How to Run a Writers’ Group

writing(or Learning to Cope With Frustration, Embarrassment, and Pride All at the Same Time)
by Bud Webster

 

A year or so ago I was invited to participate in a day-long seminar for writers and writers’ groups in a town not far from here. It was held at the branch of the county library, and was well-attended both by group members and those individuals who wanted to know what the hell a “writers’ group” did, anyhow.

It was pleasant, for the most part; there were plenty of people there I knew (including a few from my own group, which is called “Writers’ Endeavor”) and it was interesting to see how many different ideas and perspectives there were. I drank some water, ate a couple of cookies, and put in my time on a panel devoted to how different groups operated.

When the panel was over, the seminar organizer thanked me effusively for participating, and added that it was nice to see a group which was led by a professional writer.

I was… well, something between “floored” and “flustered”. Call it “floorstered,” I guess. Weren’t there pros in all the groups?

Turns out there weren’t, not in all of them, and in most only one or two who had even made semi-pro sales. There was the usual gang of self-published eager-beavers, and at least one who had seen hardcover publication and was selling ex-library copies of his novels, but as far as street-cred was concerned, I was just about top of the heap. Doesn’t that just suck?

Let me start from the beginning, with your kind indulgence. In the fall of 2005 (geeze Louise, has it been eight years already?), a rag-tag group of would-be writers gathered together at a local Richmond bookshop, Creatures & Crooks, now unfortunately out of business. We didn’t know each other, and I was the only one of the bunch who had published professionally. We introduced ourselves, traded aspirations, and elected a group leader after deciding that each leader would organize and run the group for a period of four months, when we’d elect yet another poor bastard to herd the writerly cats.

Before we broke up, the owner of the bookshop gave us an assignment for the next meeting—the phrase “good taste.” We would all write something on that theme, read our pieces out loud to the rest of the group, who would then give their responses. Then we all went our separate ways.

It continued in that fashion for the first year. I wasn’t the first leader chosen, but after having been “elected” a few times in a row, the group simply thrust leadership upon me, and so it currently stands.

We did assignments for a year or so, some better than others. My personal favorite was when I gave them a list of six words and asked them to weave them into a story. I got a pretty good yarn out of it and titled it “The Shed.” In fact, you can read it in Nth Degree #20 if you care to do so. Other assignments followed: creating opening hooks, writing the same scene from three different viewpoints, and so on. Once I gave them a choice of four openers, among them the first line of my own “Bubba Pritchert and the Space Aliens” (Analog, July 1994).

Eventually, though, exercises fell by the wayside, as they should. Exercises are fine for, well, exercise, but eventually a writers’ group has to get down to the business of actually writing. As most of the members were already working on stories or novels, we decided to upload individual chapters (I had already created a Yahoo Groups page for us) for each member to download, print out, and critique. As these chapters were frequently longer than the assignment pieces, we no longer read them out loud; by then, we had enough members that reading just took too long.

Here’s the way Writers’ Endeavor works (I didn’t name it, but as a group name it’s adequate; it ain’t the Inklings, of course, but none of us are C. S. Lewis or that Tolkien d00d): members upload their chapter/essay/story/whatever (no more that 3k words, hopefully) to the Yahoo files page. Other members download, print out and write in their comments. Come meeting night, we go in turns to slam… sorry, gently critique… the piece. I’m serious about that “gently,” by the way, so let’s talk about it.

One of the things that floorstered me at that seminar was the pride so many of the participants in other groups took in savaging their colleagues’ work, apparently on the theory that this is what happens in the world of publishing. Editors writing vicious rejections, I mean, or calling the authors at home and brutally tearing them a new one of whatever it is that editors tear.

I have no idea why they think that. In my experience over the past 20+ years of submitting work to professional editors (and being rejected plenty of times) editors do not sadistically rip apart the stories they’re sent and spill bile all over their rejection letters. It is so rare that anything of the sort occurs, in fact, that the single editor (now deceased) I can recall who was know for occasionally doing so was considered remarkable. Critics are another thing entirely, but they perform their malicious surgery after the fact.

I require the writers in my group to be civil, polite, and articulate. We aren’t there to make each other cry, or to prepare each other for some mythical editorial venom, but to help each other become better writers. By the same token, I don’t expect them to (in effect) pat the others on the head, pin their stories to the fridge with a magnet and send them out to play; I require more than patronization.

I want from my members their absolute best work as a writer. I want correct spelling, syntax and grammar; I want a beginning, middle and end (experimentation can come later after they’ve mastered their tools); I want standard manuscript format. What I want to see is what they would send to an editor, as clean and correct a ’script as any editor would expect to see from a professional-level writer.

When it comes to their critiques, I want their absolute best work as readers. It isn’t enough for them to know that a passage or phrase doesn’t work; they have to know why it doesn’t work. However, I don’t want them to tell the writer what they would do to fix the problem, because that’s not always helpful. Making suggestions is fine, but it has to be up to the writer to make any changes in a way that’s consistent with what comes before.

As a result, the members of Writers’ Endeavor have become friends, trusting each others’ motives and viewpoints. Yes, we’re a support group on those occasions when that’s needed, but we’re more than that. We can be honest without being cruel, we can give “bad news” where necessary without being mean about it (or having it taken as such), and that is far more useful and important than preparing each other for the sort of editorial ferocity other groups seem to think exists.

Now, I readily admit that there are other legitimate ways for writers’ groups to operate. In at least one case, the group assembles in a coffee shop with their laptops and spends their time writing; not together, as in a collaboration, but in the same place. At the same time. Not having visited their group, I can’t say that there isn’t some talk between them once in a while, but frankly I can’t imagine a more solitary process than writing, so I wonder what they get from it. Okay, so that’s not for me.

There are also plenty of groups run by working, professional writers. The members already have credits, but use the hard-nosed (if still courteous) advice of their colleagues to further sharpen their skills. I know, I know; I just said something up there about how solitary writing is, but believe me, the counsel of your peers can be invaluable, especially if they’ve already breeched the markets you’re aiming at.

“But, wait,” I hear you say. “Wouldn’t they be competing?” Yes. What’s your point? Do you really believe those silly rumors that publishers are reluctant to look at material by new writers? If so, let me disabuse you of that base canard: publishers actively seek out new writers, if only because the old ones keep quitting, slowing down, or keeling over from the strain of having to deal with silly rumors. This means that there is plenty of competition out there, but that’s nothing new—there always has been. Competition—healthy competition, anyway—doesn’t preclude cooperation.

So here’s what you do: forget all this crap about making your manuscript stand out from all the others by using colored paper, weird fonts, pictures, and all the rest of those gimmicks that wannabees are certain will be necessary to get the attention of editors, agents and/or publishers. Believe me, stuff like that will get their full attention right up to the second they feed your ’script into the shredder and turn their attention to the other 200 books/stories that came in that day.

If you want your work to stand out, make sure that your presentation is professional, even if you haven’t actually, like, been paid yet. After all, that’s just a technicality, albeit a very important one. That means using your tools—words, spelling, syntax, grammar, all that stuff you learned in third grade—as they were intended to be used. That means presenting your manuscript in the form the editor wants it to be in, something you can check out easily on their webpage under “Guidelines” or, if you’re a book-geek like me, by checking the copy of this year’s edition of Writers’ Market which resides comfortably (if a little lonely) on your library’s reference shelf.

That’s one of the things that make you a pro, not just getting a check, and a good writers’ group (hopefully one run by a pro, or made up of pros) will teach you all this and more. It will also give you ample opportunities to practice your craft. There really isn’t a whole lot you can learn from a group made up entirely of non-professionals that you won’t have to un-learn down the line, so it’s worth your while to find one with at least one or two pros, and probably worth driving an hour or so to join in.

A word of advice, if you’ll indulge me. Be careful, and find a group with which you’re a good fit. In my group, there have been a few who just didn’t work out. In one case, it was a woman who saw nothing wrong with ending sentences with three exclamation points!!! She came for one session and never returned. Another man stayed for several months, but adamantly refused to listen to the members’ advice and his work never changed, never improved. He also refused to use software which formatted his submissions as anything easily readable, but that was the least of his problems.

Figure out what you want from a group, and look for one that fits your needs, but remember this—the whole purpose of a writers’ group should be to aid you in becoming a reliable, consistent, and professional writer, not make you feel good or rip you to shreds. Look for good personality matches, a process that suits your working habits (or improves them), and whatever level of intensity you find most energizing, whether it’s full speed ahead or laid back and chatty. Finding a group that will help you sharpen your skills and lead you to professional publication may be hard, but it’s well worth it. That’s what we work hard to make Writers’ Endeavor, and I am proud of each and every member we have.

 

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