Jeff Moriarty's Assorted Writings

How to Run a Writing Group: Define your Goals

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.


Writing is by its very nature a solitary task. Yet if you talk to successful writers, they will likely attribute much of their success to the people who have nurtured and supported them over the years as they developed their craft. Those of us at Writing Is Cake are no exception. We are all part of a writing group that has met in various incarnations since 2005, and as such, we’ve learned a thing or two about how quality writing groups work. With that thought in mind, we will be spending the next few weeks sharing some of those insights with our readers. Please learn from our successes (and especially from our mistakes). We would also love to hear about your own writing group experiences.

Defining the Group’s Goals

Memories by Silvia Viñuales

Memories by Silvia Viñuales

Defining what your writing group is and is not is one of the most important and overlooked steps in pulling together a group. It may seem that “we all want to write” is enough of a common bond, but it usually isn’t.

Are you all writing for fun, or to get published? Screenplays or poetry? Science fiction or romances? How do you give feedback to each other? How often do you have to write to be part of the group? Are members of the group expected to provide each other with ideas? Help with editing? Participate in table reads? For any one of these things you decide to include or exclude from your group, some people will be thrilled while others may become frustrated or quit.

Defining the goals for your group will give it its own personality and character. If you don’t define it yourself, the group’s character will develop on its own, and it may not be something you like.

There are no right or wrong answers. It’s all a matter of preference. But here are a few things to consider.

Who is the group for?

Saying it is “for anyone who likes to write” seems easy and inclusive, but the goals of an author on a publishing deadline, and those of a casual free-verse poet are very different.You can find those differences clashing if you’re not careful.

Our group is for casual writers. Several members have submitted things to magazines and publications (and a few have been accepted!), but that is their own work outside the group. We aren’t regularly reviewing novels and discussing challenges of finding an agent or negotiating a contract. This is just how our group evolved from the original members, and after that became the expectation we set with new people.

Which genres and styles are welcome?

We allow all genres, but this means we can often only provide personal impressions as feedback. A romance writer may not have much concrete input for a science fiction author. If you have a group of people all focused in one genre, like crime novels, you will have a common area of expertise everyone can share. When you have a wide range of genres, sometimes the most you can give is “I did/didn’t like this, and here is why.” That diversity may limit the depth at which you can help any one author, but it can bring a wide range of ideas to the table.

How are members required to participate?

You also need to decide what expectation to set for new writers. Is everyone required to write weekly? How often should a writer bring new work? What do you do if someone is only attending and not writing? What happens if someone attends only when they have material to share, and never to review other people’s work? How often can rewrites of the same work be submitted to the group? Each one of these will affect how long your sessions take, and how much work each person has to do on a weekly basis. Submitting rewrites can be helpful for the author, but can be draining on the group trying to give input on slight variations of the same material.

Our group requires people to attend every meeting they can, and bring new material at least every few meetings. Bringing material every time is a bit much, but we do push people if they’re not bringing in material for several weeks at a time. We allow writers to submit one rewrite of a previous work, but limit it there. Being part of a writing group requires work, and how you answer these questions will determine just how much work that is.

How much time do you expect your group to take each week?

You may meet for an hour every other week, but how much independent time will people spend reviewing each other’s material? If everyone will spend on average 5 to 6 hours reviewing other people’s writing each week, that’s important to tell people up front. If it’s simply a group where people show up and participate during your meetings, that’s also good to know in advance. Writing these things down will help you tailor your group membership at the beginning and eliminate conflict later.

When you answer these questions, you can combine them into a simple statement like:

This writing group is for non-published writers of all genres of fiction, from short story to novel length works. The group meets weekly for an hour, and members are expected to contribute at least once a month, and participate in table discussions of all other members’ material. Reading of group material can take up to an hour a week in addition to the meeting itself.

It may seem overkill, but writing it down can reduce confusion and frustration later, and will help you greatly as your group evolves.

Story Forge – Opportunities of War

A few months ago we used the Story Forge Cards to come up with a story outline for Film Noir. Several of us in our writing group each looked at the same card layout and created our own story. Two have already been posted, and here is mine. And I’ll mention it has some NSFW language in it, since we don’t normally have that on here.

Meet Me... by DomiKetu

Meet Me… by DomiKetu

The man in the long coat took a deep pull from his cigarette and blew the smoke in towards the tavern across the street. Bright light and raucous noise spilled from it out into the night. There was other noise on the street that night, but none other sounded of fun. “Are you going to go? Or no?”

The young woman next to him bit her lip, but her eyes were firm. “Yes,” she said. “I can do this.” While the man leaned casually against the wall at the end of an alley, she stood at his side tense and stiff. As if she might bolt at any moment.

The man smiled at her. Not a warm smile, not a comforting one, but a thin smile of agreement. “Good. There will be many soldiers there tonight. Many have not seen a pretty woman in a long time, so you will be… popular.”

The woman nodded. “I can handle randy men.”

The man shook his head. “No, their lust isn’t your problem. Most of them are fodder. They know nothing. You want to make this work, you need to get to someone important.  Then let your wiles do their work.”

“I’m supposed to be a serving girl, how do I ignore everyone wanting ale?”

Shrugging, the man took another drag from his cigarette. “This is not my problem. I only get you in there, get you hired. I create opportunities. That is me. How to spy? That is you.”

“You say you don’t care about either side in this war, but I know you do. Getting me in there with the new offensives coming will be invaluable for us. This name, this job, had to be nearly impossible to do. You care. I know you do.” She touched his arm.

“It was not as difficult as all that,” the man said, smiling again.

“You care. I know you do. Now… I must get to work. Thank you,” she said, sliding across the dirty and noisy street to the tavern.

The man in the long coat watched her enter the tavern. He blew smoke up into the darkness, listening to the yells and catcalls from across the street.

A few minutes later another figure appeared in the alley behind the man in the long coat. The new figure stayed deep in the shadows.

“She will give you what you need, Captain?” asked the man in the long coat.

“She’s perfect. When I uncover her as a spy we will not only get valuable information, but I will surely get a promotion.”

“And what of her when you are done?”

“Kill her, of course,” said the Captain. “What of it?”

“I could use her. A woman like that could fetch a good price.”

“Good price? As one of your whores?” The Captain laughed. “After we interrogate her she will not be nearly so attractive.”

“This is wartime, Captain. Even you might be surprised what men will pay good coin to stick their cock into.”

“So you will make money selling her again and again. You are a harsh man. You fit this war well,” said the Captain.

The man in the long coat flung his cigarette butt into the gutter. “Your war means nothing to me, but it does force me to get creative in finding… opportunities. Good night, Captain.”


This ended up being a bit darker than the things I usually write, but that’s one thing I like about writing exercises like this – they take you in directions you don’t normally explore on your own. The hardest piece of the story to work out for me was the “betrayal” in the first card, but once I sorted that out the rest fell into place, and I think I covered every card in the layout.

Using Story Forge for a jolt of creativity

Story Forge

Story Forge Idea Cards

Sometimes your brain gets stuck. Might be on a character, a plot point, or maybe your whole darned story. We all have our tools and techniques to get us past our sticking points or writer’s block, but let me introduce you to a new one: Story Forge.

Story Forge is a deck of custom cards. Each card has an idea on it like an occupation, a view, an action, or a role. The positive version of each idea is facing one way, and the negative faces the opposite way, so depending which way is “up” when you draw a card it will have a different meaning. It’s quite a bit like Tarot cards, if you’re familiar with them.

The instruction book comes with different layouts. You pick a layout (or make your own), deal the cards, and then ponder how they apply to your story. That pondering is the best part.

The cards are a creative tool, but the value comes from breaking you out of your patterns. If you deal a layout and then toss it away because it wasn’t what you wanted, you’re missing the point. Let the cards push you in a whole new direction, and really explore it. You may not use it in your final material, but at least you followed the path to see where it lead.

Writing a Film Noir short

We recently used Story Forge in our writing group. We dealt out a hand to the Film Noir layout, and several of us wrote a story piece around it. I included a key with the image (click the image to zoom in).

Story Forge - Film Noir

Story Forge – Film Noir layout (click to zoom)

It starts with a Betrayal, but there is a Manipulator at work. He wants a Disguise, and eventually a double cross comes to light by way of a Compulsion. And what Film Noir would be complete without a Tragic Outcome?

Definitely not my normal genre, but our whole writing group took the layout and each wrote our own story. The results were all wildly different. Just looking at the cards above, where do you think this takes place? Who is the protagonist? What is their occupation? One of the great things about this exercise is everyone will flesh it out their own way.

Get your own Story Forge

You can purchase your own Story Forge deck for $20. It comes with a wide range of cards, and a few blank ones so you can add in your own favorite items. Whether you want to just break out of a rut, need a source of new story ideas, or want help with writer’s block, Story Forge is a great tool to have around.

Next up on the blog – our stories from the above layout!

Cakepan II: Chapter Two – Puzzle Pieces

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 each week we will post a new chapter until we reach the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Two: Puzzle Pieces


Eye blue small

Image via Wikipedia

“Damn. What do they want with me? How do I get the hell out of here?” Russ pressed his head to the window and let out a sob.

Russ walked into his small bathroom. Everything was spaced far apart to accommodate wheelchairs or multiple attendants. Also cold and hard so anything unpleasant could be easily sanitized away. He hated it.

He looked into the mirror, and a familiar stranger looked back. He knew all the wrinkles on his face, and his name, but big pieces of himself were gone. No, more like the pieces were there, just all jumbled up. Like a jigsaw puzzle dumped out of the box.

He tugged at his face, mugging into the mirror, hoping to knock a few more pieces into place. Nothing.

He heard the door open out in his room and peeked out. He expected Nurse Ratched’s assistant but instead a slender young woman in jeans and a t-shirt was already in the room, and a slightly paunchy, grim looking fellow trailed in. Both looked surprised at the empty room.

Russ knew them. He thought he was happy to see them, but couldn’t put his finger quite on why. A piece snapped into place and he stepped out into the room.

“Dad!” the woman exclaimed, rushing over to him. She looked as if she might hug him, but stopped short when he flinched. “Are you okay?”

“Russ!” said the paunchy man. “Had us concerned there. Thought you checked out or something.” The paunchy man didn’t seem any less concerned as he shut the door behind him.

Russ shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m still having some trouble remembering things. I’m not even sure…” he trailed off, suddenly unsure what to say.

The woman looked at him a little sadly. She had huge, blue eyes, and they never wavered when she looked at something, never flitted around the room like most people’s. Russ liked that. Her name was Maureen, he remembered.

Maureen put her hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Dad. We’re here to take you home. It’ll be okay.” She smiled.

The man nodded, but didn’t say anything. Maureen looked at him. “Tony, the bag?”

Tony gave a small jump. “Oh, right, sorry!” He held out a plastic bag towards Russ. “We brought these. Figured you’d be dressed, you know, like that.”

Russ took the bag, the outline of shoes straining clearly through the bag’s edge.

“Thanks,” he said, trying to smile. “Um… I’ll be right back.” Russ backed into the bathroom, not wanting to expose his butt to anyone else today, and closed the door. As he changed he heard Maureen and Tony whispering to each other. Arguing? He couldn’t be sure.

The clothes fit him well, khaki pants and a soft yellow Polo, but he couldn’t remember ever wearing them before. He felt through the pockets, hoping to find a wallet, but they were empty.

Maureen was alone when Russ emerged. “Tony went to get the elevator,” she explained. “We’re running late.”

“Late for what?” Russ asked, but she didn’t reply. She stuck her head out into the hallway, looked around, then walked away quickly. Russ frowned, but followed.

No one seemed to notice them as they rode the elevator down the ground floor, and while Tony fidgeted neither he nor Maureen said anything on the way down. Russ kept studying them both. Something nagged at him, still not quite right. He almost had it…

The elevator binged open on the ground floor and Maureen took Russ’ hand to lead him out. He resisted, but she smiled and pulled at his hand. “The parking garage is right down here. We brought my car,” she explained. He followed her.

Tony’s phone chirped and he looked at the screen. “Dammit,” he muttered. “We need to hurry,” he added, tucking his phone back into his pants.

They reached the connecting door into parking garage when Russ stopped, dislodging Maureen’s hand.

Tony groaned and licked his lips. “Come ON,” he said. “We don’t have time for this!”

“What is it?” Maureen asked, pulling at Russ’ hand again.

Russ nodded to himself. “You’re not my daughter,” he said, stepping back. Maureen frowned.

“I knew it,” exclaimed Tony, throwing up his hands in frustration.

“I know you, but you’re not my daughter. Someone put you up to this, didn’t they?” Russ asked, backing up a little more. He was back in the hospital hallway now.

Maureen reached for Russ’ hand but he snatched it away.

“Look, you need to come with us, okay? You need to trust me,” she said, her voice firm.

Tony looked past them, down the hallway, and his eyes grew large with alarm. “We’ve got to go! Now!”

Russ didn’t want to stay, but was unsure of so much today he couldn’t let go of the one thing he was getting control of. “Who sent you? Who told you to pretend to be my daughter?” he asked.

Maureen looked at him squarely with those big, blue, unwavering eyes of hers.

You did,” she said.

(Continued in Chapter Three)

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Our thoughts (and yours!) on the first Cakepan Manuscript

Prepared pans

Image by Bill HR via Flickr

Most of the writers on this blog belong to a writing group that meets twice a month in the Phoenix area. Several weeks ago we decided to try a little project and each write a chapter of a new story as a collaboration. We thought it would be an education for us, and interesting for people reading the blog. We really had no idea how it would go, but there was one way to find out.

Everyone in the group has wildly different styles and backgrounds, and we all work on different types of writing. Some work on screenplays, others on poetry. We have both a pulp fiction western and a female centered romance novel currently underway. Trying to work together on a single project would be like making a salad from every item in your refrigerator: a little scary.

This is our thoughts on how it went. If you haven’t read it yet, go to the first chapter and catch up. Here is our thoughts, in the order we wrote.

We would love your input on what you liked and where we could improve next time around.

What Worked

Jeff Moriarty (Chapter One)
I loved the different styles and what they brought.
I liked that I had no idea where the story was going, even though I helped start it off.
Our different views added ideas I never would have come up with on my own.

Barbara McAllister (Chapter Two)
I enjoyed building on the ideas of others while at the same time having the freedom to take the story in any direction of choice
I loved reading the different styles. Knowing the group for an extended period of time, it was natural to guess where each of us would take the story.

Rose (Chapter Three)
Taking on a different POV which allowed me to show the presumed protagonist in an entirely new light.
Seeing how the plot was developed after doing your part was interesting, because the subsequent writers can take a very minor point and move the story in a whole different direction that never would have occurred to me.

Scott Shields (Chapter Four)
I knew going into the project that all of the members of our writing group had distinct writing styles, but to see them side by side made me appreciate each writer’s unique voice that much more.
I also thought it was fun to see how the story evolved from chapter to chapter.

Tim Giron (Chapter Five)
The different styles made it interesting to read, both before and after my contribution.
The discussions around the process during the writing meetings.
Everyone stayed committed to the deadline.

M. Jaynes (Chapter Six)
I too liked the blend of different styles. Each chapter brought a new, fresh perspective.
I also liked that many used the last line of the chapter before to begin the next chapter.
I like that we didn’t lose the blind date storyline completely.

Eric Bahle (Chapter Seven)
Firstly it was just fun to try something new and it’s always interesting to see how different writers come at the same project.  It’s an interesting storytelling concept and I enjoyed wondering where this one would go.  Knowing you would contribute made reading the other chapters weirdly visceral.  Like different people taking turns driving without bothering to stop the car.

What Could Improve

Jeff Moriarty
It was so free-form that it lacked some cohesion and was tough to read all the way through.
Some items changed from person to person (wine store to grocery store to bodega) which was confusing.
Huge range in the size of chapters, from very small to pretty big.

Barbara McAllister
Establish a word count goal for consistency
Agree on just 2 or 3 things that must stay with the story

The change from 3rd person point of view to 1st person point of view was jarring for the readers.

Scott Shields
The chapter lengths could be more consistent.  Likewise, the POV should be either first or third person, but not both.

Tim Giron
A few more rules so that the expectation for each writer is better defined.

M. Jaynes
I think establishing some ground rules such as word count (ironic coming from me since I wrote the shortest chapter) and using the chapter’s last line as the first line in the next post will help with consistency. Maintaining a consistent voice was a struggle.

Eric Bahle
It seems obvious now but we needed way more rules.  The rapid POV changes, tone changes, and length differences made for some jarring chapter transitions.

What Surprised You

Jeff Moriarty
Where some of the characters went, and how others interpreted them from what I wrote.
The blend of all this being one story, but still having each chapter be incredibly different.

Barbara McAllister
Bringing in of new characters. For some reason, I thought we’d stick with just the few we started with.
The excitement around not knowing what would be next. Very engaging.

How much fun it was!
It was another example of how much a reader brings to a story.

Scott Shields
I was surprised to see what happened with the characters.  When Rose added the gangster element in Chapter 3, I envisioned the story progressing from a simple armed robbery to a “Gangs of New York” type finale.  And I certainly loved Eric’s twist ending.

Tim Giron
How much fun it was anticipating where things were going before I took my turn at the helm.
The twists, turns and jolts that each chapter added to the overall story.
That we immediately wanted to do another one!

M. Jaynes
What surprised me was how much fun it was! There was a sense of anticipation as each person posted their chapter. Each chapter was a bit of a jolt since the story often did not go where I expected it to, but I think that may have been a good thing. I am looking forward to doing it again to see what I learn about myself as a writer. It is a great creative exercise!

Eric Bahle
Every damn chapter including my own.  Actually I was surprised that depite the chapters being so different it ended up hanging together as a story.  I definitely think it’s worth a second attempt.

What’s Next…

We’re going to try it again. We have a few new rules to help us stay more consistent, like a word count, keeping the same perspective, and a few other things.

We hope you’ll keep reading!