I wrote my first book without a writers group (you know, that gathering where people of like mind and intent get together and, in theory, read each other’s work and offer critiques, guidance and support.)
I did use a few beta readers via email and did get some editing help. But otherwise, it was just me, writing. Then I self-published my book, and a less than polite person told me I couldn’t be a writer if I didn’t get involved in a writers group. This person also said my work was crap because I self-published and blamed me for the breakup of the beatles, yadda yadda yadda. Interestingly, this person never read a word I wrote before arriving at the conclusion I didn’t know how to write. How insightful.
But it did get me to thinking that maybe his point was a good one, that a writer’s group is something I should try while working on my other projects. So, I found one locally and started attending. I should point out that these are very sincere people, so my observations are not on a personal level, but on a logistics level, to essentially ask the question:
DO WRITERS GROUPS HELP?
1. YES. I think they do help a lot of people. A lot of writers I admire and kiss the ground they walk on use them, sing their praises and highly recommend them. Therefore, logically they help. I’m not going to rain on that parade if it works for someone.
2. NO. I’ve come to the conclusion it did not help me. I tried, I dutifully attended a few meetings, got my stuff read, and got some critiques. The people running it and the people attending it are very nice. But, for me it had the opposite effect, it started hampering my writing until it throttled the life out of it. It caused me to hit my very first writer’s block, and force me to evaluate what exactly was going wrong here. Now, I’m not one to only blame things other than myself, so what follows is how the structure of the writer’s group became my kryptonite — but kryptonite does not hurt anyone else, to them its inert. To me, it was becoming deadly. Because I have an allergy to it.
Why would this be true? Am I full of baloney? Doesn’t this contravene all conventional wisdom?
MY SWEET SPOT: Well, it helps to understand how I write. When I write at my best, I find the “sweet spot” of the story I want to tell, and once there, just keep writing like a man in a trance. I visualize and see my characters, I let them tell me what should happen next. I let the story percolate, letting my dreaming mind bridge gaps, come up with twists, and give me a voice for that story, that character, that plot. For me, its organic. It’s a second skin, or a possesion. I can always go back into it and make corrections, but that is the muse that has its way with me.
THE MURDER OF MY MUSE: The problem with the group, was that instead of bringing my muse closer, it was pushing it further away. I took to heart all the varied criticism (and varied it was), and tried to address the POV mode of the day, or using too many apostrophes or whatever. I went back into the story and tried to address EVERYTHING. or even just one or two things. Then, the story morphed into something I didn’t recognize. I was WRITING instead of telling a story. Nothing wrong with writing, many authors do that amazingly well, BUT telling stories is what makes me different. It’s my strength, maybe its my voice.
THE CRITICISM: These critiques were well-intentioned. These critiques seemed to be helping other people in the group. However, they were strangling me. Not because I can’t take criticism, but ironically because I too easily take criticism to heart and try to apply it. When you’re talking about 8 or 9 people giving you sometimes contradictory observations, I was having a logjam in my head. Telling the story had moved from my heart, where it belongs, to my head, where it got hopelessly lost.
THE SIZE OF THE CHUNK: This particular writer’s group limited what you could bring to 1,000 words. I found myself wasting time trying to pick just the right thousand words for review. A thousand words, in some stories, is not enough to make an intelligible chunk. I severely edited what I’d written in order to fit into a small box. I was writing for the critique, like some people teach to the test. I wasn’t learning, I was trying to please, trying to fit in. Or trying to cram in.
TIME: On top of this, these get togethers would take an entire evening, as much as 5 hours, to receive 2 minutes of critique. It was not time effective, to me. I could have written a lot, even written to fix problems brought up by others by finding it myself in 5 hours. I started off going once a month, then they wanted to change it to every 2 weeks. My goodness, I don’t have that much free time. I have a day job and a family. And, like I’m saying, those 5 hours would be better spent actually writing.
GENRE: Few people in my group understood my genre, even would outright say they hated it. To their credit, they did strive to be objective, and succeeded, but without even a passing understanding of what a traditional fantasy (vs. modern day romantic fantasy) or science fiction consists of, you spend a lot of your precious critique time coaching them in the genre itself. And, I was equally unhelpful to others who wrote romance novels or insert another genre I don’t follow. This can still work, but for me its benefit was watered down beer compared to the marvelous vintage wine I was told writers groups would bestow upon me.
WHAT ARE YOU WRITING FOR?: I noticed a lot of people had projects they’d been working on for YEARS. I know this happens, but I also sensed they were never going to get these projects to the point of even sending them off, much less publishing. I noticed some people who wrote well enough, but what they spent their time on, was to my eyes, a waste. In other words, their choice of content was puzzling since I couldn’t imagine it ever being of interest to anyone except the writer. Of course, people tell ME that too, so what do I know? Or they’d say they wanted to achieve a certain quality, which they sort of did, but then they had no plans what to do with it afterwards. For the most part, none of them were published, even self-published, nor appeared to be getting close to it. So why were they there?
GROUP DYNAMICS: yes, group dynamics. If you have the time or interest, it can be entertaining. However, I personally found them just another process that limited critique time and expanded non critique time. I’m glad the founders and regulars know how to dance around each other. For a newbie though, these dynamics are confusing and distracting. There’s the person you shouldn’t give an honest critique to because their feelings get hurt, so they’re disproportionately slashing of your work (Oops, wish someone had warned me). There’s the person who wants to be liked so they give glowing but meaningless critiques, and you find yourself giving them a pass because they were so nice to you. On and on. I think the people who navigate those waters best are those that have time or inclination to learn those waters, like if you’re the unemployed spouse of someone who supports you, have a part time job or are retired. Or if you’ve been lifelong friends with these people. Otherwise, if I wanted a soap opera, I’d have watched one. That would have only cost me a half-hour instead of 5. (gee, this makes me sound curmudgeonly, oh well)
So, I made the choice to stop going and try to recapture my muse. Once I did, and starting writing again, I was free. And that is why I wanted to write in the first place. I have stories I want to tell.
I wish these folk well, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from these groups, but I know in my heart that they are NOT for me. At least, not now.
SO, what do YOU think? agree or disagree? How have these groups helped or hurt you?