Thoughts On Forming A Writer’s Group

Linking up with fabulous writing community: Yeah Write Me.

Yesterday I jumped into the car after writer’s group and looked in the rearview mirror. My cheeks were flushed. My eyes had a slightly maniacal gleam. I was under the influence of a creative high.

My friend and fellow poet Shawna had written a gorgeous poem that I couldn’t get out of my head. It was so elegant, evocative, fully realized. It seemed as though the moment her fingers struck the keys magic happened.

Sometimes writing happens in a green flash. But more often than not, writing needs the eyes of other writers, it takes revision, tweaking, voodoo, rain dances, sweat and tears to produce something really great.

I run a poetry reading series at a wonderful independent bookstore in Portland called Annie Bloom’s Books. Many of the people who attend the readings are writers and I’ve heard several ask the readers: How do you get into a writer’s group?

When I first moved to Portland I was on the hunt for a writer’s group, and after a while I realized that sometimes you just need to start one for yourself. I started taking local workshops at places like The Attic Institute, Crow Arts Manor, Mountain Writers Series and The Writer’s Dojo.

I started looking for literary happenings around Portland. Keep an eye out for excellent local writing resources such as Write in Portland (created by accomplished writer and teacher Liz Prato). Literary calendars are a great place to scope out readings, workshops and writer’s events.

Workshops are the perfect place to meet other writers and make lasting connections. During one particular workshop led by gifted writer Dave JareckiI noticed that there were three other writers in the group who had very insightful comments.These writers challenged my work in an intelligent, supportive way. My gut told me that we would work well as a group. I swallowed my fear and sent out an email. A writer’s group was born.

If you don’t take workshops, another place to network with writers is at readings. If you go to a few readings of work in your genre you are bound to start seeing familiar faces. You can also go the route of posting an interest sheet at your local library or bookstore, or an ad on Craigslist or your local university. Be sure to screen people with care.

It’s important to keep in mind the purpose of your writing group. Do you want it to be a time to write together? Do you want writers to bring work to the group to discuss together? How will it be organized? Will you lead the group or will writers take turns leading? What are the expectations of the group’s participants?

If you want some tips on Non-Crappy Writing groups and writing a novel, I urge you to visit Yuvi Zalkow’s blog. He’s a great writer, hilarious & in the final (agonal?) stages of having his first book published.

Writers, how did your writing partnerships form? Please share your experiences and ideas.

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52 thoughts on “Thoughts On Forming A Writer’s Group

  1. I do not have an in-person writer’s group, although I think I probably should.

    For me, the prospect of having other people rely on me to meet up on a regular basis was/is daunting; at this point, my time is not entirely (or ever) my own and I have difficulty committing to anything of importance because I so often cannot follow through with scheduled meetings.

    I have cultivated on-line friendships with writers and have put myself out there to read/edit/give feedback to writer friends I’ve made through blogging. I am also currently seeking advice/suggestions on my current WIP from people whom I trust.

    But the disadvantage to this is a lack of regular, consistent, honest sharing of ideas AS a work is being developed; while ideas are gestating; along each step of the process.

    How important do you think it is to have writer’s group that meets regularly and can the meeting be virtual or must we lay hands and eyes on actual pages? I picturing you leaving your group so thoroughly inspired…and I think a part of this must come from being in each other’s presence, breathing the same creative air.

    What do you think? I’m curious to hear what your readers have to say about this…

    • Whether live & in person or online, a commitment to meeting at a specific time/place (or giving feedback by a certain date) is essential. Otherwise, people get too pulled away by other demands in their lives. I do think you can get that glow from an online group, but they tend to be more shifty. It’s easier for people to make excuses, or not do the work when they don’t actually have to look another writer in the eyes and admit, “I didn’t read your pages.” That, right there, is pretty good motivation.

    • Julie, I’ve only been in poetry writing groups, so I can’t speak to the longer form, but I’m hoping some fiction writers will pop in and comment about how their groups are organized. My impulse is to say that you would bring in a chapter or talk about a particular challenge you are having with plot or character rather than require the whole group to read a lengthy WIP, but I’m not sure.

      The collective energy and creativity that comes from a group can be very inspiring. I know that in the last six months knowing that I am accountable to a group has kept me writing.

  2. I’m far too shy about my writing to actually join an in-person writer’s group, but I have to admit, the overly-positive stroking on comments sometimes gets me crazy. It’s fine on other people’s blogs…but I want some criticism to balance it out!

    • If you want criticism on your blog posts, you need to ask for it. And be specific: are you looking for feedback on content, writing style, and/or something else? It wouldn’t occur to me to give critical feedback to a blog post unless someone asked for it.

        • I think people are scared to be critical in an open forum for fear of being attacked by other readers who might not understand their helpful intent. I agree that praise is a good way to start a discussion about another person’s writing, but constructive, specific pointers are even more helpful.

          • I agree. I would never think to be critical on a blog unless someone really asked for it, and then I’d only do it if it was super obvious to me (and none of the previous commenters had said it) AND I sugarcoated it a bit. The internet is hard – you don’t want to be misconstrued and come off as bitchy

    • I think you should try an in-person writer’s group! I promise you that most all writers feel shy about sharing their writing. It is like standing there naked to some extent. If you find the right people who you trust it should be a really great growing experience.

  3. I had a writing group for a while which helped enormously when I started writing my book. And then we just drifted apart as we found fewer and fewer days for us to get together. It was great while it lasted.
    This is a very good, very insightful post on forming a group, especially those last questions on what you want from a writing group. That is vital to making it work.

  4. I guess I’m super lucky. I’ve got an awesome small but dedicated group who isn’t afraid to dole out the harshness when your work isn’t up to snuff. Best part? I live in Florida and the rest of my group are in Seattle and Canada! We skype once a week with two writers work cold-read and everyone critiques as well as email critiques. We talk about the industry and the craft and while I was worried it wouldn’t be as involved as an in-person group…I was wrong. The key is just to find people who are at the same level of commitment as you are. Our group wouldn’t work as well for me, if everyone were just hobbyists.

  5. This is so timely! I’m not a part of a writing group unless you count feedback I receive on my blog. I’ve never taken a class or a workshop, and I’m excited to investigate the places you mention in your post. And congratulations on the publication of your poem – it was a true pleasure to read.

  6. Excellent points. It’s very discouraging to find yourself, inadvertently, part of a group that picks apart everybody’s writing for no concrete or obvious reason. I’m glad you’ve found yourself a constructive and positive group.

    • Erica, It definitely helps to have a like-minded group, but not so alike that there’s a lack of heat. Our group is at its best (in my opinion) when we have different opinions and ideas about how to make a poem work. It’s great to have choices and varying opinions.

  7. Jen, I’m so grateful you had the balls, I mean, ovaries, to get our group together. You ladies inspire me so much, in so many ways. I’d be lost without you!

  8. Really nice post, Jen! (And thanks for mentioning my video!)

    The most common question I got after doing that video was along the lines of: so how the hell do I *find* a group??? And I think your post hit on some great ways to get connected to the writing community, which can lead to a decent group. I think one key (that I didnt realize at first) is to be willing to take a risk joining a group while also knowing that you shouldn’t stay if it’s not working for you… With more experience, you’ll have a better understanding of what you need. Most of my friends who are happy in their groups had to do a lot of stumbling and wandering before finding a great group. It’s worth it, but it may take work…

  9. I’m a huge fan of in-person writing groups! I started one years ago at Annie Bloom’s, when I was new to Portland, and through that, I hooked up with a whole writing community. I’ve been lucky to sit around the table with both Liz and Yuvi at different times.

    Right now I belong to two groups. One (which Liz founded) is novel oriented, where we read each other’s whole manuscripts. The other is a more traditional read-some-pages group. Both are spinoffs of writing classes–so I second that as a wonderful way to meet like-minded writers.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you so much for commenting! My friend & novel writer Julie (see comment above) was wondering how you manage to read & comment on a complete novel while writing your own? Or do you start with a writer’s group after the novel is complete? How is such a group organized?

      Oh, to sit with both Liz & Yuvi! What a treat.

      • Oh yes, I am so lucky to have worked with both Liz and Yuvi and to have them as friends! They are both amazing talents.

        As far as critiquing someone’s novel while writing, we schedule six to eight weeks for the reading period, so we can spread the work out depending on where we are in our own writing. And looking that closely at someone else’s book often helps us diagnose problems in our own drafts.

        Our group has been around long enough that we all (or almost all of us) have been critiqued at least once, and often we bring back the same manuscript several times. Members are expected to join for at least a year, or a full rotation of manuscripts, so it doesn’t matter if they have a finished novel at first. We take turns depending on who is ready for feedback. Sometimes (like now) we go on hiatus when there’s no new work to look at.

        I hope this answers Julie’s questions!

  10. I’m not even sure if there are writer groups in Malaysia! Although, even if there was, I doubt I’ll join one – I don’t really think of myself as a serious writer and if I had the spare time, I’d rather a) nap b) do yoga or c) bake. See, not a writer :)

    Glad that you have found your tribe!

  11. This post really got me thinking. There aren’t many writer’s groups I could find in Sioux Falls, even though we have two colleges plus the University Center here. I’d have more luck funding a group if I lived in any of the college towns like Vermillion or Brookings or if I lived out in Rapid City. I’ll have to check out the one group that meets at the library. But this post has me thinking about possibly forming one if this other group doesn’t work out.

  12. I love how transparent you are about this!

    I’ve been vocal about needing a local writing group, but *gulp* haven’t considered starting one before?

    You? Are a fabulous kick in the pants (for me!)!

  13. The only reason I finished my dissertation was my writing group. Well, them and about 30 cigarettes a day. The cigs make me gag, in hindsight; my long defunct writers’ group I miss terribly. The online bloggers are as close as I’ve come – and like your commenter above, I sometimes wish I could get comments that went beyond “liked it…yay team” — hell, even someone picking a fight might be interesting. (do not take this as a suggestion, just an example.) But as for an actual you-read-mine, I’ll-read-yours…? I’m falling back on that most ancient and tiresome excuse: no time. Barely time to read and revise my own work, much less someone else’s. I suppose, truth be told, Ive been too chicken to send that first email to like-minded souls…but your post makes me think about whether I should find some courage somewhere and do so. Probably would be better for me in the long run than taking up smoking again, right?

  14. I’ve been in a few writing groups — an online crit group, a poetry circle, and an Artist’s Way group — and they all worked in their way. But what REALLY worked for me was a group a friend started a few years ago. There were only three of us, and the main purpose was to FINISH SOMETHING. We met weekly and held each other accountable for word counts we’d committed to the week prior. If we didn’t meet our goal, we discussed why and addressed blocks and obstacles. I found this group so much more beneficial to someone like me who needs a butt-kicking to complete a manuscript. I figured I could do the beta reads and crits afterward. As for my friend and group-starter, the book he was working on in our circle is being published this year!

  15. As a writer of a literary novel and MFA-er almost two times over, I have been fortunate enough to be a member of several writing groups and I wholeheartedly agree they are fantastic. I have not been in one for a while now because my last one was pretty low-achieving and crappy. I think when you get to a certain level you need to be surrounded by writers who urge you forward, and although there were 2 others in the group who were fab, suffering through the other 9 or 10 wanna-be writer’s crap writing nearly did me in, so I went off in search of another writer’s group and enrolled in another MFA program – not so much for the degree as much as the fellowship of excellence, you know?

    • I am an MFA-er, too, and if it wasn’t for the gigantic expense I’d do it again. But I have to say, I have found equally talented (non MFA) writers and teachers out of the university experience and urge young writers to exhaust local workshops before they take that kind of financial plunge. My student loan payments are a killer.

  16. I would love to be in a writing group…and I would hate it. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can let people read my stuff (out of sight) and give me feedback later. I’m not sure that I could read my stuff to a group of people and receive a bunch of feedback all at once. I don’t think my skin is thick enough yet.

  17. Ah, poetry how I miss you! This makes me want to move to Portland.

    Bravo for taking the initiative and creating what you need to be creative! And because you’re a writer who appreciates writerly goings-on (and because I’m into nepotism), I’m going to point you in the direction of my sister’s blog (on writing):

    http://quarryheightsworkshop.blogspot.com/

    And thank you again for your hilarious comments – I love reading them! :)

    • Chalup, Thank you for the link to your sister’s blog. Can’t wait to check it out. I LOVE your blog. Seriously it is so witty & different in just the right way. You are a great writer. I’ll trade poems with you anytime! For real!

  18. I used to belong to a writers group a long time ago in college. Like I said…a long time ago. That was back when I had something besides diaper changes, bedtime battles and sippy cups to write about. I think I’d be intimidated to join a group now. I feel so out of touch with the real world half the time. Great post, I really enjoyed it and I’m glad you have your group. I love to read your blog, I can relate to your writing. It makes me feel something. And that’s not just the wine talking.

    • Delilah, That’s the sweetest thing I’ve read in weeks. Thank you so very, very much! I’d start with a beginning writing workshop and go from there. I didn’t feel comfortable jumping into a group until I felt less rusty with my craft. It’s nice to form a writer’s group with writers of various experience so there are people who can challenge your work & people you can grow with. XO

  19. That was a really interesting post, Jen. Unfortunately in little hick town here, there are no writer groups and when I tell people that I write they just kind of want to pat me on the head and wipe my face with their spit. There, there. I’m probably just talking to the wrong people, but I definitely feel that I am not being heard here at all.
    I am grateful for the feedback I get from you and others in the Twitter and blog community! My luck (and assignments) as a writer has definitely taken place through internet and social media.

  20. Great advice. Like a lot of others out there I think my ego might be too delicate for such exposure, and I’m still not sure if I’m a writer or just someone who loves to write. If I ever get the strength, I think I’d try a virtual group like one of the other commenters suggested, given where I live. Thanks for bringing up the topic!

  21. Great advice, Jennifer. Thank you for putting this together. I’m not in a writer’s group, but I fantasize about joining one at some point. I’m just not sure what I want from it. Until I can answer the questions you’ve suggested (thank you for that), I’ll keep it on the back-burner.

  22. I’ve never thought about joining a writer’s group, so I found this post very interesting! I guess I don’t consider myself a writer, or not enough to join a group.
    Wonderful advice, though :)

  23. Great info and inspiring, actually. I lurk the Thurber House webpage and often wonder what it would be like to actually show up to a reading or enroll in a workshop. For now, I’m sticking to my blogging community and allowing the process to lead me where it may (that’s my story–excuse because I’m scared–and I’m sticking to it).

  24. “But more often than not, writing needs the eyes of other writers, it takes revision, tweaking, voodoo, rain dances, sweat and tears to produce something really great.” – a perfect description of how i feel about writing. stephen king once said (in a novel) “Writing is a damn hard job.” Amen. Great post and great advice.

  25. That was inspiring, Jen. Unfortunately I live in a place without any writers: LA.
    Seriously though, I’ve been trying to find someone or a group to write with and have had no luck. Guess I’ll keep looking.

  26. Pingback: Friday Favorites – Yoda, Ferris, & Writing « Shannyn Schroeder's Blog

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