Thought I'd do my check in exercise here at the Wonderful World of Wyrd.
So, first, about me. I've been writing since 1991 or thereabouts. I joined the Wyrdsmiths sometime around 2000 with a half dozen short story sales under my belt as well as a day job gig as a science fiction writer for a National Science Foundation funded middle school curriculum project-a pretty sweet deal that has since gone to press. I had four novels written at that point, the last of which is my first novel publication, and about fifty short stories and poems. Since I signed up, I've written five more novel, four of which went through Wyrdsmiths and one of which, CyberMancy, is an Ace release for August 07. I've now got something like thirty shorts in print or forthcoming along with a couple poems and the two novels. And the Wyrdsmiths have helped enormously in that process.
Speaking of which, the Wyrdsmiths. The Wyrdsmiths are my fourth writers group. Like Lyda, I find the friendship of fellow writers and their insights into my work absolutely necessary to my process. Something no one seems to have mentioned yet, but which I also find vital is the industry gossip. It's not something I hear people mentioning very often, but writers are terrible gossips. We're all storytellers and we're all always looking for new stories and stories about our own and our industry are absolutely compelling. Not only that, but it allows us to share info about who is buying what and things like editor A loves talking mouse stories. Entertainment and market research in one happy package. If you're a writer and not in a group you might want to form one.
Which leads me to writers groups, the mechanics. Here are some things I talk about when I teach writing, things which I thought folks might be interested in.
Rules are good. Wyrdsmiths has them, and they help us function. So, figure out a set of rules up front. Make sure that all members are aware of the rules. Be willing to enforce the rules.
Critique. What is acceptable in terms of critique? On the critiquer side, you want to make sure that all comments are useful. On the critiquee side, you don't want someone trying to defend their work. Some groups don't allow the critiquee to speak at all. I personally find this too restrictive, and choose to allow the critiquee to ask clarifying questions about the critique as it's being given.
Time. Almost without exception your group will have a finite amount of time for meetings. Depending on the number of group members and their productivity you may need to set boundaries for how much time you should devote to each piece, etc.
Productivity. Are you going to have a minimum word count for all members? This can help get people motivated to write and keep the group active. Will you have a schedule for turning in? Can anyone turn in at any meeting? Will you have a maximum word count? How much work are you willing to do? It's been my experience that a group meeting monthly can usually handle pieces up to 10,000 words. One that meets biweekly like the Wyrdsmiths might want a cap in the 5-7,000 word range.
Genre. The most successful writers groups generally focus in a limited area. Poetry. Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror. Non-Fiction. Young Adult. Etc. There can be overlap, but it's not easy for most groups to look at radically different stuff.
Sales! Wyrdsmiths meets at a coffee house. This has two advantages. First, it's neutral ground. Second, when someone makes a sale or hits some other important milestone, they have to buy everyone a round. This provides a celebratory benchmark for the person who made the sale as well giving everyone else a reason to feel that the sale is a victory for them as well. If it's not managed well, success within a group can generate a lot of jealousy. Another group I was in met at members houses in rotating order. This also worked well.
Membership. You should have a process for inducting new members and for ejecting those who hurt the mission of the group. The former can be achieved either by creating an open group (anyone can join), or having some sort of audition/sponsorship process.
Size matters...for writers groups. I would suggest that 3 is the absolute minimum number, and then only if everyone is handing in regularly. 4 is better. 6 regular attendees is about ideal. I'd suggest a max of 8, though Wyrdsmiths has 9.
If you're still reading at this point, either you found something worthwhile in this post, or you skipped to the bottom. In either case, have a virtual gold star. In fact, take two, they're invisible. While you're at it, feel free to leave a comment or a question. One of us will be along to collect them and respond in the near future.