Since January of 2009, I have organized, run and moderated a screenwriters group that meets every Monday night in West Hollywood. We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in keeping the group going, never missing a Monday, save for holidays and the very rare random Monday off. We’ve had people come and go but “Monday Night Writers Group” has lived on for almost five years now and we have helped actors become writers, producers find projects, new writers become award winners and we’ve evolved to become a collection of DIY filmmakers as well.
Since founding the group, I have learned that we are the exception. Writer groups simply do not tend to last very long. So why has ours been able to last? Every Monday I am going to write about our group, with personal anecdotes, tips on running your own group and all the areas that come up within the group dynamic.
Here are my thoughts on the basics of how to start and keep a good group going.
Before I dive into my advice on starting and running a group, here were my main reasons for wanting to be part of a group.
1) Forced accountability – Like every writer I’ve ever met, I love to put off the act of… well, writing. I figured that if I have to show up each week to lead a group of writers then I would be much more likely to write.
2) Make writing a less isolated pursuit – by making writing a weekly social activity you expand your circle of friends and create a bonded community of support for your creative goals. Building community has become our mission and it has proved to be more valuable than I ever imagined it would be.
3) Get better – Reading lots of good and bad scripts and being around writers – hearing their notes, their struggles, their insight and experiences can only make you a stronger writer and getting better is the only goal.
After looking online and asking around, I decided the best way to join a group was to start one myself. I sent an email out to everyone I knew (and liked) who had shown interest in screenwriting. In that invitation, I included a structure similar to a semester syllabus that gave people a specific idea of what our plans and goals for the group were. What I found out is that people respond very positively to structure. I wanted to weed out the people that would just want to show up and chat, instead finding people who actually wanted to write a feature film script. I ended the email by asking people to bring in up to three pitches for movies they wanted to write and told them that the group would then offer feedback on which was the strongest idea. Presumably, that would be the one they would tackle as their project to work on.
We’ve learned from a lot of trial and error through the last few years but one thing remains clear – PEOPLE WANT STRUCTURE. Don’t be afraid of blowing people out by making it seem tough. Writing is tough and, if someone isn’t willing to do the work, do you really want them in your group?
Some ideas for structure
Required reading – Get your hands on screenplays from produced and unproduced films and send out a script each week. Discuss it as a group the following week. In order to be a better writer you must read a lot of scripts.
Page accountability – at the end of each meeting, assign specific people to bring in pages the next week. If they don’t, hold them accountable, even so far as to not allow for more than a couple of times before they must leave the group. Sounds harsh but you want a solid group, right?
Assign a specific topic for people to speak on – give everyone a chance to research a specific area of screenwriting and teach the group what they learned…structure, dialog, scene description, networking, writing loglines, the list of topics is endless.
Set a deadline – get people to commit to a date when they will finish their first draft. Deadlines are a huge motivator. Hold people to it. Almost everyone responds well to deadlines.
Attendance/Participation – make it mandatory that everyone attend, especially when they first join the group. If someone is repeatedly absent then ask them to step out of the group until their schedule allows them to commit. And for those who are there, make it well known that you MUST participate. That means you need to read people’s scripts, offer feedback, share pages, give support, make yourself valuable to the group by giving to it. (And here is a tip: the person who brings the best snacks and/or alcohol will always be welcomed back)
The group needs a leader – Maybe you don’t feel equipped but you have to step up if you are going to found the group. The benefit of this is that you will push yourself harder than you would otherwise to learn and grow as a write. Be the leader.
If you treat your group with serious commitment then your group will be seriously committed.
Next Monday I’ll tell you what that first meeting was like and how you can get off to an even better start than we did.
* this post was first published in June of 2011. It has been edited and reposted for the relaunch of the blog and The Monday Night Writers Group series of articles.