I’ve been in a writing group since 1998. I am one of two of the original members left from that first meeting (which occurred exactly as the nation was learning the name “Monica Lewinsky,” to give you an idea of how long ago all this was). As a group we’ve weathered many upheavals and arrivals/departures. The group read the entire manuscript of my second novel, A Year and a Day, in draft and was invaluable in helping me find and shape my story. We’ve read complete drafts of three novels that were subsequently published (The House on Q Street, Lost and Found, and The Bowl Is Already Broken), one that was handed in to the editor a few weeks ago, and several novels that will be published once they’re complete. This is not to mention the countless short stories and occasional essays that are handed in for critique.
When I say this group has changed my writing life, I’m not exaggerating. Yes, there are flaps; yes, there can be tedious discussions about when to meet if we have to change our regular meeting time; yes, there’s a lot of traffic when I drive from Virginia to our current meeting place in northwest DC. But it’s hard for me to imagine not having this group to show my early drafts to, though I’m sure there will be a time at some point when it feels right to move on, as many in the group have done at various points.
Since people often ask what makes a good group, I thought I’d share some of our guidelines and the decisions we’ve made that I think have ensured our longevity.
1. We decided that 6 is the optimal number of participants. With a group of 6, it’s likely that at least 4 people will be able to make each meeting, so we determined that’s the minimum for a meeting. In today’s climate of busy-ness, it’s unrealistic to expect that anyone can attend EVERY time, so we have a built-in allowance for missing meetings.
2. We decided we wanted only to invite women to participate in our group, and that seems to work for us.
3. We are primarily focused on fiction, and perhaps even more so novels, though we also read memoir. But I can’t imagine what we’d say if a poet were to attend…rather, speaking only for myself, I can’t imagine what sort of useful critique I could offer. “Um…nice poem. Great line breaks.” So, we stick to what we know best.
4. Though this may sound repellent to writerly free-spirits, we try to have a certain amount of structure in how we run things. We try to meet on the same day throughout the year (i.e. the second Thursday) to keep those tedious discussions about when to meet to a minimum. We don’t meet over dinner or any food, which encourages too much socializing (there are other places/times to socialize with these smart women); in fact, we generally chat for 10-15 minutes, then we get down to—and stick to—business. We meet in a neutral location, vs. meeting in someone’s house, so that no one has to run around vacuuming their house and hiding the clutter.
5. Logistically, we work on an every-other-month submission basis, with three submissions per time. When it’s your turn, you mail up to 35 pages. This is especially useful when working on a novel, as 35 pages is a decent-sized chunk. We follow a workshop format of each person speaking her piece in turn; the writer is silent until the open discussion at the end. If you miss a meeting, you return your comments before the next.
6. Finally, we make all our decisions by consensus, not majority. This way, everyone generally feels invested and content with the outcome of decisions. It may take a while to reach consensus on some points—especially when it comes to inviting new people to join—but we’ve found that it’s really the only approach for us.
There have been people I’ve met with horror stories about groups they’ve been in (“I never wanted to write again”; “we started meeting in secret, hoping we could ditch him”), and I empathize. A bad group is worse than no group. But a great group—like mine!—truly is priceless and is worth the effort to cultivate and maintain.