Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Finding And Maintaining A Fun And Effective Writing Group

So last week I lamented the lack of writing groups in my life, and asked for help. Because she's amazing, my blogging friend Loni Townsend answered me with such a long, detailed, and helpful email that I asked her to reshape it a bit and make it into a guest post. She did this purely because I asked her to, but I wanted to give her a shout-out, because a) her writing is wonderful, and b) so is she. So if you haven't already, please go buy her books! (And keep reading after her guest post for a look into her most recent novella, This World Bites.)

What follows is Loni's excellent advice on finding, forming, and maintaining a writing group:

Last week, Liz brought up the topic of writing groups, and how much she’d love to find one.

As my buddy Jim mentioned on my blog a few weeks back, I do have one of those groups. In fact, I'm the one that started it because I couldn't find anything that matched what I wanted in a group. I didn't want casual come-if-you-can-and-we'll-do-whatever, which at the time was all the Idaho Writer's Guild offered.

Jim is actually the critique group manager guy for the guild. He keeps track of all of the different groups, so that when someone comes to the guild, he can point them in the right direction. I'm not part of the guild, since I can't justify paying for meetings and conferences that I can't attend because of work and family. But I know enough people on the board to be dangerous. ;) That being said, if you have a local writer's guild, check there first because they may have something you're looking for.

Since the guild didn't have something I wanted, I made my own. It started with NaNoWriMo. Me and a couple of friends met every Friday morning for "write-ins" (drinking coffee and chatting a lot) during November. After November ended, we created a Facebook group that local people could join and stay in contact beyond the NaNo forums. I posted a question to the group to see if anyone would be interested in starting up a critique group. I knew I wanted a limited number of people because big groups are hard to manage when it comes to scheduling, plus you lose some of the intimacy. I got a couple of bites from people I hadn't met yet, and some interest from a few I had.

I ended up limiting it to 12 because the closest library had a meeting room that sat 12 and was free to reserve.

Then I sat down and wrote the expectations and guidelines for what I wanted. Here's a look into those guidelines:

Treasure Valley Critiquers is a group aimed to provide constructive criticism to group participants. It is a community where writers can go to gain honest feedback about a segment of their work.

Expectations:

  • Meetings will take place every two weeks
  • Sharing will take place on a round-robin schedule.
  • One member will share per scheduled 60 minutes. If more than 60 minutes is scheduled, then more than one member will share.
  • The scheduled sharer will email their work to the other members, or place it in the appropriate Dropbox folder, 10-14 days before their scheduled share date and indicate genre.
  • The shared segment will consist of approximately 5,000 words or less.
  • Critiquing members will have feedback compiled prior to meeting start (either physically or electronically).
  • Sharing author will remain silent during the discussion.
  • Critiquing members will discuss the work with the author present, but not directly address the author. 
  • First time attendees must participate in critiquing another member’s work before they are added to the schedule. 
  • Criticism is more than just grammar. 
  • Topics covered will include:
    • Plot/Pacing
    • Characterization
    • Setting/Tone
    • Clarity
    • Dialogue
    • Entertainment Value – If a short story, was it satisfactory? If part of a bigger story, would you continue reading?
    • Other


Guidelines:

  • Be courteous. It is fine to dislike another person’s writing or work and to voice that opinion, but refrain from cruel or mean-spirited feedback. Comments such as “It sucked” are inappropriate. If you come bearing a complaint, be prepared to provide a suggestion on how the piece can be improved.
  • Keep an open mind. People are allowed to have opinions. Whether you are giving feedback or receiving it, not everyone comes from the same background. Some people may and will have different moral foundations. Even if you disagree with someone else’s opinion, discuss your reasons civilly. 
  • If you are the sharing author: once your time has started, you are done talking. Refrain from defending or commenting on or even clarifying any of the details within your work. You are there to listen. Your readers will not have you there to answer all their questions once you publish, so if something is misunderstood, then it may need to be rewritten. 
  • Avoid sidetracking on tangents that don’t relate to the author’s work. This is the time to focus on the author’s writing and not how attractive a particular actor is (even though you would love to see him play this such-and-such character in the segment you’ve just read).
  • Don't share another author's pages with people outside of the group unless you gain the author's explicit permission. They are trusting you with their work. Don't betray that trust. You don't own the rights to their work.

It's been tweaked a few times since the beginning, but mostly it's the same.

Then I figured out a schedule. Every other Wednesday worked best for most people, so that's what I went with.

I manage the critiquing schedule, group vacancies, and location scheduling. We have a closed Facebook group where I post the events of who is going when and where we're meeting. I also keep track of time and prompt topic discussion while we are critiquing, and steer conversation back on track when we get too far off-topic. I've even busted out my mom voice on some of the more excessive talkers.

Not all people understand the finer points of the group's intention. We've had to update our expectations to include a topic list so that we weren't spending twenty minutes on wrongly placed commas. It's helped smooth over some of the frustrations some members have with other members.

We use Dropbox to share our work and feedback. This works, for the most part. :) Some people still struggle with uploading files. They usually just email them to me and I put them in the folder. We used to email our pieces to a group distribution, but then some people were getting missed or lost, and I'd have to re-email.

Sometimes the group plan doesn't always work. One of my members started a separate group specifically for YA/NA (mine is open to all genres, including nonfiction). She based it on our existing structure, and expectations and guidelines. A volatile personality in her group started fracturing the other members' confidence. She came to me asking how I would handle the member. I suggested she talk to him, and if he wasn't willing to be tactful with his feedback, then to cut him off. I don't think she was willing to kick him out, or she didn't convey her message very well (she's not a mom and doesn't have a mom voice). The group crumbled, and disbanded after a few months.

We've had people come and go from my group. Since creating the group nearly two years ago, there are 6 from the original 12, and we've had 8 people join and leave for varying reasons (new babies, new jobs, new apartments in other cities). We still see each other around town and exchange laughs and stories.

Everyone is looking for something slightly different. If you don’t find what you want, try making your own.



This World Bites

It’s her first day on a new world and Cera's already found trouble. Michael, her guardian, has been bitten by a zombie and will soon join the undead ranks.

Everyone tells her there's no cure, but Cera isn't one to be deterred. She’s willing to face off with zombie hordes, demon slavers, and black market informants if it means she’ll find a cure for Michael.

But she’s not the only one hunting for something.

Something is hunting her.

Buy it now:

Goodreads
Amazon
Barnes & Noble
Kobo






By day, she writes code. By predawn darkness, she writes fantasies. All other times, she writes in her head.

People call her peculiar with a twisted sense of fashion, but don't let those understatements fool you. Her behavior is perfectly normal for a squirrel disguised as a human. That's part of being a ninja—blending in.

She makes her home in Idaho with her sadistically clever—yet often thwarted—husband, two frighteningly brilliant children, and three sneaky little shibas.

Find her on her blog or social media.

Contact info:
Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | Goodreads


Thank you so much, Loni!


23 comments:

  1. I'm glad you found it helpful! If anyone has any questions, I'm more than happy to try to provide an answer.

    And thanks for the plug about This World Bites. :)

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  2. Spelling out the guidelines and structure is genius. That totally sounds like a group I'd want to join. I haven't sought any groups out mostly because I'm afraid getting sidetracked and focus on minutiae would end up making it a waste of time. Plus I've been blessed to have found wonderful crit partners through online writing friends. But I know people who love their live crit groups, so having a well functioning one like this would be awesome. (Note to self: just make sure the leader has a really great mom voice.)

    Thanks for sharing Loni's wisdom with us, Liz!

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  3. Wow, every two weeks would be exhausting to me! This AZ Challenge is already got me spent. Good luck!

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  4. Lori is a super nice person. I really enjoy my local writers group and we meet once a month but it's not a critique group. There is one of those that also meets once a month but I seldom go. It's a little far and at a a bad time.

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  5. Sounds like a good group. Ours is a bit more relaxed. We meet EVERY week, though. But if someone is swamped, we're allowed to be "closed to submissions." And if someone sends a massive chunk of writing, we're allowed to take an extra week to read it. In general, 10-20 pages is the expectation, though we're allowed to submit poems or flash fiction or whatever. Or we can request a brainstorming session in regards to something we're working on. So far we've had no real issues with anyone being rude about another's work. We all understand that not everything is everyone's cup of tea, so sometimes you'll hear, "Well, I don't read this kind of stuff, so . . ." But I feel really lucky to have landed in such a great group. I realize from what I've heard and read that not all of them are so great.

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  6. Some great advice on how to create a new group. And, yes, I'd think the group dynamics could become difficult to manage at times. So many egos! But if you get a group of people who click and are able to help each other get better, you can't ask for better than that.

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  7. love loni, and love her tips--I think setting guidelines is such a great idea. It's all out on the table that way.

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  8. Having a Mom voice is pretty awesome. This is great advice. My writing group meets every Friday (except when we don't) and we only critique 1 piece with a 5,000 word limit. We use the Milford style of critique, which sounds similar to yours, except only one person speaks at a time. People come and go a bit, and it's also a closed group, so you have to be invited by another person in the group and agreed upon to stay. It works quite well.

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  9. Excellent guidelines and it is so important that people don't veer off topic (like I can) and don't take things personally. that may be the biggest thing. I hope all works out

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  10. That's awesome! I wish I had the time to form a group where I am. There might be one, although I'm not sure how to find it.

    I wish I was in your area, Loni, so I could join yours. :)

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  11. That's awesome! I wish I had the time to form a group where I am. There might be one, although I'm not sure how to find it.

    I wish I was in your area, Loni, so I could join yours. :)

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  12. Glad this has worked out so well - it sounds like everyone puts a lot of work into it, and I can definitely see why it needs some people who can keep the discussion focused and make sure one person doesn't tear the group apart.

    Though I admit, the "write-in" mentioned earlier sounds more my speed. I don't know if I need a writing group so much as a support group. >_<

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  13. Sounds a lot like my local group, although we don't email out the stuff ahead of time. We just have the author read the submission and then we critique it. But I think we've just decided to start emailing the submissions first, so that we have a better chance of giving them the attention they deserve. Fortunately, the people in my group are very supportive of each other.

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  14. Wow, I already thought Loni was an awesome Ninja but now I'm ever more impressed. Kudos to you, Loni!
    And thanks for sharing, Liz.

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  15. I love this post! It's not just about getting together. It's about the "purpose" and the "respect" for the group. The "how to" is much needed and very appreciated!

    You can find me here:
    ClarabelleRant

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  16. Loni has some fantastic advice. I love how she has clear guidelines for her group. I'll probably bookmark this for when I start my own group again. Good stuff.

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  17. What a wonderful idea, wish I were part of such a group.

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  18. Thanks for the shout out, Loni. I love my title :) Our group has been great. If people are looking for more details on groups and the options available try The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. It provides checklists and suggestions for groups.

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  19. Fantastic post and advice. (Although I do feel badly for the woman who tried to start a group without a 'mom voice' -- that was destined to go downhill.) ;-)

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  20. Sounds very organized -- and beneficial.

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  21. Bites looks like a fun read.

    Great idea on the critique group.

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  22. Yay for This World Bites and Loni with great advice!! (Who am I, Pat Hatt?) Great stuff, ladies!

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