I recently did one of my 60 second Author Tip videos on the subject of Writers Groups, but thought it needed even a little more time. Of the writers I’ve worked with through BookHive, I’d say most didn’t work with a Writers Group. At first I found that surprising. But perhaps because of my background in theater, I’ve always associated creativity as something collaborative. Even when I jumped into fiction writing, my roots in playwriting and decade plus being an actor, were still showing up.
I first thought of writing a fiction piece, half asleep on a janky bus going from NYC to DC, where my husband was doing a play at the Arena Theater. My idea was to don a pen name and write some smutty romance. I called my friend Sarah the next day, and asked if she’d want to write it with me (I clearly move fast!) But within a few days, something else struck me. It was a mystery of sorts, set in a version of my hometown of Half Moon Bay, CA, and inspired by one of my first loves – David Lynch’s TV series ‘Twin Peaks.’ After barreling through any inhibition, within a few days I had a chapter or two. Then doubt set in. I wrote plays, not fiction, what the hell did I know about writing a book?
My friend Elisabeth had written a book and was a devout Writers Group fan. So I put the feelers out there in a Facebook post. Within a few days, I had a small group of folks who wanted to join the adventure. A week or so later we met in one of participants apartment. I handed out little notebooks for encouragement. We read our work out loud and it officially started.
The book I worked and reworked in my first Writers Group.
Within a month or two, a few people had left, and another had joined, and then we were four. It felt like the perfect number. We met twice a month, each person hosting at their apartment. We’d start with snacks and chat and then dig in. How we went about it was reading the piece out loud to the group (anywhere from two to ten pages) and then we gave feedback a la the Liz Lerman critical response technique. A few people in my group were familiar with it since that’s how we give feedback in my theater company InViolet. It goes like this:
1. Start with ‘popcorn.’ That’s any phrase, line, etc. that you loved. In my theater company we snap if we love it too.
2. Questions from the writer to the group. This can be anything. “Was it confusing when Jane didn’t reply to her brother’s question about her baby’s death? Was her reaction fleshed out enough?” and so on.
3. Neutral questions from the group to the writer. As in “Is this set in the South?” or “Will we find out more about where Jane’s husband is?”
4. Lastly, it’s opinions. We phrase it as, “I have an opinion about – FILL IN THE BLANK – would you like to hear it?” Then it’s up to the writer if they want to hear it or not.
My group critiqued work like this for years and it was very helpful. I like that it starts with what’s working. I also really like that the opinions section is orderly. I feel like this takes away, to the best it can, of others re-writing the story, and the dreaded group dump where everyone is interrupting and piling on.
I believe all Writers Groups need snacks. We often favored pizza.
One tidbit is I think if people are coming to a Writers Group to critique, they should be able to take the critique too. I’ve heard this from a few folks of how Writers Groups have gone south. Meaning, if Bob Smith comes into the group week after week only critiquing, but never bringing his own work to the table, I think it can create an imbalance.
My Writers Group above lasted a few years, and we added a member or two, and it truly was this special, sacred time for me. I wrote a whole friggin’ book! And then re-wrote it. And then re-wrote it again. I was pushed to be better by hearing my fellow writers around me. Also the bi-monthly commitment kept me on track.
When the group disbanded, I sought out a new group and went via the meetup.org route. They have great, free Writers Groups all over the country. The one I went to in Queens followed the shut up and write method where a few people were selected to share their work each week. The group would read it prior to the meeting. Then, after we all wrote for an hour, we would go around and get five minutes to critique the piece. The author couldn’t respond. When everyone was done, then the author could ask questions. I found this critique style to be equally effective. Also, I liked the built in writing time.
I’d love to hear from other on things that did or didn’t work with their Writers Group, so feel free to let me know!
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Jennifer Bowen, QueenBee (more fun than CEO), of BookHive Corp.