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.
- 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:
- Entertainment Value – If a short story, was it satisfactory? If part of a bigger story, would you continue reading?
- 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.
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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.
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Thank you so much, Loni!