Writing Right and Writing Wrongs
A second member of my former Washington, DC writing group has come down with a brain tumor. In Cay's honor, and in honor of all the writers out there, I would like to share my response to a member of a Southern California writer's organization, who asked for suggestions on how to run a writer's group:
1. The host should supply and the participants should bring snacks and beverages, especially ones from the two largest food groups in the Writer's Food Pyramid -- Coffee and Cookies. If the group meets in the daytime, then items from that other large group in the WFP --Alcohol -- probably are not necessary, but that depends how many Hemingways and Faulkners are involved in your group.
2. Constructive criticism is key, and indeed, the main purpose of participating in a writer's group. Some participants might be inclined simply to be cheerleaders for their colleagues and friends. This does a great disservice. If it happens, the person whose writing is being reviewed needs to press the others for their honest opinions as to what worked in the piece, what didn't work, and what could be done better. Editors, producers and agents are not shy about bluntly telling us what's wrong with our work. Therefore, it's better to hear the bad with the good, in a polite way, beforehand, so that we can submit our most polished work to those gatekeepers.
3. The group should have a leader or a couple of co-leaders, to manage the list of participants, arrange get-togethers, and to keep things moving at each meeting. For instance, after everyone first shows up to a meeting, they will want to catch up socially, share their tv show and movie reviews, talk about politics (at least in DC), etc. This banter is lots of fun. Some lifelong friendships will be formed in your writer's group. No one wants an anal-retentive Nazi to run the group and ban these fun conversations, but, unchecked, they could take up the whole gathering. After some reasonable period of time, the group leader needs to nudge the group into getting into the writing material at hand.
4. Invariably, one member will want to hog the entire time having his or her work reviewed. To avoid this, the group needs to agree in advance on the rough amount of time spent reviewing each writer's work, especially if a good number of writers have brought fresh material to review. This might just be a simple formula of length of meeting left over after initial chit-chat (see why that's important?), divided by number of works. The group leader will probably have to play the heavy and try to keep to the time limits. While you don't want to cut anyone off in mid-sentence, one way to place gentle limits is to tell the writer that, while the 6 new chapters of their novel look really interesting, let's limit ourselves to one chapter or a certain number of pages, so that we have time to get to the other writers.
5. Did I mention the coffee? And the cookies?