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Get Out Before It’s Too Late

Actually it’s never too late to cut out these associations, but the sooner you recognize them and do so, the less risk you run of getting hurt. Some of them can be damaging to your health, most of them to your career, and all of the ones I list will waste your time.

What? Oh, I’m talking about writers’ groups, of course. Those voluntary associations so many people encourage you to join. Your fellow writers, they say, will cheer you on when you’re experiencing an enthusiasm sag, will warn you if your story seems to be taking a wrong turn, will brainstorm with you over a sticky plot point, and – if necessary, which of course it wouldn’t be for any readers of this blog – gently explain the difference between imply and infer.

Oh, wait. I can take care of that last one right now.

“If I imply then you infer, / But please take care and don’t refer / To Webster’s Third, which may imply / It’s all the same to you and I.”

-shamelessly lifted from author unknown to me. Some time let me tell you about other disastrous decisions made by the editors of the third edition, and why you will have to pry Webster’s Second from my cold dead hands, and… Hey there. Wake up! Oh, all right. Back to writers’ groups.

It’s perfectly true that a good writers’ group will do all the things listed above, and if you find one, hang on to it for as long as it lasts. The trouble with just suggesting “writers’ groups” in general, especially to beginning writers, is that it’s kind of like sending someone out to the forest to live on mushrooms, without even giving them a picture of Amanita phalloides or other nasty specimens.

So here is a brief guide to various types of Killer Writers’ Groups.

The Wannabes Club

These are most frequently encountered in the form of large civic organizations with enough clout to get grants and hire speakers and award prizes. Some of the speakers are even interesting; the group will tout the awards as that vital push that turns you into an overnight success; and if your sucking-up skills are awesome, you may get your mitts on a grant that’s easily large enough to pay for your coffee while you labor on that magnum opus.

Nevertheless, stay away from these groups. Their true stock-in-trade is a subtle, insidious poison that seeps into everything connected with them. You see, the organizers aren’t nearly as interested in helping writers as in collecting dues. And they’re not stupid. Consider two pools of potential dues-payers.

One pool consists of actual working writers – whether they still have day jobs or not – who write every day, devote effort to honing their craft, and think the path to success is paved with good books.

The other consists of people who feel sure that the novel in their heads will be far superior to any of your published books once they actually get it on paper, only first they have to win the lottery and quit the day job, or go to China for two years to do research for that wispy dream of a novel, or be struck by that golden moment of inspiration when everything clicks and writing becomes effortless. And while waiting for whatever miracle they’ve determined to be necessary, they don’t want to write; they want to hang out with people who make them feel like writers.

One guess as to which pool is incomparably larger and will generate an order of magnitude more dues-payers to swell the organization’s coffers.

One more guess as to which pool is likely to want actual useful results for their dues, and which pool will be happy as long as they get to float around the meetings in a cloud of happy talk and reassurance that they really are just as worthy as Mr. Disgusting Success who probably sold his soul for that string of bestsellers.

At best, groups like this will waste a certain amount of your time in meetings before you figure out that you’re not getting much quid for your quo. At worst, they will gradually enervate you, sapping your will to write by pretending that talking about writing is the same as actually doing it, until you too turn into one of those lost souls in search of somebody to make them feel like writers. Quick, before that happens, grab your manuscript and flee!

The Copyeditors

Every novel deserves serious proofreading and copyediting. But is the first draft the place to start obsessing over punctuation and spelling? Or even the fifth draft, the one you think is good enough to share with the group? Usually not. What you want at this stage is a sense of how the story works. Does it get their interest? Does it move right along, or does it bog down in Chapter 2 where you put that huge infodump? Do readers want to spend time with your characters?

One Copyeditor can be useful in a writers’ group, but a group composed entirely of them is deadly. Unless your manuscript is so riddled with typos and malapropisms as to be virtually unreadable (in which case you should know better than to share it before you’ve cleaned up your work), the Copyeditors have little to offer you. Worse, they can do a great deal of harm if you fall for some of their prescriptions. They tend to grade dialogue by the standards of Strunk and White. If all your characters are really supposed to talk like small-town librarians, fine. Otherwise, get your manuscript back and flee.

The Queen Bee and her Courtiers

This one seems to have a lot going for it. You’ve met several of the writers and they seem like people you’d enjoy spending time with. They are actually writing; their novels-in-progress make noticeable progress. Best of all, Mrs. Success Personified is part of the group, and is willing to share the wisdom she accumulated on her own journey to the top of the lists.

This is great… if true. Sadly, many writers are unable to give a professional critique; instead, they tell you how they would have handled this scene if they were writing it. Sometimes you can learn a lot by listening to the various points of view they bring to the work; sometimes you can’t. I’m not sure this generalization is quite fair, but in my experience the more successful the Queen Bee, the less she  tolerates styles and approaches different from her own. After a few meetings you may notice that most of the drafts shared by the other writers seem rather like pallid copies of Mrs. Success Personified’s favorite work, the one that propelled her to fame and fortune. If you’re lucky, you will get tired of the constant chorus of, “Oh, yes, Mrs. Personified, indeed, Mrs. Personified, how right you are, Mrs. Personified,” before your own manuscript succumbs to the prevailing disease. You will reclaim that draft you passed out for critique and flee.

The Monogenremaniacs

Writers’ groups specifically dedicated to a particular genre can be quite helpful if you have an ardent desire to write in that genre, love its tropes, and are generally content within the boundaries within which the other members of the group live and work. If the members have a certain amount of flexibility, this may be the perfect home for you. If, however, they are rigid adherents to The Rules, you will recognize monogenremania by the way the other members of the group chorus, “You can’t do That!”

It can be tricky to decide whether “That” is a fatal flaw or simply an original approach; you may actually have screwed up in a way that will get your book walled by the very genre readers you want to attract. One clue lies in what your critics say after “You can’t do That!” If the critique is followed by an explanation of why That will annoy the readers you want, or a suggestion of how you can accomplish That in a way that won’t seem as if you’re trampling on the tropes you love, then maybe you ought to listen. If, however, the chorus of critics gets stuck on variations of their original complaint, such as “I never saw anybody do That before,” or “That differs from the precise pattern I’m used to, and I won’t read it,” or the ever-popular “I just told you, you can’t do That,”… Well, you ought to know by now what to do, right? Retrieve your manuscript and flee.

But It Used to Be Such a Good Group

Writers’ groups, just like art quilters’ groups or embroiderers’ groups or any of the other voluntary groups I’ve been associated with, tend to decay over time. No matter how reasonable the founding members are, unless they are very careful about new members they will inevitably pick up some people who are more interested in power than in the ostensible purpose of the group. These are some of the danger signs to watch out for:

-A new member jumps right in to telling you how to re-organize the group… based on his experience with the PTA.

-Somebody even breathes the words, ‘Robert’s Rules of Order.’

-Or ‘Bylaws.’

-Or ‘Membership Drive.’

-Or ‘Speakers.’

Ignore these signs at your peril, or before you know it, the friendly writers’ group where you all sat in somebody’s living room and passed your work around for critique will be transformed into an unrecognizable monstrosity. You will meet in a restaurant; you will sit in two long lines down a long table so that you can’t talk to anybody except your immediate neighbors; some idiot standing at the head of the table is telling you that you should market your books the same way he markets his widgets; and any manuscript you want to get an outside view on has to be submitted to the Chair of the Critique Committee.

Not being much of a leader myself, I’m not sure whether there’s any way to nip this sort of nonsense in the bud. But I have seen three groups that I used to enjoy destroyed in exactly this manner. Not all the roads to Hell are paved with good intentions; some of them are paved with Robert’s Rules of Order.

Readers, I took my manuscript and fled.

21 Comments
  1. Ha! It’s all so true. I run the largest Writer’s Group in West Tennessee. We routinely have 25-40 people show up for meetings. But I’m only doing it because the founder moved and we didn’t want it to end. It’s really a hassle so when it stops being fun I stop doing it. We also meet at a noisy restaurant, with tables haphazardly circled, precisely so it stays loose. I majored in Creative Writing and it took 30 years to unlearn all of that, so I sure as hell don’t need more of it now.

    July 26, 2018
  2. I have been wanting to find a writer’s group. An author that I knew always talked about how awesome his was, but he lives thousands of miles away, so I can’t join his group.

    How does one FIND a group?

    July 26, 2018
    • Facebook, Libraries, Meetup.com, Twitter…

      July 26, 2018
    • Synova #

      Your local NaNoWriMo might work.

      I took a class offered by an author I know and associated with Southwest Writers, which is a big group. It was a fun class and afterward many of the students wanted to keep meeting. I passed on it though. While the instructor wrote SF&F (YA’s I think) I was the only person in the class who wrote sci-fi. The other students were great people but they tended to be super distracted by the sci-fi elements and it seemed to keep them from seeing the bones.

      July 26, 2018
      • This was my experience as well. I’ve been a member of two Writers groups. And in both cases I was the only Sci-Fi writer. And I spent most of my energy in meeting explaining things: science, tropes, etc.

        Nice people for the most part but it was difficult at times. Although that wasn’t what drove me from the last group.

        In the last group our resident SJW (who was a textbook narcissist) decided that our group needed more organization. It needed a Rulebook and Code of Conduct. She timed critiques (2 minutes. Then, “Ahem…ahem, 2 minutes please.”) but hogged her own time. She constantly attempted to rewrite rules so that they benefited her.

        I left not long after she started her crap.

        July 26, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Start one.

      July 26, 2018
    • I’ve had good luck with a big on-line forum kind of place. There are weekly queues for different genres where you can post a chapter, you have to have accumulated a certain amount of points to post, and you get points by critiquing other people’s chapters, but you can choose who you want to critique. This increases the chances that you’ll be critted by someone who gets your type of writing (and also teaches you how to lure people in with titles, blurbs and opening statements).

      The one I was in had numerous forums that acted as much socially as passing on information. And I wound up with a dedicated group of critiquers, just as I dedicated myself to following other people’s books – and that helped me a lot with motivation, knowing there were people waiting on the next chapter. I think that’s the most important thing you can get from a writers group – incentive to write.

      YMMV, and you get out what you put in, and it really depends on who else is on the site, but a big site will get you a wider range of people. I also liked being in contact with people outside my genre – one of my favorite people there was a British professional haiku judge, and (unusually) the literary people and the genre people had some neat discussions and cross-pollination.

      July 26, 2018
  3. Best writer’s group I ever encountered: Actually a D&D group. 😀

    July 26, 2018
    • Draven #

      ehh, that depends on how much of a domineering DM you have, Seen some that railroad you into the story no matter what, but don’t want to give you enough information on their precious masterwork story in order for you to write a character that fits their story, and he’c convinced that he’s better at telling stories than anyone else in the group. Why, he’s finished a novel, its right over there *he points to a spiral-bound printout*

      July 27, 2018
  4. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    So you are saying you don’t want to join Chapter #5321868 of the International Confederation of Ineffective Writer’s Group, Texas Panhandle Section, whose bylaws clearly state that Roberts’ Rules of Order are mandatory? We are having a membership drive because we have lined up some excellent speakers.

    July 26, 2018
    • I hear that Chapter #5321868 has a new member with some exciting ideas on reorganizing the chapter, based on xir experience on this year’s Worldcon programming committee.

      July 26, 2018
  5. Then there is the Group Therapy Session Cleverly Disguised As A Writer’s Group. I’ve seen two of those, one of which started out as an actual writer’s group and mutated.

    You get a group of people with issues who want to use their writing as a way of expressing their feelings, and woe betide anyone who dares to criticise those feelings on the basis of being poor writing or a lousy story.

    The first time I encountered one of these groups I had to listen to a long Star Trek fanfic, and when I, in my innocence, asked if she was intending to submit it to Paramount or had a contract to write for hire in their licensed universe I was blasted with a long rant about how I had no right to judge her and that she could write whatever she wanted.

    To which I replied that of course she could *write* whatever she wanted, but she couldn’t *sell* something based on another creator’s intellectual property. And I was told that sort of critique wasn’t what the group was about.

    July 26, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      Good Lord. There are horrors I wot not of. Never encountered anything like that, but I can well believe it’s out there.

      July 26, 2018
    • If she wanted to do fanfic, there’s plenty of fanfic groups out there – and Star Trek is one of the oldest fan-things to have such a community.

      My reaction is pretty much: O_O

      July 27, 2018
  6. Seeing the above, I feel a rush of gratitude that I am so well insulated from group activities by social anxiety and Oddness. A room filled with twittering middle aged ladies, each one eager to offer their well-intentioned wisdom on what I wrote last week…

    …that’s like the Vestibule of Hell, Margaret. Where they send you in the Afterlife if you never did anything really Bad, you were just kind of a dick your whole life.

    Are there Heck-hounds lounging in the corners and farting silently? I bet there are.

    July 26, 2018
  7. Many years ago I got embroiled in a writers’ group that was all One True Way, their way or the highway. It took me a while to realize that yes, it was them, not me, that was the problem and leave. And it left me gunshy for quite some time.

    Looking back, I think that they were oriented more toward media tie-ins and other fiction in which you play in someone else’s sandbox. All the emphasis on top-down plotting, sticking rigidly to an outline prepared in advance, nothing to be added or subtracted, was crushing to a natural pantser. It got to the point I dreaded sitting down to write, because I knew that anything I liked, they’d condemn as wrong, wrong, wrong, and anything they liked, I’d find complete drudgery to write.

    July 26, 2018
  8. Luke #

    Roberts Rules of Order, in and of themselves, are much more a protection than an affliction.
    If the rules are run by the book, and the participants are familiar with the rules, you won’t find a system that better defends the prerogatives of dissidents.

    Of course, those are two very big “ifs”.
    The Rules aren’t taught in civics anymore, so the people who have gone out of their way to learn them are either ambitious climbers, or Odd.
    And which of those two categories is more likely to find themselves chairman is kind of baked into human nature.
    When the chairman remains impartial and strictly enforces (and follows) the rules, it’s a lovely interaction of participatory democracy, in which all voices are heard, and resolution occurs only once an overwhelming consensus is reached.
    It’s also the exception that proves the rule. Most people who appeal to the Rules, are interested in power, not the Rules. I’ve gotten a few groups to drop the facade. It’s amazing how quick the ambitious are to suspend the rules when they become the impediment they are meant to be.

    July 26, 2018
    • Holly #

      I’m a fan of Robert’s Rules, having grown up in clubs that use them. But I’m having trouble figuring out what a writing group, other than thd first kind listed, would use them for. Surely the only order of business is “read and give feedback for manuscripts”.

      I suspect the offenders don’t use Robert’s Rules. Instead they use Bobby’s Rules, which allow for a president (or a forceful personality) to run things as she wishes under the guise of “it’s just the Rules”. These rules aren’t written,and no one in the group is ever really clear on what poor Robert wrote, but the personality running things has convinced everyone that she knows the book by heart. It’s rather intertaining to visit an organization running under Bobby’s Rules, especially when the dominate personality is NOT currently the president, but you really don’t want to join unless you’re quite conversant with Robert’s Rules and have a copy on you, have ample motivation to fix the group, and have no qualms about driving the person running the group now out with many hard feelings.

      Actually, I think that’s maybe half a cozy plotline, right there, isn’t it?

      July 27, 2018
  9. I really liked Andrew Burt’s online group http://critters.org/ . I think a lot of what makes Critters work so well is the strong, thoughtful rules of etiquette that he enforces.

    July 26, 2018
  10. ashkalar #

    I have been an active member for the past eight years of a group called The World of Woodturners (thewows.com), which was founded in November, 2001. The membership is global and by invitation. The rules of conduct are fairly simple: Critique the ART, not the ARTIST; and Be Kind. (I.e., there are polite ways of suggesting something could be improved!)

    While art with an obvious political or religious theme may be posted, blatant political or religious rants describing or critiquing said art are not permitted, and such comments may and likely will be removed. The site works extremely well because it is NOT a democracy. The founder reserves the right to moderate discussions and request those who deliberately or consistently ignore the rules to leave or be barred.

    In the years I have participated, there have been only a handful of members who were ousted, two of those for posting plagiarized art and claiming it as their own work. Another few have left after dialogues became heated but such incidents are rare and quickly dealt with. The art remains, to be evaluated on its own merits.

    Like a good writers’ group, this site has been of enormous benefit to the artistic development of the members, and to the field of woodturning and woodturned art in general, precisely because of the insistence on aesthetic critique, not personal. We have active members ranging from those with barely a year’s experience with a lathe to skilled hobbyists to professional full-time production turners to world-class and world-renowned artists. Their experience is freely shared and as a result the site is unequaled in what it offers.

    It is a great model for what an artistic support group should be, IMNSHO.

    July 27, 2018
  11. Having been in a couple of writers’ groups this post made me laugh. I think the only group I would now join is one that invited me and, consisted of professional writers.

    As I think that both of those conditions are on a scale of one to ten to be less than one, I think I can safely say that it ain’t going to happen.

    July 27, 2018

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