Where there are writers, there will be writing groups. They may take any number of forms and serve various functions: feedback, support, learning, or commiseration. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, compares a writing group to “one of those weird little families that we fashion out of whatever’s around us.”
It’s so true. At least it has been for me. And my family is HUGE. A collection of individuals that all have one thing in common…me. You thought I was going to say writing, didn’t you? Nope, some of them aren’t writers. But each one of them decided I was worth their time, and I decided the same about them. That’s how it is when you get to choose your own family. You can screen them. You can decide who’s toxic and show them the door (or the boot, if they don’t take the door hint). You get to surround yourself with the folks who really matter, who you respect and want to listen to.
So, what’s the difference between chatting with other writers and an official group? How do you get in touch with a writing group, or meet people who want to form one?
Let’s first talk about where you can go to meet other writers, since you have to make friends before you can create a group… well, a group of more than one.
One great way to meet other writers is online. It’s readily accessible to most people, and you can log in whenever you feel like it, rather than attending meetings at a set time and place. When I joined an active online writing community, my world and social life changed irreversibly. Through my participation in the Mythic Scribes forums I’ve grown as a writer and as a person. My life has been enriched by the friends who’ve shared the journey with me, and I’ve learned valuable lessons (for good or bad) that will influence future decisions in my professional and personal life.
Online communities have a number of things going for them, and an equal number of drawbacks. For each individual, those specific pros and cons will be different. Some folks like to be anonymous and keep their personal lives at home. Others give out their name, email, and phone number with the goal in mind of forging long-lasting correspondences. To make a really successful group, I’m of the firm belief that you have to be sort of real. It becomes tedious for partners trying to relate to a cartoon bunny avatar who types in a hurry most of the time and gives stock advice. A good group is built on genuine caring between the members.
Whatever level of commitment feels right for you (or however much patience you have for catfish), consider what you’re looking to get from an online forum that’s open to everyone. Trollish people tend to find a cold shoulder or outright rejection. If you’re helpful and honest, though, you find friends. And those friends are only an email away from being your next best writing buddy. Online communities can certainly inspire personal connections and close-knit groups even if it isn’t the main function of the forum. One caution about online communities, as with all places where anonymity reigns: be careful, be selective, and if something doesn’t feel right for any reason, you have the ability to leave.
Feedback can be difficult to get online because you have little control over who critiques your publicly posted work, or over how they give their feedback. However, if sheer volume is your goal, an online community can supply a writer with numerous critiques in a short amount of time.
Sometimes these are organized by local writing groups in your town (usually email lists that have newsletters and get together for a few workshops, critique circles, or events a year, but remain relatively impersonal due to high but intermittent membership numbers). Other times, you can travel to special events that are attended by well-known authors who will give personal advice to attendees.
Writer conferences, workshops, conventions, etc. are nice because they’re one-time commitments, rather than regularly scheduled meetings. They can attract new writers and published professionals alike, depending on what they offer and how much they charge for attending. Also, many of them offer pitch sessions, “meet the agents,” or optional “for additional fee” critiques by authors or editors.
They can be a great place to hone your skills and make friends (whose faces you can actually see), and often they encourage networking. And seriously, any opportunity to network is another opportunity to collect a few
hundred more critique partners or beta readers. Like sneaking a dozen packets of duck sauce into your take home bag when you order an egg roll. Oh, come on. I can’t be the only one who thinks the packet one is better than anything in the store.
Conventions and workshops are great places to meet other writers who are serious enough about their writing to “pay to play,” however, keeping in touch with the people you shake hands with and then can’t remember after the weekend’s over…that’s the tricky part. It’s a bit like dating. You hold their card in your hand, or take the napkin with their number on it out of your backpack… just trying to decide when is the right time to call. And the thousand little anxious thoughts that follow.
Creative Writing Classes
Creative writing classes, whether they’re the kind you pay for at a school or the kind you get to attend for free at a library, usually offer a combination of instruction and feedback. They might be a semester long, or a one-day intensive session.
Structured classes draw in writers who want to learn how to write, or who want to become better writers. In short, they’re there to learn, and because there isn’t an agent in sight (like there would be at a con), they’re less like a shark during a feeding frenzy—ready to elbow their way into the best seat and tear someone down at the first whiff of blood. Critique is usually an important part of the class. You get an opportunity to read your peers’ work, and have yours read.
If you see something that blew your socks off, you might reach out to those with which you feel rapport. After the class, you could ask someone whether they’d like to trade novels. Maybe you could see whether multiple people want to form a group that meets once a month to discuss writing craft at a nearby coffee house. Or if your group is more the commiseration sort, a dive bar.
Speaking of commiseration, before beginning your own writing group (or joining one, for that matter), it’s probably helpful to consider the group’s main objectives. Within the writing community there are many personalities and goals, and it’s foolish to think you can take four random writers and put them at a table, and hilarity and good times will ensue. More likely, you’ll see defensiveness, cattiness, jealousy, and outright hostility (well, probably not for the first few sessions, but after the feedback starts flowing, all bets are off). Why? As writers we often represent a polarizing set of beliefs.
Some of us have devoted a lifetime to something we love, that has inspired us above anything else we’ve ever experienced. Others approach writing like a business, with sound decisions at the forefront of our minds. For some, a story is a process that from conception to birth follows a typical development and grows into an exact copy of what the template promises. Still others write to fill a gap in their own heart or spirit, perhaps as therapy for grief or pain. Some people write because they have something important to say, and once that important thing is out, their writing is finished forever. Or any combination of an infinite number of other possibilities.
The point is, to make a group work well, the members must have at least a few ideas in common. Usually, it helps if their individual goals and writing levels are similar, regardless of genre and type of story.
It can cause friction when members find the inherent conflicts within the group distracting. For example, when the group is Sci-fi oriented, but someone invited their cousin to join who writes tween romance. Not only that, but the work is really sloppy and pretentious. That puts the original members in the awkward position of saying something kind about work that probably doesn’t appeal to them, or about which they know nothing, not to mention it also doesn’t fit the competency level of the group. The newcomer will probably soon feel in over their head (but likely won’t have the heart to tell their cousin that they’d like to leave). That’s when the excuses begin and suddenly everyone’s lives become so “busy” that the group falls apart. In short, they lose interest. And there are a million reasons people lose interest, so try not to take it personally. One of those reasons is simply that things change. Maybe the tween romance writer is really obnoxious about his political beliefs at meetings. It may not be his genre or story that’s causing a rift in the group, but just the addition of a member that didn’t assimilate well.
Balancing Skill and Expectations
When there exists an imbalance of skill or talent in a group, personalities become really important. By personalities, I mean the ability of a group or partnership to heal its own wounds. One person feels they got a particularly harsh critique from another member. Another stops showing up, but his work is still on the docket to be discussed. There are a million ways group members cause friction with one another, and though the movie Authors Anonymous (2014) blows it completely out of proportion, the undercurrent exists in many groups. Personalities, skill, and participation are all key ingredients to maintaining a healthy writing group.
Neil Gaiman explains this concept nicely in his commencement speech, of which my favorite line is: “You don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.”
If you’re friendly and encouraging and honest, you can blend perfectly well in a group that is further ahead in the skills department. Likewise, if you are a great writer but aren’t ready to take it to the next level, it might be helpful to hang out with a newer group that values insight and experience rather than the mad push toward publication.
Find or begin a group that has the same goals in mind as you do. It’s fine to push your comfort level, but to maintain an encouraging and motivating group you probably don’t want to start rocking boats as a hobby. Writing groups are fragile. They stand up only because of the weight situated squarely and evenly on the shoulders of all the members. Another reason smaller groups are sometimes preferable. Less people to begin causing a rift. But then again, each personality has a larger percentage of the burden.
You might use your group to focus on a particular thing: Sci-fi short stories or YA novels. Or you might form a group that includes several writers all working on the same set of skills. Perhaps you all have a good understanding of the basic and advanced tools involved with writing publishable work, but you need some advice on how to increase the impact of your words — wringing the last few drops of blood from the turnip, as it were.
I can’t say everything I want to about writing groups in one article, so that’s it for now. Next time, I’ll talk about how to form a group, what to avoid from the beginning, and what to look for in potential group members.
For Further Thought
What are you most looking for in a writer’s group?
Have you joined any writing groups? What did you gain from the experience?
Have you tried forming a writing group? How did that go?
Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.