Learn how to start a reading group for writers with Electric Sheep’s Myna Chang!

Reading, reading, reading. It’s one of the things that writers, in the midst of writing, set aside, even though it is an essential part of the practice. Most of us grow up reading in school while we learn how to write. It’s encouraged in college- and graduate school-level studies and continues when you plug away with paper and pen as an adult. Whether it’s reading in your genre, reading to discover new voices, reading to explore craft, reading to dissect excellence: it’s all a part of the art of writing.  

School offered a convenient classroom-teacher structure for reading and learning to write, but as adults, it can be harder to find that kind of community without taking a class or going back to university. There are plenty of opportunities: I’ve taken terrific reading classes from Politics and Prose (now virtual), and I’ve heard of the inspiring instruction incorporating reading and writing through Word West

I’m a member of a reading group that blossomed from a course at Politics and Prose. It continues as a close-knit community of writers (and readers) who meet weekly to discuss speculative short fiction. Called Electric Sheep and led by writer Myna Chang, the group picks an author, story, and/or publication to focus on each session. The result is conversation, learning, and connection between the joy of reading and the art of writing. 

Myna answered a few questions about Electric Sheep and how writers can create this kind of reading group themselves. 

What is Electric Sheep? 

Electric Sheep is a speculative fiction discussion group. We meet weekly via Zoom to discuss science fiction, fantasy, and speculative horror short stories. One of our primary goals is to have fun. We also want to promote and celebrate the authors of the stories we read. Of course, improving our own writing is at the heart of the group.

Why would you recommend creating a reading group instead of (or in addition to) a writing group? 

A discussion group is a great supplement to a traditional critique group. For us, focusing on published pieces and sharing our opinions in a safe space allows us to gain a deeper understanding of the art of speculative fiction. The nature of our discussion encourages a close reading of the weekly stories and gives us dedicated time to reflect not only on what we like but also why we like it. It’s fascinating to learn how others in the group view different aspects of the stories, especially when we have differing opinions. These insights can help us avoid pitfalls or experiment with fresh approaches in our work.

Electric Sheep happens entirely virtually. What about the virtual platform helps the group meet, discuss, and do its work? 

We wouldn’t be able to do this without the fantastic virtual meeting and collaboration tools that are available now. We have members from several countries and time zones, so the only way for us to meet synchronously on a regular basis is through a virtual meeting platform. Virtual face-to-face interaction allows more nuanced conversation that we could have achieved through an old-school message board. We use shared Google Docs to manage our schedule and upcoming meeting topics. Twitter has been the easiest way to contact and schedule our guest speakers.

Aside from meeting and organization concerns, the thing I appreciate most is the way group members have been able to find each other. It’s not always easy (or possible!) to find local people with the same niche interest—whether that’s space opera fans or flash fiction writers or lit zine editors. Virtual tools allow us to find and collaborate with people outside our neighborhoods and nearby physical environs. As a lifelong scifi fan, I’m thrilled to have a group of people willing to talk with me about the challenges of FTL travel or temporal paradoxes.

“It’s fascinating to learn how others in the group view different aspects of the stories, especially when we have differing opinions. These insights can help us avoid pitfalls or experiment with fresh approaches in our work.”

Do you have any suggestions for how to juggle multiple time zones when virtual groups include members from all over the world?

Time zones are tricky. When we first formed Electric Sheep, most of our group members were from the US East Coast. We knew mid-morning on Saturdays worked for us. This time allows our US West Coast friends to join us if they don’t mind getting up early, and our friends in Western Australia can make it if they’re willing to stay up late. There have been a number of folks from other time zones who simply can’t make it work because our meeting is at 3 am in their local time zone. In those cases, I encourage them to form their own groups.

You’re a wonderful writer. When you’re looking for a community to support your own practice, what qualities are you searching for? 

Thank you! I’ve been lucky to stumble into a few supportive writing groups. The groups I’ve stuck with value honesty and kindness in equal measure.

What are some examples of other communities you like or recommend? 

There are several groups on Facebook and a chat group on Twitter that I rely on for shared resources and moral support. I also love writing contests. There is a strong sense of camaraderie with other participants in contests like New York City Midnight and YeahWrite. I’ve connected with several awesome writers through WOW Women on Writing. Some presses have supportive groups, too, such as TL;DR Press’s Slack writing group, or Barrelhouse’s Write-ins. And it’s easy to connect through the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter. I see so many new things every day that I’d love to join, if only I had unlimited time.

What’s one “do” and one “don’t” when it comes to participating in a virtual reading group like Electric Sheep? 

Do be respectful of others’ opinions and don’t forget to mute your mic when you’re not speaking. Also, we all want to meet your cats/dogs/goats, so let ‘em crowd in front of your camera with you.

How can people follow Electric Sheep? 

We’re on Twitter @ElectricSheepSF. We’ve capped membership to ensure our discussions don’t become too unwieldy, but we hope folks will follow along with our reading schedule to discover great new stories and authors.

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