Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Recipe for a Writing Group

by Annette Lyon

Reader Question:
How do you structure your writing group? How many people are in it? Do you ever take new people? How do you break up the time? How often do you meet, for how long, and where are the meetings held? What tricks have you picked up over the years?

I'm glad you asked, because in my opinion, a writing/critique group can be the most valuable thing you can do for your work.

One big caveat: A BAD group can be the worst thing you can do for your writing. You need a GOOD group, one where the other members can challenge you but don't make you feel small. Where you can contribute, but where you can benefit from the other members as well.

I've heard of groups where they're not much more than chatting fun-fests. I've heard of groups where no one really knows what they're doing—they're all clueless. I've heard of groups where, after a couple of years, they all start writing like each other. In such cases, move on!

I'm lucky in that I've been with my group for seven and a half years, and we're still going strong. We all write differently, we stay on track, and while we're great friends, we certainly aren't easy on one another. We all have our strengths, and if someone hasn't attended in a few weeks, I feel like my work might be slipping in one area. We'll be together for years to come, I'm quite sure.

The way our group works is just one of many ways to run a writing group. Some groups meet less frequently but meet for much longer chunks. Others take home entire manuscripts and then meet to give commentary on them and never read aloud in front of each other. Others read one another's works aloud instead of reading their own. I'm sure there are as many ways to run groups as their are writers. Below is the way ours works.

Customize your own group to fit your needs.

How do you structure your group?
The basic way we work is to meet approximately weekly. Each person brings enough copies of their piece (usually 6-8 pages, perhaps a scene) for every person to read off of. When it's my turn, I'll hand out my copies to each person, then read my piece aloud while they all make notes on their own hard copy. Then they'll each take 2-3 minutes giving a verbal critique. Sometimes we set a timer to be sure we don't go long, because it's the oral commentary that can take too much time if we aren't careful. Once we've gone around the table and everyone has said what they think, the next person passes out their work.

How many people are in it?
We currently have eight members, and I don't recommend having any more than that. However, with schedules being as insane as they are, we rarely have more than five or six at any meeting, and that is about perfect. We never meet with fewer than four, because you need at least three people outside of yourself to get enough feedback to make it worthwhile.

Do you ever take new people?
Periodically, but rarely. Usually it's when someone moves.

How do you break up the time?
See above. The biggest trick is not letting friendship chatter get in the way, because we have been together so long that we really are great friends. That's when we break out the timer and have to hold ourselves to it.

How often do you meet, for how long, and where are the meetings held?
Weekly most of the time, but sometimes we end up missing weeks. And when the holidays come, we don't even bother. Often we'll meet two weeks into November, have a holiday dinner with spouses, and then call it quits until the new year. We meet at members' homes, sitting around their kitchen tables, red pens in hand. It helps if there are chips and salsa or chocolate chip cookies on the table. We generally start around 7:00 pm and go until we're done, around 10:30 pm if we haven't gotten overly chatty.

What tricks have you picked up over the years?
Pay attention to what other members say to each other. This helps in two ways. First, you'll save time in not repeating a criticism someone already said, which wastes time, but (more importantly) often you'll learn just as much about writing by listening to others' critiques of each other as you will about what they say to you.

Another tip in saving time is only mentioning things that really need explanation. A lot of comments are self-explanatory from the notes you write down. You may not have to explain that a sentence felt awkward if you wrote, "awk" in the margin next to it, but if there was a part where the protagonist's motivation was unclear, you'll likely need to expound on that.

Also, be sure to write you name on the first page of your copy. That way, when the person gets home, they know right away that YOU made all the notes, and if they need clarification, they know who to ask.

Sometimes we disagree. If one person thought my description cliche and another person thought it was brilliant, I'll ask for hands to go up. How many people thought it cliche? How many thought it was brilliant? That'll give me a rough idea of how close I got. Often it's just one person who thinks one direction, and everyone else thinks the other way. That tells me overwhelmingly that it maybe it really was cliche (or brilliant). Or if it's split in half, maybe I need to rework the passage a different way altogether.

One other thing I've learned is that I don't have to take their advice. It's still my work. I'm the author, so I have the final say. I also know that my group is composed of darn talented people. There's a good chance if they've diagnosed a problem, it really is a problem. But sometimes I've found a better way of solving it than they've suggested.

Once I whined to a relative about a big fix I had ahead that they had suggested for my work in progress. She said, "Blow them off. You don't have to listen to them."

"You don't understand," I told her. "They're right."

The biggest tip? Give it time. Critiquing is something you learn. We've had people come to their first meeting and flip out because they feel completely inadequate. "How can you pick up so much so fast—while you're just listening to it?" they say. Well, we've had years of practice. It's an acquired skill. You learn.

I love my critique group and can't live without them. I don't dare publish a novel without their eyes going over it first. Find a good group and cling to them for dear life. They're worth their weight in gold.


Anonymous said...

So how do you go about starting a group and finding the right people to work with. I know of a couple of groups locally but most of them have ended up being older people who just want help writing their life stories. They are the kind of groups that think everyone has talent and the average comment is, "That was so nice dear."

Annette Lyon said...

Network. Start hanging out where other writers are, whether that's writing conferences or local writing meetings or whatever. My group began as members of a local chapter of the League of Utah Writers. Search online for local writing organizations in your area. Conferences are key. Or, you can start an on-line critique group by hanging out in virtual writing communities. Writers Digest also has several writers forums where you can meet other writers all over the place. Good luck!

Josi said...

This is great, Annette. Thanks for sharing this info. I've long been green with envy over your group--but I've got some great ones too, I love hearing what works for other people.

Anon--in one of my groups we have five people -one is a friend I knew wrote, one is a woman I met at a church presentation, one I met at a writer's conference and another I met at a booksigning. We've had two other members that joined us for awhile and then for whatever reason couldn't work it in. My other group is with two published authors and I met them both at a League of Utah Writer's chapter meeting. Like Annette said, it's putting yourself in places that writer's will be.

Thanks again Annette, I'm going to send my writer's groups to this blog to read up!

Annette Lyon said...

You're welcome! Hope something there is useful.

Heather B. Moore said...

I met my critique group by attending a local writer's chapter meeting. I someitmes "trade" with another author here or there, and I still do that, but going to a live critique group is the most helpful. I heard Mary Higgins Clark speak in SLC a few years ago. She meets with a critique group on a regular basis. They don't pore over pages and edit grammar, but they throw out ideas and discuss plot lines. I've also read that Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club, etc.) participates in a critique group. Of course with high-speed internet, an on-line writing group might be a good fit for many.