How to Run a Writing Group: Challenges To The Status Quo

The assorted authors on this blog belong to a writing group in Phoenix, Arizona, and we thought we would share some of our ideas and experience. This is one in a series of posts we’ve put together on The Care and Feeding of a Writing Group.

2.19.10 by colemama

2.19.10 by colemama

Once your writer’s group is established and humming along, you may find a new set of challenges to disrupt the harmony.

The first may be having to address accountability.  Though you have stated in your expectations that this is a group for and by writers, occasionally someone may start to slack and appear to only be in it for the social aspects.  This member may cease to bring any new writing to meetings and may even go so far as to cease reviewing and being prepared to discuss other’s work.  While the first aspect may be nothing more than writer’s block, there is no good excuse if things devolve into the second aspect.  To address the first part, it can be helpful, via conversation, to draw out of the blocked writer what it is they are currently working on and help them set a goal for the next meeting.  The accountability part is then revisiting that goal at the next meeting, hopefully with some positive movement.  Since the group exists to support the members, helping each other set goals is a group function.

The second aspect, if the non-writing member is also not providing feedback to others (and this will most always be because they aren’t taking time to read others’ works ahead of time), is best handled one on one since it can be more confrontational in nature.  Reminding the member that the group has expectations should be enough to call attention to the problem.  Again, setting a goal that by the next meeting the member will be better prepared to discuss other’s work is in order.

If the member is just not contributing on any level, they may need to take a break from the group; a hiatus.  I, myself, took a lengthy break from the group when I found myself being pulled in other directions and no longer felt that writing was a priority.  In my case, although I wasn’t writing, I was still reading and providing feedback right up until I decided to take the hiatus.

My group didn’t ask me to take a break; it was self imposed and a hard decision to make.  If a group decides to suggest to a member that perhaps they should take a break to re-focus, it should be made clear that the member is welcome to return when they can meet the expectations of the group.  I only came back when I was ready to contribute new writing each meeting.

If a group member provides valuable insight at each meeting and is contemplating taking a break, the group might feel compelled to try to talk her out of it.  Perhaps the member doesn’t realize that they are viewed as an important piece of the well-oiled machine.  I think it is important not to pressure too greatly, but letting her know is definitely a positive.

A slightly different challenge would be a member that only comes to meetings when they have written; we call them a moocher.  Usually this will be someone who works on longer pieces and is really only looking for the “receiving feedback” portion of the contract.  Granted, they may review other’s works, but only when they attend every couple of months (which always coincides with when they have something to share themselves).

While this is a subtle undermining of the group expectations, it is nonetheless something that your group will need to determine if it is to be addressed.  Again, any action on this is probably best handled one on one.  Suggesting that the member attend more regularly and send out portions of their work for each meeting is a good solution.

So, those challenges I just mentioned are about other members, but what if you are the one that has a challenge?  To meet your group’s expectations, you will need to practice a bit of time management.  In our group’s case, we generally meet every other week on a Sunday and the expectation is that new writing will be posted for review by the Thursday evening prior.  That means that, in general, members will have two full days to read and make notes/observations and prepare their feedback.  I generally set aside 15 minutes per “piece” to read and grab first thoughts.  I will then revisit if I find that I have more to contribute, but at the least, each of the other members of my group gets my full attention for those 15 minutes.

Occasionally, a member will be posting a longer piece that will take more than 15 minutes to read.  Usually, in our group we know ahead of time that this is going to occur and prepare accordingly.  Depending on what I am working on myself, I try really hard to get my writing posted by that Thursday deadline.  Sure, we all slip sometimes, but as long as everyone doesn’t slip the same week, there is plenty of time to do the review.

Now, how much time you spend on your own work is completely up to you, considering any goals that you have and such.  The members of my group that are consistent with their work have said that they stay in the habit of writing each day.  I wish I could count myself in that group, but to date that is not the case.

Occasionally, you may find some divergence occurring.  For example, the group may wish to embark on a collaborative piece and one member is in the midst of the snarls of a rewrite or wishes to devote their focus fully to a writing class.  If the group has enough members, one member diverging for a short time should not pose a problem.  It’s part and parcel of the supportive nature of the writing group to allow members to explore their passions, wherever that may take them.

Story Forge – Scales and Betrayals

The following was written from a Story Forge card layout.  To see what Story Forge is all about, see the first post in this series. You can see all of our Story Forge inspired pieces here.

Bacon-wrapped filet mignon

Bacon-wrapped filet mignon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I should have known it couldn’t last.  Who was I kidding?  Myself, apparently, and others, as well.  But, I was in so deep that I started believing the lies I had spun each and every day, the lies that had kept me as close to safe and sound as anyone in my line of work could hope to be, hour after hour, day after day, case after case.  One last job, one last collar, one last bad guy to put away, and I, so my boss had said, was the only one that could pull it off, the only one that had the trail of credentials to get in, get close, get it done.  They just forgot that there should have been one more “get” in there: get out alive.

That last one was pretty important to me, of course, but it wasn’t looking too good as of late.  I had let my guard down, actually trusted one of Don Gardino’s crew, someone I thought was a kindred spirit, as close to a kid brother as I had ever had.  But, like a kid brother, he’d tried just a little too hard to help me out, got them just a little paranoid about me, led them to discover the faulty chink in my otherwise solid armor.

Still, I couldn’t give up and risk the mission, not with so much on the line.  Don Gardino, we’d been after him for way too long and he’d tipped the scales way too far toward the evil side, like some butcher with his thumb in the mix, charging filet mignon prices for ground beef.  I chuckled thinking just how apt an analogy that was, given the number of witnesses that had been laid out cold along the way.

There was no way I could have known that Big Jim Fairbanks, Gardino’s former lieutenant was going to be my downfall.  He’d been put away, far away, at least that was my understanding.  Not that I was going to be getting any answers about how, what, who, when, why.  He was here, and looking straight at me, just one of those bum rolls of the dice that life sometimes throws your way.

All my training, all my carefully built up persona, it all came crashing down, and here and now was all I had left.  And that smug bastard, Don Gardino, he’d get away with it, probably even profit by it in some way.

***

This was my first exercise utilizing the Story Forge cards.  I would say I got hung up a little on the process and tried to adhere very closely to the touch points, one at a time, versus taking in the whole bunch and letting them drive a complete story.  I did make one full editing pass through to improve flow a little after getting all the ideas in place. I thoroughly enjoy writing in the film noir, hard-boiled detective style and have used that type of voice in a number of previous pieces.

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Cakepan II: Chapter Six – Paging Dr. Winston

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”. This is our second story.

For this story we used a random plot generator, which gave us: “The story starts when your protagonist gets lost. Another character is an anesthesist who is researching something terrible.” You can start reading at Chapter One, and we posted a new chapter until now… the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Six: Paging Dr. Winston

The front end of a numeric pager

Image via Wikipedia

Terror was taking hold and the last thing Russ heard clearly was Tony saying, “Let’s get him out of here.”

Though the bag muffled the conversation that continued, Russ could still feel every bounce as he was wheeled down the hall and into the elevator.  He had never experienced the feeling of a muscle paralytic without an accompanying sedative and it made him feel helpless.  If they didn’t get him on a respirator soon, he realized, he would stop breathing. At least he would then be released from the prison his own mind and body had become, a consoling thought amidst the terror.

His thoughts turned to the last words that Alex Udo had said.  He had no recollection of having a wife, let alone a lovely one.  Miriam, Udo had called her, but thinking the name brought no specific memories, no matter how hard he tried.

Russ felt the elevator come to a stop and he mentally pictured the doors sliding open as he wondered excactly where they would be taking him.  Two sharp reports, clearly from a small caliber pistol cut through the muffle of the heavy bag.  That was sure to be noticed in a hospital, thought Russ, a thought that was cut short by a blinding light as the zippered opening parted and the face of Nurse Ratched swam into view.

“Let’s get him on ventilation, stat! And Tony, clean up this mess I’ve made,” she said.  “Mr., err Dr. Winston, everything is going to be just fine.  We’ll talk after the paralytic works its way through your system.  We’re going to sedate you now, I’m sure you’ll appreciate waiting things out in dreamland.”

It seemed like it was only seconds later that Russ was waking up, groggy but no longer paralyzed.  Through his hazy vision he saw Tony and Nurse Ratched talking at the foot of the bed, a very different room from the one on the fourteenth floor where he had started the day.

“Oh good, you’re awake,” said the nurse, noticing his fluttering eyelids. “You have had quite a day, I know.  First off, let me tell you that you are safe and sound.”

“What about…” Russ mumbled, still shaking off the effects of the sedative.

“Dr. Morrissette and Mr. Udo? Hmmm, they have had a most, shall we say, unfortunate accident,” said Tony, choosing his words carefully.  “And we have recovered all of your research notes as well.”

“Your amnesia was drug-induced Dr. Winston and now that you are no longer being given those drugs, you will be regaining your full faculties,” added Nurse Ratched.  “You have a lot of patients that require your expertise.  Thankfully, you did not join their ranks.”

“I am indeed starting to remember things, but tell me this, what about my wife… Miriam? Alex said she…”

“Oh, but Dr. Winston, you aren’t married.  Never have been.  Too engrossed in your work for… romantic pursuits,” offered the nurse, “no matter how eligible a bachelor you are.”

“Udo always was a sadistic little prick,” said Tony, “you shoulda fired him a long time ago but Maureen always talked you out of it.  I guess we’ll never know why.”

~ The End ~
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Cakepan Manuscript – Chapter Five: Move It Or Lose It

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”.

You can start reading at Chapter One, which began with the premise: “An unemployed teacher, in a wine store, runs into a former student.” Each week we will post a new chapter until we reach the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Five: Move It Or Lose It

Professional baseball bats are typically made ...

Image via Wikipedia

Ashlee knew better than to keep Victor Tomasso waiting so she quickly hit the answer button, all of her internal chaos becoming laser focused as she meekly said “Hello?”.

“Ash, it’s me Zach,” he said, sounding more than a little out of breath.

“What the hell are you doing with Victor’s phone.  You scared the shit outta me!” she yelled, her laser focus now lost, the chaos returning with a vengeance.

“There’s no time for questions, baby. Keep that car runnin’ hot and I’ll be right out.”

“You better be, you’re about to say hello to about a half dozen of Benny Nyguen’s little friends, dumbass.”

Over the phone, she heard a loud crash and realized that Benny and his cohorts must have gone around the back.  Sure enough, Zach came barrelling out the front door, dragging some guy with him.  Zach pushed the guy toward the car, and just a few steps behind them came the Vietnamese mob causing Ashlee to begin cursing with renewed fervor, “What the fuck are you doing? let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.”

As they drew closer, she realized that “some guy” was that wacko art teacher from school, Dickhead Somethingorother.  He had a big wet spot on his pants and apparently he didn’t realize that Zach’s gun wasn’t loaded since he was doing what he was told, which, at the moment was to get in the car and shut the hell up.  Dietrich was roughly pushed into the backseat and the door slammed behind him.  Zach wasn’t so lucky.  Before he could get in the front seat, Benny and the rest of his boys caught up with him, a baseball bat to the back of a knee sending him straight to the sidewalk.

He screamed out, “Ash, get outta here,” as he went down.  She punched the gas, tires squealing, and in the rearview mirror she saw familiar red and blue lights as two squad cars pulled up.  The imminent gang beating appeared to draw their attention and she was able to slip away, despite her erratic driving.

She forgot all about Dietrich until he sat up in the backseat, causing her to swerve, almost hitting a fire hydrant.  “Hey, Miss, can you just let me out right here?  Pretty sure you don’t want to add kidnapping to the litany of charges you and Zach are facing at this point.”

“Wait, you recognized Zach?”

“Yeah, had him in my art class a while back… when I still had an art class that is.  My apartment is near here, I can just walk, really I don’t want any more trouble.”

Numbed by the morning’s events, she acquiesced, dropping him at the next corner and speeding off.  Dietrich quickly fished his keys from his pocket and made his way to his apartment.  He needed a change of clothes and he still needed to find the right bottle of wine before Kelly showed up.  While cleaning himself up and considering himself lucky to have only a few scratches and bruises, there came an insistent knock at the door.

(Continued in Chapter Six)

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creative writing + self analysis

In our writing group, which all of the posters on this blog belong to, we have been picking a “logline” prompt to at least have one defined writing “assignment” to complete for each meeting.  A couple of weeks ago, I rejoined the writing group in earnest after an extended absence and brought this piece to the meeting.  While discussing it, I pointed out that there are a couple of style “traits” that show up in my stuff.  So, I am going to do some commentary on those traits after you read the piece.

Logline: Two sensible circus performers wage war against each other.

—————————————–

“And this, kind sir, is where I landed,” Stefano Graziosi stated, gesturing with pointed finger at an oh so slight indentation in the soft packed earth, “after falling from up there,” he continued, swinging that same finger to point at the neatly broken ends of a high trapeze.  Between the two points were situated several layers of netting, each with a man sized tear in the middle.

“And were you hurt in any way?” asked the other man, who, in his three piece suit, looked quite out of place under the big top as various performers bustled about, readying themselves for the matinee show.  “I would hate to fill out these insurance claim forms if there was really no injury sustained.”

“I landed deftly, I can assure you,” retorted Stefano, “I am a professional! Which is more than I can say for him,” this last phrase punctuated by a tilting toss of the head to indicate someone who was elsewhere.  “I still want to file the report, since this has been escalating of late.  Last week my tightrope was slackened a smidge and the week before that my slack rope was tightened just perceptibly.  I simply cannot entertain the children under these circumstances!  I am a”

“Professional, yes, I understand.  Well, I have a similar short stack of reports as filed by Mr. Corvallis, indicating that you have also engaged in random bits of minor subterfuge, interrupting his act.  None too severe so as to completely ruin a performance, they were more like annoyances.  If I didn’t know any better, I would think your hearts just weren’t into it.”

“Well,” replied Stefano thoughtfully, “the show must go on!”

—————————————–

So, the first thing to bring up is that I eat my own dog food on character names and got all of these from my spam folder as mentioned in a previous blog post of mine.  That there was a great name for a circus acrobat was a big plus!

The second trait I noticed occurs in the first paragraph where I interleave some action and dialogue, continuing a gesture as the speech also continues.  I think this comes from having written screenplays and trying to convey the “mind picture” around the words.

The third trait I noticed occurs during the interplay of the two characters where the insurance investigator completes the sentence of the acrobat.  I think this comes from actively developing an ear for “real world” dialogue where people often talk over each other.  This doesn’t always play very well when overused in screenplays, but I used it here with a callback for effect.

These traits are by no means present in everything I write, but they show up often enough -or- are something I have actively worked on refining over time.

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