I belong to two writing groups that meet face to face, and a scattering of online ones. I find that being in a group helps kick me in the butt in a productive way, because I don’t want to show up with nothing in hand.
Bearing in mind that everything I say may be wrong for you, writing groups can be pretty useful — if it’s a good group.
So what makes a group a good one? Several things.
- The group should be people who are as skilled — or preferably better — than you. Why? Because that stretches you. Stretching is good. It’s all very well if you’re trying to benefit humanity by instilling the difference between your and you’re in someone, but that’s teaching. That’s not being in a writing group.
- The group should all be writing. That guy in the corner who’s saying he’d love to write but he needs to “exorcise a few inner demons first”? Give him the name of a decent therapist and then give him the boot.
- The group should have a clear, good process for how they do things.
- (In my opinion, and I realize some people don’t feel this way.) The group should have some modicum of respect for each other. It’s hard to get much from someone who starts out with something like “This story is SHIT!”, because you’re so busy feeling bruised that the good stuff may well not sink in. Although with people you respect/trust that may be fine. There’s people I don’t mind hearing that from; there’s others that I feel like punching in the face.
One of my groups are local ex-Clarion West participants, several years worth now. We meet at a Seattle doughnut shop, eat, and crit each other’s work. People send out their stories beforehand (usually with enough time for others to read them) and everyone comes with a copy of the manuscript on which they have written notes and which they’re prepared to briefly talk about. We go around the table doing this, the author can talk or ask questions at the end, and then the author gets all those marked up copies to digest at his or her leisure. And in CW tradition, we begin by saying what did work for us in the story.
The other group doesn’t send out stories/chapters beforehand, but people come with the story and read it aloud to the group before it is discussed. The feedback is not as meticulous as the other group, but this method has the advantage of getting to read the piece aloud to an audience and see what spots are getting chuckles and which are falling flat.
The mix works well for me and I’m lucky to have awesome people in both groups. Before I went to Clarion West in 2005, I was writing in a vacuum and not getting much feedback at all, and I’m perpetually amazed by what a difference it makes to be able to get some and find out which experiments work and which fall on their tiny little textual faces. As well as what I’ve learned critting other people’s work and being forced to articulate my theories about effective fiction.
So how do you find a writing group?Â Probably the best method is to construct your own from like-minded people among your acquaintances, but barring that, you might poke around on the bulletin boards in local bookstores or on-line places like Craig’s List. There are a number of good on-line groups (Critters (free), Online Writers Workshop ($50 yearly fee), etc) and you may be able to meet people through there. If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo in November, you may meet some people at one of their gatherings.
Don’t be afraid to leave a group if it’s not working for you. Experimentation is good. And good luck!