The truth about writers’ groups.
I’ve belonged to many writers groups over the years, in several different areas of the United States. So I feel I am in a unique position to understand what makes up a good one.
A good writers group offers camaraderie and an understanding ear (something our non-writing friends cannot) as well as free editing, mentoring, growth and advice.
Questions to ask yourself to determine if a group you are considering is the right one for you:
Are the other writers your target audience? Do the others in the group read your genre?
If they don’t, you are likely to get many critiques asking what words mean, and correcting terms, word count and phrases that are common in the genre of your novel, but unfamiliar to those in the group. Not only is this time consuming and generally unhelpful in any practical sense, but it can actually damage your novel. Yes, I did say damage. If you are unsure of your skills you may concede to this pressure and end up leaching all the color and vitality out of your manuscript.
If you choose to participate in a group that reads mainly vampire novels and sci-fi, for instance, you are likely to run into problems with comprehension if you write say, romance, or literary.
Another question to ask yourself is:
Are the folks in your group writing at the same level as yourself?
If they are writing at a level much above yours and they are kind and mentoring folks, good for you! You’ve found a good group! Stay and glean all you can from these kind and giving people.
If, however, they are much more skillful than yourself (or even just think they are), but unkind and egotistical, then you are in for a hellish experience. One of the very first groups I belonged to as a young writer in Virginia was this sort. I always left feeling, not inspired, but depressed and anxious, and as if I would never attain the level of the other writers.
At the very least you will come away from a meeting like this with a feeling that your writing is worthless. Again, this can actually do damage, not only to your manuscript, but to your nascent view of yourself as a writer.
A final question you might ask is: are the others in the group serious writers?
By this I mean: do they write every day, or do they just doodle a bit when the feeling comes over them; when they feel inspired. There’s nothing wrong with this, by the way, but if you are serious about taking your writing all the way to a career, these hobbyists won’t be of any help to you.
Okay, that’s the Bad.
Now for the Ugly…yes, it can be even worse!
Ahhh…the uglies. If you’ve been in many writers’ groups you have undoubtedly encountered them. They come in many guises. But let me tell you about two of the most toxic I have encountered.
First there’s the Monolog-ist. This guy loves to hear himself talk. And talk. And TALK. He will monopolize the meeting (the meeting you’ve been looking forward to for days) to the point where folks begin looking at each other around the table to see if it’s only them, or if this guy really has been talking for 10 solid minutes. About his wife, or his job, or his political leanings, or his car, his house, his sex life, his dog, his shoelaces. Until you want to scream, “Dude, SHUT UP!”
But that wouldn’t be nice.
So, you sit patiently and wait for him to wind down. You examine your fingernails, plan your grocery shopping list…waste your precious Saturday afternoon.
Another ugly that haunts some meetings is The Expert. The Expert knows more about your topic than you do. He will cite pseudo facts and give Wiki-links to back them up. If you dispute them he will challenge you to email him with your links after the meeting. The others around the table will listen and assume The Expert knows what he’s talking about…he certainly seems to. The Expert has a little of the Monolog-ist in him—because he will dispute your facts at length. For the first few meetings you may not mind this too much. After all, this guy really seems to want to help. But after going home to redo your research each time this occurs you soon discover The Expert is not really as knowledgeable as he pretends to be. Your research is solid, your facts irrefutable.
So, you rise to his challenge at the next meeting and politely suggest he stop checking your facts. The meeting degenerates into a brawl. No solid critiquing of your work or anybody else’s gets done. The Expert is quiet for a meeting or two, presumably chastened. But then one evening it’s His turn to give His opinion…and you see that maniacal gleam in his eye.
Even if you like the other writers in these groups, STOP GOING! If the group’s leader or the other writers do not rise up and control a tyrant, the group will just be a drain on your time, toxic to your life, and your work. Stop attending and look for another group. You’ll be so happy you did.
And now, at last, the Good (always nice to leave on a positive note).
Good writers groups are out there. A good writers group has a leader(s) that directs the meetings and keeps them on track if they begin to stray. In a good group writers check their egos at the door on the way in. They are well-read, well-mannered and come from a wide range of life experiences. If they have something to say that might be hard to hear, they say it kindly. A good group is one where the writers respect each other.
Sound too good to be true? Well, it’s not. I have belonged to several. I belong to one now.
If you know what you’re looking for you’ll be able to find it. And if you can’t? Well then, Creative One, why not create your own group? Cruise the established groups in your area and find some good writers. Get to know them. The internet provides any number of venues to advertise and attract the sort of people you want to your group. One such venue is Meetup.com. Think about what you want the atmosphere of your group to be. What is the ideal you have in mind? Then set about making it happen.
What are some of your writers group experiences? What advice would you give to a writer looking for a group?