Recently I was asked about how to put together a writers’ group. How often should it meet? How many members are ideal? Who should you include… or be wary of?
I recommended that a group meet every couple of weeks. And that every member should be required to bring new material to every meeting. And that a good size for a group is 5-8 people.
As for who to include, or not… here’s some advice I offered a few years ago. It still holds.
I’ve mentioned my writers’ group before. It’s helpful, stimulating, forces me to set frequent deadlines, and provides camaraderie and inspiration. It works because we’ve learned how to give and receive constructive critiques, and because we’re all writers who are passionate about seeing our work published. We don’t dink around at our meetings. If we want to do that, there’s always Friday night, and the pub. Instead we print copies of the piece we’re sharing, read it aloud, get immediate feedback, and then either wallow in the warm glow of praise or attack each other with fingernails and pointy pens. No, not really. We wouldn’t damage pens – what kind of writers do you take us for?
There’s a lot to be said for writers’ groups, and plenty of places online where you can get good advice about how to run them successfully. For example, check out the 6′ Ferret Writers’ Group. So I’m not going to write a How To. But I do want to offer a few thoughts on How Not To. Specifically, I want to pass along some warning signs. These are people you want to be careful about working with in a writers’ group. If they sound like members of your group, you might want to gently urge them to move on to another activity. If any of them sound like you, then it might be why your last group suggested that you switch to scrapbooking.
And no, none of these archetypes are members of my own writers’ group. These are composites of people I’ve heard about over the years, drawn from the Live and Learn Files.
The not-such-a-wannabe. “No, I didn’t write anything for this meeting. I’ve been too busy. But I’m thinking of writing about camels. Or maybe space flight. Or my warts. What do you think I should write about? I mean, after I organize my closet. I won’t have time until then.” Members need to write, every time, or they need to leave.
The Egotist. This person comes in two forms: the diva, who monopolizes the group and draws their fawning attention, until it all becomes heroine worship; and the sneakier version, the earnest questioner, who absorbs lots and lots and lots of comments on his work, and then when it’s another writer’s turn, always brings the topic back around to his own piece again. “You’re so good at dialogue. How could I do something like that in my piece? How does dialogue work, anyway? I was thinking of doing…” And on and on.
The artiste. Her work has to be perfect. She frets over every single word. She frets so hard that she’s only written one page in the last year. Which she brings to every single meeting, and reads each time, so the group can help her decide whether anybody sounds more poetic than anyone in the opening paragraph.
The jealous artiste. She did a degree in Creative Writing. She’s going to suffer for her art. And so are you, because you don’t have a BA in Creative Writing and yet have the nerve to write fiction. Or as one such person said to me, “I hate your stories. But I suppose the world needs a lawyer with a sense of humor.” (Okay, so this particular person wasn’t a composite.)
The Black Hole of Need. “My third grade teacher told me I couldn’t write. He destroyed my self esteem.” That must have hurt. But honey, you’re 45 years old now. “I just can’t feel that anything I write is any good, because my teacher told me…” Agh. It’s good. It has nouns and verbs. It’s fine. But next time, please type it on a piece of paper and print copies for us, instead of reading a Haiku from a crumpled cocktail napkin. “Why? You don’t like it, do you? You don’t think it’s any good – you think I’m worthless, don’t you? Just like my teacher!” At this point, switching to Finnish, or declaring that from now on the group will only be speaking in tongues, might be the only thing that stops this person.
The paranoid. Sits gripping that single copy of the piece she’s brought to the first meeting, lips pursed, glaring suspiciously at everyone else. “Before I read, I need to make sure you have a confidentiality policy, and that it’s in writing. This is copyrighted material, and it’s so explosive that I can’t risk anybody stealing my idea.” Get rid of this person. Now. Before you get sued.