Sunday, July 05, 2009

Writers Groups

Here is the text of a handout I gave away at my "Writers Support Groups" panel at Westercon 62 this afternoon.


Joining or Forming the Right Writers Group
By Rick Novy - -

All writers need feedback, and not just any feedback. Writers need useful feedback. A writers group can be one way of getting that necessary feedback, but joining the wrong group can be worse than not joining one at all.

How does a writer go about finding the right group? In most cases, it is probably easier to find a group than to make one. Ask around at bookstores, libraries, and community colleges. You can often find writers groups from your home with a simple Google search.

But finding a group isn't the hard part, it's finding the right group that can be. Whether online or in person, make sure you check out how they operate, what your obligations are, and whether the other members are at the proper level of experience for you.

Some things to keep in mind:
•How often will you need to provide material for critique? Is it too often, not often enough, or just right for your schedule?
•How do the other members compare to you? In an advanced group, you will be all taking and no giving. In a group far behind you, the opposite is true and you give but never get. It is important to be with other writers near your own skill level.
•Is the group one-dimensional (all critique) or are there other aspects to consider, and is it what you want out of a group?

Online or in person really makes no difference. It is easier to communicate face-to-face but easier to find other talent online. But, if you still can't find a group you'll just have to start one. A beginner might take a class at the community college and invite some classmates to help form a group. A more advanced writer might be more selective and search for similar writers at conferences or conventions. For example, my own group is limited mainly to writers with a professional sale. It keeps the group small and focused on what we need and it works for us.

Keep in mind that while you are checking out a group, they are also checking you out to satisfy themselves that you will fit into their culture. My current group requires a new member to participate on both sides of a critique to ensure the prospect is honest as a critic and not hypersensitive as a writer being criticized. We do that to maintain a certain level of competency so that the group remains focused on what the members need. A writers group that doesn't meet the needs of its members will disintegrate.

Here are some tips on how you can use a writers group by experience level. This assumes you have already found some like-minded people to join.

Beginner (Complete novice)
•Adopt a writing book and work through it together. Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoints and Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction are two very good books that contain exercises.
•Create flash fiction challenges. One member chooses a trigger and all members write a story in 1000 words or less. Read and comment about them.
•Try to find more experienced writers to make guest appearances and talk shop.
•Be aware of emotional responses to any critique. Many writers at this stage are not ready to hear the truth.

Intermediate (Writing and submitting, but getting form rejections back)
•Start writing longer original fiction without a trigger and use the stories in a critique circle.
•Have story-idea brainstorming sessions.
•Continue with writing exercises. Your group may or may not decide to continue this as a group.
•Teach yourselves how to find markets and submit. You might still find more experienced writers to make guest appearances specifically to discuss this.

Advanced (Actively submitting and getting personalized response or selling occasionally)
•Go back to reading books. You are now in the target audience for most of them.
•Critiques should now be picking nits and finding subtle problems. Critiques start moving away from line-edits into more general statements.
•Create flash challenges occasionally. Have reading parties where you sit back and enjoy rather than critiquing.
•Trade important information on markets or techniques you might have learned from pros.

Neo-Pro (Have sold to a major market or attended a major auditioned workshop)
•At this stage, you will know what to do. Modify the list under Advanced to suit your needs.
•Discuss how to find first readers.
•Talk shop, trading information.
•Critiques should now be very specific in pointing out subtle problems. Be wary of criticizing style tendencies that you disagree with, but do mention them.

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