I’m taking a fiction writing class from Brandon Sanderson currently, and over the next few months I will be posting some of the best advice I’ve received from the class as well as my own perspective on writing. By the end of the class, I will have written at least 35,000 words of a new work of fiction. As of today, I am 39% of the way there.
Brandon was busy visiting Netflix Studios this week to pitch his Dark One project and check in with the people who are working on the Wheel of Time series adaptation, so we had a substitute this week: author Janci Patterson. Janci shared some wonderful advice on plotting, “for those of us who can’t just write a list of what should happen in a book and have it come out perfectly—cough—Brandon.” However, I’m going to save Janci’s advice for future posts and spend this week filling in some of the gaps in Brandon’s lessons that haven’t made it into a post yet. So, without further ado, here are Brandon Sanderson’s tips for writing groups.
When Brandon first brought the class together (there are fifteen students), he had us each say our name and the genre and audience for which we were writing. Then he helped us find groups of five people who would make a good mix. Having a good mix of genres, ages, and styles helps get a variety of feedback, which is really the purpose of a good writing group. Writing groups are meant to give you real-time reader reactions to help you gauge whether your writing is achieving its goals.
In our writing group there are 2 men and 3 women; one sci-fi middle grade, one superhero YA, one fantasy romance YA, and one YA/adult epic fantasy story; and a variety of ages. It is imperative to have both men and women in a writing group so that they can give you feedback on writing characters opposite your gender, a skill most authors struggle with.
Next, Brandon taught us his rules for giving a good critique.
- Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- If your work is being critiqued, you may not say a word. Watch, observe, listen, and take notes. No speaking!
- First 5 minutes discuss the question What worked? When discussing, it is imperative that you do not try to fix the story. Just state your experience. Don’t be prescriptive—be descriptive! Talk about what made you laugh (you don’t want them to get rid of the good stuff!) and what you liked.
- Last 5 minutes discuss the question What could use a second look? Remember that you want the story to be a better version of itself (not a better version how you would write it.) This is the time to talk about where you were confused and what didn’t land for you. Don’t say how you would fix it! This is the time for the writer to take some notes and stay silent. It will be overpoweringly tempting to speak during this time and defend yourself—don’t do it. You will lose the advantage of seeing whether your repair efforts work at a future writing group if you start explaining things.
- Repeat with the other group members’ stories.
When starting a writing group, it is important to clearly set out how often the group is going to get together. You should establish a regular meeting time. Brandon recommends meeting once a week, but you can meet every other week or once a month—whatever fits your speed. Also, set up how many words you want to submit. Usually between 2,000 and 4,000 words is solid number, which is long enough for group members to notice pacing issues. The schedule gives you two gifts—accountability and a deadline—both of which are great motivators to get your writing done.
As you meet more often, you and the other members of your group will get to know each other better and learn to ask for and give more prescriptive advice. However, when in doubt it is always best to stick to descriptive experience sharing feedback in your group conversations. Don’t let other people write your story; make decisions and evaluate what is best for the story you want to tell.
My experience with my writing group has been very positive. The first couple of times we met I had a difficult time staying quiet and relinquishing my desire to defend myself. However, as I have kept silent, I have appreciated taking the group’s responses home to stew on over the next week and incorporating them into my story, often making notes for things that need to change in earlier chapters.
Brandon did give us one warning about writing groups. When they point out all the problems with your story, most writers’ first instinct will be to rewrite the chapter. However, this can cause you to enter a hamster wheel of revision before your story goes anywhere. Therefore, it is best to make some notes during the critique, take a deep breath, and continue writing when you get home as if you had already made the changes you want to make so badly. You will end up doing fewer revision drafts if you force yourself to keep going to the end, keeping track of notes, than if you enter the spiral of single chapter revision. Plus, your group will become increasingly annoyed if you turn in the same chapter over and over again.
So there you have it: Brandon’s tips for writing groups. Now it’s your turn. What has your experience been with writing groups? Are you looking for feedback? If you need a writing group, consider commenting below. You may just find the friend you need to kick your writing into a higher gear.