Ways to Socialize Online with Your Writers Group That Don’t Involve Critiquing Each Other’s Stories

As social isolation continues, more and more of us are becoming adept with using Zoom for videocalls. It’s been the platform that my school uses for the past year, and one thing I’ve done is introduce various community events. Such events have become my main way of socializing, in fact, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know people over the course of calls, with moments like seeing someone’s sleeping partner being woken by their cat in the background or a child stealthily peeping around a doorway, as well as a chance to see what backgrounds people choose to amuse and express themselves.

Zoom is well suited to the size of most writers groups, in my opinion. The functionality allows you to control the flow of conversation and not have everyone talking over everyone else. You can screen share if you want to show people something, and people can private message back and forth if they want to do the equivalent of whispering. And the nice thing is that you can do a lot more than just critiquing each other’s stories. Here’s some possibilities.

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How We Currently Use It

The by far most popular thing I have done is establish daily co-working sessions. I’ve talked about how run them productively elsewhere, but the basics are to have an established format and a facilitator willing to keep that format in place. The Chez Rambo calls currently run about 15–20 people most of the time, and people have said that they’ve helped add structure to their day and kept them productive in the face of chaos. Some people are regulars and it’s been fun to see a number of projects completed over the course

Clean and chat sessions are calls where we all log in and clean our workspaces (or perform the equivalent, like sorting papers), while talking with each other. It’s a nice way to catch up and discussion ranges all over the place. It’s also a nice way to clean my workspace without getting too distracted or yielding to the temptation to just hang out on Twitter instead.

There’s plenty of live writing classes going on each week via Zoom, and most of the instructors are taking the chance to hang out a bit on the school chat server as well. Often we use class topics as springboards for ongoing conversations.

We’ve also done Netflix parties and watched Twitch games. Both of those offer a way to chat and offer commentary while watching. Participants must supply their own popcorn.

Coming Expansions

Now we’re looking at expanding what we do, because we’re finding that our community is strengthened by our interactions. We’ve seen one member finish their novel in the past week and we’re watching someone else finish his very first story ever. During the co-working check-ins, anyone who’s accomplished something gets jazzhands from the group as an accolade. and there’s something about a screenful of fluttering fingers that is sweet and awesome and cheering.

Since a lot of us do handicrafts, I’ve implemented a few sessions specifically for those. That’ll give people a chance to talk about what they’re working on and show it off, which I think is nifty, and I look forward to seeing what sorts of projects people bring. I’m going to be working on modifying a Breyer horse — I think I’ll be at either the mane-painting stage or making some accoutrements out of Sculpey.

We’re definitely going to be doing a weekly reading group, and I’m going to focus on short stories for that, because a) it gives people enough time to read and think about them, and b) I have a great many short stories that I’d like to discuss with people, and terrific writers to introduce them to! I’m already going through my shelves and debating whether to start with Emshwiller, Lafferty, or someone else entirely.

Playing writing games together seems like a no brainer. Things like exquisite corpses and writing from the same prompt can be a lot of fun and also a solid dose of creativity. And I know I’ve got plenty of them up my sleeve, because I’m always looking for interesting ones to utilize in my flash fiction class. I’d guess that at least a quarter to a third of my published flash fiction pieces have come out of class exercises like these, so I am really looking forward to writing these — as well as hearing what multiple people do with the same prompt, which is always fascinating.

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Wilder Ideas Yet

There’s so many possibilities with Zoom. Someone mentioned recently that the pandemic had, paradoxically, reunited them with a favorite circus teacher who’d moved to another coast. Before they were inaccessible, but now they are teaching via Zoom. Here’s some other things I have thought about.

Group readings, where everyone comes with a short piece, to read might be a great way to hear each other’s work, and could be stuck up on YouTube in order to spread the joy/publicity.

Group play readings were a social event that I loved while in grad school, and we read all over the place, including Shakespeare, Thornton Wilder, and David Mamet. This could be a blast to organize, particularly with people who are talented narrators…

Storytelling games are a strong possibility and there are certainly plenty of them around. Play a game of Microscope, then have everyone write a story set in the milieu you establish. Or a round of Fiasco, or any of the other of literally hundreds such games that are out there.

Things to Keep in Mind

There are definitely some things you should keep in mind when scheduling and planning events.

For one, the URL for the event should be distributed privately and you may want to use the waiting room feature. I put the link up as a private Patreon post as well as on my community’s Discord server.

Try to accommodate varying schedules — while social isolation means some folks aren’t going anywhere, that’s only true for about a quarter of America’s workers. And if your group is geographically widespread, you will need to take varying time zones into account as well. While you can’t please everyone, try to make sure it’s not always the same person who’s having to lose sleep in order to participate.

World Fantasy and Nebula-nominated speculative fiction writer/editor. I read and write a lot.

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