Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Some thoughts on writing groups

A good writing or critique group can be terrific.
A bad group can be toxic.

Thirty-some years ago I read that all beginning writers should join a writing group. The idea behind the advice is that fellow writers can give you more useful feedback than your family while costing less than a writing course. I of course asked about writers' groups at my favorite book store and was delighted to learn a published author led a group that met there weekly. I went eagerly the first night and introduced myself and listened closely while the published author explained to another member what he needed to do differently with his writing. Other members asked her questions which she answered in very broad and general terms. I handed out copies of my writing sample, I do not remember what it was, and arrived early the next week to hear what she had to say. She said I had to "care about my characters more" and "make them come alive." She had no advice on how to do this. Neither did anyone else in the group, though they all made careful note of what she said. By my third visit I'd noticed that all of her critiques were vague and "feely" with no concrete specifics. I asked the folks at the bookstore to direct me to her published book. They explained they didn't have it because they did not carry vanity press titles. I didn't go back for a fourth meeting.

The next group I found was led by a published poet who could not remember the name of the literary review that had taken two of her poems a decade before. I left shortly after the introductions.

I thought I'd made it with my third group. Everyone seemed enthusiastic about my writing and they all had good things to say about my story and how it made them feel. I felt all warm and fuzzy until I realized – by about the third meeting – that they were enthusiastic about everyone's writing and did not tire of saying good things about each other's work. This was not a writing group – this was a support group for writers; a group of people devoted to validating each other's belief they were a writer. Good feelings, not good critiques, were the objective.

My fourth group sprang from a scriptwriting class I took at the community college. I enjoyed these people and we had good times together – and got some real critiquing done. But I was the most experienced member of the group and I have a teacher's personality: within a few months I was giving instruction and the other members were treating the sessions as an extension of the community college course. We dissolved amicably.

My fifth and last attempt to be part of a live, real-world writing group involved a handful of graduates from the UNCW CFA program. We could not find a room large enough to hold both the egos and the pretentions and quickly went our separate ways.

Of course, much as I prefer reality, it's not the only option. The internet makes all sorts of writing groups possible.
Critters, founded by Dr. Andrew Burt, is an online global critique pool for writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. To have your work critiqued by others, you first critique the work of others. There's a central library, if you will, of submitted stories, and once you have read and critiqued stories from 'x' number of writers, your story is added to the library for others to download and critique. I have heard this system working very well for some writers. I tried it and discovered I did not like the anonymity; the lack of contact and context. Also the professionalism of both the stories and the critics varied widely. However, it is an effective avenue for getting feedback from other writers.

I have been part of two very different online writing groups. There were six of us in the first group, all at about the same skill and experience level. Each Monday one of us would send a complete short story (7k words max) to the other members. Written critiques, sent only to the writer, were encouraged. Then on Sunday evenings the group would gather in a chat room and discuss the story. This worked well, particularly since mutual respect and professionalism ran high; however our lack of expertise and experience limited the amount of help we could give each other. Some of us still keep in touch and four of the six have gone on to be published writers.

My second online group was another feel-good club. My first and last attempt to give a serious critique was roundly denounced as an unwarranted personal attack. I have no idea where any of those people are today.

Soooo. Having failed at several writers' groups, do I have any thoughts on what makes a good group? I'm tempted to say "nope" and end the column right here, but the truth is as long as I have a pulse I'm going to have opinions. In no particular order:
> Keep it professional. You may end up friends, but you are not in this to find more pals to hang out with. Focus on writing and improving your craftsmanship.
> As much as possible include a variety of skill levels. Keep the spectrum reasonable, but you learn from people a few steps ahead of you and you perfect your skills by teaching them to those a few steps behind.
> How you rotate critiquing and writing is up to you, but rotate. Keep the group small enough and active enough that everyone is involved every time you get together. Nothing kills a participant's enthusiasm quicker than not being allowed to participate. (And nothing burns a participant out quicker than the sense she is doing all the work.)
> Always pay it forward. (Actually, that's not restricted to writing groups. It's a darn good idea no matter what you're doing.)

Whether online or in person, a bad writing group can drain you, mislead you, and beat you up. Learn to spot the danger signs and move on immediately.
But online or in person, a good writing group can invigorate you, steady you, enlighten you, and keep you up and moving forward.


Talli Roland said...

I use my writers' group mainly to get out of the house. I really like the people in it; we have dinner first and chat; but if I'm looking for good critical feedback it isn't *always* worthwhile. Still, it's good to get out into the world!

Phyllis Bourne said...

I haven't been in a writer's group. Before I was published I used contest feedback for direction. Now I just go with my own gut.

However, I always wish I were in a group. Just haven't done anything about it.

Thanks for sharing your experience and the pitfalls!

Liane Spicer said...

I'm not convinced critique groups are for me. I do have a critique partner, though, and I find the feedback I get from him invaluable. He's more of a 'first reader' actually, and neither he nor anyone else reads anything before the first draft is complete.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps all writing groups should have a clear manifesto. That way the newbies would know exactly what to expect. Of course, whether the group sticks to the manifesto is another matter.