I have a thing for writing groups. I like writing and I like people talking about writing and because of that I’ve ended up with some writing groups online. The first one grew out of the JenniferCrusieFans list on Yahoo, started by Deb Lanata years ago. Deb gave the list a terrific start by choosing five great people to be moderators, five of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. The JCF list was a success from the beginning due to those mods, but some of us started to talk about writing and to critique scenes and that got all tangled up in the chat there–JCF is a topic-free zone so there have been fainting goats and the best way to move to NYC and the chocolate Jesus discussion and how to get burned popcorn smell out of microwaves–so we started a second closed list for critiquing manuscripts, and set the limit at 175 with a waiting list. But I hated the waiting list–everybody should be able to talk about writing if they want to–plus after a few years, the writing chat on JCW was starting to strangle the critiques. So we started CherryForums where people could talk about writing and reading all they wanted. And then Bob and I started this year’s He Wrote She Wrote blog to do longer lectures (that would be the Crusie-Mayer Writing Workshop in the blidget there in the lower right of this blog). I felt I’d done my bit for fiction writing on the net.
But meanwhile I’d banned chat on JCW and it was ruining the list. The mods and some of the members felt strongly that chat belonged back on there, I felt strongly that the emphasis should be on critiques, and while we were all getting along fine, it was becoming clear that some changes had to be made. While I was trying to work out a compromise, it dawned on me that maybe it wasn’t my list any more. I’d been gone for long stretches of time and in fact hadn’t really been part of the community for months. And in the meantime, the mods had kept it running beautifully, even with the crippling no-chat rule. Maybe it was just time for me to give the list to the mods and start over, using what I’d learned to build a smaller group–I really do believe 175 is too many–and let the mods and the others on the JCW list determine what it should be. So I transferred the list to them which made us all very happy and set about designing my perfect writing group.
First of all: No chat. If people have a choice between chatting and critiquing, they’ll chat, and chat mixed in with critiques means that the writing discussion gets diluted.
Second: No publishing. Talking and thinking about publishing poisons writing. A writing group should be about creativity and theory and story, not about what’s selling or what editors will think. Story first, always.
Third: Small group. I was thinking fifty.
Fourth: Clear rules about not only conduct but also responsibilities. No posting a scene and saying, “I didn’t have much time so I just threw this together.” If it goes up, we assume it’s your best work so it sure as hell better be your best work. No dropping out of the schedule at the last minute. Critiquing every scene possible. Minimum of one critique a month to stay on the list so that people know your name and your voice. No “slacking lurkers” aka slurkers.
I drew up my rules and then called the mods together. By now with two lists and the forums, there were sixteen of them. I said, “I want to design a new writing group and here are my plans, what do you think?” And because they’re the mods, they had great ideas and we pushed and pulled until we had a very workable plan. Then I set up a private blog to do the beta test with any of them who wanted to play (fifteen signed on) starting with the mods because they do a mind-boggling amount of work for no pay at all. Thus they get perks. The plan was that for the second wave of beta, they’d each invite one person which would bring the group to thirty. And then we’d open it to the general public and take the first twenty who signed up. It was a beautiful plan, and probably fifty percent of it worked. The group has been going strong for about six weeks now, and I have learned a lot about how to start a writing group which I will share now with you, should you ever want to do the same.
1. Do it as a private blog, not a list. The Glindas (don’t ask) are on a private blog at WordPress.com. The blog format lets you set up categories so that you can keep the critiques separate from the chat–I have come to realize that chat is as necessary as air to community–and keep track of who’s critiqued and who hasn’t. The scene goes in the post part and the critiques into the comments.
2. Don’t critique every week and do not allow late critiques. The constant need to stay on top of the critiques wears people out and they start skipping them, then try to catch up with several at once that does nobody any good (I was guilty of that, too). On one non-critique week, we do a writing exercise (I recommend the book What If as a source of exercises) and the other non-critique week, we look at a famous short story and take it apart (our first one was Dorothy Parker’s “The Waltz.”) That gives you a blog with four areas: Critiques, Exercises, Story Analysis, and Chat, all neatly organized in the blog category list. Of course, your areas may differ. We added another one for expert lectures by a Glinda and another one for people who were having a problem in their books and wanted to ask for help in solving it, content not craft.
3. Everybody contributes. There are no lurkers. If you can’t do one critique a month, you have to drop off.
4. No publishing talk, ever. This was the only place in the planning where people tried to revolt, but that one I was dictatorial about, and after awhile somebody said, “You know, it’s nice in here without publishing.”
5. Limit the list to 25. This was the biggest surprise. At sixteen (fifteen mods and me), the list was good, but we invited the second wave right away–it took the mods about two days to adjust to the blog format so there was no point in waiting–and nine of the members invited somebody else to come in which brought us to twenty-five and suddenly the whole place gelled. I’ve never seen anything like it before, but one of the mods did some research and found out that twenty-five, is in fact, the optimum number for a group like this. We kept the option open that there might be a third wave, but it was so apparent so quickly that the group dynamic would be destroyed by adding anyone else that we just wrote that into the rules. Only twenty-five.
6. Get rules everybody agrees on, post them on a page in the blog (pages are permanant, unlike posts which slide down the page as new posts are added) and stick by them. Here are ours:
Welcome to one of the many roads to Oz, a private writers group designed to sharpen skills and inspire greatness through the critique of members’ scenes, analysis of classic short stories, and goofing around with writing exercises.
Scenes will be posted on Monday. Each scene should be titled with the author’s name and the name of the book the scene is from (Jenny: Scene 1, You Again). The author is not permitted to join in the discussion of her scene in any way even if taunted until the following Sunday unless all the Glindas critique her before then. The comments will be left open for one week following for discussion of the scene but not for late critiques; critiques must be done by midnight on the Saturday following the posting.
Since this is a classroom/discussion/seminar/community, we need to know each other, which means no slurkers (slacking lurkers). Therefore, you must critique one scene each month to remain on the list. (No, playing in the Chat posts doesn’t count. That’s just vocal slurking.) If you miss one month, you’ll get a reminder, two months and you’ll be removed. The count starts over again in January. You do not have to post a scene to remain a member. If you’re on the rotation but have forgotten when, click on the “Schedule” page to see when it’s your turn to post.
The weeks without critiques will be either a writing exercise or the analysis of a classic short story. No one is required to do the exercises or discuss the story, and exercises and story discussion will not be critiqued in any way.
Please keep critiques and comments on topic; that is, you can post comments about issues the scene has brought up or the critiques have inspired and follow that discussion, but you can’t start chatting about a new topic. Any questions or issues you want to comment on that are not in reference to the ongoing critique should be addressed in the Chat category which is also where you’ll find announcements and admin notices.
Please treat the other people in the workshop with respect. That means no flaming (debate the issue and discuss the writing, never the writer) and no spamming (do not try to sell or promote anything to anybody on the workshop or through the workshop by private e-mail). For the same reason, we ask you not to copy or forward anyone’s comments or critiques from here without their consent. This is a very small, very private workshop, and that privacy should be respected.
Remember there are many roads to Oz. We’re not looking for the one right answer, we’re looking for a discussion of craft and possibilities.
Along with that, we have this page for the critique questions which won’t be new to anybody on JCW:
Seven Questions for Scene Critiques
Begin each scene critique by answering these seven questions, then follow up with whatever additional comments you want to make. Please don’t copy the entire scene into in the comment box. Answer your seven questions and then cut and paste any section you want to refer to.
1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What is the protagonist’s goal?
3. Who is the antagonist?
4. What is the antagonist’s goal?
5. What do you expect will happen next in the story, given what you read in this scene?
6. What in this scene must be kept at all costs?
7. What in this scene needs work?
Seven Questions for Synopses Critiques
Begin each synopsis critique by answering these seven questions, then follow up with whatever additional comments you want to make. Please don’t copy the entire synopsis into in the comment box. Answer your seven questions and then cut and paste any section you want to refer to.
1. Who is the protagonist?
2. What is the protagonist’s goal?
3. Who is the antagonist?
4. What are the three major turning points?
5. How would you describe each act in a sentence or a title; i.e. how does each section between the turning points change and escalate?
6. How does the beginning promise what the ending delivers?
7. What makes this synopsis different from every other synopsis the editor is reading?
The other two pages are the critique schedule and the list of the Glindas with the dates they’ve critiqued following their names.
I highly recommend this plan, even after only six weeks of testing it. I would also recommend that you start with a core group of people who know each other well–in this case it happened because the mods get perks–and then asking them to invite people they know who may not have been part of the group in the past. We have some new people in the Glindas and it’s very good for the dynamic because nothing is just assumed as it would be if it were a tight, little in-group.
The only real problem I have with the Glindas is that the group can only be twenty-five people. I hate Cool Girls’ Clubs, which is why I asked the Glindas not to talk about the group. “Do not say ‘Nyah nyah nyah,'” I said. “Do not flaunt your Glinda-ness.” It’s an insoluble problem because twenty-five really is the limit on a group like this, so being fair and bringing more people in would destroy it. And, as I keep telling myself, I’m providing the forums and the workshop, both of which I check every day, so it’s not as if I’m slamming the door on people. Still, good old Lutheran guilt stalks my every move, which is why I’m posting on how to start your own group.
Really, if you’re a writer, get your own Glindas. Nobody should hit any of the roads to Oz alone.