A good friend of mine recently began a dialogue about what it takes and means to self-publish. His most recent article topic has been about forming a network of writers to work with. I cannot stress how important this is and how glad I am that Doug has taken the time to talk a little about it here.
Hopefully he won’t be angry that I’ve decided to add a bit to his conversation, specifically about writer’s groups and communities.
When Looking for a Writers Group:
You would be surprised about how difficult it really is to find a good writers group to join. It’s easy to fall into a group that plays mommy to you. And that’s a harsh critique. What it means is a group that says: “That was great!” without giving you any helpful feedback on your prose or poetry. It feels good to hear someone say that about your story or writing. That floaty feeling in your stomach for a job well done, yeah, everyone likes that feeling. But that’s not what a writers group is for.
You want to find a group that is going to advocate for you and your writing to grow. Advocate: (n) a supporter, promoter, campaigner. Advocate: (v) support, encourage, back. This is important. Because we want a group that is going to say, “that was great” with a “but” thrown in at the end. Harsh, I know. Honestly though, the “but” is what is important. It shows an interest beyond the surface value of the text. But what about this character? But why does that happen? But how do we know that as the reader? That was great, but maybe this part needs a little bit something more. Your writers group should be able to find those areas that maybe need something else to pick up the story. You’re not looking for the group that is going to be jerks about it. You want that group that will advocate for you, and encourage you to be a participant towards other people’s writing too.
That’s really the second part of a writers group. You learn just as much from people talking about your work as you do talking about theirs. When you read a manuscript and can pinpoint the weak areas, those places that need a little umph, it helps you go back and pick up the same things in your own writing. A group that encourages discourse and conversation about technique, style, language, structure is really important because that goes beyond what you’ve already written, to what you will write in the future.
Make sure your group is well populated with smart thinkers and readers. You want a group that is going to point out the areas that need work and who recognize what areas they need work on themselves.
It’s hard to say whether you want to join a group where everyone is “smarter” than you, or even to you, or newer to the form than you. If your peers are miles ahead of you in style and the process, that might be good. Those writers can then offer the advice they once received and help you figure out your way through those same issues they once faced. At the same time, egos become involved at some point, and a good writers group isn’t about crushing anyone else beneath their heel.
You also don’t want to be the smartest person in the group. God it feels good to be smart, but that ego will get in your way too. Everyone has something to offer to your writing (everyone who reads it, I should say). It’s best to make sure you can listen as much as you can help those with you. So even if you know a lot about genre and structure and etc., it’s really key that the people around you are still challenging you to make corrections and revisions and not bowing down to everything you say without saying anything themselves. You want a group where you can form a discussion with people, and they’ll talk back about it to you.
Remember, and this is key, not all advice you receive is going to be good, and not all advice you receive will you use, or should you use. In the end, it’s your writing, so it’s important that you remember you hold the final pen in the matter.
A great way to form groups, or find groups is online, at local coffee shops or bookstores or libraries, or with your peers that you went to school with or worked with in your past. Look for people who are writing the same types of stories you are. If you are writing fantasy/science fiction, look for people who write the same. It’s not that a mystery novelist can’t help you, but different genres have different tropes and sometimes your reviewers want to focus only on a particular genre type. That’s not to say that mixed writers groups are bad, they’re not, but they have to be open and understand that genre does play an important role in writing and has to be considered as such.
I have a wide group of references from my MFA program that I worked with. We are scattered throughout the US and can’t meet face to face. If you work your group through scheduled mailings, that’s fine. The key is to get your writing out there into other readers’ hands. Form internet chat groups, mail exchanges, packet deadlines. Even if you start with just one other person who you are sharing stories with, it’s a writers group. It just takes two.
A Writer’s Community:
Writing communities are equally as important as writing groups. This goes beyond meeting once a month. And sometimes they only meets once a year. How does that second sentence actually work then? Glad you asked. A writer’s community is very similar to a writer’s workshop. It’s an intense experience that might last for a weekend or a week or a month, but once there, you write and that’s what you do the entire time. You write, talk writing, read writing, and write some more. Okay, there are probably a whole bunch of other things that go on too, but these communities and workshops are intense. They’re great for being with people who share your like passion. Low residence MFA programs function in similar ways. The relationships you form in these environments go beyond the finite number of days you spend together. And those days you are together allow you to be geeky with geeky people. If you want to talk about the particular attribute of a run-on sentence in the middle of a paragraph that you can’t change because it feels good and helps to speed the scene along by representing the tumultuous mentality of your character in that moment, there will be people to talk to who agree and disagree about it. And it won’t be a quick question for a local writer’s group. You’ll argue for hours about it, and by the time you’re done discussing, you won’t even remember that the run-on was the basis of the conversation.
The key difference here is atmosphere. A writers group is not necessarily laid back, it’s more focused in the moment, and it has a much more limited timeframe. Writers groups usually meet for anywhere between one hour to eight hours once or twice a month. I know of at least one that meets every week for two hours, but that’s still not technically an extensive length of time. It’s limited to “x” meeting and once that meeting is done, we go back to the lives we came from. A writer’s community is a community for whatever length of stay they are run through. You might leave to go back to your room for the night, but you’ve spent the day talking writing and will return to the same the next. It’s a different type of intensity to work with. For that weekend or week or day, you’re not thinking about having to be at your job on Monday or what you’re cooking for the kids on Tuesday. Communities and retreats (which I should add into this category) are places where you as a writer can go to fully immerse yourself for whatever time you can in your writing without the stressors of the “real world” coming in to say, “Time to stop, must do this now instead.”
There are a lot of different resources that list different venues and events and groups and communities throughout the world on the internet. If, for example, you look at the RWA website (Romance Writers of America), they have lists of workshops and retreats that meet throughout the year in different places. My suggestion would be to start close to home. Look for people around you who want to meet. Don’t limit yourself to pre-organized meetings. Start your own if you have to. Maybe look at how they should work before that, but there’s nothing that says you can’t be the impetus for your own writers group. Been there, done that, worked well. Find the best fit for you first, and work from there, but make sure you find people who will talk about the “BUT” and who will talk to you about your writing and listen to your opinions on the same.
If you have any questions about writers groups or MFA programs or writing retreats and communities, please feel free to ask me. Just “Subject” the email with “Writers Groups” and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. I know Doug is the same way and welcomes all questions about the same. We’ve jointly begun a local Syfy and Fantasy Facebook group for Northeast Ohio writers and Doug has really taken charge of his page “Self-Publishing Authors” on the same. Look either of us up on Facebook or Twitter for more information and to continue the conversation.