The answer is: a writing group. I’ve written elsewhere of the value—and pitfalls—of the formal writing workshop, which is the heart and soul of almost all college creative writing classes. But what of these highly informal, often diverse and extremely effective (and free!) literary juggernauts?
One Size Does Not Fit All
Writing groups are as varied as those who offer and participate in them. From bookstore-sponsored groups consisting of whoever shows up, to selective, invitation-only groups, they thrive and can be found almost anywhere. Bookstore and community center bulletin boards are good places to look for names and numbers, but even better is an invitation from someone already in a group. You can even start your own.
I’ve been in several such groups over the past three decades and can attest that it’s given me great joy as well as pain (mostly my fault for being too thin-skinned). However, I remain convinced that, other than formal class-work, a writing group is the most efficient way to shorten the learning curve and produce well-crafted, marketable and eventually publishable fiction. (One qualification: while not all writers want to publish books for commercial consumption, most do want to find readers, not write only for personal self-expression. Furthermore, they sincerely want to reward their readers for their time; hence, the need to learn to do it better and better, an extremely worthwhile lifetime endeavor, whether one single word ever makes it “into print”). My advice: shop around.
Issues to Consider
Groups have often spun off from my classes, and I always ask if I can help beyond merely announcing and/or helping recruit. Recently, after so many of these efforts have fizzled after only one meeting, I’ve taken a larger role, even attending the first organizational meeting at which members hammer out the basic structure, considering things like:
Will the group mainly critique members' manuscripts, socialize, support, do exercises or share publishing opportunities? The mission can include all of the above, but time should be carefully apportioned for them or the group won't get everything done and some members might become disgruntled and quit.
Where the group meets is critical to success. Rotating at members' houses can be enjoyable, especially if socializing becomes very important, but it can be a hassle, too, necessitating directions, refreshments, house-cleaning and inconvenience to house-mates. Public settings can be fine, if you scout them first for availability and excessive distractions. Often community rooms at libraries and restaurants can be reserved. (Having a Plan B isn't a bad idea.) Make sure ample, safe parking is available, especially at members' houses—you don’t want the neighbors complaining.
Unfortunately, arranging meeting times can be the deal-breaker for busy people, especially students, who often over-commit. Be sure to find time(s) when most agree they can come and stick to the plan. Regularity helps everyone to be disciplined. How often you meet depends on the group’s needs, but I'd say a minimum of once a month at least for a while. Weekly is usually too often; twice a month could be nice if folks can commit, at least for a while to get the pattern established. Veteran groups sometimes meet on an "as-needed" basis, but newer groups might quickly fall apart without greater continuity.
- Writing to Share
Will everyone be expected to bring work to share? Or only those who’ve signed up ahead of time? The latter method could be best for new groups—what a bummer if no one brings new work. But if it's expected, most will produce—nothing like a deadline to motivate! Also, should length be a consideration?—how much is too much? Too little? Fiction only—or are nonfiction and poetry allowed?
- Format for Manuscripts
Will members simply read aloud from their manuscript or distribute their work ahead of time, either electronically or by mail? You’ll often get a more complete critique if hard copy is provided; however, you'll also use a lot of paper and ink, even if you single space and use a smaller font. The expense could be too restrictive for some. Decide what’s reasonable and enforce the rules.
- Composition of Group
For all but beginners, the groups should be selective, according to criteria such as: writing ability, dedication, ability and willingness to critique and compatible personalities. I consider the last two the most important—why subject yourself to working with really difficult people in your precious free time while pursuing an avocation you love? And if the world’s best writer says little to help peers, resentments can fester. However, try hard to give people the benefit of the doubt and listen with an open mind. You don’t have to take anyone’s advice. Nod, smile, thank your critics and do whatever you want with your work.
It's good to have a process for accepting new members. For example, a present member recommends someone, the group discusses and if agreeable asks the person to submit a writing sample; if acceptable, the person is asked to visit (but not join yet), so the group can observe the person's critiquing ability and make sure personalities are amenable (make sure visitor knows this is standard procedure—nothing personal). After the visit, members can discuss and decide whether an invitation will be issued. It’s a basic process which can be tweaked to suit your group. Granted, there might be some awkwardness if the sponsoring member has to tell the prospect that she didn’t make the grade; however, someone besides the recommender might handle that task to make it less so.
- Group Roles
Every group needs a time-keeper to diplomatically segue from socializing to critiquing, then keep the ball rolling and prevent bogging down over minutiae. Also, an organizer makes sure the next meeting gets scheduled. Often someone will remind the group if critiquing becomes a bit over-zealous and counter-productive (e.g., an issue becomes simply a matter of personal taste rather than a real craft problem). These and other roles can be assigned or allowed to simply evolve.
- Format for Critique
What sort of structure will be used to protect writers and insure that it's not simply the loudest voice that is heard? One of the best rubrics for critiquing fiction emerged from a group I was in for several years (Fiction Evaluation Checklist). It’s best if all manuscripts are handled in the same basic way. Also, whether the writer is allowed to speak can be decided—it’s hard, especially for beginners, to avoid becoming defensive and/or making statements irrelevant to the critique. One of the best critiquing formats came from a session I attended at Cleveland State University’s “Imagination” workshop (Guidelines for Critique). I’ve been following some of its precepts in my classes ever since.
Also, it’s a good practice to state positives—what’s working, what’s memorable and satisfying—in the work first; then proceed to the suggestions for improvement. Although hurt feelings are impossible to entirely avoid, the best way to minimize them is to observe a set structure. Since there’s always going to be turn-over in membership, having a method brings new members up to speed quickly and efficiently.
Early consideration of the above could save you and your fledgling group pain later when you find yourself loving your people but not the process (or vice versa); and regretting bad habits that you’ve defaulted to, as all families will. While all writing groups spun off my classes met only a few times and fizzled, it was mostly due to people’s busy schedules; and, sometimes, the lack of a person to initiate—and persist—in getting people motivated to attend. The spark can quickly die if members don’t see at least the possibility of a strong blaze.
But there’s much good news, too. I believe I’ve gotten nearly the equivalent of an MFA in creative writing from my experiences in several high-octane, talented writing groups I’ve been privileged to attend. I know of a group, begun at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop a decade or so ago, which not only still meets but whose members are fiercely devoted to each other and to each other’s writing. Maybe that’s the key: to really like, even love, each other—even if, just like family, you don’t always get along perfectly.