Clearly, I’m a fan, but only up to a point. Not every writing group suits every writer; some suit none. Nor does a group that works at a certain point of your career, work forever. In this, as in much else, there is nothing constant save change.
Everyone has to make up their own mind about the value of writing groups but one useful guideline you might use: if you feel better about your writing when you leave a group’s meeting that when you went in – you’re in the wrong group. A writing group isn’t there to make you feel good; it’s there to make you a better writer.
Don’t get me wrong. Participating in a writing group shouldn’t be as painful as going to the dentist and you shouldn’t hang around with people you can’t stand or who abuse you on the off-chance you’ll get a few clues on being a better scribe. So while writing groups are not mutual admiration societies, drinking clubs or places to get dates (though they are occasionally all of those thing – I met my wife in a writing group), they can still be a pleasant social break from the usually solitary life of pounding the keyboard.
To me, a good writing group will help you be a better writer; a great group will make you a more frequent writer, and, yes, a happier writer.
In a nutshell that’s what belonging to a writing group should do for you.
First, it should help you improve your writing. There are several ways this can happen. The most common is through the critiquing process – whereby you read each other’s work and offer suggestions as to how to make it better. Because critiquing is so important, I’m going to devote an entire blog to it in the next few days. But a few points before I leave the topic:
Critiquing is not about you, it is about the work. That means more than simply not taking comments too personally; it also means that you aren’t trying to impose your vision on someone else’s story and you don’t let them distract you from the story you want to tell. You, in the end, want to write the best story YOU want to tell (and vice versa).
Criticism has to be useful which means it has to point out strengths as well as weaknesses in story telling and it has to be aimed at the person who is receiving the critique. If someone is having trouble with the mechanics of writing, a critique focusing on the use or allegory is not likely to be much use.
There are other ways that a writing group can help you improve your writing. Writing exercises can help you focus on particular elements of the writing process. Along the same lines, group members may be able to direct you to useful resources, books or web-sites on writing or even good examples of fiction similar to what you want to write. I’ve actually heard (beginner) writers say: Oh, I never read science fiction (or mystery or whatever) because it might contaminate my writing. What nonsense! Writing is a conversation with other writers. If you don’t listen, you don’t learn. What’s more if you don’t know what has been done in the field, the chances of you doing something fresh are virtually zero.
Some writing groups arrange tours (labs for SF writers; singles’ bars for romance, etc) or bring in guest speakers. Write what you know sometimes means (though not always) write what you can find out.
A second thing that a writing group can do for you is to help you write more. While I don’t quite ascribe to the need to write one million words of crap, there is no question that the more you write, the better you will get at it. Although, there are exceptions to every rule. Certainly if you wind up getting so involved in writing group activities that you are actually writing less, you need to step back and reconsider.
There are several ways a group can increase your productivity. Most groups require you to submit work for critiquing on a regular basis. IFWA used to require at least two stories a year to remain an active member (though exceptions were made for professional editors). EBI requires you to have at least one paid publication credit before we’ll even consider you (and even then we keep the group small and require a fairly lengthy review process for admission). Anyone who isn’t actively writing on a regular basis feels our approbation – though we’ve never had to throw anyone out. Yet.
Challenges are another good way to keep the words coming. At many groups, there are open challenges to write stories on specific themes for readings (IFWA has been doing that for years for the local SF convention) or for as many members as possible to submit to the same anthology, for example, this one.
About 15 or 16 years ago (long before NaNoWriMo) IFWA invented write-off weekends, a short form writers retreat. Groups of writers – as many as 20 or 25 – all gather in the same place to write together. It’s not collective creation but it is creating collectively. Usually we shared meals and had a reading from what we produced. The concept spread – I’ve attended several gatherings at Robert J. Sawyer’s place and at EBI we’ve gone one step farther. If it works for a weekend, why not a lunch hour? You can often see 2 to 5 members of EBI gathered at a local mall (we all work downtown) bent over our laptops or journals producing as much as we can over fast food. My personal record is 780 words fuelled by General Tao chicken. Competitive? You bet. Useful? No question.
But how does a writing group make you a happier writer? Writing is a solitary pursuit but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. A good group can offer support when you’re feeling down about your work or when you’ve had one too many rejection and they can help celebrate your victories. Most of all they can give you a place where being a writer isn’t ‘odd’ or ‘special’ but a normal part of everyday life. And, if you’re lucky, you may find some people who can be friends for life. I know I have.
The big problem for many people is finding the right group or, sometimes finding a group at all. Most cities have one or more writing groups active at any given time. You can often find info about them at libraries, community centres or on-line. Some groups like IFWA are open to new members; others, like EBI, are semi-private or even closed. Starting your own group is another possibility. Attending a workshop (IFWA started that way) to find like minded writers is one way; social media (EBI began on FaceBook) is another.
The key thing is to find the right group and not be afraid to move on if it doesn’t or stops working for you. A few rules of thumb might help.
The group should have writers with a range of experience – but the range shouldn’t be excessive. You should feel you have something useful to say about writing to every person in the group. At the same time you shouldn’t feel intimidated or think you have to do what the most experienced writer thinks.
The main focus of the group should be on writing, writing technique, getting more writing done, and, of course, writing. The social component or discussions of the business of writing should be there but shouldn’t eat up more than a quarter or, at most, a third of your time together. Less is probably more.
The group should meet regularly for critiquing – IFWA meets once a month, EBI, between once every two weeks and once every two months, depending on how many stories are being produced (we’re a much smaller group). But it shouldn’t meet so often that it gets in the way of writing. If you meet more often it should be for collective writing sessions.
Size matters – EBI has 8 members (though one is currently in China for a year) and we find that about exactly right. IFWA is much larger (at one point it had 40 members) but encourages smaller groups to form for critiquing based on genre or experience-level. Too large a group can lose focus of members let it.
Finally as you get experiences, your needs will change. You may begin by needing help with story structure or writing mechanics but eventually begin exploring allegory and meta-fiction, if you really must. Hopefully, your group will grow with you. If not, find a new one that serves your needs. Your group may go but the friends you make will be with you forever.