoughtful critiques? Check. Moral support? Check. A good time accompanied by food and alcohol? Check. But maybe also lines on places to submit our work. Tips on querying an agent. Weekly check-ins on our progress. A more focused conversation about our writing or literary endeavors in general.

It’s our group. It is what we make of it.

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Making a Commitment

“I heard your writers group is awesome!” a friend exclaimed at dinner one night last week.

“We are!” I can’t help but gush about us. As I’ve written about before, we’ve been together for more than a year and a half—longer than any other group I’ve worked with. We’re talented and eclectic—on any given night, we might read a novel excerpt, a short story, and pages from a screenplay. And we ♥ each other.

But the last couple of weeks have been tumultuous ones for our little band.

It all started last week when we were (i.e., I was) particularly lax in turning in our work on time, and one of our members cancelled at the last minute (totally understandably—after a summer of nonstop travel and out-of-town guests, she was nearing exhaustion). Rather than meet without her, we considered postponing, and our “band mom”—who’s male, by the way—emailed a frank (and hilarious) pep talk/scolding that has since caused us to reevaluate what it is we want from the group.

Now, at this point we were in no danger of dissolving. As the email acknowledged, life happens. But this kind of vigilance is exactly why we’ve lasted as long as we have. If we postpone one week, pretty soon it becomes two, and eventually we’re meeting less than even once a month.

More to the point, however, was his last paragraph:

“I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people to make this more of a priority than it is now. And I don’t just mean blocking out, say, Wednesday nights [when we meet]. I mean setting aside time to write. Specifically, time that isn’t a day or two past the already-extended deadline to submit.”

Our meetings last for hours, two-thirds of which is spent just catching up. When you like hanging out with your fellow members so much, you risk your writers group turning into solely a social event. But we always come prepared, and we always eventually get down to business.

Our band mom, though, was asking more of us. He called for a greater commitment—not just to scrape together a submission each week or to provide thorough and thoughtful critiques (which we do, consistently), but to write. He called for a commitment not to the group but to the writing.

He called us out, and his point was well taken. I now include a commitment to writing outside of a writers group as an important contributor to the success of that group.

Taking a Break

But sometimes fatigue sets in. Some of us, to different levels and for different reasons, just weren’t producing. There are times to push through, and there are times to take a breather.

Our perpetual traveler/host decided she needed the latter. With her first novel written, edited, and out to agents, she is starting her second book. She’s working at it diligently, but that doesn’t mean words are necessarily being produced, especially, as is the case with nascent ideas, words that she’s ready to share. With another trip on her schedule, she took a hiatus from the group for the month of August.

The question for the rest of us has become whether we meet without her. Our band mom, who called us to task in the first place, is of the mind that we should push through:

“I hate to say it, but I really do think that if we all take a month-plus off, the odds of being able to start up again are not good. At all. And yes, I know sometimes long shots can pay off—just ask whatever engineer it was who said, ‘You know what? We can probably get away with not protecting that one tiny shaft in the Death Star. Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen?’ But we are not a scraggly band of rebels with Sir Alec Guinness on our side … I think.”

(See what I mean about hilarious? This led to a thread in which we were all to choose which Star Wars characters we wanted to be, which led to another thread inspired by Spaceballs.)

I see the merit in pushing through this rather stagnant patch. But I also think there is a strong argument for taking a break and taking time to retrench, refresh, and refocus. With the caveat that we take our band mom’s mandate to heart and use the time to write.

We’ve decided to meet, but without writing, to discuss our goals—both for ourselves and for the group. Reassess, restrategize, reboot. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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On Writers Groups: Part III—Rules

Just after the New Year, my writers group gathered at a German tavern in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake to touch base over ale and wieners dunked in steins of pea soup. At that point, we had been working together for a year, but I think we all felt we were in danger of disbanding. As of the end of the fall semester, we had all completed our theses—a major driver for participation in the group—and graduated.

We were determined to stick together, however, and we’re stronger than ever after instituting and enforcing (more or less) some rules. If you want your writers group to last, set the parameters up front:

1. Makeup: Keep it small. For a critique group, I’d suggest no more than four to six people. “Any more, and either the meetings are way too long or not everyone gets equal time,” reasons one of my writers group members. “Too few members, and there’s not nearly as much chance for differing voices in terms of critique. … It’s good to have enough people that you can rotate submissions.” Conversely, you don’t want to have to wait too long between opportunities to share your work.

Only invite writers whom you admire and respect. You want to be challenged by your writers group, and you want to read good work while you’re there. BookFox blogger John Fox goes so far as to suggest “hazing—preferably painful, embarrassing hazing—and guidelines like they have to submit sample papers to join. Groups with porous membership regulations fail easily.”

2. Operations: Once you’ve assembled your writers group, set some ground rules. First, meet regularly. Every other week works well for most groups. “Frequent meetings—let’s say twice monthly—are ideal because they not only solidify the bond among group members by making the activity a regular occurrence, but they also force people to write,” says my fellow writers group member. “Meet too infrequently, and it’s a lot easier to postpone or cancel meetings.” (We’ve had problems with this in the past.)

Second, set deadlines. In our group, we submit on one Wednesday and meet the next, although some members (that’d be me!) tend to push the deadline as far back as the weekend.

Finally, everybody submits. Our group used to be a free-for-all where we submitted work when we had it. The problem with this was if one of us was suffering from writers block, we could go several meetings without seeing his or her work. A guiding tenet of critique groups is the trust that’s built between writers who are sharing sometimes raw work; it’s not fair to critique others without putting yourself on the line. Besides, the guilty parties felt, well, guilty, and that’s not good for anybody. Now we’re on a schedule, submitting two out of every three meetings.

“One thing to keep in mind: rules like these only work if they’re implemented or enforced,” adds my writers group member. We’ve gotten much better about this. It’s probably too obnoxious to actually assign leadership positions, but often they happen naturally: one of us leads groups discussions when we have administrative details to take care of; a couple others gently nudge us with emails or texts when we’re past deadline.

3. Critiques: I had one writing instructor—tellingly, a graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has been criticized for its cutthroat atmosphere—whose guidelines for critique protected the writer’s feelings to an almost ridiculous extent. We were asked not to refer to the writer by name, but to call him or her “the author” during our critiques, and we were not to look at the writer while we critiqued his or her work. I find this approach to be counterintuitive—I want to convey my sincerity during critiques by speaking directly to the writer and looking him or her in the eye.

How supportive comments should be is also up for debate. “Keeping critiques supportive could foster an environment of coddling, but I do think it’s a good idea to keep them constructive. (i.e., not ‘This sucks,’ but ‘Here’s why this sucks, and here are some ways it could possibly be fixed.’),” says a member from my writers group. “Mutual admiration is great, but the really valuable feedback comes when your writers group lets you know what isn’t working.

Again, Fox takes a hard line: “Don’t give supportive critiques. Critiques should be debilitating and harsh. The minute you start cheerleading is the minute you lose respectability. Of course you need to talk about what is good with the piece, and tell someone where to submit it, and how much work it needs (if much) before they send it out, but focus on the negative. That’s what’s helpful.”

Focus on overarching issues. Typos, misspellings, and misused commas can be addressed in later drafts.

During the critique, the writer should listen to the comments of the other group members. Don’t respond. Don’t explain. Don’t defend. If you keep your replies to a minimum, you will get a more accurate critique from your readers and you’ll be better able to absorb their comments.

Do, however, take notes. You might even record your critique to audiotape. Later, you can throw out comments that are useless or irrelevant and keep those that are helpful.

For more tips on writers groups, check out these related posts by Quips and Tips for Freelance Writers and Dames of Dialogue.

For previous installments in this series, check out “Part I—Benefits” and “Part II—Types.”

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On Writers Groups: Part II—Types

The past couple of weeks have been productive ones in my writers groups. Last week, in what I call my writing group, I generated a few pages of new material on a new short-story concept that’s been percolating. And this week, in what I distinguish as my writers group, I got helpful feedback and encouragement on an older piece of writing that I may just polish up and send out.

I’m pretty much in love with my current writers groups, but I have participated in lots of different types over the years:

  • The workshop is a formal writers group led by a teacher or mentor. This is the model found in graduate and continuing-education writing programs, but there are private workshops as well. They usually charge tuition or a fee to pay for the meeting place as well as the leader’s time and expertise. The facilitator sets and enforces the format and tone for the workshop and keeps the group on task. You may provide your work beforehand or read it to the group during the meeting. Usually participants take turns providing verbal feedback with the facilitator commenting last so as not to influence the remarks of the others. Often written feedback is provided as well in the form of marked-up manuscripts.
  • A critique group is similar to a workshop in format but is more informal and usually smaller in structure. In this type of group, there’s no facilitator; rather, a handful of writers decides together how they want to operate. Again, work can be provided beforehand or read out loud during the meeting, and participants take turns offering verbal and written feedback. The advantage of the critique group is that you share and get feedback on your work more often than in a larger workshop environment.
  • An offshoot of the critique group is the writers guild, which operates in much the same way but adds publishing to its activities. One of my friends from grad-school just produced a collection of short stories and poetry with his writers group.
  • Recently I’ve been introduced to a writing group, which gathers weekly not to read and discuss work, but to produce it. In my writing group, everyone arrives prepared with a prompt to share with the group. We spend ten minutes or so writing the exercise; then we take turns reading whatever we came up with. The resulting material can be pretty raw, so there’s no critique, and you can pass on reading it out loud if you want to. Other writing groups have a standing appointment to get together to work on their own material.
  • A reading group, John Fox of BookFox argues, is just as important as a writers group. “[You] can’t separate writing from reading, and you need people to read with as much as you need people to write with,” he says. I would imagine a reading group for writers would function much like a book club but with more of an emphasis on focusing on the author’s craft.

Where writers groups meet depends on their size as well as the tone you want to set. Workshops often take place in classrooms, but I have attended these in conference rooms and around dining-room tables. My critique groups have met in bars, restaurants, and, with the economy being how it is these days, our homes. Of course, you can also meet online via email or chatrooms.

What types of writers groups have you participated in? Share you experiences below in the comments section.

And check out the first installment in this series, “On Writers Groups: Part I—Benefits.”

Next week in Part III, MJ will lay out the rules for writers group. Share your suggestions now by email (findtherightwords[at]gmail[dot]com) or on Twitter (@motsjustes).

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On Writers Groups: Part I—The Benefits

Yesterday Mots Justes confessed that blog-writing has taken a backseat to other projects as of late. All of my writing has. That I’m writing at all owes everything to my writers groups. (Yes, groups—I’m currently in two.)

If you’re not in a writers group, join or start one now. Even if your writing hasn’t been suffering like mine has, the benefits are numerous:

  • Deadlines: For me, the number-one benefit of being in a writers group is having a deadline. I have come to realize that I am virtually incapable of functioning without one. Writers groups to which I have to submit pages keep me generating work and turning it in on a regular basis because I am accountable to someone other than myself. (Speaking of which, I owed my group pages, like, yesterday!) ¶ “Since you want to write, it doesn’t actually feel like it’s a typical responsibility,” says one of my writers group members. “For me, there’s also a palpable sense that if I don’t write, I’m letting people down.” ¶ “When I know our meeting is coming up, I make more time to write,” adds another grad school friend of mine.
  • Feedback: The whole reason many writers groups exist is so that members can get feedback on their writing. If you work with the same people over an extended period of time, they get to know and become invested in your work. (My current writers group has read my entire novel, although not from beginning to end but in fits and starts as I jumped around the narrative.) Your writers group can acknowledge what you’re doing well and help you recognize where you need improvement. ¶ “With the right group, you can feel like you’re in a really good workshop class, minus the kick in the wallet,” says my fellow group member. “If you’re the sort of person who thinks everything you generate is great or is [awful]—guilty as charged on the latter—it’s nice to get some opinions that come in more toward the less-extreme ends of the quality spectrum (assuming you listen to them).”
  • Advice: In addition to feedback specific to your work, writers groups are valuable sources for all kinds of writing advice and resources such as where to send submissions or how to draft query letters. Share the books, articles, and websites you’ve discovered with your peers.
  • Support: Writers are a particularly neurotic bunch, and we all have days when the writing just isn’t working, when nothing we write seems like it’s any good, when we feel like frauds. Since we’ve all been through it, we can relate when it happens to someone else, assure them that it’s really not as bad as it seems, talk them through it.
  • Camaraderie: This actually is a huge part of my writers group. We either meet at a bar or restaurant or have a potluck at one of our homes—a different location each time. We’ve even gotten together for Sunday brunch. And we always spend one or even two hours visiting and eating. Writing is such a solitary, isolating activity, that sometimes you just need to get out of the house and see other people. ¶ There is the danger, however, that socializing will become the group’s primary, then sole, activity. “Doubling the meeting with a potluck meal was not conducive to building a steadfast group,” says one of my grad-school classmates. “It became a social event (which we really enjoyed), but this deemphasized the main point of the group, which for me [was] to clean a piece up for publication.” Keep the group focused on the writing but make time to socialize, too—you might set aside the occasional get-together just for this purpose.
  • Connections: Finally, a huge benefit of participating in a writers group is that when you do get published, you have a built-in fan club. Having grown attached to you work, your fellow group members will be the first in line to buy a copy, attend a reading, and get their friends to do the same.

Meanwhile, John Fox over at BookFox offers an alternative benefit: “Money. My writing group ponies up forty dollars apiece for a pot that the person with the most publications/submissions/material written wins.” Hey, whatever gets you motivated!

How else have writers groups been beneficial to you? Leave your insight in the comments section below.

And next week in Part II, MJ will look at different types of writers group. Share your suggestions now by email (findtherightwords[at]gmail[dot]com) or on Twitter (@motsjustes).

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