You've reached a certain level in your writing and you realize that you need feedback from people other than your friends in order to improve your work. Perhaps you've been taking creative writing classes, and you sense that your well-meaning classmates just don't "get" the genre fiction you've been writing; you yearn for constructive feedback. Or maybe you've been in workshops before, but you've just moved to a new city and you're not familiar with what the city has to offer.
How do you go about finding -- or creating -- a workshop that will serve your needs?
While there are plenty of online writers' groups that can be a big help to writers (for instance, Critters and the Online Writing Workshops), I've found that in-person writing workshops can be even more helpful because they provide more in-depth discussions. And, since many of us writer-types tend to be hermits, the regular social contact can be a real boost.
Finding an Existing Group
Finding an existing group is easier than creating a group. Your first step would be to hit various search engines like AltaVista, Google and Yahoo!. Let's say you're hunting for a group in the Columbus, OH area. You'd input searches like Columbus, OH writers group or writing workshop Columbus, OH. Most active groups with members under the age of 40 will have some sort of online presence, and by combing through the results of your search you should be able to at least find some good leads (if you are looking for a group in Columbus whose members focus on science fiction, fantasy, or horror, please visit the Writeshop page for more information).
You should also post queries at writers' bulletin boards. Your best bets are to post at boards associated with writers' guilds and associations. If you write genre fiction, posts to the boards at places like Critters and SFF.net.
Offline, you should check around at your local libraries and bookstores, as they may be hosting meetings for writers' groups, and at local colleges. If you write genre fiction, checking at the English departments may or may not yield good results, as many literary writers are unreceptive at best to the work of those of us who write science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery or romance.
Once you find a likely group, contact the group leader and chat with him or her. Find out what sorts of things the group members write, when and where the group meets, etc. Also find out if prospective members must submit materials for group evaluation before they can join. Don't be surprised or offended if they want to see your stuff before they let you in -- this is a widely practiced method of ensuring that new members are compatible with the group's goals.
If all seems well, your next step is to go to a group meeting with a piece ready to be shared and worked on in more detail. Watch how the other members behave and interact. If you feel comfortable with these folks and they seem to be giving good feedback, congratulations! You've found a good group.
Creating a Writers' Group
Sometimes, you just can't find a compatible local group, or maybe the group you joined has died because the members have moved away or lost interest. If this is the case, then you'll have to avail yourself of online groups or create a new group.
To create a new group, the first thing you have to do is to recruit members. Go to the same places mentioned in the previous section to advertise your new group: libraries, online bulletin boards, colleges, bookstores, etc. Make your flyers/posts as interesting as possible while being brief and informative. Know what you want your group to accomplish, and convey your vision in your ads. If you want to include genre writers, be sure to say so. If you wish to exclude writers of particular works, don't insult their genres.
If you already have some people committed to being in the group who are also published writers, say so. Include a sentence along the lines of Our members have been published in Strange Horizons, Flesh & Bone, Chiaroscuro, etc. Having (and advertising) members with publishing credits will attract other published writers who might fear they would be getting into a group made up of nothing but dilettantes.
Once you've got a critical mass of people who've responded (say, 10 people or so), chat with them a bit to make sure that they seem serious and able to work with other people. It's far better to head personality problems off at the pass than to have to deal with blowups and arguments within the group.
The next step is to figure out a time when most everyone could meet. If all your respondees have email accounts, so much the better; at this stage you'll want to set up a mailing list and maybe a Yahoo! Group or similar site so that you and the others can more easily communicate and share files and other information.
Once you've got a time, you need to find a place to meet. You need to find a place that is comfortable, provides adequate sitting space, and is reasonably well-lit and distraction-free. It also needs to be in a location that provides adequate parking and is otherwise readily accessible to group members. These requirements can make meeting at a member's home difficult if you have a sizeable group.
Unless you and the group are willing to pay dues, you should seek a place that doesn't require rental fees (unfortunately, many community centers charge per-hour fees for the use of their facilities). If one of your members is affiliated with a college or university, see if he or she can secure a regular space in an unused classroom or at the student union. Alternately, if one of your members works at a company that supports the arts, he or she may be able to find space after hours in a company training room or cafeteria. Failing that, many public libraries, bookstores, and coffee houses may have suitable spaces available. If absolutely everything else fails, you might be able to secure space at a local church (though this can create some strange cognitive dissonance if you end up working on an erotica tale beneath a giant crucifix).
Maintaining a Writers' Group
The key to keeping people in your group is to make sure it's worth their time. And, ultimately, it needs to be enjoyable. Read about The Milford System for advice on how to run a workshop. Try to keep things on track; get to the business of workshopping first, and save chit-chat for later. Some socializing is important, but you don't want the group to turn into a coffee klatch where no one really gets any work done. If people in your group are inclined to be long-winded, consider bringing a timer to meetings.
If a member's critiques seem needlessly (and disruptively) vicious or derogatory, chat with him or her privately; he or she may be having personal problems, or may not realize the negative effect he/she is having. If the member seems resentful of your concern/advice, you may have to ask them to leave the group. There's no easy way to handle such a situation; try to be as calm and non-judgmental as you can. But realize that just one member acting obnoxiously can make people stop showing up; inappropriate behavior needs to be addressed discreetly before it becomes a problem.
Between meeting times, try to keep people enthusiastic and involved; this is where having an email list can come in handy (charisma also comes in handy here, but if you haven't got it, personal enthusiasm and staying on top of things will go a long way). Members will be able to share market information, advice and success stories between meetings.
Once your group gets going, continue to advertise for new members. Set up some kind of a web presence so that people will be able to find your Group via Internet searches. Take the time to request a listing for your group at relevant meta directories. For instance, local arts councils will often list writing-related groups on their sites.
Once you start getting inquiries, you and the other members may decide to request that prospective members submit work for appraisal before they're admitted to the group.
Workshop groups can get too big; if you have an active group of more than 18 people who all regularly come to meetings, you might want to consider breaking the group into smaller sub-groups that meet at Different times. The ideal group size (from the standpoint of generating stories for critique and providing adequate feedback) is about 6 to 15 people per meeting. With fewer than 6 members, the group tends to run short on work for critique and the feedback can tend to run stale after a while.
If you start a group, you'll be the leader unless you pass the torch to someone else. I recommend trying to be as democratic as possible, but other people have had success with a benign dictatorship. It's up to you and what seems to work for the group. Keeping a good group running will be work, but it will be more than worth it.