How to Run a Writing Group: Could You Give Me a Jump?

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.

Keeping Creative Ideas Flowing

what are word for?

(Photo credit: Darwin Bell)

Many writers have a love/hate relationship with their craft. When things are going well, the creative rush propels you along effortlessly. When things are not going well, squeezing out words feels like you’re trying to pour cold molasses.

One method my writing group uses to jump-start the writing process during those inevitable dry spells is something we call “keyword exercises.” The idea is this: If someone has developed a case of creative constipation or is otherwise stuck between writing projects, we ask that they write a short piece based on a particular word. The words are usually chosen at random, and the writing could either incorporate the word directly or simply be inspired in some way by the word itself. The goal is to write at least one page about something—anything—because we think that writing something is infinitely more beneficial than writing nothing at all.

The results of these exercises are interesting to read, with the products ranging from rants about personal pet-peeves to full-blown poems or short stories. We’ve sometimes challenged each other to write material in a new genre, or we will place limits on the parameters of the piece (such as writing an entire narrative using only one-syllable words). In fact, these self-imposed limitations often elicit the most creative responses.

There are plenty of variations on these sorts of writing exercises. For example, instead of choosing words at random, we will sometimes generate lists of nouns, verbs, or adjectives and develop those words into a passage of writing. Other times, we pick words from different categories (such as character types, occupations, locations, and situations) and craft those combinations into short scenes or vignettes. Online resources such as name generators and tagline creators are also helpful for compiling these sorts of lists, and some programs will even create plot scenarios for fiction writing.

Another springboard we have used to aid our creative processes is a method inspired by the authors of The Chopin Manuscript (published in 2008). This suspense novel was a collaborative effort of fifteen thriller authors. Jeffery Deaver created the initial characters and set the story in motion, and the other authors each carried the story forward by writing the subsequent chapters. Our writing group did two renditions of this, and you can check both our first Cakepan Manuscript and second Cakepan Manuscript on our blog. 

Even for the most skilled wordsmiths, writing is seldom easy. Our writing group has been fortunate enough to find several useful exercises that have seen us through many barren seasons in the creative desert. But as one of our members likes to say, writing is a lot like pushing a stalled truck down the road. The hardest part is getting started. After that, it’s all about maintaining the momentum.

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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.

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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How to Run a Writing Group: Meeting Logistics

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.

The Where, When, and How of building a writing group

English: "Wilshire Room," company in...

English: “Wilshire Room,” company in Playa Vista May 26, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similar to planning for a wedding day or other important events, securing the right location and having the right atmosphere is paramount to its success. This is also true for writing groups. Finding the right place for your meetings can accelerate your group in achieving its writing group objectives. In this chapter, we’ll share a few critical considerations for your writing group logistics based on our experience. Our goal is to share our experience so that you can enhance your plans and design your writing group goals and expectations for staying connected as a team.

The key logistics to plan for as you start your writing group include where to meet, frequency of meetings and sustaining the communications and momentum in between meetings.

Finding a good meeting location

The physical space selected to host your writing group sessions should align with the goals of your writing group. In our writing group, we require members to provide input on each others’ posted work. The work can range from poems to chapter readings. Therefore, securing a location that will allow for open discussions without disturbing others is critical to achieving this group goal. We have chosen face to face as our primary method of meeting. With tools such as Google hangout, Skype and Google docs, meeting virtually may work for some groups. There is no right or wrong answer but consider which would work best for your group in achieving your meeting goals.

Tips for finding the right venue

As you choose your location, you want to find a central location that is easily accessible for all members. If you can minimize the commute time to 25 minutes or less, this will minimize the driving burden on any one person. You should also keep an eye out for a location that strikes the right balance between being quiet enough but not so loud that you are distracting to other patrons.

Example of Places

We meet in coffee houses and the open and engaging atmosphere provides the right setting for our team. We are also allowed to rearrange tables to maximize use of the space. The most common table arrangement for our meetings is the rectangular shape. Both round and rectangular setups work well for writing groups. The rectangular shaped tables will allow for more people. In addition to coffee shops, you can also check with your local library on renting out a meeting room, book stores and restaurants often have private space that is available. We have tried out a few different locations over the years and most have been coffee establishments.

How often should your writing group meet?

The key to successful writing outcomes travels through a path of establishing and sustaining a disciplined routine. This discipline cuts across the writing that is happening outside of the meetings and the discipline required in setting up and convening with members on a periodic frequency. In our writing group, we have found a schedule of meeting every 2 weeks provides the right cadence for having adequate time to write and develop your own short pieces and give adequate time to read each other’s work in advance of the writing group meeting. The size of your group and the volume of work to read in advance of the session should also factor into the frequency of meeting and the amount of time scheduled per session. Our group is for casual writing and on any given meeting; we are reviewing two to four pieces.

Length of meetings

This will vary based on the size of your group and the volume of submissions provided in advance of meetings by each member. On average, our group is generally reading 2-3 writing pieces per session. We also allow time for updates by each member regardless if they are submitting a writing work for the session. With reviews of three pieces per session and a group size of 5-6 people, we recommend a session time of 1.5 hr. Be sure to identify a facilitator as it is easy to stay on one person’s work too long and run out of time.

Staying connected between meetings

In this rich technology age, we strongly recommend usage of a calendaring tool to establish your writing group meetings. This could be Google calendar, meeting wizard, Microsoft Outlook or your tool of choice. Our group uses Google Calendar and Google Docs shared folder to store our writing submissions. This works well and gives just in time access for everyone.

What we have learned is logistics make a huge difference in the quality of your meetings and your writing group. Having a central location minimizes the burden on everyone and removes the temptation to stay home by avoiding a long drive. One hidden gem is to always maintain great relationships with the establishment owners and find ways to patronize their business while you are using their space.

Finally, there will be times during your writing group experience where schedules become chaotic. Work and life will try to get in the way of meetings. If you keep the regular frequency of meetings going even if you are missing a couple of members, the group will stay on track. It is important for the sake of the group to address lack of attendance head on and our learning about these type hurdles and more will be discussed in the next series of blogs.

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How to Run a Writing Group: Gathering Members

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.

Gathering Writing Group Members

Image by Evelyn Saenz

Image by Evelyn Saenz

Every article or self-help book on becoming a writer suggests joining a writers group to improve your skills through feedback. If you’ve searched all the usual venues—local library, bookstores, coffee shops, and community centers—and not found an existing writers group you want to join, then it’s time to start a new one.

The first step is to expand your network. In this case, you are searching for individuals with a shared interest in improving their writing skills. Networking can be as basic as when you’re at a party and meet someone who’s interested in books or as far reaching as posting a notice on Craigslist or Reddit.

An easy way to start is to head back to your local library, the community center, independent bookstores, and coffee shops and post an announcement about your writers group. Search the local papers and smaller press for open mic events featuring poetry. The venue hosting the event would be another excellent spot for advertising a writers group.

If you’ve already completed the first step—defining your group—this is where that whole process pays off.  Now you’ll craft your notice consistent with the group goals.  Whether your group is  a hard-core critique group, or a more nurturing creative endeavor should be clear in the ad. Are beginners welcome? Is the focus on getting published or as simple as getting started writing? Tags like Creative versus Critique will set the tone in your posting. Develop a clear message about the group and leave your contact information. If you post a notice in three or four places, you’re more likely to get a few responses.

Another place to find potential members is to attend a local book fair. Walk around and talk to the authors. Find out who lives in your area, and who might be interested in forming a new group. Sometimes the local chapter of national writers groups, like Sisters in Crime or the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, will have a booth or table at book events. Leave your contact information with anyone who shows an interest.

Many writers groups are formed by students who’ve met in a creative writing class at a community college. Relationships are formed during the course, and it’s only a matter of continuing the routine.  If you don’t have time for a full blown course, then check out a one day workshop. During breaks you can introduce yourself to others who seem to have similar interests and tell them about your writers group. And, you could join a national writers group, even if it’s not exactly your genre. It’s all about making contacts to find potential members.

Once you have some responses, even if it’s only one person, don’t be afraid to start small. Set up a time and place to gather, each bringing a short sample of writing. That’s your inaugural meeting. Let it grow from there.

Don’t stop looking for new members either. When someone comes along that fits the group, even if the group is a little big, welcome in the new influence. Because sure enough, Life happens and there will be members who drop out. The number of members isn’t nearly as important as the commitment of the people in the group—as long as everyone shares the same goals—that’s what counts.

As few as two people can be effective if it is a serious critique session. When both members are producing a steady stream of output to be reviewed, this can be an ideal set-up for completing a project with the goal of having a publishable product. A small group can be just the sort of intimate, deep-dive needed to get to the finish line.

As many as twenty members won’t be overwhelming if there’s sufficient time and an effective process to give everyone an opportunity to give and receive feedback.  A large group is a great setting if you are seeking a broad perspective for a new idea or working through a specific problem.

But, small or large, a group can get out of control when there’s an imbalance. This typically happens if there’s a hog in the group, hog being the person that must dominate every discussion, thereby crowding out other voices at the table. As the group founder, you’ll also be expected to facilitate the meetings. This means finding ways to keep the discussion moving and ensuring all the voices are heard.

Besides being the facilitator and the founder, you’ll also need to model the behavior of a good team member. A good member comes prepared by reading all the material. A good member provides feedback in a positive and respectful manner. Members who only show up when they have something they’ve written but never appear at other times aren’t contributing. And, likewise the purpose of the group is to encourage everyone to contribute new work, so it isn’t helpful having members who are only readers and not writers.

Writers groups are the most productive when all the members are giving as much as they are taking.

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