Writers Groups: Expectations

Last week we talked about how to find or create a writers group. This week, we’re moving on to a big bugbear: expectation.

What exactly do you expect to get out of your writers group? This is a major question because it shapes the group, especially if you’re creating it. Some possible answers:

–An audience. Actually, you’ll always get this. It’s nice to have someone read and react to your stuff so you can see if your material is doing what you hoped.

–Motivation. Writers groups can give you a reason to write. No one will stand over you and make you finish that story or chapter. In fact, many writers deal with family or friends who actively sabotage their attempts to write. Having a writers group to submit something to can give you the motivation to keep going. Some writers group, like the Untitled Writers Group (mine), has a minimum participation requirement. Specifically, all members must submit at least one manuscript, however short, every other month or face certain sanctions. We’re a strict group.

–Emotional support vs. critiques. Be frank with yourself here. Do you want a group who will say, “That was such a nice story. Didn’t you think that was a nice story, Frances? I thought it was a nice story”? Or are you looking for a group that will say, “I like your protagonist, but I got bored around page three, and I think you need to pick up the pacing”? In other words, do you want a group of friends that validates you or do you want a critique-oriented group geared toward improving your writing? Most groups end up being some form of both, of course. The Untitled Writers group provides its members with social support–all our meetings start off with socializing and conversation–but critiquing is the primary focus.

–Lax vs. strict. Every group has rules and procedures, whether they’re stated or unstated. Do you operate best in a group with strict rules, or in one with a more relaxed atmosphere? Strict people get frustrated in relaxed groups, and relaxed people chafe in strict groups. If you’re joining an established group, make sure the procedures are ones you can live with. If you’re starting the group yourself, you’ll need to discuss procedures with everyone at the first meeting to hammer out a system everyone can live with. The Untitled Writers Group is a strict group. We have careful rules and procedures that govern meetings, and they’ve worked well for us. (I’ll post them another time.) Excelsior, another local group, is more relaxed, which works well for them.

–Who’s in the group. The makeup of the group members will have a serious impact on the type of critiques they can give you. Professional writers and editors are more likely to give critiques based on how marketable a piece is. New or unpublished writers are better at giving gut-level reactions. (“I liked this until the middle, then my attention wandered.”) Weirdly, I’ve heard pros scorn the idea of letting unpublished writers read and critique their stuff in writers groups. How strange! Is their intended audience made up of nothing but published writers? I’ve found that a mixture of both in a group is a really good idea, if you can arrange it.

–Strengths and weaknesses. Every group has both, and you’ll need to work out which your group has, or you’ll end up writing to your group’s expectations instead of your own. A few years ago, I wrote a scene in a novel, and during the rewrite, I found myself thinking, “I can’t do this. At least half the UWG will slap me for it.” And then I thought, “What the hell am I doing?” It was a small epiphany–certain members of the UWG always howled about certain topics in fiction unless the author presented them in a certain way. It was a blind spot of the group, and it was stupid of me to change my writing based on this. I wrote the scene the way I wanted it, the members howled, and I politely ignored them. The book still sold.

The Untitled Writers Group has an enormous number of strengths. The members will point out plot holes, people acting out of character, bad dialogue, uneven plotting, and more, which enomormously outweighs this single blind spot. And if I run a piece through the group and half of them like it and half of them hate it, I count it as a major win. Ask any group of people about Harry Potter, and you’ll find detractors there, too.

Next week: Da Rulez

–Steven Harper Piziks

http://spiziks.livejournal.com

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Writers Groups: Expectations — 3 Comments

  1. I think my most fundamental expectation is that a writing group will be a safe space. You have to be confident that whatever is said in the group stays in the group – whether it’s your bright new idea or any remarks about your WIP that you did not choose to share with the world-at-large. When you share a WIP, you don’t want your readers to talk to third parties about it.
    And while it might not matter (as much?) for thick-skinned people, the knowledge that (sometimes very harsh) criticism comes from people who like me, support me, and who want to see me succeed makes all the difference. There’s no rejectomancy involved. I don’t have to wonder what the subtext of ‘this piece of writing stinks’ is, and instead of giving in to my inner drama queen (sorry, artiste), I can simply say ‘where do you think it fails?’

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