Writing is by its nature a solitary pursuit. One sits with one's thoughts, possibly hammering away at a piece of stone, maybe pushing grains of sand together on a low tide shore until something begins to take form. Then comes the edit, the trim, the shape and reshape, the polish, until finally it is ready to be sent out to a potential editor, agent, or possibly to a friend. But somewhere in there a space can be made for the writers group, a place where a writer works with other writers to hone one's craft, clarify one's intention, and sharpen one's voice.
Sometimes we can be timid, do an intricate job of setting a lovely surface pattern, but refuse to do any deep sea diving for fear of what can be found in the dark waters. In my third novel, Ice Journeys, currently under contract to Night Shade Books, I was working with multiple narrators. The group asked me some very perceptive questions that helped me to sculpt the voices in more effective and penetrating ways.
Why a group? Well, first of all, it keeps you writing. If you have a deadline it helps to keep you moving closer to it. If you do not, it creates a focus. Secondly, it gives an outside perspective. Sometimes a writer can stay on the same page for too long: same story with different characters, same poem with different metaphors. One of the writers in our group had characters who overlapped in too many ways. The group asked questions about how they were different, in speech cadence, in temperament, in dress, or if were they purposefully so much alike. The novel grew depth as her characters separated from each other and became whole.
That's one way a supportive but challenging group will insist that you dig deeper. It will protest if you bore them with the same plot over and over. It will pull you off the distracting trails and redirect you to the road you want, indeed need, to traverse in a specific piece. However, to be productive a group should be well structured.
Ingredients for forming your writing group:
- Find a group of committed writers: Decide what point in their careers you want the writers to be. For myself I want to be with writers who are seeking to live as writers, not dilettantes who enjoy writing. I like those who aim to finish that book and are willing to create a deadline for sending out the manuscript.
Since I am a cross-genre writer whose first passion is poetry, I always want everyone to seriously engage poetry, and to have at least one person in addition to myself who works in creative nonfiction and fiction as well as poetry.
- Be honest about other criteria: I also like a broad age-range. I have found that different insights come with our generational shifts. There is value in having a group of writers in their twenties mixing with writers in their sixties; they bring a swath of cultural and historical references and experience.
Do you care about gender or ethnicity? I like working with writers of color because I can speak in short-hand. There are certain concepts around class and caste that are already understood.
- After the group is gathered discuss other group parameters:
- Set a page limit and honor the maximum number of pages. A group of six with a ten-page limit means a monthly meeting would be two-plus hours if each person received a twenty minute group critique.
- Decide if the group should be open-ended or have an end-point of, say, twelve or eighteen meetings.
- Honor each writer's specific goals for the group: One person may be completing a well-defined project, while another might be trying to develop in a new writing genre. A group is not a workshop. It is not a place to get writing prompts or lessons, and there is no leader. It is a place to escape from the solitude of writing and get outside perspectives from people who bring their own vision and expertise.
- Use the group as a part of the writer's grapevine: Help spread the word. Share your leads about magazines soliciting articles, anthologies looking for new poems, redroom.com, etc.
- Pick meeting-places where each of you can be comfortable: The group I am in rotates from house to house.
Ultimately, be kind, but don't be afraid to be critical. Be serious, but don't forget to laugh. And lastly, leave your egos at home but bring your commitment to your work. And when the book is finally published, don't forget to thank the group.