Back in my rusty old town, I started a writers’ group with a couple friends. We met weekly for about four months. My output soared and (I think) I became a better writer. Sometimes we drank too much (see the above photo), but we always learned something.
I also started a writers’ group in Korea, but that was bigger disaster than my recent redirection clusterf%#k. You’ll hear more about this in my next post. First, let’s get two things out of the way:
A writers’ group isn’t necessary. For the past year, due to a combination of circumstances and inclination, I’ve done just fine without one. I don’t need external deadlines to write several thousand words a day. However, I believe the writers’ group played a part in helping me develop this habit.
A writers’ group isn’t for everyone. People who find their own work exceptionally precious won’t do well in a writers’ group. People who’d rather talk than listen may give good feedback, but they probably won’t learn much.
But who am I to say what’s right for you? I’ll leave that to the gurus and stick to telling you what worked for me…or has at least been verified by scientists.
Okay, enough digressions. Let’s get down to business! Why should you start a writers’ group?
1. Artists need community. Pecking away in the dark leads to nerve damage and paranoia. It’s good to get out of the house every once in a while. When you start a writers’ group, you can find people just as paranoid as you.
2. Get feedback on your work. Feedback is so important. Outside of writing classes, finding objective feedback is difficult. Unless they’re writers, the feedback you get from your friends will be colored by thoughts like ‘this stinks worse than his socks, but if I tell him he may not pay me back that money I loaned him.’
3. Learn to meet deadlines.This is a big one, especially for fiction people. Journalists know how to do this, but fiction writers, who tend to be good at making stuff up, can invent a hundred excuses as to why they need more time to finish a story. The next point helps with this.
4. Lower your standards. Yes, I said it. When you have to meet deadlines, you start seeing the futility of spending three hours rearranging a couple of sentences. Apply the 80/20 rule, kill the inner critic and watch your output quadruple. After you get some feedback, then fix those sentences…if they need it.
5. Learn from others. We’ve all got our strengths and weaknesses. Maybe one guy plots like Koontz but his characters are as stale as the crackers on my mini-fridge. Maybe a girl does Joyce Carol Oates-like descriptions but can’t keep her POVs staight. If your group is honest and respectful, you can learn plot and description tricks and show them how to do characterization and perspective.
6. Learn by teaching. When you teach someone something you know, you develop a deeper understanding of that topic. Besides the weekly million-dollar paychecks and attractive benefits package, why do you think I blog?
7. Learn the art of diplomacy. Sometimes you’ll read stuff that just plain sucks. You’ve got to point it out, but you’ll soon learn ways to soften the inevitably dream-crushing blows. This skill is applicable to all areas of life, especially during political discussions with close relatives. Seriously thought, I recommend starting with something good, sticking criticism or concerns in the middle, and finishing with something good. There’s always something good, right? (“You’ve got page numbers, at least”)
8. Talk shop. In a writers’ group you can offer suggestions for fiction markets, ideas for keeping track of stuff, and the rate of decomposition for bodies left in trunks. In a writers’ group waay back when, we once spent an entire evening discussing ways to keep track of characters and plot points. Another evening we talked about organizing the physical detritus of the writer’s world (it involves a label maker and folders, ala gtd).
In my next post, I’ll provide some tips and guidelines on how to start a writers’ group…as well as a few things NOT to do.
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Photo credit: justintosh