That was the provocative topic for a panel recently. The description went like this: Many consider critiques from their writers’ group a valuable part of their submission process. Others tend to believe that writers’ groups tend to dilute individual style, tending toward “groupthink.”
Someone was asking me about writing groups just the other day.
Okay, true story. Years and years ago (twenty or so) when I was reading slush for a small zine, my co-editor and I used to send personal rejections, rather than boilerplate. Though it was a teeny zine that didn’t pay, writers were so desperate for any kind of feedback that we got a ton of subs. One time we got a story—lively, full of promise—from a certain city. The story was flawed by cliche plot devices as well as prose, and grammar and spelling errors.
We touched on that in our rejection, encouraged the writer, and figured we were done. Very soon after, we got a story that felt similar to that one, and lo and behold, it was from the same city, but sent by a different name. It reminded us enough of the previous story that we wondered if the first writer had changed their name. Then bam, bam, two more stories, same city, and the thing is, the stories all shared a lot of the same errors: familiar plot devices and character types, certain words misspelled, grammar mistakes, etc. When we wrote to the last one, we said there was no need to change names every time they sent in a submission.
Well, we got a hurt letter back saying that they were four different writers, and each wrote about different things—one always wrote SF, another about elves, the third always did fairy tales, the fourth urban fantasy. They had been a writer’s group for many years, met frequently, and critiqued each other’s work thoroughly before they sent it out. They were doing everything that professionals suggested for writers who wanted to go pro.
The problem was, they were reinforcing one another’s weak points because those weak points were invisible to the group. Another problem was that they had worked together so long that their stories were not just similar in prose errors, but in feel.
They had begun writing for one another.
I once told someone about that group, who said, “Well, the problem is that they weren’t really professional. You have to have a workshop with at least one pro.”
I found that answer irksome for two reasons. First, those writers believed they were being professional, as they were following a pro’s advice to the best of their ability. Also, their group was what they had. You can’t go order up a “pro” just because you happen to need one.
In the years since, I’ve come to a third observation: that professional groups can have their own problems. (By professional I mean either run by writers who have sold fiction to the big six, or for profit workshops, or some combination thereof.)
The first and most obvious was the group that prided itself on flaying the members by extra harsh critiquing methods. They seemed to feel that a critique wasn’t successful until the author on the hot seat ended up in tears. That seems to me a recipe for bullying and grandstanding, but some have been very proud of belonging to such groups. (Or maybe just surviving them!)
Then there were the workshops that people paid to attend, but from which attendees returned to their friends with advice that sounded appalling—send out a story a week, or in another case, follow the ‘clinic’s recipe for a sure-file novel sale (this outline was the hoariest clichés). What to say to the proud graduate? So many times, it’s like when people ask “Do you like my new sweetie?” or “How do I look in this outfit?” They do NOT want to hear what you really think, especially if they paid down good money.
But those are workshops. What about professional writing groups? Well, there was one group of well-known pros who had all become so comfortable with one another that there was a gradual falling off in quality of their work, according to reviewers, until it seemed that none of them could sell to the big publishers anymore, though once they had been industry darlings.
I realize that this is beginning to sound like “writing groups are bad.” That is not what I’m saying. There are also famous and successful writing groups, like the Inklings. In my generation, the Scribblies—all of whom have distinctive voices, yet successful careers to this day. There’s the Blue Heaven group, which has produced terrific writers.
I suspect that to stay successful a group needs people at all levels of writing, people who write different types of thing, and new blood. Otherwise, there is that danger of getting too comfortable, and writing for one another.
Some writers avoid the problem altogether by avoiding groups. But then there’s the problem of feedback. Some writers don’t want it, but many do, or discover that they need it.
For those who need feedback, fresh eyes are crucial. Old friends who love our stuff can not only reinforce habits that we are not aware of that are keeping us from improving, but by degrees we might begin writing for them. And unless their taste is either universal or so fine it reaches the literary empyrean, we’re earnestly heading right for a rut, while we think we’re doing everything right, and of course all the praise feels good.
Then there’s the fact that finding fresh eyes can be a problem. That’s the eternal search for many writers. So they join various writing groups on-line, or . . . it’s back to the workshops, like Clarion or Odyssey, which are six weeks long, or Viable Paradise, which is eight days. Then there are face to face ones—the one I visited last week was GLAWS, the Greater Los Angeles Writers Society. This group was enthusiastic, friendly, and full of talent.
I was a part of Viable Paradise last year, and will be this year. I loved the collegial atmosphere that also managed to be supportive. I liked the intensive one-on-one sessions as well as the group critiques. And talking to industry pros was a real treat. Because the session was a week, there was no chance of developing a group-think, though I believe that many VP grads form enduring friendships with other members; in fact, some years have been getting together to trade news and manuscripts for a while, now.
But not everyone can afford these workshops. There are some free online workshops like Critters, Absolute Write, and Hatrack River. I am acquainted with the people who run all three. They try to bring in fresh ideas and they monitor forums to ward off trolls and bullies. There are many other groups out there, some with their proponents and nay-sayers, but like writing processes, not every group is a perfect fit for every writer. Giving them a try is the best way to see if they work for you.