(Meme credit to Kristen Hogrefe)
You’ve been hard at your keyboard, and have a work in progress burning a hole in your soul. You know that you need feedback on it – at least that’s what the professionals all recommend, but where to get it? If you’re on social media already, you know the virtual opportunities are endless. Editors for hire. Online critique groups. Competitions that foster writing communities and hashtags that form the basis of communities. But sending your book into the ether can also feel overwhelming and/or impersonal. And there is no substitute for sitting down with someone who’s read your words to hear and see what they have to say about your creation. But finding that in-the-flesh feedback group can be hard! There’s the scheduling to begin with – a major hurdle for sure, but one that we’ve all got to contend for any allocation of our time. Some of the other things to consider are geography, genre, experience level, and let’s be honest, emotional fit. We’ll take a closer look at each of these below, and at the end, I’ve got a few suggestions for where you can find the materials to build your writing community, as well as a few suggestions for good writing community etiquette.
Geography. If you live in a major metropolitan area, this may not be as much of a challenge. I’m close enough to NYC to be aware of some of the writerly activities that go on there – and it’s enough to make my head spin! Writing groups abound, as do workshops, courses, book readings, editor panels, conferences, etc. If you live in an urban environment, you may have several groups to choose from (more on that below). For those of us who live more rural existences, you may have to cast a wider net to build a community. You can either open yourself up to traveling longer distances to get to more selective groups (keeping in mind how that commute may impact your ability to attend regularly) or you can seek to build a more diverse group closer to home. Personally, I do both. Once a month, I drive 60-90 min each way to meet with a group of children’s books writers. It’s worth it to me to go the extra distance (literally) to connect with a great group who are all writing toward the same audience. I’ve also been working to establish a group close enough that my commute does not equal or exceed the quantity of time spent connecting with the other writers– definitely a personal preference. This local group includes poets, novelists, bloggers, memoirists, and picture book creators, bringing together a range of interests and experiences that I’ve already been fascinated to see helping each other.
Genre. If you’re writing a romance novel, it seems common sense that you’d want to connect with a group of other romance writers. There’s a lot to commend this approach: you can share information on trends and tropes, agents and publishers looking for submissions, and key each other into contests or award opportunities. Having been a regular member of a children’s literature writer’s group has really been an education for me about what is going on in this specific sub-field of writing, and I’m extremely thankful to the other group members for all they are willing to share.
Depending on the availability of resources in your area, you may have to weigh commute times against specificity. It can also be helpful to get feedback from those who aren’t mired in the daily dramas of the field. Sometimes the feedback you get from those individuals can feel more authentic – like you’re getting it from real readers. Consider too whether you are planning to write exclusively within a genre for your entire writing career. Not planning on solely writing Middle Grade Space Operas? Then it’s at least worth stopping to consider how widely you want to cast your writing group net, since hopefully these writers will be with you for success after success.
Experience. This is probably the most loaded topic – should your group include writers of all experience levels? I say ‘yes,’ and not just because I’m still at the far left on the experience bell curve. I have always believed in mentorship and the benefits it can bring to both parties. Having people of varying levels of experience in your writing group brings the benefits of experience and (perhaps) connections together with a fresh eye and (perhaps) less jaded approach.
Emotional Fit. This was the aspect that I didn’t anticipate being so crucial but which has had a considerable impact on my inclination to continue with various groups – and which has made me consider carefully who I think will gel with others in my own efforts to gather a group. It ties into etiquette for sure, but also into motivations for joining a writing community. Some people want a group to validate their value as authors, and are not interested in being critiqued or in critiquing others. Some people feel their value is in providing extensive levels of feedback, and almost seem to relish tearing a draft apart. Both are fine, as long as everyone else in the group is fine with those approaches. However, mix those two together and you’re going to have a fairly unpleasant encounter sooner or later. It’s worth considering, and discussing openly, how the other members approach participation and criticism.
When you enter into a writing group, you are exposing yourself in a very real way. You’re taking draft work that you know isn’t it’s finest yet (though you are probably secretly in love with large sections of your own genius, as you should be) and putting it before other people, whom you may or may not know well, awaiting their judgment. Yikes! It makes my heart race a little just thinking about it.
Some trick(s) to making it all work? Kindness. Professionalism. Clear communication. Commitment.