How to Run a Writing Group: Running Your Meetings

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.

William Hogarth's 1736 engraving, Scholars at ...

William Hogarth’s 1736 engraving, Scholars at a Lecture (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


So, you’ve gathered a group of like-minded folks eager to share the road and become better writers.  You’ve found an understanding cafe or bookshop to put up with your shared insanity.  You’ve synchronized everyone’s schedule.  Now it’s time to fire up the engine, this is where the rubber meets the road, or some other automotive metaphor.

How exactly do you run your sessions?  Some thought and discussion should go into it before you start meeting.  A few ideas on format and protocol can prevent awkward shoe staring while everyone figures out how to proceed.

For a brand new group, consider a getting to know you period.  If not a full meeting, at least a good chunk to break the ice.  Everyone should introduce themselves, describe what type of writing they are interested in, and then answer two important questions.  What are their personal goals as writers?  What are they looking for from the group?

Some people are better at this than others.  It always makes me feel like I’m in grade school, but it’s a known ritual that gets everyone in the collaborative mindset.  Anytime a new member joins, this ritual should be repeated.

The format needs to be flexible enough to allow for discussion and debate, but structured enough to cover all the material in the time allotted.  If that sounds easy, you haven’t been to very many meetings.  I advise against too formal, since that can be intimidating.  Even though this isn’t a social club, you are there to support each other and should feel comfortable.  Think more of collegial collaboration instead of boardroom meeting.

Our group started small, only four people bringing about a page each.  The simple method of taking turns in no particular order covered everything quite nicely.  As membership grew along with the output, the meetings had to grow more structured.  Not necessarily more formal, but definitely more focused.

We meet at a coffee shop and everyone orders.  The ‘how’s it going?’ socializing takes place while the orders are being filled.  When the last person gets their drink, socializing ends and the meeting begins.

From there we go in round robin fashion.  Each member gets a turn in the hot seat where their work is up for review.  Then we move on to the next writer.  If you didn’t submit work, you’re not off the hook.  You still take a turn and answer for your crimes.  We discuss notes and criticisms, talk about what we liked or didn’t like, discuss what-ifs, and ask where the piece is going.  This will be part debate since opinions differ, and part question and answer between the writer and the other members.

For the writer this is a gold mine.  I think a great way to see the effect of your writing, is to watch two people debate it.  You don’t get involved in the debate, merely observe and take notes.  You will get a real sense of what people are taking from the piece, and they tend to be more honest with the person they’re debating than they would be with the writer.

The danger here is that unchecked debates can drag on.  Discussion without direction will ramble and go off on tangents.  That bogs down the flow of the meeting.  The responsibility to stay on track is shared by all members, but you are going to need somebody in charge.  The person who formed the group might be in charge by default, but it doesn’t have to be them, or even the same person each meeting.  In the spirit of collaboration you want a moderator, not a dictator.

The leader’s main duty is keeping the meeting running by keeping it on task.  That means turning everyone around when they get on one of those tangents.  You can never completely stop the group from going on them, but somebody has to turn them around.  A simple ‘we’re getting off track’ should snap everyone out of it.

The other chore on the leader is simple timekeeping.  Groups of three or four have more leeway here, but the larger the group, the more you have to keep an eye on the clock.  Each writer deserves their fair share, and no one should get short changed.

For most people this isn’t a problem, but there are some time hogs out there.  They may ‘discuss’ their work by rambling about it rather than taking feedback from the group.  That rambling may roam far afield of the topic at hand.  They might even bring the discussion back to them when it’s another writer’s turn for feedback.  It’s the leader’s job to spot such behavior and keep it in check.  Usually an appeal to time management is sufficient.

Our group has been meeting for a long time in one form or another.  Naturally we’ve developed some slang, in jokes, and nicknames.  Some are obvious.  Slackers and moochers are the same in a writing group as in any other group.  Some are more obscure and won’t make sense to outsiders.  One term that’s come up for us is simply The Beast.

Writers working on a longer piece, say a screenplay or a novel, might not want to bring it in piecemeal.  If they’re still contributing to the discussion, this is fine.  However, when that work is done, they’re going to want feedback.  Now you’ve got a Beast.  It won’t fit into the meeting run time along with other members’ work.

We have what we call a focused session.  A whole meeting dedicated to one person’s work.  It’s scheduled well in advance, so everyone has a chance to read the Beast.  Since it’s focused on one work, the discussion can go into great detail.  This is win-win for the group.  The writer gets detailed, honest critiques, and members get to practice their editing skills on a long piece.

That format of round robin critique should be the meat of the meetings, but leave a few minutes for new business.  If anyone has an idea for a group project, or questions about new tools and resources, go over it now.  Get in the habit of reviewing goals and deadlines.  Encourage an attitude of contribution and respect for the group’s time and rules.  Writing can be a lonely process, but this meeting is where you get to travel with companions, at least for a few hours.  Enjoy it!

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When Will You Make an End of It…?

Sisyphus, 1920
Image via Wikipedia

…When I am finished, of course. 

When you start delving into the process of writing you’ll very quickly find some famous writer who talks about not being in control of his story.  The story tells them what to do.  Maybe they just start writing with no idea what’s going to happen or how it will end.  Maybe the characters start doing and saying things that surprise the author.  Someone who doesn’t write or even a beginning writer could be forgiven for thinking that’s a lot of crap.  I mean after all, how could you not know?  You’re the only one in there, hunched and muttering over your keyboard.  You made up the characters and the world they inhabit.  How could you not know? 

Well on some level, a little below consciousness perhaps, I’m sure you do know.  But when you have that first experience of the Muse (or whatever) taking over it’s pretty fun.  Weird, a little creepy even, but fun.  It feels like you’re really tapping into that Storytelling juice and it makes you feel like a real writer.  It’s not all in the plus column though.  If the story controls you and tells you what to do, you have to listen to it.  Even if you don’t agree with it. 

I’ve been working on what I though was a simple little short adventure story for…like…ever man.  I write every day (pretty much) and it feels like I’m getting somewhere but it keeps not being done.  Every two weeks I meet with my writers group and I say, “I’m almost done.  Should have it next time.”  Eventually they just give you Looks.  You can’t quantify it either.  First it’s 80% done.  Then 90%.  95%.  97.5%.   98.789%.  I could even live with 99%.  That would be close enough that I would just lie and say I’m done.  Ah, well.  As problems go I guess it’s better than writer’s block. 

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Books for the Writer

Continuing with many writers on one theme we’re each going to talk about a book that has influenced our writing.  Influence is fortunately a broad category.  It could be true inspiration such as wanting to capture the vivid savagery of R. E. Howard‘s ancient world tales or even ‘reverse’ inspiration.  Many writers can tell you the exact book that they put down and said ‘I can do better.’  It could be that how-to book that finally made sense or had the exercises you finally stuck with. 

I’m gonna split the difference with Stephen King‘s On Writing.  It’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ and it is that but it’s also a concise how-to.  I believe I’ve mentioned before how I had two distinct experiences reading this book.  The first time was before I started writing and it was the first half of the book (the memoir) that I focused on.  An interesting glimpse at the life of a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time.  The second half (the how-to) was quickly skimmed over.  After I had been writing for a while I picked it up again and it was exactly reversed.  I grew impatient with the anecdotes of college life and skipped to the meat of the matter–the craft of writing.  The book has three things going for it that you need in a ho- to book.  Honesty, applicability, and permission. 

Permission is what a lot of writers (especially just starting out) are looking for.  Of course you really need it from yourself but if hearing it from a successful writer helps, what’s the harm?  On Writing gives that permission to write literally and once given, treats you like a writer.  I don’t think I needed or got permission to write from the book but that tone of writer-to-writer conversation let me think of myself as a writer.  That’s not a small step and I believe it let me open up and improve. 

The importance of honesty in a writer should be self evident and King doesn’t pull any punches here.  He’s a working writer and let’s you know what that really entails and if it doesn’t sound like your bag well, now you know. 

Applicability is probably the most important or at least the most gratifying.  Here’s stuff you can actually use.  This book doesn’t come off as theoretical or philosophical (even though there’s plenty of that there).  The tone is more conversational, the master craftsman expounding to the apprentice over a couple of beers say. 

He doesn’t just say ‘avoid the passive voice’, he tells you what it is.  Gives plenty of examples, actual writing examples.  Tells you in colorful language why it’s so dreadful .  Tells you why a writer might fall into the trap and how to avoid it.  And that’s how it goes really. 

King uses the analogy of a tool-box and I love it.  It shows that this is a craft but also a job and it’s the tools you gather and learn to use that influence your style.  If you have more hammers than precision screwdrivers you’re limited in what you can do.  I’ve tried hard to increase my mastery of the tools I have and increase the range of tools available.  Of course he also talks about developing the craftsman’s skill of choosing the right tool for the job.  After all sometimes what you need is in fact a hammer. 

Working environment, idea generation, editing and revision, submission and dealing with the spouse…it’s pretty much all covered in detail.  Quite a bit of the examples are writing King did for the book and so are in King’s style but it’s not about hisstyle.  He also uses authors as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy for instruction.  In other words it’s about learning the craft of writing to find your own style.  At least that’s what I got out of it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read and yet packed with information.  For me not just a must read but a must own.

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Creative Writing Exercise: ‘Gasket’

Michael straightened his tie and checked his watch. Diana spotted him and gave him a wife look. The look said ‘your tie is straight and checking your watch won’t help anything, stop fidgeting’. He gave her a husband look back that said ‘you’re right but cut me some slack’.

She was right of course he was fidgeting and there was no need to worry about time. The viewing was from seven o’clock to nine and it was barely seven now. A few folks were milling about but it would probably be half past before it got busy. Anyway, it wasn’t like Big Mike was going anywhere.

Michael still couldn’t believe his father was gone. Easy enough to believe he had died; the man’s diet was a mess, he drank cheap whiskey by the gallon and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Who smokes unfiltered cigarettes?

No, Big Mike’s ticket was bound to be punched and it was a massive stroke that did it. But being dead and being gone had turned out to be two different concepts for Michael. How do you deal with a force of nature just being gone?

He worried about his boys; this was a first funeral for both of them. Little Mike especially for he had worshiped his granddad like a drunken god. Mike had named his firstborn Michael James Winslow III but it was Mike Sr. who started calling him Little Mike. Of course, with Big and Little taken Michael II was stuck with Junior. He would not miss that.

Little Mike stood near a table that was full of flower arrangements. He was trying to act cool or as cool as a fourteen year old can be. The boy looked bored and aloof and Michael knew it must be and act. He knew also that he couldn’t make his son deal with it if he didn’t want to. He had tried this morning to talk to Little Mike but the boy had rebuffed him. Michael sighed and scanned the room to find his youngest son, Paul.

Paul was half hiding behind a garish funeral home lamp. He was only six and Michael wasn’t sure how much of this he really understood. The boy hadn’t even lost a goldfish yet. There hadn’t really been much time to talk to him and Michael watched him now. Paul was staring at the front of the room where Big Mike was laid out. Michael crossed the room to his son but the boy’s intent study of his grandfather’s corpse didn’t waver until Michael spoke.

“Hey, buddy,” he said. “How’re you doing?” Paul just shrugged.

“Do you want to go up and take a look?” Michael said. “Say goodbye?” The small boy got a thoughtful look on his face. He often got those before speaking and Michael just waited.

“Do I have to?” Paul finally said.

“No,” Michael said, “you don’t have to. But it would be nice and I thought you’d want to do it before it got crowded in here.”

“Okay,” he said after another pause for thought.

Michael took his hand and they went to stand by the departed. Michael looked at his father’s corpse telling himself again that he was really gone. He watched Paul to gage his reaction.

The boy looked at Big Mike in his blue suit but he seemed more curious about the coffin. He ran his hand over the rails and the lining and gave a gentle knock on the lid. His small fist made a tinny ring for the coffin was aluminum as specified by Big Mike. Paul’s face took on the usual thoughtful look and he glanced up at his father.

“He’s dead right?”

“Yes, Paul,” Michael said.

“When you’re dead you can’t breathe, right?”

“No you don’t breathe anymore.”

“How’s he gonna blow it?”

“Blow what?” said Michael.

“His casket.”

“Paul what are you talking about.”

“Well,” Paul said, “when I asked Little Mike what happened to granddad, he said he just blew a casket.”

“No, he…” Michael looked from his younger son to his older, then to his dead father. “He meant to say…”

Paul’s look of intense thought stayed while Michael stammered. In fact it grew more intense and Michael finally stopped trying to explain. Instead he started to chuckle. Once he started to chuckle he couldn’t stop it and he just let the laughter come as he kneeled down to hug his son.

The Great Percolator

Where do I get my ideas?  I may have to cheat a little bit here and make a distinction between getting ideas and getting the story.  The ideas are easy enough if you stay open to them.  Take a bus ride and watch everyone that gets on.  In a half hour you’ll probably see at least three people who are interesting enough (a guy with one leg, an old woman with a shaved head, a teenage girl wearing a viking helmet) to qualify as a story idea.  That’s when you play the whatif game and it should only take a couple of questions to have a basic story idea.  What now?  You could start writing in a notebook right then and there but I like to throw it in the Percolator.

 There’s a machine in my brain where I throw in any little bits and just let ’em simmer, let ’em bubble.  Keep the heat low and don’t watch the pot, just give it some nice easy stirs and see what floats to the top.  I don’t always know what’s in there, the Percolator puts in all sorts of weird stuff.  But who cares what the ingredients are if you get a yummy story out of it?  You have to be patient, especially at first.  My writing group meets every two weeks and at first I would take most of that for percolation.  But the more you use it, the more you trust it and the faster it cooks.  I’ve had some where I just fed in a word or two, perhaps a situation and had the story idea five minutes later. 

A couple key points though–don’t think and don’t talk.  You’re not thinking, you’re percolating.  The Percolator will try putting things together and sorting them out and it’ll access any memories, previously stored ideas, or any other odd bits all on its own.  If something isn’t gelling it will drop to the bottom of the pot and try a different combination.  Thinking will just open the lid and let all the story steam out.  Talking is the same.  If someone asks you how it’s going just tell ’em it’s percolating.  If they’re a writer they won’t pester you further.  If they’re not a writer and they try to pester you, tell ’em to go pound salt.  You don’t owe ’em anything.  Wankers. 

If you feel like you can’t help but look under the lid or you think nothing’s cooking in there don’t worry.  Go do something monotonous that let’s you be alone, and silent.  A walk’s good but chopping wood with an axe would be even better.  The noise and rhythm of the axe will help hypnotize you and the percolator will start up and get to bubbling.  Mowing the lawn on a rider is even better still.  The rocking motion will quiet your body, a still body will quiet your mind and the subconscious will be free to work out all the details.  Kind of like riding a train I suppose.

J. K. Rowling is richer than the Queen all because of a little orphan boy with glasses.  I doubt Ms. Rowling had any idea how popular the Harry Potter stories would be but I daresay she knew she had a good story idea on her hands.  The story about the story is that the idea came to her ‘more or less fully formed’ one day as she rode the train.  I’m paraphrasing from memory but that’s pretty close and it may have even seemed that way to her, but I don’t think that’s how it happened.  I think she had been mulling the story over for many days, more likely weeks.  Barely conscious of it, perhaps wholly unconscious of it.  I’m willing to go further and bet it was the train itself which started her mind going and became the Hogwart’s Express. 

You can picture it can’t you?  The rythmic motions of the train, maybe some rain on the windows she’s staring through, the lack of conversation.  The whole while her inner storyteller was working it out.  Where was the train going, how long was the trip, what were the passengers like.  When the Storyteller had it pretty well pieced together, out it popped where the Writer saw it fully formed.  It’s true I’m presuming much and likely projecting because that’s how I ‘get’ my ideas.  I use The Great Percolator.   The good news is the Percolator will always come up with something.  The bad news is that’s not the real work.  You still have to write it.  So as soon as the timer on the Percolator dings get to work.