Independent Author’s Toolbag: Writing Groups

Hi there, my name is Kal and I write stuff.

It sounds a bit like an introduction from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting… because that’s what some writing groups feel like. And in a way, that can be good or bad. Writing groups are, at their root, about support. Writers, get together and read one another’s stuff, critique it, discuss where they’re going or improving their craft, and then they arrange to meet again. The pattern is hopefully one where the individuals within the group gradually improve upon their work. It also provides a variety of backgrounds for new and inexperienced writers to draw upon for both the business and writing sides of the craft. Writing groups have a number of advantages, not least of which is you get someone to read your manuscript besides your mother/best friend. This can be invaluable just in the knowledge of whether or not someone was able to finish reading it. Feedback about characters, plot, and plot devices can also be invaluable, letting you know if you fooled someone with a clever bait and switch, if your humor fell flat, or even if you accidentally wrote fan fiction. Writing groups also, however, come with some hazards.

One hazard, I think, is that as a writer grows, they may outgrow the writers in their group or the group itself may shift as new people come in and others leave. A writer who is actively seeking publishing, in a group that is about completing works, is quickly going to become frustrated. The reverse is true, as well, an author who just wants to finish their first book is going to find the critiques of more experienced and even published authors daunting enough that they may give up. I’ve seen a little bit of both, myself, just in one group. The group had a central core of attendees focused on writing and publishing. It also had a ‘floating’ population of people who would attend every now and then. Some of them would become very disheartened at the progress they had made versus the progress of others. I myself would often become frustrated because some members would show up with the fourth or fifth (or tenth) revision of their first chapter. These are writers who don’t really want to grow, they’re comfortable retelling the same bit of a story. A good group can coach them along towards growth, but it isn’t something you can force and a group with more chysallis authors than mature ones is not the place to improve your own craft.

The other hazard is ‘toxic’ groups. These are writing groups where, somewhere, somehow, there is a dominant individual who attempts to turn it into a social hierarchy, where other authors must kowtow to his or her principles and/or writing style. I haven’t personally encountered this, yet I have friends who have completely soured on any kind of writing group as a result. The worse of these types of groups are ones where new authors are ridiculed or belittled for their work in some kind of cult-indoctrination method to get them to then believe that only through emulation is success possible.

Another hazard of writing groups is that the writers there are going to have their own perspectives and interpretations of how stories should be told. Sometimes, for the best of reasons, they’ll give you feedback that you are doing something wrong and they might even talk you around to it. With the best of intentions, they can give you a feeling of inadequacy that can leave your manuscript half finished with notes of broad plot and character changes to be made. The thing to remember here is that you are the author. Whatever story you are telling, you tell it your way. In the end, when it is finished, if the group says they still don’t like it, then you can think about revisions and changes. But if it goes against the grain, if you feel your story is better/stronger/greater without those changes… don’t do it. Write what you want.

So, basically, the lesson is to first do some research on a group and then to test the waters a bit. Be sure they write/read in your genre. If authors have no interest in what you write, they’re not going to be as attentive and they’re not going to know the style.  Writing groups where some or all of the members gush about one central figure should generally be avoided. Writing to cater to the interests and desires of the group is also to be avoided.

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