• Writers’ groups can be HUGELY beneficial.
• You may need to try on a few groups until you find the right one.
• Diversity is king. Try to get people with different ways of thinking and experiences.
• Figure out what you want out of a writers’ group, then either look for it or create it yourself.
Writers’ groups can be hugely beneficial to your writing abilities. They can point out where you’re going wrong, point out what strengths you should be pushing, and help you rethink your writing. I’m going to compare and contrast the two main writing groups I’ve been in, showing some of the pro’s and con’s for each.
Writers’ Group 1 The once a month’ers
This was my first introduction to a writers’ group, led by a professional author who writes police procedurals and boxing pulp fiction. He’s been in the industry for years and definitely knows what he’s doing.
Frequency-meet once a month on the first Friday.
Size-ranged from 3-12 participants. Members are added by word of mouth.
Members-mainly locals known to the leader.
Details-no submissions before meeting
-opens with writing lesson from the leader
-authors bring in hard copies of chapters to read aloud (others will read your chapter)
-participants voice comments throughout the reading or make notes on hard copies for the author
-go through each participant’s work
-eat some snacks and mingle
-participants can come and just listen
-members can petition others to read their full novels. This is outside the normal group aspects.
Time-generally 7:30 pm until 10:30 pm.
As the leader of this group is a professional author with multiple titles under his belt, we all learn a great deal under his guidance. Because most of us are unpublished authors, the lessons tend toward helping with editing, some pacing, and characterization.
The primary focus of the group is critiquing. Having your work read aloud by someone else (while listening to it) is eye-opening, and I would recommend trying this. If you don’t have anyone, read it aloud yourself, or record yourself reading it then listen to it after waiting awhile to get better effect.
The group brings together a diverse range of genres–romance, baseball, apocalyptic science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, fairy tales, boxing, and others. We’re a somewhat diverse group of people, genders, and life experiences which can be extremely helpful. For instance, a female author once brought in a book with what we all assumed was a female protagonist. After the first chapter ended, we learned the protagonist was male. We were all stunned. We quickly pointed what made us get the gender wrong and made suggestions on how to write the opposite sex. We all need these kinds of pointers to help us overcome our unknown writing weaknesses.
The biggest limitations of the group are meeting frequency and content depth. The once a month format makes it hard to remember what someone wrote previously (which affects comments on pacing), especially if you miss a month. The out-loud reading format also reduces the amount of content covered–if there are lots of participants, it means you share less. Getting through a long chapter could take 2 months and reviewing your entire novel is infeasible unless you ask members to privately to read your book. Reading out-loud also focuses more on spelling, grammar, and phraseology rather than plotting, pacing, characterization, etc.
Overall, the benefits of this group are having a strong leader (someone who actually knows what they’re talking about), having your work read aloud, and networking. It’s been a joy to read some of my group’s books and see their novels come to life.
Writers’ Group 2 Flaming Bacon Boar
My second writers’ group was more of my own creation. It started with two of my closest author friends who I’ve known since childhood. The format sprang up from discussions of what we all wanted–initially, I wanted to focus on learning more about writing, whereas the other members wanted to focus on revising. We combined both our desires and I’m super glad we did. It’s imperative that authors continue learning our craft, producing new content, and revising previous writing.
Location-Skype. The other members live in Utah so they often get together but since I’m in California, I always have to call in.
Frequency-meet once a week, sometimes shifting the day depending on schedules. We rarely miss a meeting except for during Salt Lake City Comicon which we all attend.
Size-5 main participants (3 initially). We only add new members we know and are cautious about increasing our numbers due to increasing our review load, though we’ve recently added others.
Members-we’re all friends who’ve known each other for years and represent a fairly homogenous group (4/5 are white males, all are members or previous members of the same church).
-we rotate on two member’s books every week and do an additional writing lesson every other week
-two members submit up to 10,000 words by Sunday, giving us enough time to read their submissions by Tuesday when we meet. We either write down notes manually or just orally give notes during writers’ group. Submissions are done via Dropbox.
-the writing lesson generally comes from the Writing Excuses Podcast. We take turns picking one, and everyone has 2 weeks to listen to the podcast and write a short story based on the podcast’s writing prompt. Then in addition to reviewing whosever’s main story it is, we review everyone’s short stories, and discuss the Writing Excuses Podcast theme. We eventually started giving each other additional assignments to help us grow in specific areas. Here’s an example:
We all listen to a Writing Excuse Podcast on blending genres (similar to this one http://www.writingexcuses.com/2009/07/12/writing-excuses-season-3-episode-7-genre-blending/). We didn’t like the original writing prompt (‘combine “Horror” and “Western” and don’t make it look like either one’) so decided we would just write any short story BUT we had to combine two genres, and we got to choose the genres for each other. Here was the breakdown (we randomly chose who we were in charge of assigning).
Sam-blend Erotica & Mystery; assigned by Daniel & David.
David-blend Western & Alternate History; assigned by Daniel & Sam.
Daniel-blend Young Adult & Thriller; assigned by David & Sam. I also had to write about teenagers because I suck at writing them >:(
The results were humorous, especially because most of our group is very conservative and no one really wanted to write using erotica tropes but Sam took it on like a champ!
-once we’ve completed reviewing someone’s entire novel piecemeal, we do a rereading for their turn, reading their whole novel at once and making general comments.
-if it’s your turn, you get to choose what we review: we can go over an outline, read up to 10,000 words (if submitted by Sunday), review your query letters, go over new or old material, etc.
Time-generally 6:30 pm until 11:00 pm or 12:00 pm. If we cut out the chit chat, we would reduce our time by an hour or two.
Improving Each Other
Because of how much we’ve read from each other’s work, we know our weakness and strengthens, and try to tailor writing assignments to stretch ourselves. I suck at writing romance and formulating magic systems instead of delivery systems (more on that in another post) so I often get assigned those themes as additional requirements for my short stories. I excel at writing fight scenes so I’ll often get the assignment to have conflict other than fighting. A member was having trouble with setting, so we made him work on that with every Writing Excuse submission for a while and he greatly improved.
We’ve grown together as a writers’ group. When I shared how long I’ve been revising my first novel (it’s really been way too long) it spooked one of our members and he immediately shaped up his book and started querying agents then challenged us all to start submitting as well. I wouldn’t have submitted without him pushing me. To help prepare us, we changed some of our Writing Excuses weeks to critique our query letters or presented research we had found about querying.
Writing and Reviewing A Ton
Overall, we’ve written and reviewed over 35 short stories per person, covering a wide range of topics. This alone has been paramount in stretching us as authors, especially because we get quick feedback about what we’re doing well and what we need to improve. You just can’t get this level of knowledge about each other unless you read lots of your peers’ work. You start to see patterns of where you can make adjustments, what you need to focus on developing, and what strengths you should leverage in your writing.
I’ve reviewed four of my novels with my group and their input has been invaluable. With our 10,000 word submission limit (sometimes 20,000 is acceptable), we reviewed my entire fourth novel in about 2 months.
The Case for Diversity: Magic Systems
I wouldn’t be as well-developed without the diversity of views from my writers’ group. Case in point is magic systems. I tend to make delivery systems rather than actual systems. I’ll write another post about exactly what I mean, but the simple explanation is that my systems only focus on delivering the goods (e.g. “It’s a fireball from a magic crystal!”, or “It’s a fireball from magic words!”, or “It’s a fireball from a magic plant!”). The result is the same (“a cool looking fireball!”); only the delivery system changes. I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes the magic look cool but not how it actually works.
On the contrary, one member of my writers’ group is an engineer. His brain works WAY different than mine. He wants to know how the actual system works, not just how it looks. He wants to poke and prod the system, testing for limitations and choke points, analyzing what you can do with the rules, pushing the boundaries, etc. Honestly, it’s been frustrating. Sometimes I can’t understand his concerns or what he’s saying because my brain doesn’t work that way. It’s even gotten to the point where I used to dread any submissions that have magic in it because I know he’ll rip it to shreds. But here’s the thing, he’s made me a much better author in terms of developing magic systems. For example, he saw the potential in one book’s system and helped me move from ‘pretty-looking-magic’ to a fully functional magic system. I wouldn’t have gotten there without his help, and I wouldn’t have gotten there without his ability to see systems differently than me. With magic systems, I now view these submissions as opportunities to learn and grow.
So in your writers’ group, find people who are different from you. Find an engineer, or find a graphic designer (like my other friend). Find someone with a different worldview, from a different culture, a different gender, or from a different religion, etc. Because the differences will stretch you as a writer and will make your worlds and stories bigger, better, and more amazing than they already are.
Ultimately, none of us really knows what we’re doing. None of us are professional authors (yet) although the other two members of my group have heavy backgrounds in university writing courses. Other authors have spoken against having such groups (“It’s like the blind leading the blind”) but I find that’s part of the charm with us. We’re all in this together, and one writer’s success motivates all of us to keep going.
Sounds Great But How Do I Found My Own Group?
My own writers’ groups have been invaluable to my growth. But you may be wondering, how do I get a get a group?
First, Know What You Want
Ask yourself what you’re looking for in a writers’ group:
-why do you want to be part of a writers’ group?
-what are you looking to improve? (grammar, spelling, line edits, or more global issues like plotting, story, characterization, etc.)
-how much do you want to review each other’s work and how much are you willing to review?
-what kinds of diversity are you looking for?
-how do you want to meet up? (via Skype, in person, etc.)
-what’s your ideal writers’ group? (visualize how it works, down to the taste of the cookies after the meeting)
-how have other authors you admire described their writers’ groups? Does that add to your list of ideas?
-what skills do you have that would be useful to a writers’ group?
Once You Know What You Want, Start Looking
This is the hardest part. Where do you find the writers’ group of your dreams?
-be willing to compromise what you want and what others want. With Flaming Bacon Boar, I only wanted to focus on learning to write instead of revising/editing. I’ll be eternally grateful our group did both of these from the get go.
-be willing to move on. You might need to try out several writers’ groups. You might need to kick members out or have some hard discussions (thankfully that hasn’t happened to our group, but it might if we add more people).
-post an add. Post it on Craiglist (“Wanted: Writing Companions”). Post it at a library. Post it at a coffee shop. Be sure to be specific about what you’re looking for.
-use social media. Let your Facebook friends know you’re looking for writing companions or a writers’ group. Ask friends to forward your message to any writing friends they may have. You might be surprised how powerful 6 degrees of separation really can be!
-search out meetups on meetup.com and other websites such as NaNoWriMo.
-attend workshops, both online and offline.
-search writing forums.
It might be tough putting yourself out there, but if you don’t, you’re not likely to actually find the writers’ group you want. Keep working at it. If it gets too rough, just commit to throwing a regular bit of time at finding them. Eventually, you will.