How to manage a writing group.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been organising literary events, and I’ve gathered some experience during this time. Remember that every group is different, and what worked or didn’t work for me might prove the opposite for you.

The two groups I currently run are: Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers; and the Dundee & Angus region of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a challenge to pen a novel in a month. The two groups are rather different beasts, and there is little crossover between their memberships, but there are common factors in the way they’re run.

Planning

Ensure your group has a defined purpose

Hotchpotch has a definite purpose: you can take along your own work and read it for up to 10 minutes, or simply come along to listen to others. It’s a format that works for us and has done for some years.

NaNoWriMo is a franchise of sorts with a not-for-profit organisation, so you must follow their instructions and ethos. As such, we started off with purely November meetings where we would encourage each other to finish our novels. But there was such enthusiasm that we continue to meet up weekly and work on other individual projects.

There’s nothing wrong with experimentation, of course, but don’t stray too far from your original intention. There is a risk that your members will be put off going as it’s not what they expected.

Be early

Think months or weeks in advance, not days, to save rushing around at the last minute. The main NaNoWriMo event happens in November, so I’ll start planning in August as I need to receive promotional material and work out where and when our meetings should be. The next Hotchpotch is usually booked on the same day as the last meeting. Always be super-early to set up for meetings.

Coordinate and cross-promote

Hotchpotch must ‘compete’ with a monthly Silent Reading Party and a monthly Literary Lock-In as these also happen on Mondays. Through having conversations with the organisers of the latter two events, we now coordinate these events so they hardly ever clash. When one of them announces a new date, I also promote it to Hotchpotch and NaNoWriMo participants.

Communication

Use suitable methods

This depends largely on the IT skills of your members. Our NaNoWriMo region has a Facebook group where most people engage with us, although NaNoWriMo HQ require us to use their own mailing system. Conversely, many Hotchpotch members don’t use Facebook and prefer to be on our mailing list.

Hotchpotch has business cards with contact details to give to new members. During NaNoWriMo months, I also have a mobile number with a budget SIM card so people can contact me with urgent enquiries. In practice, however, we’ve rarely needed to use it.

Not too little; not too often

By all means send out a message early, but remember to issue regular reminders. People forget, or accidentally delete the e-mail. Also make sure your latest message reflects any changes that have happened since the last one. For NaNoWriMo, once a week is the usual pattern, reflecting our weekly meetings. Hotchpotch reminders are usually two or three weeks apart as the meetings are monthly.

But once a day is far too often, unless you happen to be sending out daily writing prompts.

Exercise privacy with e-mail

Whenever you send out a group e-mail, use the Bcc box, not To or Cc. This means each member will only see his or her own address when it’s received. Always give people the option to unsubscribe from updates; the last thing you want is to be reported for spam. It can be as simple as typing Let us know if you want to unsubscribe at the bottom of each message.

People

Be welcoming

This is a big one for me. Unless your group is really only for you and your mates, everyone who comes along needs to feel welcome. I’ve been put off going to groups in the past when it became clear the existing members were only interested in their own company. Whenever new folk turn up to NaNoWriMo or Hotchpotch, I make a point of introducing myself and chatting to them.

Consult, don’t dictate

Keep a list of a few trusted regulars you can talk to when the going gets tough. In the case of Hotchpotch, we had to make a difficult decision about a venue. We made a collective decision that I now agree with, but if I’d dictated, I would have gone the opposite way and might have lost their cooperation. NaNoWriMo is largely stable now, but I know the core membership are there should any problems arise.

Deal with troublemakers appropriately

Literary meetings are generally safe spaces. I can think of only one serious incident. I was a member of a group where we felt the standard of leadership fell far below what was expected. The incident was resolved, but not before pages of online words had been exchanged. If you need to keep someone in line, it’s rarely appropriate to do it over the Internet or in front of other members.

Most often, someone will say he or she didn’t like the group. I find it’s best to fix the problem, where possible, or to acknowledge his or her point of view and accept you’ll be one member down next time. It’s not worth turning a complaint into an argument, but to learn from it and concentrate on attracting new members.

 

If you have any tips you’d like to add, leave them below. I’ve no doubt I’ll think of one or two more myself when this has posted.

Advertisements

The Final Cut.

Further to the publication of the Alternate Hilarities anthology, I’ve been interviewed by Strange Musings Press. I’ve also received two paper copies of the book, but I’ll read the electronic version and keep the physical copies pristine and flat.

The story in that anthology is 1,160 words long, but in fiction, as in food, it’s sometimes necessary to cut down. I’m a great fan of reading work aloud. It’s a very good way of finding where one clause would be better than two, or where a semicolon could replace several words.

I only half-follow Elmore Leonard’s advice to Kill your darlings. In other words, to cross out any lines you particularly like. I think that’s fair game if the line in question has been squeezed in where it’s inappropriate, but if it’s the perfect means of expressing what you mean, I say jolly well leave it in.

But what if the problem is not just a line or two, but whole chunks of text? I encountered this problem with a 1,000-word story I wrote well over a year ago. I simply couldn’t make it work to my satisfaction. I shuffled round a few of the characters, who are all introduced as they enter a house, but I still couldn’t make the story flow.

In the end, I cut out the first 700 words, and I’m much happier. All the characters are still there, but it works by starting when they’re already in the house. The dialogue explains the immediate situation, and the twist makes the reader fill in the gaps.

But what to do with the cut part? Don’t delete or bin it, whatever you do. You’ve worked your hardest on it, and it deserves to be seen. I’ve recently started to maintain a list of story stems, those ideas that have thus far gone nowhere. Some are mere seeds, others are massive chunks, but they’re waiting with their jackets on in case the right alternative idea comes along.

Since constructing my list, I’ve used three of the stems. Once I use them all, I’ll need to start actually thinking again.