I suppose this might technically count as part of the “Starting From Scratch” series, since it involves the new book, but it isn’t really limited to the new book either. As the title says, I’m starting a new writing group, and I thought it might be interesting to talk about it.
My previous writing group was great, and I really think they helped make the John Cleaver books great, but over time something was becoming clear: my style of fiction, and my thoughts on how a plot should be structured and a story delivered, were very different from a lot of the people in the group. This doesn’t mean that I was wrong, or that they were wrong, just that our styles were different. Our genres were different. We were still able to help each other because they’re a group of very good writers, and when you’re that good it doesn’t really matter how closely your styles match up, but I eventually decided that “still good enough to be worthwhile” was too far removed from “exactly what we need.” By the twentieth time you preface a comment with “I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but…,” you know it’s time for a new writing group.
This is a good time to clarify that the presence of differing opinions is not a bad thing; differing opinions are, in fact, the primary reason for a writing group. But when the basic philosophies behind those opinions are wildly different, and the when the target audiences are incredibly disparate, the disconnect becomes too great. John Scalzi and Toni Morrison are both good writers, but I wouldn’t put them in a writing group together. You want a good balance of “they think differently from me” and “they are who I’m writing for.”
So anyway. I talked to a few other writer friends and discovered, to my delight, that Brandon Sanderson was also ready for a new writing group. Brandon and I started our very first writing group together ten years ago, and we work together well, so we started making plans for a new group. This is where ten years of authorial networking becomes very handy, because we’ve already worked with a lot of local writers and readers and we quickly created a short list of people who we thought would be good fit. Rather selfishly, we did not choose any other professional authors: a writing group is a big time commitment, and reading four five chapter submissions a week would be way too much for our schedules. That’s one of the reasons we asked our friend Ben to join, because he’s a really great commenter who doesn’t write, so we get a bigger feedback bang for a smaller time investment.
On the other hand, we didn’t want to fill our group with pure readers who would never submit; writers give very different feedback than non-writers, plus we’ve learned that you can often learn more by critiquing someone else’s stuff than by listening to critiques of your own. So we wanted more writers than just us. To solve the problem, Brandon suggested a weighted system where we could mix in some aspiring authors who could submit every other week. We approached a few people with the idea and every one of them loved it; they’re not full time writers, so a weekly schedule can be very hard to stay on top of, and this system would give them just the right mix of incentive and breathing room. Plus, you know, they get to be in a writing group with Brandon Sanderson, and I don’t know very many aspiring fantasy authors who wouldn’t jump at that chance.
At the end of the process, we’d built ourselves (we hope) the ideal writing group, tailored to our needs and with an array of handpicked commenters that we think will help make our books the best they can be. There are actually a lot of other, really excellent writers and readers that we wanted to invite and simply didn’t have room for; Utah is, believe it or not, a hotbed of excellent writing talent right now.
I’ve talked about writing groups before, and how helpful they are, and I encourage everyone who can to find or create a group of their own. If nothing else, check out Reading Excuses on TWG, where I host my message board; it’s an online reading group with a lot of activity and some really great minds.