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My Experience with Writers' Groups

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Last week I talked about how helpful writers groups can be and briefly mentioned my experience with them. This week, I figured I’d go into some more detail to provide an even better idea of what you are missing out on and share some of the drama I’ve experienced.

Being a part of a group is a lot of fun in any situation, but especially when it is a group of writers. One of the best parts is getting to actually talk about your project with people. Personally, I find that most people don’t want to really talk about your projects. They may ask how it’s coming along, or why you haven’t finished yet, but that’s about as far down that rabbit hole that they usually want to go. They don’t want to talk about what character A’s motivation might be or why a certain plot point isn’t working, which is where a group comes in.

One of my fondest memories of my writers' group was having a conversation with someone about some aspect of my book, and that person referencing other parts because they knew it almost as well as I did. In that moment, I was having a full-blown conversation about my book for the first time and not having to stop and explain parts because this person had actually read it all. That was an amazing feeling.

On top of just getting people to really talk about your work with, you get to fine-tune your skills. My writing has improved by leaps and bounds since I joined my writers' group. I know for a fact that I would not be where I am today if not for my group.

My First Experience

The first time I tried going to a writers' group did not go well. I was still the very shy person that struggled to talk to people that I still kind of am today. I got to the library where the group met and was the first one there. I sat in the room, and when someone else showed up, I asked if that was where the writers' group met. They said yes. In time, the rest of the group showed up and they went through their regular procedures. Other than that first person, no one talked to me. No one acknowledged my presence and the meeting concluded and everyone left.

Needless to say, I didn’t go again.

This was disheartening because, at this point in my life, I’d begun to realize how important writing was for me. I didn’t want it to just be some hobby on the side, and if I wanted it to be the real thing, I knew I needed to dedicate more time to the craft. Learning that the local group could be so rude hurt, a lot. Due to that hurt, I gave up on writers' groups for a while.

Attempt Number Two

My next experience with writers groups was in a college creative writing class. The class focused on short stories and had a few workshop meetings. On those nights, brave volunteers shared a piece of their work for the class to critique while the author sat quietly and listened. Surprisingly, I volunteered to share something one night.

I shared a piece that when I look at today makes me cringe. It was a prologue for one of my many planned novels that I haven’t touched in years since it isn’t important yet. One day it will be, but for now, it is just sitting on the back burner. I don’t remember much from the night, which leads me to believe it wasn’t praised for its greatness or shredded for its horribleness.

Since it was a semester-long class, this group didn’t last long for me. I think we had maybe three workshopping nights and that was it. Still, it was eye-opening and gave me a glimpse of what a writers group could be. This class helped me realize how much I really wanted to be in a writers group.

Third Time’s the Charm

With that college class experience under my belt, I decided to return to the first writers' group only because it was the local one in my small town. This was about a year after my first attempt. This time I came prepared with a sample of my work that I could read to everyone, and introduced myself because once again, no one wanted to talk to me.

It was an interesting night for the group, to say the least. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t felt very welcome over the last year. The group had been a bit of a snobby little club and hadn’t been very welcoming to anyone, so they were losing their funding from the library.

I remember the leader at the time telling all of the other members not to worry because she would keep coming to meetings whether she was paid or not. I never saw her again, along with half of the members. Not really surprising.

After that, two members volunteered to run the group, which ended with one person doing all the work and the other attempting to take most of the credit. That lasted for about a year before the one member left to form her own group because we met too early in the evening. We met at 5 because that was when the library closed and they were nice enough to let our group meet there after hours. To start any later would require going someplace else, which is difficult in a small town, or have someone arrive at five and sit by themselves for two hours. As it was, there were several nights where we started at five and I didn’t get home until 10 or 11. So several people weren’t up for that plan.

Since then, we’ve had the one person running the group and he has done an amazing job, and I do my best to help out when I can. Somehow over the years, I became one of the senior-most members of the group, alongside two other people who also had their first meeting with the group that fateful night when it lost funding. Currently, we are a group of four and we do our very best to help each other whether we’re writing novels, novellas, or short stories.

Three of us, having been on the receiving end of the old group's neglect and would always make an effort to talk with any newcomers on the rare occasions that they came. We’d introduce everyone and walk them through our regular procedures and even hand them a flyer. Unfortunately, very few ever stuck around. The best we can figure is that we’re intimidating with what we catch in each other’s work.

We probably insulted a few people too. A few writers came in with pieces that they’d already published, and we found a lot of things to fix in those pieces. Sometimes I think we hold ourselves to too high of a standard, but I’d rather that than publish something that really wasn’t ready.

Simultaneously, we’ve invited some published authors to our group as guest speakers, one of which told us that we were too nice to be a writers group, so there’s that….

How We Operate

How we operate has relatively been the same over the years, up until this year. Thanks, Covid. Our normal procedure was to submit a piece of writing, under 6 pages, or 1,500 words. Honestly, most of us weren’t very good at following this, but we tried.

We’d email these pieces to each other no later than the Wednesday before a meeting. This gives us time to read the submission before we get together. We found that reading through pieces twice, once before and once during the meeting, helped us provide more feedback. On the first read-through, we’d find a lot of grammatical errors and things of that nature. The second read through, we’d be familiar with the story and be able to notice any problems on that front, such as plot and flow. We’d print out the pieces, mark up our corrections and comments, and then bring it all in on Friday.

At the meeting, we’d each take turns reading our piece out loud, and then listening to comments and feedback. In the early days, we’d go until everyone had said their piece. In later years, as time constraints set in, we’d try to stick to a 30-minute time limit per person. That seems to be enough time for all of us and helps keep us on topic.

After that, we’d hand over our corrections to the author and move on to the next person until everyone who submitted something had gone.

With Covid and my recent move, we’ve since moved to a more digital approach. We still submit the Wednesday before, but now we do all of our corrections digitally and email them back before our Friday meetings, which are now held over Zoom. To save time, we’ve dropped the reading portion of the meetings and just skip to sharing the feedback.

I do miss the reading portion because it can help to hear how the author intended for the piece to sound, but it being gone does save a lot of time.

Some of the Fun We Have

As with any group, when you get together enough, inside jokes begin to develop. Some of the more memorable jokes from my group include:

  • “Borrowing” Each Other’s Characters: You form a close bond with the people in your group, and as with any friends, sometimes you like to lightly push someone’s buttons. We’ve all, at one point or another, written something with the express intent of gaining a reaction from one of our fellow writers. Whether it was a few choices words, a specific character that resembled somebody else, or a full-on spoof, we’ve all done it. It’s part of the fun.

  • Chicken Math: This one arose when one of our members was writing a story about a small-town baker who decided to raise chickens as well. The character bought one dozen hens and a single rooster. Then, each Saturday they would kill half of the chickens to make pies in the bakery. And they kept this up for a very long amount of time, much longer than a dozen chickens would have lasted when their numbers are being cut in half each week. This then snowballed into a several week discussion of chicken math. Now anytime one of us makes a mathematical error in our writing, it’s the chicken math all over again.

  • Kill Max: In the early days of attending this group and presenting some of the earliest versions of my book, one of the members really didn’t like one of my characters, Max. He’s an energetic, younger brother-type character and as anyone who has a younger sibling can tell you, they can be a bit annoying at times. Doesn’t mean you don’t love them, but they can drive you nuts. Well, Max rubbed this writer the wrong way, to the point where each week I’d get a comment along the lines of “You don’t need Max in this story. He’s not adding anything, you should just kill him off.” It became so common that we would joke about making T-shirts with it printed on them. This went on until we got about halfway through my book, then she finally admitted that Max had done something right. Now, she actually likes Max, hopefully because I got better at writing him and learning how to balance his annoying and lovable nature.

  • Watch Me: This arose one night when we had a relatively new member who really wasn’t fitting in with the group. She liked to control the conversations and would steamroll over anyone else who tried to talk. For those few meetings when she was there, tempers were often high. On one particular night, she was informing me how to properly use prologues because my latest attempt was “wrong.” She went so far as to print out and bring in the Wikipedia page on prologues to prove her point. From what I already knew about prologues, and what I read on her several page long handout, because it was the whole internet page, what I did was fine. But she insisted, and even more insulting was the fact that she’d done the very same thing with her own prologue, so when she started telling me that I couldn’t do what I’d done, I told her to watch me do it anyway.

  • Yo Da Vi Da Vo: A long time ago, one of the writers shared a piece that heavily revolved around a song she’d created. Due to our submission length guidelines, the whole thing took several weeks to get through once, and then it was brought back again and again after each rewrite for nearly a year. This led to the song being engrained so far into my brain that it now haunts me in my nightmares. No, I didn’t ask for this lolly!

Some of the People You Will Meet

There are a lot of different types of people out there, and you’ll meet several while attending a writers group. Some will be super helpful and friendly, others will be there to take advantage of the group.

Some people view writers groups as a free editing service. They will come in expecting the other members to find every mistake and fix them while providing none of that benefit to other members. This is wrong on a couple of different levels.

One, while they may be providing free editing services, a writers group should not be considered a professional edit. Even with multiple sets of eyes, groups will miss things and can often provide conflicting feedback.

Two, you should always put into a group what you want to get out of it. If you want good editing of your work, you should give your best editing to the other members. It doesn’t have to be perfect or even right, but you have to put in the effort. Trust me, it is obvious to see who is trying to help and who is just slacking off, and if you slack off too much, the other members will take note.

Something else you might run into are those writers that are paranoid about theft. They won’t share their work early to help with correcting. The only time you get to see their work is when they read it, out loud, and then they immediately take it back leaving hardly any time for any effective editing. This is a bit ridiculous because most writers aren’t going to steal your work. They have their own projects that they are working on and are worried about. They don’t have time for another.

There will be those, which as I mentioned, who try to control the group and simply must be a part of every conversation because they know so much more than anyone else. These people are oh so much fun to deal with because arguing with them just drags the conversation out for hours. I found the best way to deal with them was to just nod and agree with them in the hopes they might let the matter go and allow someone else to speak, if even for a moment.

Then there will be the odd one that you have no idea why they are there. We had one couple who seemed to be using us for free editing. They rarely offered us any corrections or suggestions but then near the end of their time with us, we learned that they weren’t even taking any of our suggestions. They eventually left, hired an editor, and published their first book, and after going through it, we found many of the errors that had been present in the writing when they shared it with us, which left us wondering why they attended the group at all.

As distressing as all of this can be, don’t worry. These kinds of people are pretty rare. More often than not, you will meet good people who are genuinely interested in helping out other writers and learning about writing in the process.

Despite the Drama, Writers Groups Are Fun

I’ve been a part of my writers' group for so long that there is a lot to talk about and it’s been hard to pull out what is important and worth sharing. I’ve condensed this as best as I could to keep it interesting and debated a lot on what to include and what would be better left unsaid.

The bottom line is this, a writers group is truly helpful when it comes to writing anything. Through a group, you get people who are willing to help you perfect your work. They will tell you what worked and didn’t work for them, which gives you great ideas on what to do with the book.

A writers group provides you with writing buddies that, unlike pets, can provide actual feedback on your work. So get out there and find a group of your own.

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