Five Ingredients for a Spectacular Writing Group

Alaya Dawn JohnsonOne of the best things about Figment is the supportive community we provide writers. Want feedback on the novel or short-story you’re writing? There’s definitely someone out there willing to read it and give you a thoughtful critique—or just a little love. But sometimes, it’s nice to step away from the computer (I know it’s hard to believe) and out into the real world (put on some sunglasses; it’s not that bright out there) and talk to real live humans about your writing.

But how do you go about forming a successful writing group? Alaya Dawn Johnson (author of The Summer Prince) has been a member of Altered Fluid, a New York–based speculative fiction writing group, for five years. Today, Alaya has been nice enough to stop by Figment and share her top five ingredients for creating a spectacular writing group. Read through her list below and then share your writing-group experiences in the comments!

1. Shared literary interests
My first writing group was a bit of a disaster. After years of writing fanfic and submitting stories to online critique groups, I wanted to get to know my peers in person. So I found someone on Craigslist who said they were running a writers group in the city. But our first meeting was enough to tell me that I’d made a big mistake. The short story I submitted was a contemporary fantasy, and every single critique I received started with some variation of, “I don’t normally read this Lord of the Rings stuff, but . . .” When people’s entire experience of your genre is Star Wars and Tolkien, even the best-intentioned critiques can be confusing and unhelpful (e.g. “I don’t understand, why is there magic in this?”)

So when I got an unexpected email from a writer in a group called “Altered Fluid,” who met in Manhattan, I jumped at the opportunity. Altered Fluid focused on speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, and horror) short stories, which meant they wanted to read the exact sort of thing that I write. The difference was unbelievable! I ditched the old writers group and have been with Altered Fluid for the last five years. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.

2. Diversity
But even though all of us “Altered Fluidians” (hey, we’re dorks) enjoy speculative fiction, that doesn’t mean we all have the exact same interests and experiences. In fact, our diversity is one of our key strengths. Some members are experts on horror, while others only write “hard” science fiction. My exposure to their interests has, over the years, widened my own. Part of the reason I dared write The Summer Prince (my first science fiction novel) was because I’d had the experience of reading and critiquing SF for years with my group.

Our diversity is also revealed in our own personal backgrounds. Our members are black, white, hispanic, gay, straight, and bi. Some of us have grown up in the city, and others have moved here from all over the world. This diversity of interests means that we’re motivated to stretch ourselves in our writing and not take the white/male/straight/American perspective as the default.

3. Commitment
Apathy has been the death of many promising writers groups. You know how it goes, you and a bunch of friends decide to get serious about your writing and form a critique group. It works for a few months, but then someone gets busy, another person moves away, someone else has writers block and doesn’t want to read anyone else’s work. Next thing you know, you haven’t met in six months and while you might talk wistfully about “getting together sometime,” you all know it isn’t going to happen.

One of the ways Altered Fluid has managed to avoid apathy-death over the decade of its existence is that we’re always willing to bring in new people. The enthusiasm a new person brings to a writers group can really increase everyone’s motivation. For the last five years, my Tuesday evenings have been booked until I know otherwise. I take it seriously, and so does everyone else, which is probably why we have one of the longest-running writers groups in the city.

4. Giving (and taking) good critique
Being able to critically evaluate someone else’s work is an indispensable skill. It’s related to the sort of analyses you write in English class, but in the case of a critique you’re helping the writer actively improve their work. Ideally, a critique can see both what the author did well and where they didn’t succeed. A good critiquer doesn’t dictate what they would have written, oblivious to the author’s intent. The point is to see the contours of the story that the writer wanted to tell, and help them improve that story. Of course not everyone agrees, but I have been surprised at how accurately a good critique group can zero in on the crucial failures of a story.

The other side of this, of course, is being able to take a critique. I’ve heard horror stories of people throwing tantrums after critiques, insulting the critiquers, refusing to speak at all or just storming out. Don’t do that! When people offer their critiques in good faith, anyone who wants to benefit from a writers group needs to have the maturity to accept one. Remember: you don’t have to agree with them!

5. Having fun

Altered Fluid Writing GroupOver the years my fellow Altered Fluidians have become my best friends. In high school I was never that person at the center of a large group, and I figured that was just my personality. But it turns out that I just hadn’t met my people. Moving to New York and joining Altered Fluid gave me that life-changing chance to be with people who share my interests and passion. Over the last five years, I’ve organized writing retreats to country houses, which are basically large sleepovers where we write during the day and goof around at night. We go to parties and bars and museums and conventions together because we genuinely enjoy each other’s company. And I think that camaraderie is the other reason why we’ve been a group for so long. We work well together, both professionally and personally. If you’re looking to form a group, don’t forget that enjoying each other’s company is a huge part of what makes a group tick.

That’s what I’ve learned, though there are many other aspects to sustaining a great writing group. And if you’d like to learn more about the nitty-gritty, check out the Clarion method (refined from the original Milford Writers’ Workshop method), which is used by the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, the most famous of the speculative fiction writer’s workshops, and in Altered Fluid:

 

Author photo by Alden Ford. Group photo by Devin Poore. From right to left: Matthew Kressel, Devin Poore, Paul M. Berger, David Mercurio Rivera with Alaya Dawn Johnson in the center, at the 2011 book party for Alaya’s 1920s novel Moonshine.

2 thoughts on “Five Ingredients for a Spectacular Writing Group

  1. I was part of an active, live critique group for a while, and what I think is more important than having similar genres is the ability for everyone in the group to be willing to look at and give feedback on whatever is submitted. After all, your “job” in the group is to tell the person what you think of their work. In that group, members wrote picture books, historical middle-grade novels, contemporary fiction and YA memoirs.
    Amen to adding new people. It can seem like your friend group is falling apart or being intruded upon, but new members bring new enthusiasm and new ideas and perspective. The aforementioned group is very large for a critique group, but that means there is always someone there and you can get many different perspectives on something.
    And remember, the whole point of a writing group is to help each other improve. Word your thoughts nicely, but definitely say them. And if you get a critique that you don’t think would work well, just don’t use it.
    Many apologies for the massive block of text, but I hope this helps someone.

  2. Thanks for the advice! I’ll have to keep it in mind in case I decide to join a group someday (I would like to). 🙂

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