Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 8

Well, we only got a few requests (don’t be shy, speak up!) but two of them were on the same basic topic, so I’m going with that, in my first two-part discussion about getting help from your peers (as opposed to an editor or agent).

This week, I’m talking about Writers’ Groups Vs Beta Readers vs Going Solo.

Writers work alone.  Unless you have a co-writer, the actual writing of a story involves your brain, your notebook, and your keyboard, and that’s it.  Which means, depending on the shape of your id and ego, you’re either supremely confident that you’ve nailed it, or convinced that what you’ve written is utter dreck and should never be allowed off your hard drive.

Or, more likely, you waver somewhere between those places, depending on the project, the phase of the moon, and if you remembered to eat that day.

The answer to this inevitable wavering is getting (useful) feedback.  That can come either when the story is finished, or while you’re in the process of writing it (a “WiP,” or work in progress).   Those are two very different types of support, and some writers need one or the other, while some enjoy both – and some find either a distraction.

Figuring out which – if any – is right for you is the first step.  No, I don’t have a handy dandy quiz or personality chart.  But I can give you the rundown on what each offers.

Writers’ Group:

I’ve belonged to a number of these in my time, from small, tight-knit groups to larger, classroom style gatherings, and on-line organizations.  Generally a group meets at a specific time, at specific intervals (every few weeks, once a month, etc), and certain rules are enforced, most often “no rebuttal to critique until everyone is done.”  That forces you to listen to what people are saying, rather than marshaling your defensiveness.  Sometimes everyone gets a chance, sometimes – if the group is large – only a few people per meeting are critiqued.  Ideally, you have a range of levels, and people who write different sorts of work, although you might want to focus on an all-fiction or all-nonfiction group, so that everyone’s working on the same assumptions.  The best group I was in deliberately looked for people writing all sorts of commercial fiction, so that we got general, mainstream feedback as well as genre-specific reactions.

Groups like this are excellent for short fiction, slightly more problematic if you’re writing a novel (unless you know without fail they will meet regularly and respond quickly) and horrible if you’re writing on an intense schedule, and can’t wait a few weeks or longer between sections.

Beta Readers:

A beta reader is publisher’s adaptation of technology’s “beta testers,” who take a product for a trial run and report back on bugs or flaws.  A beta reader does exactly that, only for fiction.  Some will read along as you write, on a chapter by chapter basis, while others may wait for a completed project, but they read and respond individually, rather than in a group.  This takes care of the “can’t wait” problem and is excellent for the writer who uses feedback to keep themselves motivated and energized.  It also takes care of the “OMG it is teh suck!” fear, because you know right away if it does or not.  When you’re working on a tight deadline, beta readers are a great resource.

The downside to a beta reader is the difficulty of finding one (or more) who can be the critical-yet-supportive reader your work needs.  It’s not a job for the casual reader, who may love your work but not be able – or willing – to clarify what they don’t think works, and why. A good beta-reader does not have to be another writer – but s/he must be a thoughtful, detail-oriented reader willing (for a novel) to go the long haul.

A third option for those who are looking for a more immediate feedback is the workroom:

This is a relatively new phenomena; writers gathering online in a chatroom – either public or private – to work on their own projects in a communal setting.  This is not a critique setting, as such: most times everyone is actively writing.  But it does allow you the chance to run an idea off other people, test-drive a line you think is either good or bad, and pick at the gathered knowledge to solve a problem.  It’s also excellent for heading off the “teh suck!” before it has a chance to really get a grip.  I belong to one that spans several different time zones, so no matter when you’re working, odds are there’s someone else ready to join in.

Any one, or a combination, of these options might  be exactly what you need.  The trick is to look not only at how you write, but how you take feedback, and what sort of support you respond best to.  Be utterly honest – nobody is judging you on this, and a “popular” answer is not going to help you at all if it’s not true.

Of course,  sometimes the answer isn’t found in feedback at all.  And that brings us to a fourth option:

Going Solo:

For some people, the intrusion of someone else’s opinions into their work, especially at the critical formation stage, is a bad thing.  They need to keep focused, working from beginning to end and then polishing on their own.  It’s not my way, particularly (I am a firm believer in the External Eye) but it works for some folk.  For them – and for you, possibly – working solo is the only thing that will work.  If you try to go to a group, or wait on beta-readers, you’ll probably find yourself disgruntled with the entire project before you’re done.  The lesson there is, don’t force yourself if it doesn’t work for you.  Whatever benefits you might get would be outweighed by the negatives.

So consider your options, consider your personality and your needs, and then go out and find (or start) what you need!

Useful link: How to Choose a Writer’s Group

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Coming up in Week 9:   conferences vs. retreats vs. a degree program

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her first collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.

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About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.

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Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 8 — 17 Comments

  1. I find writing with company very helpful even if I’m not actually interacting with them. This is probably a result of a lifetime of working in noisy offices: I find utter isolation intimidating and inhibiting.
    At the same time, I find writers’ groups to be a mixed blessing. I love the companionship and the range and the discussions and I find the feedback helpful, but I am never quite comfortable with submitting chunks of something that’s still in progress. I’m not sure why: it may be that I’m not confident about staying on track, it may just be that I’m naturally rather secretive about whatever I’m working on.
    Good topic and interesting points: thank you.

  2. Kari – yes, exactly, on the writing-with-company point. I don’t write with music on, because I fin it too distracting, but the “white noise” of people around me (even digital) is soothing to my office-trained, constant-conversations-in-the-hallway-outside brain.

    I find “writing dates” soothing in the same manner. Well, and also there’s the guilt of “look! They’re working! You should too!” Never underestimate the positive power of peer pressure. However, some folk I know go a little nuts trying to write with someone else in the room.

  3. I leave my “writing dates” behind when I wander off to college each term, and I really miss that weekly meetup. Not only are they fab ladies and good friends of mine, I get a lot done during those hours, for the reasons you said. It’s a supportive, creative environment for working, and if everyone’s stuck, we can all have a pint and hash it out.

    I’ve mostly worked with beta readers, to varying degrees of success. It’s important to set out rules from the beginning: what kind of feedback you want, how thick your skin is at different points during the process, and what time frames you’d like to work within. Different expectations at either end lead to sadface. Communication=win.

  4. I have tried all of the above. Finding the right writing group is really tough. I ended up leaving my group and now work with one or two beta readers who are beyond awesome.

    I’m with you on the External Eye – both my betas have saved me from really stupid stuff!

    Cheers!

  5. You’ve heard of Orson Scott Card’s solution to the beta reader problem, right? He discusses it on his web page — he trained his own. Because this takes some time, you have to select a trainee who will not gafiate, or lose interest in your work. He selected his wife. Personally, it would kill me.
    Peer pressure is a wonderfully useful thing — that’s why people should join SFWA (or RWA or HWA). I wrote my first novel when I was working in the National Press Building. Fourteen storeys packed with writers on deadline!

  6. Laura Ann,

    I’m really enjoying these hints and take most to heart. I waver between all states, using my monthly writers’ group to critique short stories, some beta for the long stuff, but mostly I work alone.
    They provide some relief, but what I really need is writerly discussion, which neither of these provides. I’d like to chat about placing plot points, use of POV shifts, structuring narrative, etc, independent of any specific piece of work.
    The ONLY place I get this is in the hallways at cons.

  7. I have done writers’ groups in the past, and won’t do them now. One reason is that I am far too easily influenced by the group, and end up writing for the group instead of what the book or story really needs to do. It’s too easy for me to internalize the critical voices of others, which then becomes that crippling Internal Editor that paralyzes me. It took NaNoWriMo to teach me how to banish that Internal Editor and just write.

    The other is that the time commitments for reading and critiquing others’ work (which is a necessary piece of participating in a writers’ group) are tough for me to create at this point in time, because of the nature of the Day Jobbe and the need for me to continue developing that particular career.

    I prefer beta readers, but finding the right betas with the appropriate critical distance is a challenge. I do have some on deck now.

    What I do like is writing-with-company. I participate in one of those groups right now, the infamous Fireside Writers (now at Fat Straw) in Portland. It’s quite fun, and contributes toward being productive. Some days I spend too much time decompressing from the Day Jobbe and don’t get much done, but then there are the days when I whip off another 1000 words for the day. OTOH, when Jay Lake is there, that’s nuthin’.

  8. I am classical Going Solo. I appreciate feedback, but if I get it when working on the second draft, I tend to put it away until I am about to start the third draft.

  9. As I love to tell m’students, I am the dog-end of the last generation for whom writing really was a lonely business. The internet pretty much changed everything – but not long-established habits. All my babywriters are social writers, they have writing dates and talk endlessly on Facebook with other writers and have beta-readers and critiquing groups and and and.

    And I? Do not. I am a total Solo; nobody reads anything until it’s ready for my agents. (Well, nobody except Karen, maybe. Even writers can change their spots, maybe. A bit.)

  10. I think it is important to get out of bad writing groups ASAP, something newer writers might not recognize (or they might not recognize a toxin fast enough). I’ve been in a few good workshop groups at a local University-run conference, but the community writers’ groups have been uniformly horrid – there was one dominating, possibly unstable person in each one who tried to run everything and everyone. Usually with no publications, writing chops, or quality advice. This kind of energy sap does not help your writing – FLEE.

    I’ve also been disturbed by the frequent assumption of group members that “writing by committee” is OK. Not unless I agree with the committee – I’m a lone wolf by nature and writing that way is the only way that works for me.

  11. Online writers’ groups have an advantage: you get sent your critiques by email and so can be as defensive as you like without the critic having to see it.

  12. I’ve done all of these and found they nourished me in different ways. I desperately needed a critique group when I was first writing professionally. I’m one of those people who had to have what I was doing wrong explained to me in words of one syllable. The group/s lost effectiveness about the time the strongest critiquer said my story was such a piece of “sentimental twaddle” yeye couldn’t comment (and that story not only sold first-time out to ASIMOV’S but was Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF).This was the universe’s way to telling me it was time to move on.

    Good beta readers are absolute treasures. You know who you are.

  13. MJ – as with any relationship, it’s hard to say goodbye because you remember all the good feedback… but yeah, a toxic one can kill your inclination to write. Even a good one can do that, if it’s not the right fit.

    Bud – it sounds like you might be a candidate for one of the “chatroom workroom” options – Word Wars is set up to have writing times and “griping/commenting/questions” times….

  14. I run writing workshops, for the Writers Center in Bethesda MD. I make an effort to keep it sane. Nobody is allowed to dominate discourse or get mean. Everybody, even the shy ones, gets to talk. All the participants get ‘first skim’ (as they say in LITTLE WOMEN) and I go last, although I frequently bail in with prompting questions (“And did you want to read more? Do you like the hero, or do you want to smack him one? What do you think was happening on page 21, was he murdering her or was it just sex?”) to maximize discourse and learning.

  15. The problem with a longtime beta is that that person’s taste might end up being non-commercial, and young writers especially can be shipwrecked for a long time by trying to please a beta whose advice is . . . less than stellar.

    Fresh eyes are wonderful, but very hard to find.