What to look for
There are two reasons I don’t use writers’ groups. The first is kind of obvious to the people that know me. I can’t do a “group” thing. I get very nervous and panic easily and then end up saying things that are tactless even by my standards. Having social anxiety and PTSD just makes it difficult and then my second reason makes it so that I have no desire to push myself.
I don’t trust the groups. As you’ve probably noticed from my journals, I’m pretty opinionated about a lot of things writers tend to discuss. I don’t fit the culture overall and I tend to add a little too much salt to the advice groups give, making it pretty useless.
I consider these more personal problems than professional advice though. A good writers’ group can really improve your skill and help you get some social interaction with likeminded individuals. Just the exposure to different personalities can be helpful.
So what to look at in a group: the good, the bad, and the literary horror story.
My first warning is about what I think of as the group patriarch/matriarch. Every group is going to have an organizer or two. There’ll be people that’re the glue that holds the group together (more on them later), but what you don’t want to see is the one like the lady in my friend’s group, to whom all others will defer. This person is usually published and actually goes to lengths to ensure that no other published individual joins the group. You will find this person, if present, at the very first meeting because if she isn’t present, they cancel the meeting. Her opinion tends to work a little like a black hole: sucking the light from other people’s comments and forcing them to submit to her greater experience. You won’t develop as a writer in a group with one like that. You’ll instead be reforged into a mini version of the great matriarch, except without your own soul in there, your works will be second rate at best. Groups like this also tend to suffer from inbreeding, which I’ll get to later.
What you do want to see, is a core group: people that have been with the group for a long time and complete each other’s sentences or movie quotes. Unlike the matriarch, these people exude energy and likeability. They have knowledge they want to share and are excited to learn more. You’ll recognize these people at the first meeting as well. There are usually one or two that actually organize the meetings, but the circle is larger than that. When things are being discussed, you’ll notice that they don’t always agree with each other. You might even see one ask another about a specific area that perhaps is an expertise to that person. If they have food, these are the people that have Doritos and Mountain Dew or, if they’re health conscious, something like a taco bar. They never serve cucumber sandwiches.
A good group sees a little turnover. Ask how long people have been with the group. You’re looking for a little bit of a spread if the group’s established. If it’s new, ask a simple question about maybe inviting a friend, not someone specific but just in case you happen upon someone. Many groups will have a limit to their number, so being told no isn’t the problem. Being told that they never accept new members or that they have a type of vetting process usually isn’t a good sign. A group needs new blood every now and again. It adds a new perspective and gives it a broader knowledge base.
And of course, it goes without saying that a good group is willing to help you get better. That means that criticism is presented in a way to help you get better, not in a way that only makes the critic feel better. You’ll hear all kinds of garbage about “tough love” and stuff. In my experience, it’s usually an excuse to act like a jerk. Like I mentioned in my last journal, they should talk about the writing, not confuse a different perspective with being right or wrong, and not attack the author personally. If you come back from the group feeling worse about your skill, it’s not helping you get better. You should see clearly where you are, but the group should be concentrating more on what’s ahead.
The last thing I’ll talk about for groups is the rules. A good group has a set format and some basic ground rules. It’s not so important what the rules are as it is that they exist. Without rules things tend to break down fast and you’ll often have most of the discussion dominated by a few people. On the other extreme, if there are too many rules it can often leave people feeling cautious about saying things. Not all groups have the rule, but I’m pretty partial to the “no specific spelling, grammar, or punctation comments.” If the person consistently misuses commas you can mention that it’s something that needs work, but none of that “page 22, third paragraph, second line, fifth word should be capitalized” crap. Waste of time. If the person wanted an editor, she should hire an editor, not go to a writing group.
I’ll close by talking about something that I see a lot in the writing community and while it doesn’t just happen in groups, it often does. I call it inbreeding. (Blame my biology degree.) “I don’t get it, I write at least an hour a day and have been for the last five years, why aren’t I getting published?” “But Chaaya, I’ve done everything they taught at my yearly writing seminar and I don’t feel like it’s made any difference.” My publisher’s favorite, “I’ve been writing longer than you’ve been alive. You just lack the intelligence to see its greatness.”
Let me put this as gently as I can… It doesn’t matter how much you write, if you stink and don’t want to admit you stink, you’re not going to get any better. Writing based on the opinion of the 25 people at the seminar doesn’t mean anything, especially since money was weighed more than skill. Telling a 50-year-old publisher that you’ve been writing longer than he’s been alive and that he’s not smart enough to appreciate your work says a lot more about your intelligence than it does his. (He looks around 35.)
In all of these cases, the writers are not getting a broad enough view on their work. The expanded view can come from reading books about writing (not my favorite), going to writers’ groups (also not my favorite), or attending different seminars (still not my favorite.)
My favorite method, it turns out, doesn’t work for many people. I write a scene and then find something similar that’s been published. I then compare it, looking at emotive power, pacing, word use, clarity, and a bunch of other things. Reading a lot of stuff isn’t enough. For this to work, you need to be making active comparisons. It helps even more if you can compare to multiple sources. I also actively watch that stuff when I read and compare it back to things I’ve written, so it works both ways.
By only listening to the same friends, by writing every day the same way you always write, or by keeping an attitude where you expect others to understand you and never work to be understood, you’re suffering from inbreeding and will never improve.
That’s about it for this week. I’ll give some tips about starting a writers’ group next week. They’ll be coming from others because I’ve honestly never started one, but it seems like something people would be interested in doing.
Thank you to my few followers. I’ve gained a bunch lately and that’s exciting. I told myself when I came to FA that I’d be happy to have 25 followers and now I’m near 50. Not bad for an author. I’m sure there’re some with a lot more, but I’m very happy.
If you have suggestions, you can send a note, mention it in the comments, or contact my publisher on social media (RealRPGames). I’m also excited to hear if anyone has any other pointers on what to look for in a group. I’ll admit my experience is from another age, but from what I’ve heard this still applies.
Be well friends.
May you keep running forward and never look back.
13 October 2020 at 09:20:37 MDT