Writers' Groups: Bring 'em In! [3]

By Ed Avis

Writers buy books. According to a survey in 2000, nearly all readers of The Writer magazine purchased books in the last year, and 60 percent of them bought at least one book each month.

How do you get those folks into your store? Starting a writers' group is one way.

Paul Hanson, manager of Eagle Harbor Book Co. in Bainbridge Island, Washington, has operated an in-store writing group for science fiction writers for the past six years. He said the members occasionally buy books at the store, and the group helps creates a positive public image for the store.

"It's always nice to enhance the store's image," Hanson said. "We like to support the community arts."

Lori Lawrence, owner of The Book Store in Wenatchee, Washington, started a poetry writers' group and a general writers' group in response to customer requests. "We started these groups because people were asking for them," Lawrence said. "They wanted a place to meet, and we have the facilities for them."

Giving these prime customers another reason to come to The Book Store is a bonus. "It does help sales," Lawrence said. "It's also brought in some new customers."

Starting a group is easy and basically consists of four tasks: finding a leader, finding a location, deciding on a format, and promoting the group.

Finding a writing group leader was simple for Lawrence. She simply drafted the customers who approached her about starting the groups.

"I delegate the responsibility to the people who want the groups," said Lawrence. In both cases regular customers now run the groups, which have been in existence less than a year. Lawrence said another group of customers has asked about starting a third group.

Other stores have found it advantageous to have an employee run the group. Hanson runs his store's science fiction writing group, which allows the group to meet after hours. Nevertheless, he regularly asks the writing group members to help out. "In order to ensure their involvement, we keep them involved in the organization of it," Hanson said. For example, one member sends regular e-mails to the other members to keep things coordinated.

Locations vary. Eagle Harbor Book Co.'s group used to meet in the store's café, but switched to a spot in the front of the store after the café closed. Since the group meets after store hours, noise isn't a problem.

The Book Store's groups also meet in the store proper. They just pull chairs up to a sale table and get writing, during store hours, no less.

The format of the writing group should depend on what the members want. Many groups are critique groups; others mix critiques with a variety of exercises and assignments.

Hanson said his writing group often holds "free write" sessions. The group decides on some first lines, then each member builds on those to create a story. When they're done, they read them aloud and critique each other's work.

The poetry writing group at The Book Store sometimes asks members to write a particular type of poem. The poets work on the assignment between the meetings, then present their work to the other members. "The next time they meet they'll be writing limericks," Lawrence said. (For more ideas on group exercises, click here [5].)

Other aspects of format that need to be figured out include the frequency of meetings (monthly or bimonthly are most common); the type of writing (try starting multiple groups for different genres); and the maximum number of members (more than 10 becomes unwieldy).

Promoting the group is key to its success. Hanson said he promoted his group when it first started with advertisements in a weekly paper and the store's newsletter. However, once it took off, no further promotion was required. Five to 10 writers attend each monthly meeting.

Other promotion ideas include in-store signs, postcards to customers, and notices sent to writing teachers and professors in the area.
The aim of your writing group should be to support some of your best customers -- writers -- so they'll in turn support your store.

Ed Avis is the publisher of Marion Street Press, Inc., which specializes in books for writers and journalists. To request sample copies of Marion Street Press books to use as prizes for your writers' group, contact him at edavis@marionstreetpress.com [6].

8 Ways to Pump Up Your Writing Group

Sponsor a Contest

Writers love recognition for their work, so sponsor a contest among club members (and nonmember writers who frequent your store). Pick a topic -- "My Most Memorable Christmas," "Life in 2050," "If Poets Ruled the World," for example -- and allow writers to tackle the topic in any genre. You'll end up with a nice collection of poems, short stories, and essays. Ask the group leader or a local critic to judge the contest. Give the winner a free writing book, but give all the participants a coupon for 10 percent off any book.

Publish, Publish, Publish

Getting published is the goal for many writers, and you can help them reach that goal by saving space in your store newsletter or on your Web site for club member works. Ask the group leader to select one piece of work -- a poem, a short story, a journal entry -- from the group each month. Promote the piece as the work of an up-and-coming writer, and give the writer a big byline. Not only will it be an honor for the writer to have "published" his or her work, it will give the aspiring writer a clipping to share with potential editors and publishers.

Open Mic Night

Create another forum for your club members' work -- and bring more people into your store in the evening -- by sponsoring an "open-mic" night. Invite members and nonmember writers to share their favorite poem or essay. Add a commercial twist by selling signed copies of club member works, even if they're just poetry chapbooks or photocopied short stories.

Master Critic

Critique sessions are a staple of many writers' groups, and usually they involve members critiquing other members' work. Add a professional touch by inviting an editor to a session to provide free critiques. Editors willing to spend an evening among writers can be found at colleges and universities, newspapers, magazines, book publishing companies, and online. Chances are you won't have to pay them -- they'll consider it an honor to be asked. Give them a book or other gift in exchange for their participation.

Writing Game Day

Devote one meeting to writing games. For example, have each member write 10 words on separate little slips of paper. Put them in a hat, and have each writer draw 10 out. Each must now arrange those words in a simple poem. Or they must use the words in the first paragraph of a short story. Or … the possibilities are endless. Another fun game is to have each writer spend 10 minutes characterizing one member of the group. Compare the characterizations, then move to another member, until you've done them all. Another game is the community story: Have one member write one sentence of a story, then pass the paper to the next person who adds a sentence, and on and on until the time is up.

Writing Books Galore

Devote one meeting to discussing writing books. When The Writer magazine surveyed its subscribers in 2000, it discovered that more than three quarters of its readers had purchased a writing book in the past year. Have writers discuss their favorite books, and provide review copies of new books on writing. Consider offering a discount on writing books that week.

Welcome Author

Many writers' groups invite authors to share their writing and publishing experiences. Make sure you explain in advance to the writer that the session isn't a normal "reading"; rather, it will be an exchange among the group members and the author about the writing process, how he or she overcomes writer's block, how he or she found a publisher, etc. If it's feasible, also invite the author's editor and/or publisher, and have them explain how they found and worked with the author.

Getting Published

Devote a meeting to the publishing process. Create a panel consisting of authors who have been published and editors who buy writing to discuss the who, what, when, where, and why. For another perspective, or maybe a different meeting, invite an agent to discuss how he or she helps authors find publishers, and how he or she finds writers.