Tips on How to find a Writers Group that’s right for you
This is the outline I used for the writers workshop I helped run last Friday (2/19/16). The topic: How to find your Goldilocks Writers Group (one that’s just right!).
After the workshop, my writers group, The Black Hats, was asked to do a second sessionII! Apparently, while we were doing our scheduled one, customers who were just browsing in the book store but didn’t have time to sit for the workshop asked if we would be coming back. And even though it was raining, we had a good turnout. Almost every seat taken!
If we do decide to make this a regular monthly thing, I’ll post the outline for our workshops a few days later on this blog, but I encourage you to attend if you’re in the area. There’s a lot of spontaneous discussion that could help clarify topics (The Lubed-Up Hamster Ball Effect) and provide insights from different experiences (High-Gloss Dwarf Pectorals).
I am a mass of photosynthetic cells. Criticism is like sunlight. It may burn sometimes, but it will help me grow.
I. What is a writers group
* It’s a group of writers who meet together to improve their craft.
* Hopefully, it’s a group of writers with a good balance of similarities and differences.
1A. You all have similar end goals:
Having similar goals doesn’t create competition, it creates a network. You can build off each other, learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. I’m not talking about a specific goal like you all want to be traditionally published or you all want to be Amazon bestsellers within a year, but similar goals like you all would like to be published in some way, within a year of finishing a specific story.
Not having similar goals can lead to some writers feeling resentment at other writers for having deadlines or no deadlines. Successes might not mean as much to the group. Personal failures might be harder to get over if no one cares or understands or cares to understand.
Different end goals can result in people having vastly different paces and pressures, which could tear a group apart.
2A. You have similar comfort thresholds:
It’s very difficult to talk about a horror scene or a sex scene with a flinch-free writer (flinch-free is a category of stories that are comparable to PG-13 movies; no sex, no cussing, no violence). As much as you want to be super welcoming and all encompassing, it’s a lose-lose situation to have to censor yourself when talking about subjects that are important to you and relevant to your story (ie, trauma, abuse, revolutionary violence, sexual awakening).
On the other hand, flinch-free stories fill an important need for people who enjoy reading but may have religious restrictions or other personal reasons.
Censorship is a writer’s kryptonite.
This also pertains to cussing. Some people feel like cussing is terrible and people who cuss are lazy and cussing in writing is lazy writing. Other people feel like it’s part of who they are. Again, a lose-lose situation to try and combine a group of people who need to explore such subjects and use such language with a group of people who avoid such things.
3A. You have similar schedules:
This is totally going to be up to you and it dovetails with the “similar goals” topic: If you want to make writing a career, you have to treat it like a job. And writers groups are like team meetings or meetings with other department heads. If you meet too often, you’ll have less time to get your own things done. If you don’t meet often enough, you lose momentum, accountability. You lose your way.
It will depend on your personality, but there has to be some discipline. For example, I need a writer’s group that meets twice a month. That’s my sweet spot. And because I have a busy schedule, it needs to be anchored better than “we’ll meet some time in the next few weeks”.
In a group, look for people who are willing to anchor a time and place but have some flexibility and compassion if emergencies arise.
1B. You don’t all have to write the same genre. In fact, I prefer groups with a good mix. No genre is pure and the best stories are sprinkled with tropes from all of them.
(However, genres *do* exist for a reason: so readers can find the type of stories they want to read. Once you’re in a writers group, it’s helpful to remember what genre the story is supposed to be, and approach critiquing in that manner. IE, the emphasis of developing a Love Interest is stronger in Romance than in Horror.)
2B. You don’t all have to have the same skill.
That’s like only hiring people who have at least five years of experience. New people need guidance. And the thing I like to say to people who think they’re too good to hang out with “beginners” is, until you can explain something to a beginner, you can’t call yourself a master at it.
Also, beginner writers are as close to pure readers as you’re going to get. Hopefully, they’ll have a fresher viewpoint of what makes sense vs what doesn’t make sense FROM A READER’S point of view. They see things from an “innocent” point of view, and with experience in seeing how a story gets put together, that innocence fades.
3B. You don’t all need to have the same opinions about writing techniques, favorite authors, etc.
It’s more interesting and helpful to work with someone who can teach you something new and challenge you with something you don’t agree with. “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.” – Lots of famous people.
Size and Experience
C. Some caveats:
The size of the writing group: In this instance, choose a size that fills your needs but there are pros and cons to the extremes.
If the writing group is very small, say 3 to 5 people, the pro is that you get a lot of time and focus on your own piece.
The con is that if one or two members can’t regularly make it to meetings, you won’t meet as regularly. You’ll also get more variety in experience and critiques.
If a writing group is large, about ten people or more, you have a higher chance of meeting more regularly, but you might not get as much focus on your work. You’ll either have only a few minutes of critiquing or go several meetings without getting personal help.
In really big groups that call themselves writers groups, they might have events where you just read your work but get no criticism, or events where you all go out to dinner some place and just talk about writing in general, or you have speakers come to talk to you about the writing industry. This can be helpful, but it’s more like a group of friends doing things together rather than the intensive work you can be doing for each other.
If you get a mostly-beginners group, you could end up having a teacher-pupil relationship in which you do most of the critiquing but you don’t get challenged. Or if you’re part of the beginners crowd, you could end up being dependent on one “teacher”.
If you get into a mostly everyone-has-been-published-somewhere group, it’s a good place to network, and your writing could improve by leaps and bounds, but you might have to deal with egos or impatience.
Are the criticisms helping you, or taking advantage of your vulnerabilities?
D. How to know when it’s not the right fit:
1D. People. Are. Mean.
I’m not talking about criticism that’s hard to hear. That kind of criticism is difficult to hear because you know deep down in your heart that they’re right about that 30k word prologue, or the suggestion that you might not be using a word correctly, or a character is too unbelievable. It might hurt because it’s true and it requires a HUGE effort to fix.
But there *are* mean people who give feedback that’s designed not to help you but to take advantage of your experience or to make themselves feel good.
(This is a major difference between a writers group in real life and getting critiques in writers forums. IRL, you hear intonation and see facial expressions; you can know someone’s intent beyond the words they use. Online, critiques can be misread, and they’re delivered without the softening influence of an encouraging smile or quick inside joke.)
2D. People think YOU are mean.
If your criticisms are constantly being questioned, the people you’re working with might not be ready for that next level of writing, which is the level where you actually show your writing to people other than your mom or best friend.
3D. Going along with this and the “common goals” criterion above:
There are two rough categories of writers: those who write for the public, and those who write for themselves. Those who write for the public will respond better to critiques. Those who write “for themselves” as in, therapeutically, or they don’t know if they want to publish it, might not want or respond to feedback. It’s possible, but difficult, to have both types in a small group.
4D. Another sign it’s not the right fit –
People are condescending about your skill level or your genre. This is an indication of their own limited dealing with the writing world. There is value in all points of view, wisdom to be learned in every experience, and the boundaries between genres are and should be fluid and dynamic.
5D. The feedback isn’t challenging anyone.
If it’s a new group, people might be getting a feel for everyone’s comfort level. But if they’v been meeting for a while, this could be an indication that this is an Atta-group, as in Atta-Boy! or Atta-Girl! It’s great for fragile egos and tender souls, but your work needs to be put through a cleansing fire, not a lukewarm bath.
6D. The criticisms are designed to make you write like they do.
This is insidious and egotistical and it will eventually kill your voice if you don’t catch it in time. The most obvious sign is if someone says “I would do it differently”. The less obvious sign is overuse of the word “should” as in, “you should make that scene longer” or “you should write about X instead in that scene.”
“Should” is helpful if it protects you, like preventing you from accidentally looking like a misogynist, as in “you should have more female characters that aren’t just girlfriends he has to rescue.”
This, above all: it’s not about you, it’s about the story.
E. On your end, how can you tell if you are ready for a group:
1E. You can differentiate between giving an explanation to be understood and giving an explanation because you feel defensive.
For example, someone says that a scene seems unrealistic.
There’s a difference between “I need to have a scene like this because it foreshadows the climax and highlights the growing tension between A and B.”
“In the chapter I gave out last week, I put in a lot of clues that this was going to happen. It’s the cornerstone of this whole section in my book which I’ve been giving you guys for weeks.”
2E. You go in with the attitude “I don’t do rewrites.”
3E. You take everything personally. You might not be ready for a group dynamic, and maybe some one-on-one time can help you grow a thicker skin.
F. How to give critique:
When in doubt, use PCP
Example: The apple pie in the first scene helped introduce the theme of innocence. But in the third scene, Aunt Marge seemed to act out of character – I suggest using more foreshadowing to hint at her possible reactions. By the end of the chapter, I like how you tied up some loose ends but left me wanting to know what really happened to that pie.
G. If it’s your first time getting feedback and criticism, remember this idea:
“I am a mass of photosynthetic cells. Criticism is like sunlight. It may burn sometimes but it will help me grow.”
Hang out in my mental playground! My short are stories available on Amazon, Fresh Cuts: Breaking Volume.