Monday, 27 January 2014

Running a writers' group

For years, my own contact with writers' groups was hit-and-miss. At university, I had enough writing courses and writerly societies to keep me well fed with feedback and community. After university, in a new town, I didn't know how to find "my" people. I went to a few writing events and occasionally skimmed through the local ads, but didn't find what I was looking for. It occurred to me to start one, but I held back, shy and nervous of getting no responses. It didn't occur to me that I really, really needed a group: I needed other people in my life who cared that much about writing, I needed their feedback and motivation, and I needed the pleasure and community of giving feedback and motivation in return. Finally an ad popped up: someone else was brave enough where I'd hung back. Joining that group was one of the best things I could do - for my writing and also for the firm friendships that grew.

So if you're a writer without a writers' group, this is for you: how much it helps; how to find and start one; and some ideas of how to arrange meetings and run it. If you're already part of a writers' group, please share your own experiences in the comments!


Writing groups really help

The best thing I ever did was tiptoe out of isolation and join the circle of writers.
My sister's graphic design blog shares this quote: "I lived outside community, I lived without a tribe. I needed women to listen to my pain and honour my tears. Then I needed women to tell me it was time to dry my tears… and do something. ... I needed women to tell me to rent a silly film and laugh hysterically. I needed women to say 'Celebrate! Go shopping!' The best thing I ever did was tiptoe out of isolation and join the circle of women." I feel the same. I lived outside community, I lived without a tribe. The best thing I ever did was tiptoe out of isolation and join the circle of writers. As writers, we're often the cat that walks alone. The non-joiner. We can forget that other writers are very much like us - that this is our community, our people.

Simply being part of a community helps your writing travel from the secret hinterlands of your laptop and notebook out into the wider world. Getting feedback helps; getting enthusiasm helps; getting a reason to finish something because the group is going to read it helps. (As Gaiman says, "You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things.") Giving feedback and enthusiasm help equally. Finding out about new authors, new ways of writing, new approaches, they all help. Meeting up with physical people in real life also helps.

How to find / start a writing group

If you have any writer friends, start there. If you don't have any writer friends where you live, all the more reason to join or start a group. Check if something's already running: look in the windows of newsagents, on community websites, in local online classifieds. (In Oxford, we have the Daily Info.) If you can't find one, put an ad in the same places you've been looking. I feared getting no responses, but I needn't have. The woman who started our group simply waited until she had four or five responses, then we all met up in a pub to get to know each other. It was that simple.

Don't worry about trying to find writers who're into the same kind of writing as you are: having a mix of genres and media is actually a boon. Genres can learn a lot from each other - for instance, literary fiction can take notes on narrative tension from thrillers, while thrillers take notes on elegant prose; screenwriting is a hot house for learning to write good dialogue; poetry reminds everyone about economy of language.

Once you've collected a few people's names and emails or numbers, get everyone together in a pub or coffee shop so you can meet each other properly and plan your group.

Arranging meetings

As much as possible, arrange meeting dates in advance, on a set schedule. Juggling diaries between 5+ people quickly gets bogged down. If you have a set date, "first Tuesday of every month", "every second Wednesday", people can keep it free. Decide as a group how often you want to meet. You can take turns hosting it and go to each other's houses, or pick a spot you all like and meet there. Two caveats on meeting in public: some people feel uncomfortable having their writing discussed in earshot of other people; writing groups that meet in pubs often lose focus! Once you have your dates set, keep meeting. If one or two people have to miss the occasional meeting, that's fine: it's easier to keep it going if you keep meeting regardless. If people aren't writing, all the more reason to meet: inspire each other and do some writing together. (Ideas on that below.)

Some approaches to meetings

How you want to do the actual meetings depends entirely on the group - it's something to discuss the first time you get together. Here are some of the possibilities:

  • send writing to each other in advance: a box.net folder lets you all load it up to one place, so everyone can download and read it beforehand. Some groups set a limit on how many words to submit, so that the reading doesn't chew up an entire week.
  • read aloud in the group - you can even get people to read each other's writing out loud, which casts a new light on it for the writer
  • write in the group: some groups set prompts each time, to write and share that evening or to write for the next meeting
  • play writing games together: not just as writing prompts, but as a way to explore aspects of writing and learn more about the craft of writing. For example, Ex Libris is a super way to hone your skills at first and last lines. The Story Elements course grew out of games I started creating to play with my own writers' group, so we could try out different approaches and develop our skills.
  • keep a social element: while you're discussing each other's writing, it's good to keep focused on that and keep an eye on the clock, but leave some time for tea and chat too. Having occasional extra evenings that are purely social is also lovely. It's about writing and feedback, but also about community.
You can mix and match all these possibilities and add your own, depending on what stages people are at with their writing as the group evolves.

Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback well is so crucial that I'm going to hold this over for its own, separate blog post, next Monday. (You can subscribe in the top right if you want it emailed to you.)

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