On the topic of what our members would like to see covered at TKZ, Frances asked about Writers’ Groups.
“I’d like to see a blog on Writer’s Groups. I belong to one that is disappointing in structure and leadership. What are the qualifications for starting a writer group and what should be included? I prefer a group that meets in person versus online. Thanks!” Frances
As for qualifications to start a group, I’ve seen ANYONE create a group if there is interest in your local area. My latest adventure to find a local writer’s group where I live was through special interest groups listed on MEETUPS.com (query your local area for “Meetups” and “writing groups”). But these groups are rarely organized well enough to hold my interest for long. The leadership is usually inflexible on format or control the critique process too much. Often it’s the blind leading the blind and comments don’t further anyone’s potential career. These groups may catch typos but higher level reviews of your work are rare.
For more serious endeavors, a local group can collect dues and hold writing contests (with members as judges) to generate revenue, but once you ask for money, members will expect a plan of action and organization with regular meetings and a plan. Many national professional groups have specific rules to adhere to, if you want to open a local chapter. Toward the end of this post, look for a link of writers’ groups that are broken down at various levels you might find useful. Try joining a local chapter of a bigger organization if it’s available in your area. That’s your best bet.
I believe it takes a combination of groups to expand your horizons. I’ve belonged to quite a few writers’ groups, from national professional organizations, to online subgroups, to local writer meetings, to attending workshops. I’ve spoken at various meetings and workshops on craft and attended local meetings to help critique other authors. And I was also the Program Director for 5 years at my local Oklahoma Romance Writers of America (OKRWA) chapter and had a hand in shaping our resources for published and aspiring authors. This group and the strength and generosity of its published authors got me published. I was an aspiring author, untested, but I took on the duty of Program Director because I could create a network of contacts I wanted to see and I could work with my published authors to provide things they wanted to see. A great volunteer opportunity.
Here are my thoughts on what makes an effective group, depending on how organized you want to be or how much money you have to put together a group on your own.
SIZE MATTERS – I’ve worked with local groups who have an open call to anyone wanting to attend from one week to the next. The usual format is determined by those in attendance reading from their current WIP, sometimes up to 10 pages, and everyone around the room comments. In my opinion, this type of format doesn’t work because the attendees are not consistent and the format never changes. No real discussion happens, even when the group seems to want a diversion, because there are too many people vying for attention for their work.
When I say size matters, I think it’s more important to recruit serious/dedicated writers that have the same work ethic and are determined to improve their craft. (I’m not implying all pubbed authors, but writers dedicated to improving themselves.) 3-5 members might be the ideal. With a limited, devoted group who consistently appear each meeting, there can be real focus on each other’s samples and the meeting framework can be adapted to the goals of the group. If a deeper discussion arises organically, the group can be more flexible in how any meeting will evolve. Don’t be afraid to start out with all novices. A novice one day, with a good work ethic and supportive of other members, could be a future published author. My first groups weren’t always successful but I learned something worthwhile from each one. Sometimes you have to dive in and take charge to define what you want in a group.
YOU CONTROL THE FRAMEWORK – You might like reading your current WIP aloud or have someone else in the group read yours. But instead of taking up valuable time in the meeting doing this, try some of these time savers:
A.) Maintain an online group to exchange notices and post resources. Post your WIPs that will be critiqued for the next meeting. You can post them to a file section (like a private Yahoo or Google Group or a private Facebook Group). Your 4 members will have more time to read in advance and provide commentary in “track changes mode” for the author to take home something legible. So when it comes time for giving feedback, each member can focus on the highlights of their verbal critique and ask open ended questions of the author to promote a discussion at a higher level.
B.) Limit how many pages are critiqued or read aloud.
C.) Allow time for craft discussion at each meeting. Any member could lead the topic from craft books or a general chat on what works or doesn’t work for each person in the group.
BREAK UP MONOTONY WITH RESEARCH – Bring up research topics that could help the group or inspire future stories. As Program Director for the OKRWA, I had to fill each month with a 1-hour presentation that would help aspiring authors as well as published writers. Some months were research topics where we brought in speakers from the fire or police dept, an FBI profiler, a ghost hunting team (usually in October for paranormal story inspirations), or we went on field trips to generate story ideas with firsthand experiences. For example, we each paid money to go on a ghost hunt, guided by a real team of ghost hunters. (You really get to know your group by doing scaring the hell out of them.)
WHAT ABOUT A RETREAT? Usually in July, we would take a retreat together. Yes, this costs money and organization. We would have sessions on world building or various craft topics. or we might break down a larger group into smaller ones to have brainstorming sessions on plot ideas. A published author group might take a fun trip away from home to a nice location. They work the first few days on brainstorming TWO plots for each author and record the sessions, but after the hard work is done, they go have fun. Sign me up. The group gets a jump on plots for the year and get time off for fun to replenish the creative well.
DO SOME GROUP MEMBERS NEED PROMO? Promotion for published authors is important to support them. For pubbed authors who appreciated help on local events–from Valentine’s Day Events at local libraries to quarterly book signings–my Oklahoma writers’ group would support our members by organizing or attending these events. One of our bigger events was a Librarian Tea. We’d pick a venue and pay for beverages and snacks/desserts (or you could do something more casual with potluck). This can be done economically, but my local group had membership dues and revenues from writing contests to support our annual programs. At the Librarian Tea, our pubbed authors got to meet local librarians and book store owners, where their upcoming releases or backlist would be showcased. Our local group would also send out postcards and flyers of new releases from our members to those same librarians and book store owners we were developing relationships with. Even aspiring authors could benefit from this when they eventually sold and had book signings of their own.
FACETIME or ONLINE? I like getting together with my local writer groups. Writing can be solitary enough. Commiserating with my fellow crazies can be fun. But if there are no local groups where you are, an online group can give you resources in a different way. Once you develop a trust with your online members and determine if their input will help you, exchanging writing samples for critique can be done online. Often these groups have a files section with craft or promo topics that can be helpful or they may host an annual conference or hold workshops.
Here is a LINK to many writer groups (from national, to professional, to genre, to local groups) that you might find helpful.
1.) What works best in writing groups from your experience? From size to format?
2.) Do writing groups help or hinder the writing process?
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