Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Writing my List, Checking it Twice

Cricket McRae

This is the time of year for list making, so here's one with a writerly bent: ten requirements for a good writing group.

A caveat to begin -- these are MY most important requirements. There are tons of suggestions out there for how run a writing group and what to expect. I've been in a few over the years, without particularly seeking them out. It's pure serendipity that I happen to have the best writing group on the planet (sorry, but it's true, I got 'em). So here's why they're so great.
  1. Keep the group small. Too many people and your work gets lost in the shuffle. It's also hard to keep up with all the other critiques.
  2. Experienced writers. This is merely a case of avoiding the blind leading the blind. Different kinds of experience is a plus. People who can critique everything from commas and sentence structure to overall pacing and character arc are pure heaven.
  3. Send out material before meeting, so the critique periods are spent critiquing and not reading. Some groups meet and read their own work aloud. I think this affects the way a reader would experience the writing, but each to his own.
  4. Pay attention to what works as well as what doesn't. Partly this is because everyone likes kudos, but also because, as inveterate self-editors, we need to know what not to cut or fix.
  5. Be honest. Sometimes it's hard to tell someone there's something wrong with a particular piece of writing, but wouldn't you want to know in their shoes? It's your job to tell them. (And it's their job to tell you, too!) But also remember that it's not your job to convince them. After all, critique is subjective and other group members might not agree. It's always up to the writer to decide what to do with feedback.
  6. Make the group a priority. This means getting your submissions in on time and reviewing the others' work carefully, as well as doing your level best to show up for meetings, even if you have to rearrange other parts of your life to accommodate the group.
  7. Communicate with each other. If you have specific questions about a piece, ask them when you send it out. If it's a first draft and needs to be evaluated from that point of view, let people know to back off the stuff you know you'll polish up later, and give you big picture feedback. If you don't understand someone's comments, ask them to explain.
  8. Meet regularly. Weekly is best -- demanding a fair amount of commitment and time, but not onerous for working writers.
  9. Allow members to use their critique periods for other purposes. By this I mean problem solving (I'm trying to get a certain effect, but it's not working -- any suggestions?), brainstorming ideas, etc. When we're in the middle of a novel, it's no problem putting together a submission, but between one book and the next there is a lull when we're researching and plotting and getting ready to dive in again. A writing group can be useful during those periods, too.
  10. Whole book reviews. After reviewing pieces and parts for each other, when a whole book is done it deserves (and the author deserves) another reading. Seeing it as a whole gives a different perspective.
Oh, and one more rule -- the Golden one. Though it probably goes without saying, this simply covers all the silly stuff that can adversely affect writing groups. Just remember to do unto others as you'd have them do unto you.

So what works for you in your writing groups? Any of my "rules" above that you disagree with? Got some good ones I missed?

Happy Holidays, Merry Solstice, and Good Writing to all.


G.M. Malliet said...

I'm a Lone Ranger when it comes to writing. I know people swear by these groups but I've always shied away, not wanting to criticize or be criticized, I guess. I'm also not particularly gifted as a critic - everything is either "great" or "awful" - so I'm not sure I'd bring much to the table, anyway.

Cricket McRae said...

Well, it obviously works for you! Congrats on Death of a Cozy Writer making the Kirkus Best of 2008!

Jess Lourey said...

Great list, Cricket! I'm with Gin--I'm a lone writer, though if I could get a ready-made fantastic group like yours, I'd join. I've just always been afraid I'd end up with the needy, neurotic poet and the self-important Great American Novel writer, and we'd never get anything done.

Keith Raffel said...

One more rule. Watch out for Vituperative Violet who isn't much of a writer herself but feels compelled to denigrate everyone else.

Woody Bombay said...

It sounds like you've hooked up with some really spectacular writing group partners.