Guest Post: Starting a Creative Writing Group

Hi, I’m Melanie. I’m a technical writer by day and a creative writer all the rest of the time I’m awake. I run a writing blog over at Adventures in Text and a web serial called Starwalker. I also have the Apocalypse Blog series of ebooks available. I’m heavily involved in my local writing community, organising and running writing-related events, and Nick asked me to come by and share some of my experience with you lovely people.

The Apocalypse Blog
The Apocalypse Blog

Hope you’re sitting comfortably. Off we go!

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I have run writing groups for about 6 years now, both in the UK and in Australia. My current group is approaching its 5-year anniversary and still going strong. Over that time, I have learned a lot about how to start and run a successful writing group, so here is a collection of the wisdom that has accumulated in my brain for those who are thinking about embarking on a similar endeavour.

Why?

This is a good place to start if you’re thinking about creating your own group. Why do you want to do it? What are you hoping to get out of it? This will help shape your decisions, and it’s good to be honest with yourself on this front.

Are you looking to teach? To learn? Meet other writers? To experiment? Exchange ideas? Get critiques of your work? To talk to published authors? All of the above?

Once you’ve figured out what you want, the next question is: does what I want already exist? Is there a writing group near you that will fill your need? In my case, I couldn’t find what I was looking for (which was most of that list of questions above), so I made my own. Simple. But it’s worth remembering that you might not need to reinvent the wheel, so definitely check out what’s out there before you look at starting something new.

Where?

You have an idea about what you want your writing group to cover. But where should you hold it?

A lot is going to depend on the venues and resources you have at your disposal. When I first started out, back in the UK, I was working at a bookstore and had a direct line to the manager. Easy peasy, decision made. But not everyone has that advantage, and when I got to Australia, I didn’t have it, either. I had to start from scratch.

So what should you look for? First of all, consider your needs. A room with enough space to hold a dozen people is a must, preferably larger (I regularly get a dozen or more to my meetings). You’re going to need tables and chairs (the tables might be optional, depending on what you want to do during the meetings, but they generally make life easier). Lately, I’m loving the whiteboard, but that’s not a must and I’m only using it because it happens to be in the room we’re using right now.

Unless you have a membership all lined up and ready to go, I’d recommend looking somewhere that’s easy to get to, central to your town or city. I hold my meetings in the city centre, close to knocking-off time for office and shop workers, and catch people before they head home for the evening. Make sure it’s convenient to get to: the fewer barriers to people being able to attend, the better your turnout will be. Also, central places often stay open for late-night shopping, so it’s easier to get an evening meeting time (if that’s what you’re looking for).

So now you have a list of requirements and an area to look in. Now narrow it down even further by asking: how much are you willing to pay? There are plenty of places that will let you rent space if that’s what you need.

My personal answer to that question is ‘nothing, please’. If that’s you, then I recommend talking to bookstores and libraries. Many bookstores have cafes with tables and chairs, and won’t mind you taking over some of their area in the evening. My groups have been in chain and independent bookstores, so definitely look around and keep your options open. (If your group buys things from the cafe, even better for them! Plus, writers might buy books, which smooths the way with the bookstore.)

Libraries will often offer rooms for free to community non-profit groups. Cafes or restaurants might also work, if your membership is willing to buy food or drinks while they’re there. My groups both started out in bookstores and my current one is now in the city centre library in a swanky (free!) meeting room.

The advantage of the meeting room is that we can close the door and talk as loud as we want, so also keep in mind closed vs open space. Consider the personalities of the people who come along (some may feel more inclined to speak their mind in a closed room of writers than an open area with the public walking past) and the comfort of the venue’s management. If you’re likely to want to talk about adult subjects, an open space near the kids’ books might not be for you.

Also think about ambient noise: will you be able to have a meaningful discussion in a noisy cafe or restaurant?

I usually found the best way to approach a venue is to just walk in and explain what you’re looking for; they’re usually very willing to point you in the right direction. Be honest about your needs and expectations, and they’ll usually treat you well.

When?

I touched on this a little earlier, but it’s driven by a few factors. Let’s break it down a little.

First of all, how often do you want to meet? I hold my group monthly, which is about what my schedule can handle, considering the prep I do for the meetings. You may want to meet more often than that; some groups meet as often as every week, though be careful of burning yourself and your membership out!

Second of all, figure out what time of day is going to be most convenient to your target membership. I work full-time office hours in the city centre, so coordinating it with that suits me well, and seems to catch a good number of members. Easy for everyone to get to!

If you’re aiming to catch people after work, I recommend grabbing them before dinner (not literally, but your mileage may vary). Give them an opportunity or reason to go home and they probably will, and then coming into the city is a barrier that will reduce your attendance. So I start my meetings at 5:15 (and I don’t mind people who slip in late, to allow those who need it a bit of time to get there) and run it until 7pm, by which time we’re hungry and the library is trying to lock its doors.

As a happy knock-on effect, most (if not all!) of the group go to dinner together afterwards before we head home. It has created a lovely atmosphere where we don’t just get together to talk about writing (or whatever we’re doing that month in the meeting); we get to know each other as well. I don’t organise that part, though; it’s very ad-hoc, not part of the ‘official’ group activities, which suits me just fine.

How long you make your meetings is up to you. The things to keep in mind for this are fatigue (if it’s going to be more than 2 hours, allow breaks!), the amount of prep you and the group membership need to do (and are capable of doing), and restrictions imposed upon you by your venue.

What?

It’s your group, so what you do in your group is yours to decide. Be aware of how much effort you’re willing and able to put in. Consider your list of aims and decide how best to meet them. Also ask yourself if you want to do it all yourself or if you’re happy to have others take the reins from time to time.

Also, consider how much control you want to have. Do you want to drive the whole thing? Because you don’t have to.

Personally, I retain overall control but I have a pretty relaxed approach. My goals with the group were to discuss and explore writing, in whatever way seems fun at the time. I also enjoy the community aspect of it, and it’s important to me that people enjoy the meetings. I aim for people get to go away with a positive feeling and the notion that they’ve expanded their knowledge.

So, I regularly ask my group what they want to do. When I first started both groups, I had all new members fill out a questionnaire. One of the reasons was to collect email addresses for the reminder mailing list (do set up a way – or multiple ways – of reminding people of upcoming meetings. They will forget otherwise.). The other was to do a quick poll of what sorts of things they write and what particular things they’re interested in doing and exploring as part of the group.

I do a mix of activities in my meetings and it varies depending on what I’m capable of organising and what preferences the group shows. Things like prepared presentations or talks, open group discussions, writing exercises, worldbuilding activities, workshopping/critiquing pieces, talks by published authors, and writing-related games. I regularly canvas the group for subjects they want to explore as well, so I can tailor the content to what they’re most interested in.

A lot of it is shaped by the personality of the group, and that’s not a bad thing. As its leader, you’ll play a big part in shaping that personality, so also think about what kind of group you want (and what you’re willing to put up with). Do you want a controlled group? A relaxed atmosphere? Structured meetings? Respectful attitudes? Anything-goes? Feet on the tables?

Money?

Some groups charge for membership or attendance (or both; I’ve seen that, as well). Ask yourself if this is necessary and what you’re looking to do. If you have to pay for a room, this might be a necessity. Having a fee involves a certain amount of overhead and organisation, including dealing with the tax implications. You may have to register yourself as a business or a non-profit, depending on your reasons for charging money.

Personally, I didn’t want to have to deal with the overhead of fees, so I’ve never charged them. I don’t like asking people for money and people tend to have certain expectations in something they’re paying for. I didn’t want the pressure of feeling I had to meet that kind of expectation; I prefer the atmosphere and ease of it all being free. But that’s just my preference, and many groups thrive with a fee.

Guest Speakers?

Who are they and how do you get them to come? I’ve had many local authors speak to my group and it’s much easier than you’d think.

I found that the best place to start looking for likely candidates is your local bookstore. See who comes to do signings or book launches. Talk to the staff and ask them about it; they’re usually pretty willing to help point you in the right direction. Libraries may also be able to help with this, and local writing associations could be worth a try.

Most authors have a website, so once you know who they are, hop on there and send them an email. Introduce your group and explain the sort of thing you’re looking for. Local authors are usually only too happy to drop in and support writing groups. You should offer to pay their expenses and refreshments, out of courtesy and good practice. This usually isn’t very much.

There are other types of guest that your group might want to meet, too, like publishing professionals and people from different sides of the literary field. See what resources you can find and go for it.

I’ve found that groups can sometimes be a little reluctant to ask a guest questions, so make sure you come to the meeting armed with a few questions to fill in those awkward silences. Hopefully there are things you want to learn from the guest, too!

Who?

Ah, here’s a good question: who will my membership be and how do I find them? This is, of course, assuming that you don’t already have a group in mind that you’re looking to formalise or expand.

Well, the next decision you have to make is whether you want a closed or an open group.

Some groups are invitation-only and tightly police their membership to keep the group focussed. Regular attendance is usually a mandatory commitment in these types of group.

Others are completely open and are very easy-come, easy-go. Membership is more fluid, so there’s carrying activities from one meeting to the next is less feasible. If you want to have your novel critiqued one chapter at a time, it would be useful to have a static group of people involved and so an open group is probably not going to give you what you’re looking for.

Personally, I wanted something easy and relaxed, and I didn’t want the overhead of making sure everyone was at every meeting. I also have no problem dealing with drop-ins, drop-outs, and a shifting membership. So I started a completely open group and accepted all comers, and that has worked for me.

It has been an interesting exercise. What I found with both of my groups is that a core formed, made up of members who would come regularly and generally got to know each other pretty well (roughly 6-8 people in any single meeting). Around that, there is a halo of more casual members who come when they can (around 4-6 per meeting, but sometimes a lot more), so there’s a shifting portion of the meetings from month to month. I like this! It provides both a community feel and the freshness of different perspectives. (Also, it’s no effort for me, and easy is good in my book.)

How do you find these people? For both, word of mouth is key; your members are your best advocates. But you have to get the ball rolling somewhere, and writers can be pretty solitary creatures.

With closed groups, there’s often a submission process, and it’s usually done online. Have a look around to see what other groups do. Invitation-only groups don’t tend to advertise, but rely instead on existing members bringing suitable people into the fold.

For open groups, you can try putting posters up in local bookstores and libraries (even if you aren’t holding meetings there). Having something online is good, as people will often search there for it (the page on my writing blog is constantly getting hits from these types of searches). Also check out local writing associations and see if they’ll let you advertise in their newsletter. None of these options should cost you any money.

Writing festivals and events are also good to spread the word; I always pick up some new members from National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I’m heavily involved in it and make it part of the challenge’s activities. Get in touch with your local NaNoWriMo ML (the official site will tell you who that is) and they’ll be happy to help.

Also, I always have a sign on the door to the meeting room during meetings, and I’ve had people spot this in the library and walk in. Similarly, in the bookstore, I would have people overhear us and get curious enough to approach and ask questions. Be prepared for this! Any visibility you can get is good for an open group.

Prep?

This is really as much or as little as you like, and depends entirely on what sort of things you want to do. Always have something in mind for a meeting (winging it can work but that will only get you so far, I’ve found) and it’s usually good practice to let people know ahead of time what the subject is going to be. If nothing else, I find it tends to encourage people to attend when they know it’s about a specific thing (‘oh, I don’t want to miss the x about y!’).

To get ready for a meeting, I might do a bunch of reading on a subject, or just make notes from my own experiences. I’ve been to many writing courses and have a healthy shelf of writing books to call on – neither of these things are mandatory, but it does help! I could be preparing anything from extensive notes for a talk, the description of a writing exercise, or a list of conversation starters to guide the discussion around a particular topic. How much you need to prepare is going to depend on your style and group; experiment to find what works for you.

If you’re doing critiques, I recommend sending the piece/s out to the group before the meeting.

Also, remember to send that reminder email, so members don’t forget about you and your group.

That First Meeting

So you’ve got it all lined up. You’ve got your space and a plan. Maybe a sheaf of notes. And a tummy full of nerves, because what if no-one turns up? Yeah, I’m right with you there. Even after so many years, I sometimes have meetings like that, wondering if I’m going to wind up sitting there alone, feeling like a heel.

Have faith. Have patience. Writing groups grow. And I’ve never had a meeting where no-one turned up. I am constantly surprised with how many people come along. If you build it, they will come.

Ahhh, people. What then? Take a breath. Be welcoming. Introduce yourself. Be reassuring, because they’re nervous about meeting this group of strangers, too!

At the beginning of the meeting, give the group an opportunity to learn a bit about each other, give them time to settle into this new thing of yours. A round-robin of ‘tell us your name and what you write’ is usually a good way to get a group going, and it takes the focus off you briefly, which is a chance to catch your breath.

(I still do the round-robin every now and then when we get a lot of new faces turn up. It helps to smooth the edges between the core group and the shifting halo of members around it, too.)

When you’re all settled, everyone’s had a chance to speak, the nerves are a little calmer… well, then it’s time to show ’em what you’ve got. And have some fun!

Good luck to you and all those writing groups out there. May you grow and flourish!

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