Ten Signs You Should Leave Your Writers’ Group
I’ll be honest: it’s been close on twelve years since I had a writers’ group, but I didn’t leave so much as the group fell apart due to various reasons beyond our control, mostly relating to jobs, free time and where we each were at the time. Two attempts to restart a group never got off the ground, one due to my own time issues at the time, the other to the fact I realized no one in the group was actually going to give me a critique, so there was no point.
I have friends who read my stuff — different friends for different books – and a group of dedicated fans who beta for me, and who are completely unafraid to tell me when I dropped the ball.
However, recently, a meme on facebook with a writers’ group critique of an Emily Dickenson poem reminded me of all the friends, mentees and acquaintances who’ve been permanently maimed by writers’ groups.
Does this mean I advise you to stay away from writers’ groups? I don’t know.
The ten years I was in a writers’ group were my years of highest productivity. That alone caused some advancement. Did the critiques also help? – most of the time I either ignored them or “interpreted” them in my head.
A writers’ group is essential for one thing. If I may paraphrase a very ancient writing, it is not good that writer should be alone. We tend to get lost in our own head, and become fascinated by our own concerns and tics. Left to my own devices, I would probably never have finished anything, because around the time we started a group I’d managed to convince myself every short story needed 3 months of polishing.
What I was doing to them, in fact, was turning them into recital pieces, stiff and lifeless. But that wasn’t obvious until this year.
Meeting with other writers, even once a month, finding out where they are, what they’ve discovered, and what they are working on, and what they’ve promised to write, having someone check your productivity, and simply hanging out with someone who knows that you’re not completely insane just because you have voices in your head. (Your workaday acquaintances tend not to get it at all when you say things like “But the character didn’t want to do that.)
There is a balm to the heart and soul – and the stomach if the group runs to cookies – in knowing others are going through the same struggles.
But on the other hand…
I used to advise that everyone get a writers’ group, even though it was difficult to find one that didn’t do more harm than good, because you simply couldn’t be informed about every editor, read every magazine, and have contacts in every con. Having the connection of a writers’ group helped, both shape your writing so that it fit better with what the publishers were looking for, and with what the market (which meant selling first to publishers) expected.
Nowadays? I still advise you to have beta readers. This is important because you can do the strangest things and not notice, since it’s your story and you lived with it so long. For instance, in Noah’s Boy I cloned a car. It stayed in the parking lot, went to the forest, then must have vanished soap-bubble like because no one fetched it back. (Sigh.)
So you need second and third eyes – and I recommend establishing a group of ten trained betas (if you are good at it, they’ll arf for fish 😉 I’ve yet to get one to balance a ball on his/her nose yet, though.) Preferably betas who don’t know each other though you’ll inevitably end up with a committed (married or otherwise) couple or two in there. That way if three people hit on the same thing “Jonny needs to be a guy. She’s not working as a girl” or “I don’t like this fight scene” you can be sure they mean it, and they’re not just saying it because someone just before them gave that critique and they thought “oh, yeah, that’s kind of true.”
Because that’s the problem with critiques in a group: because humans are social creatures and try to atone to the group they’re in. (Whether virtual or in person.) So people agree with the most forceful personality, not necessarily the best critique.
I know two writers who stopped writing for years because critique groups convinced them they do not nor ever had “what it takes” (though the one of them who’s resumed writing has more what it takes than I do.) I’ve known a half a dozen writers who became obsessed with whatever the particular bugga boo of their group was, like “Don’t mix latinate and anglo-saxon words” to the marked detriment of their prose. I know writers who continue writing stuff that obviously will never sell, not because it’s what they want to do, but because their group has convinced them anything else is selling out. In fact, I’ve known more harm than good caused by writers’ groups – particularly now when you take in account that conforming to “the one way of writing that will sell to NYC” is no longer an object.
Now, I’ll put in a caveat that part of this might be personality. I was never very good at submitting to group judgment and the older I get the less I wish to.
However, these are the ten signs you should leave your writers group, even if they have really good cookies.
10 – You’re the only one who writes in your field in that group. You might think good writing is good writing, but let me tell you sister (or brother) you’re wrong. It’s not just that each genre has conventions – you can get around those. It’s that the conventions can dictate things like plot. The first few romances I read (five years ago – grin) puzzled me a lot. There are things that are not and cannot be realistic, like, the one kiss where you know it’s forever. Then I realized that it’s as stylized a form of storytelling as a fairytale. I shudder at what I’d have done to a romance writer who gave me their stuff to critique before that.
9-You’re the one who writes the most in the group. Now, this was more or less always true for me. I’m prolific. BUT it’s a big difference between the fact that most of the time I was doing a short story a week I was also doing a few chapters on a novel, but everyone else was doing a short story at least every other week, and groups I’ve seen where no one ever writes, except one lone member. If you’re the only one writing you’re improving and learning, and leaving them all behind and their critiques will become less and less relevant.
8- Every critique starts with a detailed enumerating of all the commas you missed and how wrong your word choice was. While there is a place for grammar and syntax (I assure all my copyeditors past, present and future – including Ms. Thistlewist who committed suicide rather than edit me again – that I honor grammar and syntax. I honor them so much I tend not to use them, lest their shine wear off) it is not the be all/end all of your critique. For that you have copyeditors. Also, given how idiosyncratic punctuation (and even word choice) can be in English, nine times out of ten the mavens of grammar are just using it as a stick to beat you down. My group did this right. Such things were marked on the manuscript and could be followed through on or not – but they weren’t spoken of. (Critiquer’s Secret. What a name for a grammar book for fiction writers.)
7 – Revenge critiques are the norm. You’re afraid to tell Bob what you think of his sex-with-alien-cats novel, because you know that no matter what you bring in next time, even if it’s as good as Pride and Prejudice – or better – he’ll tear it down from the first word to the last. And you’re still getting revenge critiques from Jennie because you thought she failed to establish the scene setting in her fantasy world romancing. You tried very hard to not do anything that was ad-hominem and you didn’t say “this is the stupidest world building I’ve ever seen.” Instead you concentrated on how the character who made the crops grow is starving to death and that makes no sense. Because this pretty much killed her novel, she’s been telling you that your worldbuilding is wrong, your characters are unbelievable and your grammar sucks for the last three years.
6- Ad hominem critiques. Usually this come from confusing the writer with the character and sometimes from misunderstanding the story in the bargain. The two worst ad hominem critiques I ever had, both of which I stood there with someone screaming at me were because the person failed to understand the story AND viewed it as a failing on my part what they thought the story was saying. The first one, I got accused of not researching and being anti-gun. The reason? I talked about burners. Burners, in my universe are laser weapons. That’s what they’re called, like we say “gun.” Now this was a time travel story but – yes, I did – I established that up front, as well as that my character was using a future weapon. The critiquer must have skimmed. He went on and on and on about how I used “burner” to avoid doing research on guns and went on from that to make (wrong) assumptions about my beliefs. It was highly amusing. To his credit, after he heard the other critiques, and after the meeting he came and apologized because he realized he’d got it all wrong. The second one I was accused of moral turpitude for a short story where there was NO open sex. The reason? The critiquer read the five or six characters involved in an alien association as an orgy with homosexual males. (No, truly, you don’t want to know. Yes, I used “he” as a pronoun because “alien” is not a pronoun. These creatures didn’t even have sex organs as such.) Now, my story wasn’t very clear. It’s one of the ones I’ve never published because well… I don’t like aliens and I don’t write them well. BUT TRUST me when I say that there was a jump in imagination involved – it would be like thinking spaceship docking is sex – and to go from that to infer ANYTHING about my moral beliefs was yet another step. If you’re getting these, at best they’re not reading you, and at worse they really don’t like you and are looking for excuses.
5 – They have started coordinating their taste in literature, and particularly their taste in what they critique. Some of this can be alleviated in beginning groups, by simply requiring written critiques, which are then discussed at the meeting and making it a rule that no story will be discussed between members before the group. The rule will be broken, of course, but at least people will try to hide that. In older groups… well, we’re all human, right? In our group, (not the same group referenced above) with a resident gun nut, we all learned to be very disdainful of incorrect gun scenes. Now, this was by and large harmless, except a stranger to the group would think their whole story should be discarded because they had a safety on a Glock, when in fact we were just coordinated-over-reacting. Most groups get in a coordinating thing on some aspect. If it’s to the point they all sound alike, leave. Leave now.
4 – They all like authors you don’t like. This is usually determined when you go in or within a very short time, but even if these people read in your genre – if all the people they admire and cite as examples are people you threw across the room at the second sentence, you probably don’t want to stick around. I mean, unless you’re perverse enough to use their critiques in the reverse. (I don’t have to confess anything! You’re not the boss of me!)
3- They dismiss your stuff with a couple of words and a comparison to someone you don’t know. “Oh, well, if you want to write like Jacques Prevert, we can’t help you.” On reading up on the man you find he’s a French absurdist and you are neither gratified nor shocked, because you have no idea how your story about alien robots can be compared to that. After all it’s not even in the same universe. The wrong thing to do is decide you’re very ignorant and these people will improve you. The right thing to do is to leave. NOW.
2 – You’re the only one in the group who gets bad critiques time after time after time after time. Now, this happens to all of us for a month now and then. Not just because all of us go through valleys of suckytude now and then – disease, being busy, getting enamored of some French absurdist – but also because group mechanics develop that way. Say there are six of you and you all turned in sucky writing (this is fairly normal before the holidays, when everyone is phoning it in.) But Jennie’s cat just died. Bob is worried about his son who was caught selling pot. Mike is in the middle of the slow collapse of his relationship of ten years. Fay’s mom has just been diagnosed with cancer. Mary was laid off last week.
None of those people are getting the critiques they deserved because you all – even you – are pulling punches. But you just got engaged and still have a job. Yeah, you’re gonna get it.
But if this goes on month after month, it either means they don’t like you personally or more likely that the group taste has moved away from what you write. It’s time to leave.
1-And the number one reason to leave your group: You’re never critiqued. EVER. They will note your typos, maybe, if you’re very lucky, but even those are presented with a sort of reverential “and if you don’t mind, milady.”
This is fairly normal when you’re the most (or the only) published author in a group. It’s not inevitable. My betas poke holes in my stuff all the time, though few of them are published at all. BUT group dynamics being what they are, it’s fairly normal for groups who meet in person. Now, if it’s a critique group, you want a critique. If you’re so far above the others they see nothing wrong even with glaring mistakes, it’s time to pack it in and move on to a system of betas or something. Or perhaps it’s time to change your critique group into a “Writer and indie publisher support group” – something I’m considering starting myself. There you can have the cookies (yay, cookies!); discuss what is selling of your stuff, and what isn’t; and trade names of proofreaders, ebook “typesetters” and programs that have worked for you. It’s an idea whose time might have come.