Part 2: What Will Your Group Do?
In Part 1 of this series, we discussed important things to consider before starting or joining a writers’ group. Above all, you need to keep your goals in mind. What are you hoping to get out of these meetings? I can tell you what my goals are—to improve my writing, develop my craft, gain opportunities to stretch my writing chops, and learn more about opportunities for authors (marketing tips and techniques, open markets, writers’ retreats, book events . . . that sort of thing). Plus, above all, there’s the camaraderie. Nobody knows quite how thankless and hard and wonderful the author gig is like another writer.
With your goals in mind, it’s important to ask what your writers’ group will do. Here are some options:
1. Provide critique and feedback. To me, this is a no-brainer. Isn’t this the main purpose of writers’ groups? Yet there are some groups out there that merely provide an audience, without expressing opinions on what was just presented to them. If that’s your goal, fine. If not, keep looking.
2. Provide education. Some groups offer lessons at each meeting: a lesson on how to use Facebook ads, or a review of basic grammar rules. They’ll have discussions on developing characters, or using the passive versus the active voice.
3. Provide creativity. When this happens, I consider it a bonus. I’ve been in groups that have pushed me to write outside my genre; that have written and workshopped stories for a themed anthology; that have assigned a writing prompt to all of us, with delightful and very different results. Currently, I’m in a group that’s playing with the idea of each of us taking a character from someone else’s story and writing a new story around them. If you want your writers’ group to make you think outside the box, look for these kinds of things.
4. Provide editing. If your goal is to get free editing, be warned: most writers are not good editors. If you have a trained editor who is educated in the craft in your group, wonderful. But be aware that they normally get paid good money to thoroughly edit manuscripts. My day job is as a copyeditor, and when someone in my group says something like “I don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar, or structure—Stacey will take care of that,” I stop providing that kind of help, because they’ve just told me they’re using me, and not making any effort themselves. That being said, even if you don’t have a professional editor in the group, it always helps to have a second, third, and fourth set of eyes read your stuff. They’ll catch things—from typos and misguided comma use to gaping plot holes and continuity errors—that you just didn’t see simply because you wrote it.
5. Provide camaraderie. This is a huge part of the writers’ group community for me. Writing is a solitary job. You must be thick-skinned, because you will be rejected. Repeatedly. You’ll write something you think is brilliant one day, then look at it two months later and realize it’s crap. It can be defeating and crippling to one’s self-confidence. But it can be joyous and wonderful to sell a story, land a book contract, or even get a fan letter.
Who to share these joys and sorrows with? Your family, maybe—sure, they’ll celebrate with you or say terrible things about the publisher that rejected you. But nobody will understand your struggles and successes quite like another writer. When I had a story rejected last year—a good story, I thought, so the “no thanks” stung a bit—my mother said “That publisher is an idiot. How dare he reject you?” Lovely words, but she’s my mother. She’s not going to be able to tell me if my story sucked. My writer friend, however, said this: “Go use the Look Inside feature on Amazon. Their last anthology looks like a lobotomized chimpanzee edited it. You just dodged a bullet, getting rejected by them.” See? Other writers get the business. And have a way of making you laugh when you’re down, even if your story does suck.
Keep your personal goals in mind when joining a writers’ group, and make sure you’re going to get what you need out of the deal. If you can’t find a group that’ll provide what you’re looking for, well, then it’s time to form your own. I’ll address that in Part 3: Where to Find Like-Minded Writers.
Stacey Longo is the author of Ordinary Boy (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and Secret Things: Twelve Tales to Terrify. Most recently, her novella “Brando and Bad Choices” appeared in Triplicity: The Terror Project, Volume 1. Her stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including Shroud, Shock Totem, and the Litchfield Literary Review.
She is a past Hiram Award winner, and was a featured author on the 2014 Connecticut Authors Trail. A former humor columnist for the Block Island Times, she maintains a weekly humor blog at www.staceylongo.com.