Friday, May 11, 2007

Why 6 is the Magic Number

(photo by Geri-Jean Blanchard from
I was talking with my friend Dan the other day--he's working on his writing, but sometimes finds it hard to finish projects. I suggested that he look around for a writer's group, or else start one. I've started a few playwright's groups--one has been going for 14 years and another is about five years old, plus I belong to a fiction writer's group. I've thought a lot about what it takes to make a writer's group work:

Size matters. For a group that meets fairly often, six is an ideal number. If you have people bring material every session, you can give everyone a chance in a three-hour session. In order for a meeting to be effective, you really need a minimum of four people present. If you have six people in your group, you won't have to cancel, even if someone is sick and another has dress rehearsal. With half a dozen writers, each person can have her say without an excessive amount of repetition. And with six people, there's less of a tendency for one or two dominant personalities to use up all the oxygen (as often happens in larger groups). If you meet once a month, and bring in longer pieces, six writers only have to produce twice a year, which is possible for most writers.

Chemistry counts. Finding six people who can all stand being in the same room with each other, year after year, is not easy. A lot of it is luck. It can be helpful to state from the outset that this is a new group and be sure to schedule a session explicitly for the purpose of evaluating how well the group has begun to gel. If it's not, then you're better off closing the group, with no hard feelings. Once a successful group is established, it's hard to fill empty slots, and patience is critical. In my playwrights group, we actually bring in prospective members as guest writers for one session before deciding. In order to include someone new, the decision needs to be unanimous.

Quality. I think it's a good idea not to be the best writer in your group (for at least one person, it can't be helped I suppose). I like working with people who I can learn from. As much as I want diversity in my group in most aspects, I think it is important to have writers of a somewhat narrow range of experience. Putting pure novices together with bestselling authors is unlikely to be useful for either set.

Diversity. When putting together a group, it's important to have writers who write fairly differently from each other, but who can still appreciate the writing of each group member. A mix of genders, ages, races is much more stimulating than having five other folks whose writing styles and backgrounds are carbon copies of each other (and you).

Evaluate. My Rhombus playwright's group meets twice a year for four-month sessions (two times a month). After each semester, we schedule a business meeting where we just talk about the business of the group and how it's working. It's important to have this time away from the regular meetings, in order to continually refine the format and function of the group. (We always do it over dessert potluck, which is a fine traditions for writers with sweet tooths like me.)

Actors. This applies to playwrights groups. Find the best possible actors. Pay them a little bit if you can swing it. We hire two men and two women to read with us for the semester. We use different actors in the fall and spring semesters. Working with experienced actors helps all of our scripts, and the relationships that we've all formed have benefited everyone. One play developed in Rhombus went on to an Equity production and the show was able to use three actors who'd been reading the roles in our group.

Those are the main things I can think of at the moment. If you've had good luck starting groups and have other insights, please comment. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I'm especially curious about small screenwriter's groups. (There's a large screenwriter's group around here, but it seemed awfully big to me.)


Marissa said...

Nice summary, Patrick. Do either of your groups spend any focused time addressing publication or submissions, or is that a natural byproduct?

patrick said...

The two groups that I belong to mostly focus on the creation of new plays or fiction. Since all of us are getting produced or published, we do end up talking about marketing and the business a fair amount, but that's not the intentional focus of the group.