Exactly fourteen years, two months, and twenty-nine days ago, I joined the Untitled Writers Group. If I may shout our own praises for a moment, we’re one of the longest-running, most successful writers groups in the United States. Our members have published dozens of novels, sold countless short stories, and even won a few awards. Two of our members have been Nebula finalists.
Okay, end of brag session. (I just get so darn proud of everyone that I have to let it out once in a while.) I bring this up for a reason, though–I’m starting a blog series about the care and feeding of writers groups, and I need to establish my bona fides as someone who knows a bit about them. And I did need to brag a little.
We begin with a definition. By “writers group,” I mean a group of people who exchange stories and critique each other’s work with intent to improve one another’s writing. There are lots of social and professional writers groups out there, but they’re a topic for another time.
The first step is to get a writers group. This isn’t always easy. Many people start with the Internet. You might find a group who is trolling for members on Craig’s List, but I wouldn’t count on it. There are also on-line groups. Critters is one such. It’s free, and you can find it at http://critters.org/ . You submit a story, you critique a story. However, I’ve found on-line groups to be of limited help. Face-to-face groups are often much better.
You can also look for a group at your local community college or, if you have one, your local university. College students (and, occasionally, professors) are often looking to do the writing thing. Check with the English department and read lots of college bulletin boards, both the physical and the on-line variety.
Another place to check is the local bookstore. Some of the larger stores often host writers group meetings. The writers group gets free space, and the store gets to look literary. Ask the manager. The community library is yet another good spot to explore. Ask the reference librarian.
If the local well seems to be dry, then consider doing what Sarah Zettel and Nisi Shawl did–start your own group. Sarah and Nisi got to complaining about the lack of any good writers groups in the area, and they decided on the spot to start one themselves. The Untitled Writers Group was born.
One nice thing about starting a writers group is that it’s cheap. All you need is a group of people who want to meet regularly. But there are certain issues to consider:
–What kind of writing will the group critique? Fiction? Non-fiction? Poetry? All of the above? Will the group focus on a particular genre, such as romance or F&SF, or will it be more wide-ranging?
–What is the goal of the group for its members? The UWG’s mission statement (we had one before it was cool) is “to help our members write the best fiction they can and get it published.” In other words, our focus is on getting published.
–How many people will be in the group? The UWG has seven members. We keep the maximum membership at eight. We once allowed nine, and that turned out to be too many. (Luckily, someone got a new job out of town and moved, rescuing us from the difficulty of dealing with the problem long-term.) Groups can be larger or smaller, of course, depending on how many people show up regularly and how the critiques sessions are run. (More on that later.)
–How often will the group meet? Weekly? Bi-weekly? Monthly? What time? The UWG meets every other Monday from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. We figured meeting weekly was too often, and monthly wasn’t often enough. Excelsior, another local group, meets monthly because that’s how often the members can make it. Some large groups meet every week, but not all members show up at every meeting, so there are effectively several smaller groups that meet more often. Keep in mind that when you’re dealing with adults, there will always be someone who has a conflict for any given day or evening, so don’t try to please everyone. Pick a time slot and apologize to those who complain that they have karate practice those nights.
–Where will the group meet? The UWG meets at various members’ houses, which is nice and cheap but does inconvenience family members. Bookstores will often give free meeting space, but if you get there and the big table in the non-fiction section is already occupied, you’re SOL. Libraries, universities, and colleges usually have good meeting rooms, though they usually charge a small fee.
–Is there anyone you don’t want in the group? This may sound petty and mean, but you’ll have to show the members your unfinished work. If you’re putting the group together, it should be filled with people who get along.
–How will the group meet expenses? Options include dues, membership fees, and we-need-money-drop-some-in-the-hat.
Once you’ve thought all these things through, you’ll need to start advertising for members. Put up flyers in all the places I mentioned above. And hit Craig’s List. You never know.
–Steven Harper Piziks
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