AN EXPLORATATIVE ESSAY ON WRITING GROUPS
Going to meet a room full of strangers is one thing. Taking your book child to be sacrificed on a pagan altar is quite another. You think yearly audits are bad? Try dragging your unedited manuscript—the song of your soul and child of your fingertips—kicking and screaming to be presented before and subsequently poked and prodded by these aforementioned strangers.
Writing groups can be rough. It’s hard to find a good one, and even when you do, that doesn’t guarantee every meeting will go well. However, I speak from experience, and if I didn’t think that writing groups had anything to offer, this post would have a very different title. “A Cog in Their Wheel,” perhaps, or “Simon and Garfunkel had It Right.”
But this post does not flaunt either of those titles, and I daresay that I’m going to take a lusty stab at arguing in the affirmative. Of course, I can’t force you to make friends or go anywhere against your will, but the idea that a good old-fashioned breakdown covered in some snarky sauce might get you out of your pajamas…
That, my friend, is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Instead of doing my usual breakdown, I’m going to play a little carnival game with this post. I’m not going to spell out why you should have a writing group—I’m going to come up with the list of excuses you’re going to give me for not finding a writing group and address them head on. A bit like Family Feud, mais non? But much less awkward, and not spoofed nearly as much by SNL.
Excuse #1: I can’t find one.
I put this excuse first because it’s the most n’importe quoi excuse on the face of the planet. If you’re reading this blog post, chances are, you possess either a phone or a computer. If you possess a phone or a computer, chances are you have access to things like…
- Meetup dot com, a site/application specifically intended to bring people together to participate in various activities.
- Facebook Groups. Do I really have to explain this?
- Google Groups. A virtual space where anybody with the internet can connect for any (legal) business they please.
- National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo is held each year during the month of November. Thousands of authors participate, and there are infinite ways to connect via NaNo’s website to bring those authors together.
- Just do a Google search. Literally: “Writing groups in Gotham, Illinois.” What, were you born in a barn?
And the list goes on, and on, and on.
Being a part of a writing group doesn’t obligate you to be in a physical space at any preset time. There are plenty of wonderful, virtual writing groups out there, and you should profit as much as you can from a plethora of resources beyond Coleridge and Wordsworth’s wildest dreams.
Of course, I much prefer the laughter, camaraderie, and draft choices of meeting in a physical space, but my options have become very limited since moving to the French Alps. However, even in my mountain fortress, you’d better bet your britches I’m still a frantic mess of emails—a furious flurry of a typing tempest as I review, critique, consult, and receive advice from other authors.
Your phone has become your fifth limb, anyway. Why not put it to use in favor of your writing career? In today’s day and age, “I just don’t have the connections” is an excuse that doesn’t fly.
Excuse #2: My work will be critiqued.
Yea… It probably will be. That’s kind of the point.
Chances are, your writing group is going to go like this: Everybody brings a little “something,” you read and share out loud, and then you go around the room with comments. If this scares you and you have a pulse, then you are probably human. Everyone gest nervous putting a piece of themselves on display. I’ve read my work aloud and submitted it to hundreds of strangers, but my gut still wrenches the moment I hear the first word spoken.
It’s not comfortable, and chances are, it will never be comfortable. However, putting your work out for critique is a necessary—even critical—part of the writing process.
Facing critique is how you grow. If you don’t get your work out there for someone else to read, it’s going to go no farther than your desk. You have to stretch to learn, and (Trust me—I did yoga once.) stretching doesn’t always feel good.
But take heart! You probably won’t be the best writer there, but you probably won’t be the worst, either. Statistics tell us that you’ll fall somewhere in the middle. Even then, I’ve found that writers tend to be pretty cool, chill people. The others in your group will probably understand the frustrations and struggles you’re facing, and if they have an inkling of decency, they’re probably not going to burn you as a witch for bringing “bad writing.”
My writing group is comprised of young and old, male and female, doctors and doormen, and everything in between. Everyone writes a little differently, and I have yet to see any piece of work pass without some sort of constructive comment. You go to a writing group to share and to learn, and if your author friends are worth their salt, that’s why they’re there, too.
Of course, you’ll always get that “one guy” (or gal) who is an absolute jerk about things, but you’ll find that just about everywhere you go. I hate to say it, but as a writer, you’re going to need to thicken your hide. Criticism, whether it be warranted or completely absurd, is unavoidable in this process. You want to query your book? You’re going to get rejections. You finally sell your book? It’s still going to be edited.
I’ll say this here, but I’ll probably say it many more times after:
If you’re not ready to take critique, then you’re probably not ready to be a writer.
I’m going to write an entire post on feedback and rejection later, but for now, just make sure that you take care of yourself. Don’t take any comments (be they negative or positive) to heart. Sit on feedback for at least three days before changing a single comma. Make sure you put a little distance between yourself and your work, and please don’t end up like this guy.
Funny video, but tragically accurate. I think I’ve heard each of those whitewashed comments at my own group.
PRO TIP: If you’re going to make a comment, make sure it’s helpful.
With that much being said, I recommend the “sandwich” rule. That is, try to sandwich your negative feedback with positives. It looks a little something like this: “You know, this story really got my attention. It makes no sense, the characters are completely flat, you give us no sensory detail whatsoever, and I am absolutely sure vampires don’t sparkle… But you did put your commas in the right place. Well done!”
You see? For the love of Loki, don’t tell ingratiating lies, but you can be constructively critical without being a Grade A Jerk about it.
So you didn’t like it. Why? What parts weren’t good? Do you have specific examples? Can you think of a way the author could improve?
If you can’t answer any of those questions, you should probably just keep your comments to yourself. Critique groups are for edifying writers with constructive feedback, not for raining on parades. Sharing your work with a group takes a lot of courage. You may not like what you read, but at least have the decency to respect a fellow author. If you have something critical to say, say it because you want to make that group member better, not because you’re the kind of person who gets your kicks by knocking over other people’s snowmen.
Tact, people. Tact.
Mortals have yet to write something completely perfect. If you bring an excerpt to your writing group, somebody will probably have something to say about it. Brace yourself for that, but also embrace the process. Critique will either steel your resolves or catalyze progress. Either way, you’re still winning.
Excuse #3: I get nothing out of it.
This excuse is almost as lame as the first one, but not quite as obvious. I would love to give you another bulleted list, but I feel like I’ve got to defend myself thoroughly on this point.
Forgive me for putting words in your mouth, but I imagine that if you’re using this excuse, your story goes something like this: You went to a writing group and didn’t get any helpful feedback. You didn’t like the personalities present and felt like you were wasting your time. You did not make connections, and the comments that were said rubbed the flat part of your feet like an ill-fitting pair of snow skis.
If I’m articulating your feelings in any way, shape, or form, I am truly sorry that you had such a negative experience. However, I am just as quick to empathize with you as I am to encourage you to go out and try to find another group. Why? Because the boons of a good writing group are worth the slogging effort to find one.
When you start sharing your work with other people, you’re bound to be exposed to new material. I write middle grade fantasy, but I am often studying thrillers, crime novels, space odysseys, steampunk pirate adventures, and paranormal romance. Those genres may be way out of my league, but I pick up a little something from every snippet I read. Each genre has some sort of Easter Egg to unlock; each writer has something new to teach you.
While I’m in the meeting, I like to take notes on other peoples’ materials. Perhaps someone used a word I didn’t know. (I just learned “middling.”) Perhaps they coined a poetic turn of phrase. Perhaps they completely bungled something, and I want to make note of their fault so I don’t make the same mistake. Perhaps they had a good idea that I want to tuck away for later.
To quote the splendiferous T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
Everyone has something to teach, which is a wonderful thing because you always have something to learn.
When participating in a writing group, you begin to develop what my immortally wise mother-in-law calls “a jaundiced eye.” That is to say, when you are exposed to enough critique, you learn to discern the good from the bad. What makes good writing good? What makes bad writing bad? How does a story flow, and what sort of dialogue captures a reader’s interest? If you can begin to understand why your piece is critiqued the way it is and puzzle through what makes certain pieces strong or weak, you know that you are well on your way in developing as a writer.
Think of it this way: You wouldn’t trust a doctor to heal you if she couldn’t understand why you were sick. Being able to develop and process critique is a mark of development, maturity, and professionalism.
Aside from sagacious insights, your writing group is also going to be the place to go for good counsel. When I started querying my book, I had no idea what I was doing. I stomped around, bamboozled in utter failure for months before I reached out to other writers who had wrestled through the exact same process. Some of them were successful. Some of them were not. However, by talking with them and sharing their experiences, I learned a bit more about what it takes to get a book published.
That’s the whole point of the group. That’s the whole point of this blog. This is a long, hard, heart-wrenching process, so let’s help one another. Let’s be there for support. Other authors paid it forward by helping me when I needed it, and I hope and pray that same generosity extends through me.
Please: Write me your questions. Bug me. Ask me what I did wrong, and for the love of all things chocolatey, please don’t make my mistakes. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll help you find someone who does. The CONTACT page is there for you.
Connections are invaluable in the publishing world. If success is preparation meeting opportunity, you’re only bumping up both factors by networking with other authors. My writing friends have my back. They’re constantly going out of their way to help me succeed with my goals, then I go forward and do the same thing for them. Whether you’re in-person or virtual, you stick with your pack, and your pack sticks with you.
So sayith the Laws of the Navy:
“For the strength of the ship is the Service,
And the strength of the Service the ship.”
This is a rough game. Stack your odds. You need that group of believers—those true-blues who are just as ready to cry over your rejections as they are to celebrate your successes.
When you find your tribe, you’re going to be very happy that you did.
Finally, you should probably get out of your house. Yes, I’m talking to you. Yes, you—and you absolutely know who you are.
Go to a writing group. More often than not, you’re going to be glad you did. A group of likeminded people who are willing to laugh at distasteful humor and discuss mutual love over delicious beer? Who says no to that?
I made lifelong friends at my writing group in Jacksonville, and we still keep in touch regularly. You bet your lucky stars one of the first things I’m going to do upon my reentry to the good ol’ US of A is grab a burger and some onion fries from the best tavern on the beach.
 And, if you are one of the dozens of people asking me to write my next book in French, I’m just going to go ahead and give you a big ol’ NOPETY NOPE, nope!
 Unless that person is extremely rich and is going to invite you to Yacht Week in Croatia. I mean…a bit of brownnosing for Croatia? If that happens, your flattery is completely justified.
 If you haven’t been to Poe’s Tavern in Jacksonville—a heaven of burgers, beer, and all things carbohydrates festooned in poetic lore—you should question your patriotism.