Fear and Loathing in the Writers Group

A writers group is a strange association. The reason for becoming part of one is that you suffer from the affliction to put pen to paper. After attending a number of writing groups from San Francisco to San Diego and running one for six years, here are some observations and advice for writers looking to get the most out of them.


Maxwell Perkins Save Me! or Why You Need to Join a Writers Group

A new age has dawned, an age of wonderment and freedom. This internet thingy has destroyed the old gatekeeper structure of the publishing industry. No longer do a few elites control entry into the promised land of making and selling books. Congratulations. Welcome to the jungle, baby.

But did the old way do anything good for writers? Well, yes, perhaps it did filter out unpalatable work and, most of the time, delivered finely polished, high-quality product. It did force writers to produce their absolute best work as the publishers decided what was suitable. Today the hungry masses of readers decide for themselves what is good by slogging through unadulterated, messy democracy, AKA Amazon reviews. It takes ten minutes for an indie author to publish an electronic book. This is good and bad. The good thing is writers have more control; the bad thing is writers have more control. It’s like being a teenager and getting a Maserati as your first car. Sure, it’s fun stomping down on that pedal, feeling the acceleration from a 500 horsepower V8, but it’s also very dangerous. An author can easily crash into the tree of 1-star reviews because they’ve published something too unrefined.

Books are complex productions. They require an array of skills, and one of those is developmental editing. In the old days, writers had a smoke-filled room full of editors, like TS Eliot did at Faber and Faber publishing house. Once upon a time, they had Maxwell Perkins, the Merlin wizard of editors, who helped form the works of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway.

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This is where a writers group can help you. It can supply much of that old-fashioned boardroom input. Oh, but you say you already have friends who beta read and you’ve given your story to your grandmother. Well, friends may not have the experience to clearly tell you that your dialogue is too descriptive or that you are head-hoping. And you should never expect impartial comments from someone who calls you Sweetie. Because it is an exchange made up of experienced writers, a writing group can give your work the real, objective criticism needed to take it to the next level.


Dishing It Out

I’m going to admit something to you. I am not Mother Teresa; I am selfish. Most of the time I am only willing to do something for someone if they do something for me. This is why I’m in a writers group. It’s a place to make a special type of trade. I need people to suffer through my immature writing so it can mature. For their time and effort, I trade my time and effort critiquing their work. I try my hardest to give the most useful feedback I can and expect others to do the same.

A lot of people have a hard time giving criticism. They are afraid of hurting feelings. They don’t want to be unfriendly. You know that Facebook has an “Add as Friend” option, but I can’t find the “Make an Enemy” button. This is the wrong way of approaching a writing group. People join a writers group because they are working on something that they want to make public. They are creating something to be consumed and need to know how it tastes. They need honest opinions from a control group. You do a writer no favors when you hold back a comment simply because it might seem insulting. One thing I like to hear is opinions about my characters. This is very important because I need my characters to be likeable or interesting. It may not feel good to hear that readers don’t like my hero, but it’s incredibly important for me to know.

Holding back criticism means not helping. Here’s what I think – a writers group is a boxing gym. As a reader, you are the salty old trainer. Your fellow writer’s work is a young, skinny girl who walks in off the street. She’s from a poor family and a bad neighborhood. She’s got few prospects in life. But she’s got something others don’t: determination and a pretty good left jab. She wants to fight. She wants to win. To keep her from getting bruised, do you sit her in the corner? Do you tell her that maybe she can practice on the punching bag later? Or do you respect her spirit and have her spar in the ring with someone? Someone a little bigger, someone a little faster, someone a little more experienced. That skinny girl is guaranteed to get a black eye. But she might improve. She might learn from the practice, learn to move. She could become stronger and develop more powerful punches. She could grow and excel. But only if she’s allowed to fight.

It’s important to realize that giving useful feedback is not malevolent and it should never be seen as such. What is useful feedback? It is reasoned comments. Don’t say: “I hated your character Henry.” Do say: “I hated Henry because he slept with two women.” Notice that this is opinion, but it’s still vital information because writers need to know how a reader feels. Good feedback will make the piece more robust and improve the writing.

Some people worry that they lack the authority to critique because they didn’t graduate with a doctorate in English Literature from Columbia University (as I did not).  However, you don’t have to be an experienced writer to give advice – you only have to be an experienced reader. Giving feedback is about giving your feelings as well as finding grammatical mistakes – which are less important in the early versions of a manuscript draft. What felt out of place? What was strange about a character? What needs to be clarified? What part was slow? Where is there no tension? Where does the writing get in the way of the story? These might be hard hits, but they are essential feedback and better given in the controlled environment of the writers group than after publication.

People who are serious about their writing will not hate you for giving them useful comments, even if it is only your opinion, which is just as important to know in most types of creative writing. And if they do hate you, they really won’t be able to handle sharing their work with the world. Determined writers want authentic reaction and objective criticism. They know they might get a black eye in that boxing ring, but they also know it’s part of growing.


How to Survive Being Shot

When I was a kid living in Louisiana, I heard a secondhand – or thirdhand – story about a New Orleans gangster who had survived being shot six times. When asked how he lived through it, he said the secret was to lie still on the ground but keep moving a little by twitching your fingers and toes.

Sometimes getting criticism feels like being shot. We writers work and work countless hours, and then someone glances over it and says it’s not perfect, it needs changing, it needs to be redone. And the blood starts coursing through our veins and that cold tingly sensation starts crawling up our spine like death. But if we writers keep the goal in mind, we know that feedback is good, we know it can help us improve.

So, let me suggest, like the New Orleans gangster, to survive a hard critique fall to the ground and twitch your fingers and toes. That’s it. Do not argue when someone is giving you feedback. A writers group is not a thesis defense. Creative writing is an art and people are allowed to give their opinion. De gustibus non est disputandum. This means in matters of taste there can be no dispute. As well as discovering mistakes, your job as a writer in a writers group is to get people’s feelings about your piece. You want to know if you are succeeding at making readers laugh or cry, feel spellbound or repulsed, and then adjust accordingly. Sure, you can ask questions, but if you argue and tell someone that their feelings are wrong, well, you’re wrong and you might be losing a valuable beta reader. The only thing you should do is collect feedback (you can stop twitching and get off the ground now). Later, you can discard whatever comments you feel are not useful.

Keep in mind why you joined the writers group. You joined because you want to share your work. This means you care about your readers. Respect your audience, someone once said. This means listening to readers and oftentimes giving them what they want.


But Wait There’s More!

Bonus Advice about Writing Groups:

  • Try to find a writers group focused on what you like reading or working on. If you’re writing a non-fiction memoir, you might not be happy working in a hardcore Sci-Fi group.
  • Leave your ego at the door. Does this need to be said? Do not join a writing group, slap down the pages of your work, and then expect nothing but praise. Hemingway said the first draft of anything is shit. That’s a good motto for someone always striving to be better.
  • A writers group is not a workshop. It’s more of a beta reading group but with wiser readers. Do not expect to be taught concepts.
  • A writers group is not a coach. It will not drive you to finish your book. Motivation to spend the time needed writing comes from only one place – inside you.
  • You will get out what you put in. Since writing groups are places for bartering developmental editing services, do not expect to get a lot of editing on your work if you do not do a lot of editing on other people’s works.
  • Enjoy reading. I like reading new stories. This is half the fun of being in a writers group. I really don’t know any writers who don’t enjoy reading. And, frankly, a writer who doesn’t enjoy reading is like a ship captain who doesn’t like the sea.