Grouped, by Type

The topic of writing groups came up, as it will, this week. I’m of mixed mind on them. I’ve been involved with very good ones, but also very bad ones. It seems when I talk to writers who’ve been around for a while, like me, that they have seen similar things. Writer’s groups who were great for helping and encouraging – and what I’ve noted is that these tend to be less focused on critique of the story, and more about learning the business and providing accountability. The critique groups… well, those can get nasty. I saw that in Critters when I was part of it, and talking with JL Curtis this week, he told me about an incident with a pair of writers he knew, who were almost crushed by the savagery of anonymous and ignorant critique. Because a crit group is designed around being critical.

You know who you really want feedback about your writing from? Readers. Not necessarily other writers, because as odd as it may sound, writers aren’t always readers. That, and writers get so focused on the mechanics of writing, they may not be able to pull back to the 20,000 foot view and see the story as a whole. Is it a good story? Only a reader can answer that, and there are very few readers (who are only readers) in a writing group. The difficulty here, I’m told by some beginning writers, is finding beta readers. I’ve heard complaints like ‘I can’t find anyone I know who wants to read my stuff…’ and I have to cock my head and wonder. Some writing is very niche, yes. But there are audiences, I think, for almost anything. Starting by finding that audience, hanging out with them, figuring out what they think of your stuff, then, is a better path than handing your story to Aunt Betsy who isn’t sure what to make of it, but she doesn’t like it.

I know a lot of young writers think they need a writing group, and perhaps they do. However! Only if that group is focused on development. Which does not mean endlessly passing chapters around and verbally shredding them. No, you want a group that is pushing you towards finishing something, and then finishing another thing, and along the way you all celebrate one another’s successes. If this sounds too idyllic to be true, well, there’s a reason most writing groups don’t last forever.

There’s another thing, while I’m noodling along and it popped into my head. Writing groups can sometimes push the authorial voice of a member in a direction it isn’t meant to go in. Writing to fit into the group’s perception of what is ‘good grammar’ can even lead you astray, as I’ve heard stories of paper sheets coming back to an author with the dialogue all fussily corrected. Dialogue is very rarely proper English, and if it is, the character is saying far more than is on the page about them. Other issues arise when the members of the group are all writing very different genres, don’t understand other genres, and want to have stories changed to suit their comfort zone.

All of this to say: writing groups can have a place. But don’t get so wrapped up into one that you aren’t also getting input elsewhere. And find where readers are hanging out (which is not, I say again NOT, Goodreads) and discussing books and listen. At least, if you want to be a professional. If you’re just writing to get it off your chest, this probably doesn’t apply to you. Writing groups, speaking of profession, are great for business. That is, if you don’t know how to make your work into a business, which is a skill you must learn, whether you intend to publish independently or traditionally, then finding a group of pros to learn from is the only way to go. Writing business has it’s own quirks and downfalls, and it’s so much better to learn from other’s mistakes… I mean, this is part of why Mad Genius Club continues to exist after all these years! You have the chance to learn from us. And we, from you in the comments.

13 comments

  1. Yes, yes and yes again!

    I’ve been a member of a number of critique groups/writers groups. I’ve headed a couple of them. The ones that worked did so because there were set rules, starting with a timeframe in which a writer could keep submitting on a single title and including the number of times the same scene or chapter could be submitted.

    I’ve been a member of bad ones where the founder of the group thought their way was the only way–which is really bad when the founder writes only non-fic, self-help articles but thinks they know everything about fiction–or where revenge critiques were the name of the game.

    The best ones were the combination of support (encouraging the development of the craft of writing/knowledge of the industry while encouraging the members to finish one project and start another) and critique. However, when it came time for the critique part, there were rules. Unless the author asked for it, the critiques did not bother with grammar and punctuation–unless it got to the point where the errors became distracting. Critiques had to follow the sandwich method–start with good, give something that needed to be worked on (while offering solutions), something good, etc.

    What I found from moderating such groups was I got the socialization aspect from the group but did not often get the “critique” part. I was responsible for some of that. I wanted to make sure the other members had time for their work to be critiqued. Part of it was that, as head of the group, there were some members who felt they couldn’t or shouldn’t offer solid critiques of my work.

    My suggestion for anyone looking for a writers group is to try it out several times before joining. Make sure you and the group are a good fit. Most groups will allow a potential new member to visit once or twice. Some groups do have a membership fee. I have no problem with a nominal fee. Nowadays, too many groups have to rent space to meet (whether from a library or other facility) or even just guarantee a certain amount of money is spent at the local coffeeshop. Where I draw the line is when that fee becomes triple digits per year without a solid accounting of where the money goes. But that’s just me.

    Anyway, this is my way (much too long, sorry) of saying thanks for writing this.

  2. *grins* We have an awesome writing group in the North Texas Troublemakers. Of course, as noted, it’s far more of a “feed each other, promote each other, talk out plots and problem points and geek at really cool ideas and oh, hey, could you beta this chapter?” group of friends than a critique group.

    Okay, and “ambush LawDog into doing anthologies. Alcohol may have been a factor” group. I wasn’t responsible for that, though, so you can’t blame me! Although you can blame me in part for the PTSD anthology, so nevermind… But the point is, we don’t try to push authorial voice astray, just authors into anthologies!

    Besides, yes, I wasn’t expecting the story to take *that* turn, but I knew when I said to the gents “I need to figure out how to do an ambush here”, that I was going to get plenty of advice and one or two reminiscences that I wasn’t expecting at all. That’s how that goes when you ask subject matter experts for help. So I am not complaining in the slightest.

    Then again, some of our members don’t even ask us to beta-read anything. Because the genres are all so different, and the writing style of the author. Some people like chapter by chapter feedback, some only want a quick beta read, some not even that.

    Heck, some people don’t even like the devilled eggs I make. It’s all good.

  3. I’ve been a part of several writing groups, invariably they are filled up mostly by women and then become romance novel writing groups.

  4. My own rule was start with the big picture and work down. The spelling problems will vanish even if they probably will be replaced when a writer revises a story so the ending and the beginning go together

    But my biggest problem is always what I imply that needs to be spelled out, and a beta reader doesn’t need to be a writer to know that.

  5. I’m only in one writing group, and I see it as good for a few things–socializing, writing prompts, and accountability. I love the group. As an introverted hermit, I don’t get out a lot, so seeing other humans, if only through a video chat, is a nice thing to do for an hour a week. The timed writing prompts make me think a little outside the box and have resulted in some of my more fun ideas.

    That being said, there is only one other fantasy writer in that group, and some group members try to get more out of it than I think it offers. There are frequent calls to review one another’s work, and I’m just not into the genres outside fantasy/sci-fi. When I first went out in search of writing help, I didn’t realize how picky I was about my readers. There really are only a few people I trust not to trample what I’m trying to do in favor of their own style or favored rules. In addition, some members push for all of us to rate each other’s work publicly, and that feels a little too dishonest for me.

    Review exchange sites are a better place to go for beta readers I feel. Yes, they are usually other writers, but my experience with reading-only readers is that they don’t know how to fix some of the bigger issues I have when writing. Other writers have been where I’ve been and solved some of the same issues. With read-only readers, I get comments like “this doesn’t feel right,” and with writing-readers, I get comments like, “you switched between narrator and character voice in this section, it’s jarring.” Or “this scene was boring,” vs “you could make this scene more suspenseful if you snuck the stakes in here and shortened your sentences.”

      1. I use http://www.thenextbigwriter.com premium, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about http://www.critiquecircle.com and scribophile. On Reddit there’s two subreddits, r/destructivereaders and r/betareaders that you can try as well, with the benefit of those being free. To get the most out of any of these, I highly recommend introducing yourself in the forums (if they have them, thenextbigwriter does) and having a thorough book description.

      2. Make sure you understand fully the TOS for the platform you sell your books on, before signing up for review swaps. I have been told some violate Amazon’s TOS and that can lead to your books being removed from their store.

  6. The only writing groups I’m familiar with are more “hang out online with people who can empathize” than a group aimed at nurturing the writing.

    There’s lots of help, it’s just not organized like a normal Writer’s Group.

  7. Other than the North Texas Troublemakers, I’ve only been around one other writers’ group. It is large, and is more of a professional association than a critique or writing group. I’m not the only fantasy writer, but it feels like it. They are also more focused on traditional paths for writers, rather than indie. I’ve found that a very, very good editor or two, and having lots of subject-matter specialists as blog readers and as friends, both help a great deal.

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