I've been in two groups in Utah. Both have been mostly good about getting together regularly, but there are definitely challenges. In the first group, those challenges eventually led to the group dissolving.
The group I'm in now, along with some of the other contributors to this blog, has found a workable solution over the course of the past couple years. The solution has been mentioned in this blog before, but not for a while, so I'll spill our secret for all of you right now.
Google Drive (formerly known as Google Docs).
We try to meet once a month in person, but sometimes it's hard to make our five busy schedules work together to get a second meeting (two a month seems to be our magic number, where my former group tried to meet weekly). In fact, there are many months, especially during the summer and the holiday season, when getting together once is difficult, or when some of us can meet, but not all. Because we are all writing and revising, having both meetings is important. Any fewer than two and it slows our progress.
Taking it online has made the difference and kept us going. The way we do it is fairly simple.
In a perfect month we meet once near the beginning of the month, and critique online in the second half. Or, if schedules don't work out, we'll flip that. And if necessary, we'll do both critiques online for a month.
When we meet in person, we try to post our scenes (about ten pages, again, a length that works for us) in Word format a few days early for pre-reading, but we don't make a big deal about it if one of us (too often this guy
When we critique online, we set a due date, then post somewhere around that date, using email to alert each other than our latest stuff is up and ready to be run through our mental shredders. We critique online, using Google's comment feature to mark up a manuscript and to discuss the comments left by others, then we leave a general impression of the piece at the end of the document.
We also find it useful to write a summary at the top of the document, a synopsis reminding us where we are in the story and what went on before. This helps us get started.
Because editing in Google is in real-time, we occasionally edit at the same time as another person. This does not create any problems, and can sometimes be creepy or fun while we watch another person type magically on our screen.
When necessary, like when one of us has a deadline for a submission or when we want to go over queries, we'll post off-schedule and ask that anybody who has time jump in and take a quick look. This has also worked well.
Google Drive offers another useful feature. You can set up a group calendar with the group's schedule and other special events, like signings, publication dates, birthdays, or whatever. We haven't been consistent about using our calendar, but we could be, and maybe should be.
By going online, we can work our critiques into our schedules, even when our schedules conflict, as they so often do. Online groups are frequently larger than in-person groups, especially if some people in the group are writing less, but we find that the same five members submitting about ten pages twice a month works both in person and online.
Our most enjoyable critique sessions are, of course, the ones that happen when we're in the same room. They result in good discussions, and we can more easily bounce ideas off each other. Also, most of us find it useful (if not always enjoyable) to read our work aloud to the group. It's amazing what you can find when you read aloud. That could be a blog post of its own.
However, our online critiques have other advantages that we don't have in person, such as the amount of time we can spend (especially if we can't find time to pre-read) and, as I said, the ability to work critiques into the rare gaps in our personal schedules.
For the Sharks & Pebbles, combining the two techniques works wonderfully, and gives us what we need. Every group is different, but this works for us. Maybe it will work for you.