Friday, August 03, 2007

Writers Groups

Another good question from the folks over at fangs, fur & fey:

"How did you (meaning authors on the list) find a writing/critique group? People you could brainstorm with, maybe send sample chapters to and who'd tell you it's drivel and you should be doing this, etc. Was it luck that you hooked up or did you find them at various functions, cons, etc?"

Through a class at the Loft.

But since I already explained this in the last post, I thought I would take a moment to explain how Wyrdsmith's functions (from my perspective). Others are more than welcome to chime in and correct me.

First of all, I wrote a rather exhaustive article about my experiences with various kinds of writers' critique groups for the BroadUniverse BroadSheet, which you can read at The Writerly Art of Critiquing On Masse: A Guide to Finding, Running, and Surviving Writers' Groups.

Wyrdsmiths is a closed group. That means that we're currently not open to new members, though we do occasionally hold auditions when the number of active members drops or we find ourselves craving new blood. There's a couple of good reasons for this. One is that I believe there is an ideal number of members, which is right around what we have: 7-9. That may sound like a lot of people, but, really, when you meet approximately every two weeks, there are a lot of schedule conflicts and the core group stay steadily around 4-6. Too few and you end up canceling often. Too many and the amount of "homework," in terms of manuscripts to read, gets overwhelming.

We also got snotty about the auditioning process when the majority of us became "filthy pros." We wanted to keep a standard of writing ability. We all learn from each other, but that's actually a lot easier to do if the majority are writing at or above a certain level. When you're trying to learn how to do complicated subplots without loosing the audience's interest, it's frustrating when half the meeting is spent teaching someone basic grammar. (Yes, feel free to pick on mine.)

However, that's not to say we've been adverse to taking on members who aren't published. But, after a fairly ugly fight in our formative years, we discovered that it's really important for all the members to share a certain "seriousness of vision." In other words, everyone in the group needed to be actively seeking publication. There's nothing wrong with writing for pleasure or as a hobby, but, as we tend to spend a lot of our meetings swapping business gossip, those folks just weren't a good fit. Plus, we do a lot of group promotion and it's a lot easier to be motivated to join in on that if it helps sell your work (or future work).

Critique is structured like this: those that want to be reviewed the following meeting hand-out. We take the manuscripts (in manuscript format, or some facsimile therein) home and write our comments directly on the paper. Some of us type up responses; though most of us scribble on the back and in the margins. We used to follow the format established in the Loft class of "first impression, strengths, weaknesses, and final impression," but others like to take writing categories like "plot, setting, character, pacing" and say something about each. Since we've been established for so long, it's no longer really necessary to enforce the idea that people need to say something nice. We do it as a matter of course.

The author is silent during the critique, and we go around in some direction (again, this is rather random, and at Wyrdsmiths will change from critique to critique) and everyone reads their comments or ad libs based on what they've written. Again, because we've been together so long, we aren't harsh about the gag rule, but it can be helpful when you're first starting. We also tend to encourage cross-talk, rather than discourage it, and, unlike some critique groups, we also feel free to brainstorm (even if the author hasn't specifically requested it.) Again, this has a lot to do with our personal dynamic. I tend to learn the most when other people tackle my plot with their ideas, and some of my best plot twists/character moments have come directly from ideas generated by fellow Wyrdsmiths. (Thanks to Eleanor for pointing out that flying cars are an overused SF cliche!)

We no longer set a page minimum, though we feel free to harass members who haven't turned in in a long time. We also don't set a page maximum, nor do we assign authors weeks to turn in. Given the number of authors with deadlines, this can sometimes mean that there's a lot to read, but we tend to make on-the-fly judgement calls if there seems to be more than the usual amount of manuscripts stacked in the middle of the table.

However, again, when first starting I think it's appropriate to set schedules, maximums and minimums. We're just sloppy because we've been at it for so long.

We also have always met in a public place, like a coffee shop. Currently, we meet at the Black Dog in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. I've been in groups that circulate through members' houses. While that has the advantage of no closing time, it also can put pressure on the host/ess to provide food and drink. The nice thing about meeting at a public place is that you can always buy what you need. So far, the Black Dog hasn't been a problem in terms of parking and only a couple of times have we had to relocated because of loud music or events.

That's a lot of it. Any questions?


Anonymous said...

I have two, both virtual. I haven't been able to find anything local that's been a "good fit" - most of what I've found here, in both groups and writers, are hobbiests, and since I'm not one...

One of the virtual groups is made up of five friends; four of us are editors of some stripe, all of us serious about our writing and have been published in various places. We care enough about each other and what we're all doing to be brutally honest with each other - and are mature enough to know we're critiquing the work, not the person, which goes such a very long way.

The other is Toasted Cheese, which I can't recommend enough. The website is jam-packed with information, resources, a terrific newsletter, contests (both on site and off), etc, etc. Their message board is invaluable. I found them three years ago and no other online place measures up - at least none that I've found so far. ;o)

tate said...

Awesome. Thanks for those points. My post got so long, I didn't even bring up the issue of trust, which I should have. One of the reasons Wyrdsmiths started with the positive bits first was to begin to establish a "safe" place for critique. It's far too easy for people to turn cruel, especially given the egos of most of us writerly-types.

It's great you've found people you trust. I have, toot.

Anonymous said...

It's far too easy for people to turn cruel, especially given the egos of most of us writerly-types.

Indeed, and one thing I despise are the types who just can't handle any kind of negative critique or review. When things get rough, they're usually the first to start the drama train rolling. :eye roll: