Tuesday 16 April 2013

How to set up a writing group

I’ve run a writing group in North London for over two years now. I set one up in York a few years before that. Like so many things, I got the idea from my mother.

My mum has now had 10 novels published (you can find her over on her website  - buy her books!), and she attended a writing group every couple of weeks for over fifteen years, which was run for some time by the overwhelmingly experienced Malcolm Ross-MacDonald. I attended a couple of times when I was dabbling in writing as a teenager.

When I started doing more than dabbling, a writing group seemed like an obvious thing. I’ve had enough people ask me about it, or express disappointment that there isn’t one near them, I thought I’d put together a few tips on setting up your own.

1 – Find a space.

The group my mum attended was in a library. The first one I set up was in a side-room in a pub. The second one I set up was in a small independent bookshop (the wonderful Big Green Bookshop).
All you need is a quiet room with enough seats and, ideally, a table of some kind. And the table isn’t that necessary.

If it’s a pub, ask them if you can use their quietest room on a night they don’t have anything going on. In return, on a regular basis, you’ll get a few people in it who will buy drinks and some snacks. If it’s a bookshop or a library, and they’re not opposed to events, ask if they already have one, and if not, ask if they’d be interested in one.

If you, or someone you know, has a large enough living room, that’s always a possible as well – but I’d recommend finding somewhere neutral. It’s one thing to host it once or twice, but another to host it regularly.

2 – Choose how often you run.

The first couple of groups you run, you should ask the group when they want to run, and choose the night that is likely to please the most people. You probably won’t be able to please everyone, but that’s inevitable.

I find Tuesday or Wednesday nights are good. They’re not big social nights, and there’s not that much on TV-wise. Start late enough for people to get there, but not so late that you run into the middle of the night.

I suggest running every two weeks. If you do it weekly, you’re likely to burn people out. If you do it monthly, people are going to forget when it’s on. Fortnightly is just often enough, and it gives people enough time to write in-between sessions.

3 – Find people

Twitter, facebook and your venue are your friends here. Ask your venue to tell people as well. A notice in a bookshop or library will automatically get some people interested. The most important thing, once you’ve started, is to keep going. It will naturally grow,

4 – Drinks/snacks

We run a charge at the bookshop group. It goes to two places – firstly, it buys drinks and snacks for the group. White wine, red wine, water and fruit juice. Also, any cash left over, we give to the shop, to cover them keeping the place open for us. £3 each seems to cover it. If you’re in a pub, give them the custom and don’t charge the group.

5 – Format

First off, if we have anyone new, we run through quick introductions. Your name, the kind of thing you write, and what you’re working on now.

Then, I ask people to put their hands up if they have anything with them to read. It shouldn’t be compulsory (although you’ll naturally have people who only turn up when they’ve written). Then, each person reads out a segment of what they’re currently doing (no more than 1,500 – 2,000 words usually). When they’re done, we give feedback, and the writer responds to the feedback.

Of course, you can print out and pass round if you prefer. Having done both, I suggest reading out as standard. It’s scary. Of course it’s scary. But it’s worth getting the hang of. You’ll get better at it, and that will help your confidence.

Once you’ve all done that, you can all go to the pub. Or, if you’re in the pub, you can leave.

6 – Rules

I keep two main rules and one smaller rule.

The main rules are:

A – No egos. Everyone’s stuff is up for criticism.

B – Keep it constructive. There’s no point tearing something to pieces. You’re there to help.

The smaller rule?

Nobody asks “is this based on you?” when they hear what you’ve written. It’s irrelevant, potentially forcing people to answer a personal question, and if it is based on you, it only makes it difficult to give feedback on. 

It’s a question based in natural curiosity, but if it’s relevant, allow the writer to bring it up. It’s nobody else’s business – after all, if it sells, the reader won’t know it’s based on their real experiences.

7 – What’s the point?

A writing group performs a few functions. Firstly, it reminds you all that you’re in the same boat. And that’s useful. It reminds you that you’re normal. Or, if you’re weird, you’re not that much weirder than the rest.

Secondly, it provides motivation. Once you’ve been through a few sessions while not bringing something to the group, you’ll want to write.

Thirdly, you’ll get better. Reading it out, hearing what other people are writing, hearing the feedback… you’ll start picking up on what you’re doing wrong. And if you don’t, someone else will.

Finally, it’s social. And social is important when you’re doing something as naturally solitary as writing. It’s good to get out every now and then.

8 – But what if someone’s awful?

You know what? Doesn’t happen.

Oh, sure, some are better than others. And not everyone is good. But I’ve been running a group in London for over two years, and we regularly have a good number of people there. And nobody has been outright terrible. NOBODY. I’ve never heard anything that’s made me think “Oh, just give up”.

You’re there to get better. Everyone is. And when you see people getting better, it’s wonderful, and it’s even better when you realise that you’re getting better.

Don’t be afraid to give your thoughts. Just keep them constructive.

Any questions? Any thoughts? Comment below or tweet me (@chrisbrosnahan), and if I realise I’ve missed something, I’ll add it here.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much, just came across this and has encouraged me to go ahead.