Joining a writer’s group was my wife’s idea. I hadn’t really written anything since my first (and last) year of college and I was terrified of even the notion. She wanted me to meet with strangers (actually I knew a couple of the people invoved)? She wanted me to write. I’m not a writer! If I ever was I’m not anymore! What if I suck? In fact I’m sure I do suck! Well, she wanted a creative outlet and she wanted to broaden her social circle and she wouldn’t go without me.
So I went to the first meeting of this newly formed group only to find that it had been formed once already and disbanded. Not exactly encouraging. Two of these guys were former improv actors used to writing sketch comedy and they had already written a screenplay for a short film. Alright, some people might find that a little intimidating. But they weren’t asking for much at the beginning. Just a page. One measly page. I made the comittment and, since I take my comittments seriously, I wrote the page.
It wasn’t easy. I wrote it on my computer and I stared at that cursor for awhile before I worked up the huevos to actually start typing. But I ground it out and it and took it to the next meeting. I sat there pretending that watching people read your work right in front of you was the most natural thing in the world. I took their notes and comments and tried not to stutter when I spoke. It’s been about three years and I’ve built on that one page to include some short stories a screenplay and (most of) a novel. And I rediscovered my love of writing. It’s safe to say that without the group none of this would have come to pass.
So is a group right for you? Well, probably not. There are a lot of pitfalls and if you read what working writers have to say about such things it sounds like a downright impediment to your writing. The fact is I got lucky. But I think what makes our little cadre work can be a guideline for forming your own or deciding if joining one is going to work.
1. Meeting time: I’m not a working writer. I have a day job and as much as I love writing, I have other stuff to do. If the meeting time doesn’t work for you, the group won’t. Might as well start with the easiest one to figure out.
2. Meeting frequency: Once a week is too much. Once every two weeks is just about right. That can stretch out to three weeks once in awhile but after that you’re just going to blow off the work, the meeting, or both. Some flexibility for bah mitzvahs and Burning Man is nice too.
3. The black beret factor: Are these people a bunch of pretentious jack-knobs? Are you? It’s okay, some people are, but they’re not going to have anything helpful. If somebody talks about how great or important their stuff is-they’re probably a pretentious jack-knob. Even if their stuff is great and important it’s bad form to say so yourself. Trick other people into saying it for you.
4. The nuts-and-bolts factor: This is the opposite of pretentious jack-knobs. Most of what you’re discussing will be pretty nuts and bolts. Right down to grammar, diction, and spelling. Everyone should be able to helpfully and articulately express their opinion. We need specifics. What exactly made the tone too dark? How precisely does Trevor’s dialog not match his character’s actions? What specifically gave away the fact that I just ripped off The Road Warrior? You need to be able to do this with other people’s work and your own.
5. Honesty: Not everything you write will be Cormac McCarthy. Let’s be honest-probably nothing you, or I, write will be Cormac McCarthy. Be honest with the others and with yourself. If you write something crappy, bring it anyway and discuss its ungodly crappiness. You might learn alot. At least you’ll have some yuks.
6. Accountability: Sure, one of the main reasons to join a group is so you don’t feel so damned alone. Other people besides you have delusions of grandeur! They’re sitting right there slurping an iced mocha! Yay! But the other reason is to give yourself some sort of goal with a deadline. The consequences might only be the merciless ridicule of iced mocha man but it’s something.
7. Room for different styles and abilities: Here’s some of that spicy variety. In our group we make an effort to come up with projects or exercises that we can focus on together but we always leave room. Sometimes we have novels, short stories, magazine articles, newspaper articles, and screenplays happening pretty much at the same time. It keeps things interesting and gives everbody a chance to stretch their literary legs a little. This can become cumbersome when a bunch of people are doing a bunch of work. That’s where something like google groups comes in. Everyone can post their work before the actual meeting. I know it feels like homework to have to read a bunch of stuff and take notes for tomorrow. Suck it up. You’re growing as a writer and as a person.
Those are pretty basic although if you think there’s something else important, please comment. I think a good group can offer invaluable help. Instant feedback alone is to be appreciated. You are there to get something and you are there to give something. But it is a group (as in more than one) so a little teamwork goes a long way.