Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Writing Groups: What They Are and How They Work

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Everyone who wants to write also wants to join a writing group—or at least they should. If you write without feedback, there’s very little chance that you will foresee all of the issues that your readers will come up with, and of course, an agent, editor, or publisher WILL come up with them and drop your manuscript into the recycling bin.

You can take a class, and you’ll get feedback from only one experienced person (the teacher) and a whole bunch of people with the same limited experience that you have. This is useful, especially when you are just starting out.

Oh, and you could work one-on-one with an editor. It will cost you plenty, but again, you’re only getting one person’s ideas and you’ve got to hope that more than one person reads your work once it’s published.

The best way to become a great writer is to do a lot of writing and to listen to what a lot of people say about your work. You won’t agree with all of it, but it’s useful to hear what others say.

If you join a writing group, everyone will have experience, everyone is prepared to give and receive feedback, and everyone is actively working on the craft of writing. Your work will improve exponentially. It’s not better or worse than a class or an editor; it’s just more like the real world.

Here’s How It Works.

Each person submits something. There might be a schedule, like perhaps only one person submits at a time if the group is looking at longer works. Or perhaps, like the group I’m in, everyone submits a limited amount, perhaps a chapter’s worth, every month, and one person is the designated contributor. That means that the designated contributor (we call it “the des” in my group) gets his work read first, so no matter what, he gets feedback. We read everyone else’s work in the order in which it was received and provide feedback on that too. Sometimes we run out of time and can’t get to all of them.

Let’s Visit, Shall We?

The group I’m in has existed for about 20 years. We have one member who’s been in it for most of that time, and the rest of us have been in for 10 or fewer. I’ve been in for about three years. There are currently five of us, but last summer, we were eight and I think it was about five when I joined. People come and go.

We meet once a month, on the fourth Tuesday. We call ourselves the FWG for Famous Writers Group because someone way back when was optimistic, but it has evolved to stand for Fourth Week Group.

We meet at someone’s house. The location rotates. Two of us have extreme locations, being the furthest afield (about 60 miles distant), so we tend to circulate around the others in the middle. We occasionally meet on a weekend at the extreme locations, and we have met at workplaces that had nice cafeterias and at restaurants with a quiet room for us.

Someone, not the des and not usually the host, is assigned to bring the meal. Some people cook, others stop at nice little ethnic restaurants. I have odd eating habits, so I always bring a salad to ensure that I can eat something, and I bring enough to share no matter whose turn it is to bring the meal. People bring wine or cookies, if they are inclined. The cost of the meal is spread among the attendees. It’s usually around $10 a person for our crowd, sometimes less, sometimes more.

While we eat, we have “writers’ week” which is really writers’ month, where we talk about what we’ve been working on since we last met. Sometimes this blossoms into vacation vignettes or diatribes against a phone carrier, but it’s always fun. We start with the host and go around the table clockwise. We are at very different stages this month—one is shopping his finished novel to agents, several worked on chapters for something ongoing, and one (he knows who he is) worked only on his NTE (more about that in a moment).

Getting Down to It

Once the meal is eaten and the table cleared, we get down to work. One person agrees to moderate each piece, which means forbidding the writer to speak until the review is over, and asking the group the questions that lead the discussion forward.

  •  What is it? For new pieces, to determine whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, short story, memoir, etc., and to synopsize the plot. For continuing pieces, we skip this.
  • Read sentences or phrases that stand out. We shout out bits that we’ve marked for this purpose. We often all shout out the same things. Usually they are things that we really liked, some clever turn of phrase or super clear description. We’ve also had some very entertaining dialog readings.
  • What works? We talk about voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, and length—anything that’s positive about what we’ve read.
  • What needs work? We talk about anything that stumped us, made us curious, that didn’t match something we’d read already, and voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, length, etc.
  • Then, if the writer has any questions, explanations, or rebuttal, he is allowed to speak.

We work through the des’ work and then the rest of the submissions in the order they were received. We rarely run out of time before we’re through all of them, but it has been known to happen. This is the really important part of the meeting, and I will discuss preparing for it in the next blog.

When we’ve made it through the submissions, our host puts on tea or coffee and cookies are served. During cookies and coffee, we have a reading of NTEs.

Not To Exceeds

NTEs are Not to Exceeds, which means that they are not to exceed a single page and they are not submitted in advance. They must contain a phrase selected at the previous meeting. We used to get the phrases from a large stack of defunct business cards onto which someone had copied poetic expressions, but these disappeared when one of our members disappeared without a word. We refer to him often as mythical (half of the current group has never met him at this point) and invoke his name if someone has wandered off the path. He is the disciplinarian if we get off topic or too rambunctious. I don’t remember him actually being particularly stern, but at this point he’s fictional anyway and can’t defend himself.

At any rate, now we use a book of poetry, opened at random, and someone blindly points to a line. That line becomes the phrase that needs to be included. Not everyone contributes an NTE, but if you didn’t have a longer submission, you can contribute one of these and keep your status as a “working” writer. After the NTEs are read, we clean up and the evening is over.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It is. If you’re writing historical fiction, as I am, it’s a great testing ground to see if people can follow along to 900 years ago without anybody launching into a classroom lecture. I learn more about misconceptions and assumptions from this group than I can get on my own; I’ve spent so long steeped in the Middle Ages that I no longer remember what is common knowledge.

This sort of group works for mystery, fantasy, tour guides, essays, and literary writers too. We’ve had some of each, and we probably will cycle through again.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about preparing for the meeting—what you need to contribute besides your own work. In the blog after that, I’ll write about finding a group and who I’ve found in mine.

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Written by Melanie Spiller

February 10, 2011 at 11:02 am

Posted in Writing

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One Response

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  1. […] the work described), and one of our number has occasionally woven together several of his NTEs (see Writing Groups: What They Are and How They Work). No one is obligated to submit each month, and those who have just completed a long haul (first […]


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