Thursday, October 1, 2015

Finding Your Tribe -- Writers on Writers Groups

What are you views on writers groups? Productive or unhelpful? "Love me and my work" clubs? Vital to beginning writers? What say thee, my writer friends?

Percival Constantine: Writers groups are only as good as the participants. There are some that really care more about the social aspect and talking about being a writer than actually doing the work. But I'm part of a few groups that have been very helpful. We encourage each other, critique each other, exchange tips, and participate in writing sprints together where we'll all write for a set amount of time and then report our total word count.

You have to consider what you want to get out of a writing group and what the others want out of the group. If your group gets together and just chats about writing at the local coffee shop, that's a waste of time. But if they're actually encouraging you to be more productive and to improve your work, then that's the kind of group you want to find.

Aaron Smith: Personally, I have no use for writers' groups, but that's just me. If it works for others, that's fine too. For me, writing is a private, solitary activity, and I don't feel right showing a story to anyone else until I feel it's ready to go to an editor or publisher. On the rare occasion that I do feel the need to talk with someone about my writing while the work is in progress, I would much rather contact one friend or editor than make it the focus of a group discussion.

Ralph L Angelo Jr.: I think writers groups are good to bounce things off of one another for story ideas and cover suggestions. They are also good to just to talk to others who do what you do. I don't have an issue with bouncing ideas off of one another in that format. I actually like talking to others to get their opinion on what I'm doing or proposing. I mostly self publish at this point so I'm an army of one. On the flip side of the coin I'm very selective who I speak to about what I'm doing and only confide in a few people, most of whom I've known for years. That being said, there's only one real writers group that I fully participate in. The rest I basically skim through or occasionally join a discussion within. Writers group have their uses, but like Aaron said, for the most part writing is a solitary business.

Paul Bishop: I mentor a monthly group and we have a blast. Our biggest regular event is having somebody else read your work aloud (five pages tops). The glitches become very clear very quick. Three of the members have had their first novels published while in the group...Fun, progress, published...What's not to like...

Robert Krog: I do find that bouncing ideas off of other writers is sometimes helpful, and I certainly enjoy discussions with writers about writing most of the time.

Amanda Niehaus-Hard: “Finding your tribe,” seems to be the main focus of the live writing groups I’ve encountered. While this is a great idea in theory, I’ve haven’t seen it actually play out successfully in practice.

The upside to the writing group is having someone to commiserate with when the going gets tough. If you’re participating in something like NaNoWriMo, I fully understand the desire to be around other like-minded crazy folks who have the goal of pushing out 50,000 words in one month. That support can keep you going. After a series of rejections, the encouragement of your “tribe” can be enough to push you to revise and resubmit.

Some groups offer critiques, which can be helpful if you aren’t using an online critique group. Some give you the opportunity to listen to and participate in live readings. Some are tied into university writing programs, or offer educational opportunities. The benefits to resources like these — if you use them — can be incredible.

But just as often, writing groups are more socially-oriented. And this is where they usually lose me. While I love sipping coffee and celebrating the success of my friends as much as anybody, simply “talking” about writing is somewhat counterproductive for me.

I’ve been in groups where the participants would outline in detail their latest, unwritten, novel. (Maybe I’m superstitious, but if I tried this, it would take some of the “magic” away from the writing process. If I talk about the book, I no longer want to write it.) Talking about craft is one thing. Explaining away a book, especially a book I haven’t finished or haven’t even started — that’s something different, and not something I think is particularly useful.

The dirty little secret of some people who join writing groups is that they’re really subconsciously looking for an excuse to NOT write. Because let’s face it: writing is hard! It’s hard work, it’s time-consuming, it’s infinitely frustrating, and it’s a solitary pursuit. Nobody can “help you” write your novel. Sure, other people can give you advice and suggestions and they can help you work out a complicated plot line, but ultimately, it’s just you and your keyboard, banging out letter after letter, sentence after sentence.

Talking about writing isn’t writing. But it kind of feels like it, you know? Some people find that talking about their work-in-progress makes them feel as though they’re making some kind of progress on it. It’s an illusion, really. Yes, I know we’ve all had the coffee or tequila conversation wherein we’ve managed to work out everything that was bothering us about that story. Or we’ve been chatting with a friend and suddenly resolved the perfect ending to that trilogy. But how often does that really happen? And when does it happen? Does it happen in a writing group, or does it happen during a period of relaxation and distance from the manuscript?

Writing, as we’ve all discovered, is hard work. When I haven’t worked for a few days or a week or so, it can be kind of shadenfreud-nice to hear that other people aren’t working either. If a couple of other people in my writing group are self-described “slackers” then it takes the pressure off me to work, right? I mean, if they’re not doing it either, it’s normal, right? This kind of thinking is common in writing groups, but it’s poisonous. Writing isn’t about what other people are doing. It’s about YOU and what YOU need to say on the page.

Since writing is really a singular activity, whether or not a writing group is “useful” really depends on the individual and what he or she hopes to get out of it. A local group near me exists for the sole purpose of self-publishing anthologies of member stories and poems. I’ve long ago gotten over the ecstatic thrill of seeing my name in print, so this isn’t a big draw for me. Another local group is strictly interested in critiques, and another is simply a social group. I tried a few and they just weren’t for me.

I found my “tribe” on the internet, teaming up with other spec-fic and lit-fic writers who challenge and push me, both in terms of craft and subject matter. You all are here when I need you, but you’re also polite enough to “go away” when I’m working.

Marian Allen: A good critique group is invaluable. I'm in one (The Southern Indiana Writers Group) that's been together, meeting every week, for over twenty years. Our main rule is: The critique is about the work, not the person. And the second is like unto the first: The critique is about making THAT work as strong as IT can be, not about making it sound just like something YOU would write.

Bobby Nash: Writers groups may not make you write more, but I found that reading aloud to a group helped me in other ways. The Bobby who first started writing wouldn't be able to do panels the way I do them now. Too shy. Reading to that group helped alleviate that fear. It also taught me good dialogue structure from reading it aloud.

Lisa M. Collins: I have been involved with four writers groups, president of two, and as a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo.

When I first started writing fiction (2008), what I was looking for was a support group. I needed to meet other writers and have a place where I could show my work to others in a safe environment. I choose my first group, Lost Genre Guild, because they were online and wrote the same things I loved to write and read. It was behind the wall of Internet anonymity where I learned how writers’ groups worked and how to deal with criticism without getting upset (aka: furious as a wet hen in winter). The online group helped me have the courage to look for a local group. I still maintain ties to this group, today.

Also during this time frame (Fall 2008), I completed my first NaNoWriMo. I wrote a fantasy novel that came in around 53K word mark. Every year since, I have attempted to do NaNo again. Sometime I make the 50K cut off sometimes I don’t, but each year I learn more about myself as a writer. NaNo is where I learned how to hear my voice and where I test drive various styles. I was a Municipal Liaison (ML) for the White County NaNo group for several years 2010-2013. We had several write-in’s at the Library in Searcy, AR. And I must say if you haven’t been in a group where you all write together in the same physical space—do this! The energy and excitement of hearing other writers around you create stories is amazing. 

My second writers group was the White County Creative Writers (Fall 2009). This group was the place where I started feeling my way toward writing professionally. The WCCW was made up of an original core of people who founded the organization, locals who needed a night out of the house, and a handful of professional writers who dropped in from time-to-time. The reason I choose this group because they had been around for over a decade when I joined (will be celebrating 20 currently) and had a yearly writer’s conference at a local college. The con was the real draw for me. It said to me these guys are organized and will give me the chance to rub elbows with a larger group of local writers. To keep a long story short, I ended up president of this group after less than a year of membership. I think the other members who were willing to serve were just glad that there was new meat. I learned a lot from this group and also how to lead an organization, how to put on a convention, but mostly how to stand on my own two feet as writer and test the boundaries of what I was capable of doing with my work.

Before I quit going to WCCW I was invited to another group. This one was a professional organization called, American Christian Fiction Writers, or ACFW. This group was so different from the others I had belonged to in the past. This group was nationally organized and held many conferences, workshops, talks, and retreats. I maintained my membership in this organization for two years learning as much as I could. The national conventions are expensive to attend, but every talk and worksheet is saved and recorded. So you can get the full con for much less. One thing about the convention that made me take notice. With ACFW they bring the publishing houses and agents to you. Included in the con fee were several appointments you could make to do your book pitches directly to the publishers and agents you choose.

I was president of the local chapter for two years. Why did I leave, what sounds like an awesome org? My genre is Science Fiction/Fantasy. Although ACFW has a small group of sff writers and publishers the slots are open to the narrow threshold Christian publishers are willing to produce. I am a Christian who is a writer, but what they are looking for is Writers who write Christian specific stories. They are a great organization for new and established writers. Most of what I know about the book writing/ publishing industry I learned from ACFW

My fourth writers group is really a critique partnership. My good friend Bonnie J. Sterling and I have unofficially been critique partners for several years. Together we make each other’s writing better. We each see different sides of the same coin. I think that is the key to getting a great partnership—you can’t be exact copies of each other or your writing won’t evolve.

Writing groups can be wonderful experiences or they can be hell. I guess that is true of any group of people who congregate together. Look for people who are open and honest about their own writing and aren’t too proud to admit when they need help. You want a writing group experience to make you feel excited to get back to your work. Remember as your writing evolves, you change as a person. Joining a writers group doesn’t mean you are making a lifelong commitment. If you don’t feel uplifted when you leave meetings, please take it from me, it is time to  move along home. 

Nikki Nelson-Hicks: Whoo, boy. I’ve been on both sides of the table.

I’m a founding member of the Nashville Writers’ Group. When we started in 2004, it was five people sitting on a rainy porch at Café Coco. Now, the meetup group boasts a membership of over two thousand people. Not that we have thousands of people at a group meeting…God, that would be Hell. No, we have a healthy, active membership of about 100 or so people who actually come to the meetings. We have published three anthologies (I was the editor the horror anthology, Comfort Foods) and have a booth at the Southern Festival of Books where we sell our members books.

The Pros of our writing group:

I have met so many people who are now my dearest friends that I would NEVER have met if it wasn’t for the NWG. I look back and realize that I never would be where I am today if it weren’t for these people. It is an excellent networking system.

We have so many people who join the NWG because they need a place to say, “Hey, I’m a writer and I want to grow.” It’s sad but people need a place where they can simply be creative. It is a place where you can come, share your stories and get feedback from people who want to help you become the best writer you can. It is the biggest high for me watch a writer blossom as they get more and more confident in the craft. I’m not going to lie; I’ve had people bring stories that I thought , “Ugh…yeah…this isn’t going anywhere.” And they proved me wrong. Nothing makes me happier.

In my group, I hold a strict policy of constructive criticism. We’re not a “Pet The Pretty Pony” group but I won’t stand there and watch someone being eviscerated. The reason for this group is for people of all levels of writing skills to meet and help each other. If you want to be a Supreme Ego Driven DICK that has come only to show off your fucking MFA, there is the door. Thanks for playing. Buh-Bye.

The Dark Side:

Hooo-boy. Because the NWG is a public group, we get a few whackos. I’ve had people bring hand written manuscripts they said were “transmissions from Nostradamus that were delivered through the living room curtains” (TRUE STORY). Once, I had a guy that when I knew he was coming, I made sure Mickey or Vincent, two of my biggest guy writer buds, would be there because he scared me so much. He was a schizophrenic that didn’t take  his meds (his wife warned me in a five page email).

I had a woman once slam her fists at on the table and scream at me, “You’re not helping me! I want to know how to write a story! What is the formula! WHAT IS THE FORMULA!” When I told her there was no formula, that every story was different, and if she could explain to me what her story was about then maybe we could help her, she then got in my face and said, “You just want to steal my ideas. Get in my head and take my words!”

When people bring their NANOWRIMO novels. Oh, GAWD….

People think we are a publishing house. Once during an Assistant Organizer’s group where we met to discuss the plans for the next year, some dude burst in and yelled at us because all we did was critique. We weren’t meeting his needs. What he really wanted from the NWG was to get him published. What?!?! When we asked him what groups he went to, he said he couldn’t remember as he had only gone to two and then only two times. REALLY, MOTHERFUCKER??? They guy really pissed me off. What the hell did he expect from us? I don’t get paid to do this. Yes, we have a few anthologies under our belt but that does make us a publishing house.

And, of course, the egos. It happens.

The thing we advise all of our members is that the NWG is just a starting place. It is here you meet others that you connect with (your tribe, as it were) and form your own writing groups outside the NWG. I find groups of 3-5 most effective. It works and I’m proud of the people that we’ve helped.

I was also a member of another group, The Quill and Dagger, for a few years. It was a very diverse group of 7 people who wrote murder mysteries. We had the entire spectrum. From Cozies to Procedurals to Paranormal. We met every two weeks and it was a wonderful experience but as we all began to publish in our different genres, we simply ran out of time to get together and the group died. It’s a shame.

So, to recap, would I advise writers, especially people new to the craft, to join a group? Hell, yes! But be careful. Remember that it is their opinions and, in the end, it is YOUR story. It’s something I stress to many of the people who come to my SpecFic group.
For me, I have a story that I use as my litmus test. It is called Coon Hunt. (Self Promotional Plug: Coon Hunt won the Jack Mawhinney Fiction First Prize in 2015)  If the people in that group don’t get the story, they won’t get me. It has never failed. It has saved my ass SO many times.