Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Starting a Writers' Group

Here is a link to a reasonable column on starting a writers' group.

I have been a member of a local writers group several times and found it helpful. The trick is to find one (or start one) that works. The two biggest problems plaguing writers groups are the dangers of becoming either

  • a mutual admiration society:
    "My but that is a wonderful story!"
    "Oh thank you! And I love your story too!"

  • OR
  • a cesspool of negativity:
    "Your opening sucks!"
    "Oh yeah? Well at least my story isn't homophobic/racist/politically incorrect/fake news like yours!"
It doesn't take much imagination to see how bad either of those scenarios could get. The mutual admiration society ends up publishing each other's work in a self-published anthology that nobody outside the group and their mothers will hear about, let alone buy, instead of focusing on improving to the point where they are selling their work to objective editors in professional paying markets. The downward spiral of the overly negative (people who don't know how to give constructive feedback, or who think being 'honest' means saying whatever pops into their heads) is that one or more members end up stopping: not just coming not coming back, but giving up writing all together. Getting the right balance requires designing appropriate structures; having ground rules (e.g., give three positive comments and three areas in need of refinement); having good leadership (rotating chair? elder statesman chair? guest editors as invited chairs?); and/or recruiting the right people in the first place.

The blind leading the blind is not that helpful, but finding one's way into a professional writers' circle can be difficult. I have seen writers getting terrible advice from other group participants; writers getting shrugs from other members who don't understand the writer's genre, or style, or purpose; and writers so intimidated by their more experience or more advanced peers that they give up. So writers' groups can easily go very, very wrong.

But I've been a member of at least two that worked very well. The first dissolved when too many members graduated university and the group lost critical mass (in the days before the internet); and the second is still going 20 years on, but without me because I moved away for my day job as a professor. (That group has the best writer group name ever: "The Cult of Pain") In both instances, the majority of members have ended up getting published. Similarly, two of the novels I've edited for Five Rivers Publishing this year thank writer's groups in their acknowledgement, groups that have routinely produced professionally successful writers. On the other hand, Lorina Stephens, the publisher at Five Rivers, has sworn off writers groups because of her negative experiences. So...your mileage may vary.

Note the not all writers' groups are critique groups. Some just get together for coffee once a month to commiserate on how hard it is to find time for writing; how relatives do not understand; how hard it is to work in isolation (in contrast to working in a workplace); how unreasonable editors are; and so on, or to celebrate successes. A writers group as water cooler social group can be surprisingly helpful, giving a moral boost that can last a month or more. Just knowing that others 'get it' and that one is not crazy for feeling what one is feeling is often really helpful. Another possible approach for a writers group is the educational workshop that invites guest speakers (editors, successful authors, representatives from the regional writers guild, publishers, book designers, cover artists, etc) each month on topics of interest to the group. Online groups can similarly go beyond offering each other critiques to organize private Facebook groups, cooperate on a blog or podcast, or organize webinars.

It is surprising how helpful a writers group can be, but one needs always to keep one's activity in the group balanced against one's own writing priorities. I have known aspiring writers who became so focused on participating in the group's activities that their writing time suffered. As writing superstar Robert Sawyer recently said at a WWC presentation, it's important that one doesn't get distracted by pseudo writing activities, such as participating in workshops, marketing oneself through social media, and other professional activities that take time that might be better invested in actually writing.

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