You've reached a level in your writing where 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 clueful feedback. Or, maybe you've been in workshops before, and you've just moved to a new city where you know nary a soul.
How do you go about finding -- or creating -- a workshop that will serve your needs?
While there are plenty of online writers' workshops (such as our very own E2 Prose Writers Group) that can be a big help to writers, I've found that in-person writing workshops can be even more helpful because they provide for more in-depth discussion. 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 and 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 50 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.
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 www.critters.org may be particularly fruitful.
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 Department 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 workshopped ("If this is your first night at Write Club, you have to submit!"). 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 slam their genres. If you already have some people committed to being in the group who are also published writers, include a sentence along the lines of "Our members have been published in The New York Paper, Bamboo Quarterly, Downstate Story, (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), 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 (http://groups.yahoo.com/) or similar site so that you and the others can more easily communicate and share files and other information.
And 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.
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. Failing that, many public libraries, bookstores, and coffehouses may have suitable spaces available. 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. 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 workshopping 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. Read the node on The Milford System for advice on how to run a workshopping session. Try to keep things on-topic; 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; they may be having personal problems, or not realize the negative effect they're having. If they seem resentful of your concern, 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 should be able to share market information and success stories.
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 metadirectories.
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.
Workshopping 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 adquate 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 tends to run stale after a while.