Saturday, July 31, 2010

Guest author Patricia Wrede: A Group of One's Own

Patricia Wrede sold her first novel, Shadow Magic, while working as a financial analyst and writing in her spare time. In 1982 she became a founding member of the Interstate Writers' Workshop, aka the Scribblies, to which she belonged for five extremely productive years. In 1985 she decided to quit her day job and write. Since then, she has made her living as a fiction writer. Shadow Magic was followed by Daughter of Witches (1983), The Harp of Imach Thyssel (1985), and Caught in Crystal (1987), among others in the "Lyra" series. These were followed by four novels in the Chronicles of the Enchanted Forest series, as well as short stories, Regency fantasy novels and Star Wars adaptations for Scholastic, among the numerous other works in her prolific publishing career.

January of this year marked the thirtieth anniversary of the first time six would-be writers in Minneapolis got together and formed a critique group. Within five years, all seven of the eventual members sold, and six are still publishing (the seventh went back to his first love, music and songwriting). You may have heard of us: the Scribblies, aka the Interstate Writer's Workshop. Me, Steven Brust, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, and Nate Bucklin.

Ever since, I occasionally get asked what we did so right. Why were the Scribblies so successful?

I've had a lot of chances to observe other writing groups since we all got started, and I've been in a few of them myself, and I think a large part of the answer to that question is, we were lucky, and I don't mean lucky about our writing or our submissions. I mean lucky in the people we ended up with in the group. Because we didn't ask each other any questions about what we wanted before we got started (except of course "Do you want to join a writing group?"). We just jumped right in. And the first and biggest reason I've seen why some writing groups stick together and others fall apart (after the sort of personality conflicts that can occur in any sort of group) is a mismatch in the expectations and needs of the various members.

It seems to me that there are three basic things that writing groups do: they provide a social group of people who have similar interests, they provide a support group of people who understand the hard parts of the job, and they provide serious comment and criticism that's hard to get anywhere else these days. Most groups perform all three functions to some extent, but most also end up focusing primarily on one of the three.

The problem comes when someone who really needs a support group ends up in one where most of the other people want serious criticism, or someone who really wants lots of good criticism ends up in a mostly-social group. If people don't recognize that some folks need and want a different mix, the best outcome is that some of the members will quietly leave. The worst outcome involves blowups and shouting and friendships that may never recover.

I've been a visitor at meetings where it was simply taken for granted that nobody would say "anything mean" – meaning, you weren't expected to say anything negative at all, not so much as pointing out typos. When they got to me and the group leader said, "Now, we're going to get some of that real Scribblies criticism!" I had to tell them that no, they weren't. Because while we certainly included positive comments, "real Scribblies criticism" very much involved saying negative things. We pointed out everything from weak characterization to plot inconsistencies, pacing problems, slithery viewpoint, and awkward or ambiguous sentences, and we weren't nice or hesitant about it, either. We didn't have the time.

Because that's the other reason I think we were so successful: We all took both our writing and the group very, very seriously. We had six members to begin with; seven, eventually, and at the beginning there was rarely a meeting where we didn't have material from at least four people to go over (and it wasn't always the same four). Once we hit our stride, we generally had at least six people with material every month, and we had to go to two-to-three-week intervals in order to keep from having ten-hour marathon critique sessions. Very occasionally, someone wouldn't have time to read and critique everything before the meeting; even more rarely, life would intervene and someone would miss a meeting, but neither happened very often.

The Scribblies were a critique group with occasional support and social functions. We photocopied our pages and passed them out to other members a week or so before each meeting, so everyone would have time to read them and scribble comments in the margins before the meeting. At the meeting we went over each project (usually a chapter or three of a novel, but sometimes a short story, and on a few memorable occasions, complete novels that the author had been storing up to dump on us in one fell swoop) page by page, with everyone making whatever points they had and arguing about them.

The author wasn't prohibited from joining the discussion, but he or she didn't get any more floor time than anyone else, and had the ultimate right to cut off discussion by saying "Thank you, I will think about that." Once in a while, the author would say "OK, what I was trying to do here was X, and obviously it didn't work" and we'd discuss why it didn't and what could be done instead, but mostly, as I remember it, we didn't make suggestions unless the author asked for them. We just pointed out things we thought were problems and things we really liked, and let the author decide what to change and how during revision.

Meetings were all very chaotic, with lots of arm-waving, occasional eye-rolling, and quarts of coffee and tea. We took breaks now and again (you really can't go for ten hours straight without snacks or pizza or take-out or something), but we kept them short. We never had a leader; we never needed one.

I learned an enormous amount from the Scribblies, as much of it from doing the critique of other people's work as from having my own done. Still, I don't recommend crit groups for everyone. Some people are hermits, or just can't accept comments, or need a writing group that provides more support or socializing. If it's not for you, don't force yourself. For those who are interested, though, it can be a great experience and very, very good for your writing.

Patricia Wrede


Charles Gramlich said...

the first group I was in worked that way for quite a while. It's good when you can get it.

Liane Spicer said...

Patricia, thank you so much for being our guest, and here's hoping you fly through those revisions for your latest release!

I think I fall into the 'hermit' category and generally stay away from groups because of those distracting dynamics that often come into play, but I have a critique partner who does the job and we're comfortable enough with each other to be frank. A group that works well must be fun, though.

KeVin K. said...

Patricia! Delighted to see you.

I have never wanted anything from a writing group other than serious comment and criticism, but all I have ever found are the warm-and-fuzzy support sort. (Okay, one or two we-are-soulful-artists anti-social groups.) With the exception of some fantastic writing-is-a-job workshops I have never been part of any writing group that did anything for my craftsmanship.
I envy you your Scribblies.
But I haven't given up on finding one of my own.

Thanks for coming by. I hope we see more of you.

Stefanie Worth said...

Patricia -- Thanks for joining us here.

I can relate to your experience with the Scribblies because I got my start with a successful critique group. While we allowed ourselves to be social, we had structure to the meetings that supported our purpose: publishing books. Over time, we learned each other's writing needs and tailored our critiques so that each member was getting what she most needed in addition to what we felt would help. We've not met formally for the better part of a year now as personality clashes arose between a couple of members and life got in the way with me. But I look forward to re-grouping soon. I truly credit a good chunk of my industry knowledge to our shared experiences.