How to Run a Writer's Circle
I have been asked to write this article by a number of people who have admired the success of one of Wirral's premier creative writing groups, Riverside Writers.
In 2003, I was elected to Chair the meetings of this writers' group which, at the time, was suffering from a rapidly decreasing membership. The group did little other than assemble on a monthly basis. More and more members left, until only myself and Tim Hulme remained.
Just as we were on the point of disbanding the group, we were joined by Peter Caton. For many months, only the three of us arrived for our meetings. It all seemed a bit silly.
And then things gradually changed. We developed a good-sized, lively and active group. Below, I will outline some of the changes which worked for us.
I Chaired these meetings for thirteen years years, until a house move prompted my resignation. Now Peter Caton is Chair, and is doing a wonderful job.
Benefits of Joining a Writers' Circle
Why do you write?
Your answer might be:
- To supplement my income;
- Purely for fun;
- For the challenge of writing;
- To try out a new hobby;
- To write my memoirs;
- Because I have stories to tell.
I write because I love creating a fantasy world where anything can happen to the people who populate it. My characters are fun to spend time with, and I often don't know what they're going to do until they've done it, until the words appear on the paper, flowing through my fingers as if they have a life of their own.
Once a piece is written, it's useful to have a few other people take a look at it and spot things which don't quite work, or which need more or less of something. No matter how objective you imagine yourself to be, a fresh set of eyes and ears can be invaluable. This is where constructive criticism is needed, and a writers' group can provide this.
Some writers' groups are aimed specifically at certain genres of writers. Others welcome new members only if they've already been published. Yet it's perfectly possible to welcome members of all kinds on an equal footing, as we have done with Riverside Writers.
Constructive Criticism for Writers
Within a writing group, there will be people who write purely for fun or who are new to creative writing. These people will have quite different needs from someone who takes their work more seriously and who is aiming for publication.
People who write purely for fun might feel comfortable with minute analysis of their efforts, preferring encouragement and a bit of praise, while the more serious writer can specifically ask listeners to find faults. Confuse these approaches and you could cause offence and lose members, or leave people feeling that they've had little useful feedback from the group.
One way to satisfy everyone is for each author to clearly state, before reading aloud their work, what level of constructive criticism they seek from people.
If you know the person is new to writing (or to the group), pass only encouraging comments such as, "I did enjoy your description of the beach." If they want something more critical, they can always ask. Many people feel very intimidated when reading their work before a group of strangers, especially at first.
Helpful and Considerate Criticism
Constructive criticism is supposed to be useful, helpful and encouraging. Its purpose is to aid the author's development of their craft.
It's not about leaving someone on the verge of tears, wanting to run away and never come back to the group again. It's not about spouting off opinions. Look around any bookshop or library, and consider how many of those published works don't personally interest you. Their numbers will run into the hundreds, if not thousands - and yet they're all published, saleable works, easily demonstrating that someone else's opinion differs from your own.
Constructive criticism is not about expressing personal taste, it's about politely helping someone to improve their writing technique.
It is perfectly acceptable to say something like, "This type of story is not my cup of tea, but the way you handled the dialogue was interesting. Maybe a few less adjectives? A few more small descriptions of your characters moving about as they spoke?"
The publishing business is a complex one, and a writers' group can swap information and news which might otherwise be missed. At Riverside Writers, we always begin meetings by asking if anyone has any writing news they might like to share. This could involve passing on information about competitions or other writing opportunities, or about any publishing success which someone has enjoyed.
For example, one member mentioned the Coast To Coast writing competition and subsequently, in 2009, three people - Carol Falaki, Peter Hurd and Tim Hulme - went on to be published winners.
Another example would be members sharing news about two forthcoming anthologies from Dark Moon Press, and their submission guidelines.
Writing is something that a person tends to do alone. A writing group can provide a welcome social element to this. Sharing news offers members another way of participating directly in the group, rather than being merely a spectator as the floor is thrown open to all for contributions.
Start A Writing Group!
If you can't find a writing group, or if the local groups aren't to your liking, start your own.
Give it a name. Choose one which won't be confused with any other local writing group. Simple names often work the best, such as MyTown Writers, or MyCity Creative Pens. If the title of the group also describes what the group is, then you'll find advertising works more easily.
It's fairly easy to start an online forum for writers these-days, if this appeals more to you than an actual in-the-flesh group. There are countless already in existence, some thriving better than others, some more constructive than others. It is easy to locate these forums via a simple websearch.
If the kind of group where everyone meets in person on a regular basis has more appeal, then start one. Think of a name, decide if membership is open to all or only to specific kinds of writers, and then find a venue to meet. Ask at your local library or pub, as these are often willing to provide premises.
A word of caution: think carefully before holding meetings in your own home. Once you've given your home address out, you can't retract that information should your group win the attentions of a pest (see below!) Also, your home insurance will probably not cover you for holding public meetings - a tedious consideration, perhaps, but if people weren't troublesome then lawyers wouldn't be rich.
Publicity for Writers!
You need to let people know your group exists. A poster in your local library or a few willing shops will help, as will a notice in regional newspapers.
Use the internet, too. Do a websearch to track down lists of writers' circles which you can add your group's information to.
Create a simple website, so that when someone uses a search engine to look for a suitable group in a specific area the name of your group is listed.
Nothing attracts potential new group members better than a public event, covered by the local press. Organise a speaker or an evening performance of original fiction and poetry, and people will come.
Gifts for Writers!
Discover the Artisan-Sorcerer Series!
Organising Your Group
Hiring a meeting room, printing posters, booking speakers or organising events all cost money. A simple subscription fee should be enough to pay for all this.
Here in Britain, if a club or society wishes to have a bank account, a minimum of two signatories are required by law. Most banks will happily provide free advice about this.
Once a year, at the Annual General Meeting, it is the Treasurer's job to produce the group's accounts. To keep everyone happy, these should be available for all members to view. Everyone wants to know where their money has gone, right?
It is useful if one person is elected to act as Secretary - not just for the few clerical tasks which might come along, but to provide a contact phone number or email for the public.
To keep meetings moving along it's also helpful to elect a Chairperson. This need not involve wielding a gravel hammer and bellowing "Order, order!" every five minutes (or even ever at all.) The Chair's job is to politely keep the flow of things moving along, so that each person has a fair chance to talk or read their work, or so that one person doesn't hog the limelight for too long at the expense of others.
The exact roles of elected people will probably vary a little from group to group. All you need to do is work out, by trial and error, what works for your own group.
How formal you wish your group to be is entirely your choice. We keep Riverside Writers very informal and friendly, and deliberately foster a strong sense of group participation. There is no clique with a captive audience!
Giving Your Group a Focus
There's a long-standing joke about writers' groups, which pokes fun at any tendency for people to talk about writing but no actually do any. At Riverside Writers, we found that running a monthly writing project not only removes this trait but also gives each meeting a strong focus. It also quickly separates the talkers from the writers!
Each month, members are asked to write a poem or short story (of any length and genre) to a set theme. That theme could be a location, such as The Park Bench, or it could be an opening piece of dialogue such as with What Shall We Do with the Bicycle? The project might require people to use six randomly-chosen items in the work, such as a ballet slipper, an umbrella, a jar of coffee, etc. Or the project could be inspired by a striking photograph. All these give people a starting point for ideas, which they are totally free to take in any direction.
Not only do the projects give focus to meetings, but all those who have regularly participated have found that their writing has improved. Also, they have developed a body of work which they might not have otherwise thought of. Some members have subsequently had these projects published.
Public Events for Writers!
If there is a local radio station, or a hospital radio station, then it could be an idea to approach them to see if your writing group can become involved in some way.
Perhaps your group could offer visits to care homes, social groups or schools who might be interested in hearing your group's original work.
Staging readings of your group's work is not only fun and gives the group something to work towards, but also attracts potential new members. If there is already some kind of literary festival in your area, then I strongly encourage you to get involved. There is almost always room for more contributions. Riverside Writers have taken part in the annual Wirral Bookfest, for example, which sees numerous literary events taking place across the peninsula.
If nothing seems to be happening, or if you want to do something of your own, then organise it yourself. Have a chat with the head librarian, or the manager of your local bookshop. Use the internet and the local press to promote it. In 2009, I organised Parallel Dimensions which took place at West Kirby Library, Wirral, and which saw six published Science-Fiction and Fantasy authors performing before a substantial public audience.
Perhaps your group could produce a self-published anthology. You might opt to use a traditional printer or prefer to make use of the several print-on-demand self-publishing sites which can be found online. Afterwards, you could try to sell the anthology at public events to boost group funds and your group's sense of achievement.
All these things help to give your writing group an on-going sense of purpose, of things to look forwards to and to work towards.
Once every blue moon, a pest will descend upon your group. This person has no interest in joining. They come only to loftily inform you how you're doing it all wrong, that their group is better than your group, and that you're all just a bunch of amateurs anyway.
An effective form of pesticide is to ask them how many of their novels have been published. In my experience, they won't have had anything more than a letter in the local paper, probably moaning about car parking, horrible pavements or something similarly enthralling.
In contrast, every single one of the many published and successful authors I've met have always offered sincere encouragement for other writers.
If a visitor starts offering highly critical, snarky comments which are not constructive, then they need to be firmly yet politely told of your group policy on constructive criticism. Don't tolerate anyone ripping into another's work with intent to hurt or to spout self-important hot air based on their own delusions of grandeur.
With your own group, I would advise having a stand-by policy should a visitor prove to be unpleasant or otherwise problematic. It will rarely be needed, however.
© 2009 Adele Cosgrove-Bray