Last week I wrote about choosing the “right” writer’s group. This week I want to talk about how to start and maintain a group of your own.
Before you begin, however, the first thing you’ll need to figure out is whether you want a critique or a support group. A critique group meets to help members achieve excellent writing through editing. While it can be invaluable to know you’ve named a character “Zena” on page 17 but then her name changes to “Drusilla” on page 24, or that your sentence structure in Chapter 10 is just awful, you and the others in your group may not be ready for—or want—this kind of editing. You might still be in the rough draft stage, or still finding your voice and style. That's when a support group can be more helpful, encouraging members to freewrite or experiment without fear of failure. If you do choose a critique group over a support group decide early on what kind of critiques you will give: line by line (time consuming); general warm-and-fuzzy (can be vague and not very helpful); or no praise at all (I belonged to this kind of group only once and it was the least successful).
After choosing your group type, your next job is to find members. This really isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Placing ads at your library or local bookstore can work well. Many of the professional writer’s organizations will give you free space in their newsletters to advertise your group needs. If you’re enrolled in a writing workshop, ask the others if they’d like to continue meeting after the class is finished. Or simply ask your friends. You’ll be amazed who is secretly writing and never told you.
Deciding where you will you meet can often be your biggest dilemma. Meeting in your own home may not be the smartest choice, at least not until you get to know the other members. My favorite meeting places are the same as those where I’ve put up notices seeking other writers. One drawback to the library, though, is you must be willing to let in the general public. I once had to contend with someone who insisted on barking, as in, “Woof, woof,” for no apparent reason. (Yes, it was very disrupting.) If the thought of strangers and their quirks makes you nervous, a bookstore café can be a nice mix of both private and public space.
When will you meet? Meeting at a set time every 2 weeks or similar lets people know when the meeting is without you having to remind them. If one or more members have to miss a meeting, it’s never a good idea to try to accommodate their schedules—all you’ll do is confuse everyone else. Just keep to your regular date and time even if only two of you show up.
Belonging to a group can be one of the most fun experiences of your writing life. A group can help you write better and more often, and with more enthusiasm. But to really work, the most successful groups agree on the “rules” from the start. For instance, if you only want to critique westerns, or screenplays, or narrative poetry—say so right up front. Don't set people up for disappoint down the road because they love science fiction pantoums and you don't. Personally I like groups that allow all types of writing, but I’ve also belonged to groups that kept to strict genre lines and they were some of my favorites.
As fun as groups are, though, it's important to recognize when a group is in danger of falling apart. A toxic group wastes and drains everyone's time. Signs of trouble and how to fix them include:
The Dominator. This is the member who believes the meetings are all about and only for her (or him!). She brings 12 pages instead of the agreed-upon 4; talks off-topic; is catty in her critique style because “she knows best.” Solution: If the rules are 4 pages, she can only read 4 pages. It’s never okay to read more. Don’t make exceptions “just this once.”
Going off topic. Influenced by the Dominator, other members also talk about work, their family, and social life. Solution: Rather than singling anyone out, set an established time for “personal news.” For instance, everyone gets 3 minutes each at the start of the meeting to share whatever they feel is important.
Unhelpful critiques. “I like it,” “I don’t like it,” without explanation. Or critiques are based on personal taste: “I hate cats!” “I can’t stand war movies.” Or “critique” is confused with “attack and shame”: “Oh my God, that’s a perpendicular parallel past tense modifier split invective! And you didn’t even notice? What’s wrong with you?” Solution: Remind members that critiques are based on opinion—the same yardstick most agents and editors rely on as well. To keep critiques helpful and on track, ask that they be based on at least these 4 questions: What would I like to see more of? What would I like to see less of? What is just right? And why? Ask that any copyediting or proofing be done on the actual manuscript and given back to the writer later without needing to discuss as a group.
The Rule Police. “You can’t start a mystery without a dead body.” Many times the police are right, but not always. Acknowledge that their information is correct, but it’s up to the individual writer to decide how creative he or she wants to get with established precedents.
Crazymakers. “This would be so much better without Chapter 7.” Next week, “Why did you take out Chapter 7? Now the whole book falls apart!” Solution: Let members know they don’t have to take every piece of advice they hear. If Chapter 7 is disliked by 4 out of 5 members, then there might be a good reason for making a change. However, if only one member continues to go back and forth, I’ll bet she’s the dominator too, and it might be time to ask her if she’d like to join another group.
Scary as the above pitfalls might sound, I can’t stress enough that they are rare occurrences. If you do come up against one or more of them, don’t think the only solution is to give up. A much better approach is to ask group members to write down what they want from the group and why. Before you know it you will have a mission statement that everyone has participated in and will want to keep.
Tip of the Day: The best thing you can do to start a group is to commit to a group of one—yourself. You don’t need numbers to make a group work; you just need to show up and on a regular basis. Remember that even if it’s only you and one other writing buddy meeting over coffee to write together and share market news, you’ve laid the foundation for a great and productive group. Good luck!