Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#117) -- Writers Groups

Are you part of a writers group? Why or why not?

And in conclusion, that's why everything
you just said about my story is wrong.
Officially, no. Unofficially, always.

Huh?

I'm glad you asked.

You see, I know lots of writers who have had wonderful experiences with writers groups in which the members all have no egos and all take criticism in the warm and welcoming spirit it was given and ride unicorns to the meeting while angels dance on the heads of pins at their beck and call...

But my experience hasn't been anything like that. To be honest, and perhaps this is just coming from the fact that I'm a cynical, jaded old man, I find writers' critique groups to be self-serving, tedious, bickering, distracting, and far too often, a mutual admiration society.

Typically my bad experiences fall into one of two camps:

1. The world is all sunlight and rainbows and roses, and we all love each other too much to let anyone here feel bad.

These groups don't really critique at all, nor do their members ever really grow in the craft. Instead, they continue to churn out beginning-level work that makes them all feel good about each other and praise each others' fine talent with no clue how dog-eat-dog the real world of selling your writing actually is.

2. My writing is perfect just the way it is, and who do you think you are to tell me that fragments and misspellings and having characters who all speak like literature doctoral students is wrong, you bastard!

These groups usually have one or two really helpful writers who want to get as good as they give. They yearn for honest feedback and for people to help them sharpen their iron against other writers. They enter a group assuming that the other writers in it want the same thing, then when every critique is met by flabbergasted defenses of why such choices were made or how not using punctuation is just "part of my style," they quickly become cynical, jaded old folks -- just like me.

Now, for the record, these are my experiences in ORGANIZED groups -- you know, the ones that have regular meetings at coffee houses or living rooms and you have to have so many pages ready each week to share and oh my god we forgot to tell Bob to get the coffee for this week so I hope tea is okay please say tea is okay. 

We're smiling because Bob remembered the coffee!
On the other hand, in my networking and getting out to promote my work, I have met many people and several of them have become priceless (which means free, doesn't it?) friends on whom I can count informally to read my work, comment on what's working, rip apart what's not working, and help me become a better writer and editor. Only, we do this without meetings or living rooms or coffee houses or required page counts or oh my god tea emergencies.

We do this for each other because:

1. We respect each others' talent and work ethic and desire to get better.

2. We've been writing long enough to get past all the ego BS and actually listen with receptive ears because we trust each other to be looking out for our best interest -- getting the story in its best possible shape before publication.

3. We are all too busy trying to make or supplement a living by writing stories to impose artificial assignments on each other.

4. We understand that critiques are not personal attacks.

5. We understand that we don't have to like each others' writing style or choice of topics or genre or theme, and we can look past that to actually edit the writing and the story itself, not merely impose our personal preferences on someone else's work.

6. And finally, we are professional about this chosen career path (or part-time career path) and we really do realize that we all need each other in order to become better storytellers and therefore sell more stories.

That's my experience, anyway. As always, your mileage may vary.

(This question came up at Connooga last month, and I thought it was a good idea to respond here also. It's not often one has the opportunity to prove himself an opinionated windbag in multiple outlets, so I had to jump at the chance.)