On Writer’s Groups

Joining a writer’s group was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

I have made good friends and continue to meet more and more people through those friends. I have pressure (not too much) to get things done. I get information on events/people/things I otherwise might have overlooked. I have encouragement to move past my naysayers, I have companionship in my solitary pursuits. I have valid opinions that help me make my writing better. I have found the win-win scenario.

Or did I?

Recently we’ve had a couple of members of my writer’s group decide to move on or take a hiatus. One needed time to have a baby (yea!). One didn’t have enough time to juggle school, and one just needed a little more time…to work on writing. The writer’s group was biting into time at the keyboard. This is a sign of a good writer! Someone who would rather write than talk about writing!

Maybe. They got me to thinking. There are pros and cons here, as in everything, and you have to find what works for you.

Is a writer’s group for you? Yes. If you want to be a writer, a writer’s group is for you. Period. It is. The real question becomes is this particular writer’s group right for you?

Problems arise anytime people get together and try to do something. Opinions on what should be done and how to do it inevitably vary. Not to mention the differences in motivation, work ethic, temperament, politics, religion, sense of humor, morality…

Oh, really? you might ask, All of those things? Yes. And more. If you are around other writers long enough, one of them will find a way to offend you. That is what we do. We try to tell stories and we try to play with your emotions to do it. Some of us want to write butterflies and rainbows. Some of us want blood and guts. Some want good vs. evil, while others want God vs. Satan, or politics vs. religion, or anything you can think of. We are all looking for something new to write, something new to explore.

If you know yourself well enough to know that certain things offend your sensibilities, then make sure you don’t join a writer’s group that will do just those things. If you are an adamant Catholic, don’t join a group composed predominately of Wiccans who want to write about pagan gods. If you get nightmares from FrankenWeenie, don’t join a group with horror writers. You get the idea. Stephen Graham Jones will probably get tired of your butterflies, and you’ll probably get tired of having his nightmares.

But there is more to it than that. What if your writer’s group really turns out to be a book club? What if you are the only one who shows up with something to be critiqued, and although everyone is very excited about it, they just want to talk about it and then compare it to Mary Robinette Kowal‘s latest. Talk about it. Tell you how great it is. Talk about Cherie Priest‘s  book and how much they want to see the movie when it comes out. Eventually you will see a pattern. This isn’t a writer’s group. It’s a fan group. They may want to be writers, but  who doesn’t? If they never actually write anything themselves, they are never going to understand what you are doing.

Everyone wants to be a writer. Few actually do it. You might encounter the person who writes the same three opening chapters of their book over and over and over. You might be that person. If you are that person, I am telling you now (LISTEN TO ME!) you will never get anywhere until you move on. Finish the book. If that person is in your group, you might do well to try to replace him/her, as it can be near impossible to get them to move on.

If you want to write novels, and your group only wants to do short stories, you might want to consider whether or not to stay. Maybe you could do both. Maybe you will learn something new, or maybe it will eventually drag you down. This is a personal choice you have to intelligently make based upon your abilities and desires.

Maybe everyone in the group is always rolling their eyes at you. Your stories are ludicrous, have too much sci-fi, or just not funny. This gets hard.They might be right. They could be wrong. It is hard to judge your own work, and that is the most important function of a writer’s group. You need someone who has no stake in making you feel good about your story, whose opinion you know you can trust, someone who will give you an honest assessment. But you need to know you can trust that assessment. If they keep telling you 50 Shades of Gray was the best book ever written and that you should use the same grammatical errors, repetitious wording, and worn out tropes in your story because look at how well it sold! Well now, E L James is laughing all the way to the bank, so who am I to say anything, but seriously, you need to be able to trust and respect the advice given to you.

The flip side of that is that if they have no encouragement to offer, they are not the group for you. Everyone can learn, grow, and improve. If a group is not helping you do that, or they are actively discouraging you, they are not your group!

Anyway, now that I have rambled so long I have nearly forgotten my point, I am going to finally cough it up and move on. Recently I found myself wondering,at that moment I was writing, what certain people in my writer’s group would be thinking about when they read it. This is good, and bad. It’s good if what I am thinking is “X is going to call me out on this run-on sentence”, because I will just fix it now and my writing is better for it. It’s bad if I am thinking “Y might be offended by this. I should tone it down.”  What if I never gave Y the chance to be offended by it? We have exchanged  stories and never offended each other before, why should I worry about it now?

Well, I don’t normally think of my ‘audience’ while I write. But, being in a writer’s group, I do have an audience, and it is one I know. Would I show everything I write to my mother-in-law? No. I write horror. Why would I do that to her? She doesn’t even really like my non-horror stuff. But I should show it to Y. Y is part of my writer’s group. That is what Y is there for. Y can tell me if I sounded like an idiot, a pervert, or if I was actually scary.  Y can tell me if the butterflies are pretty or nausea inducing. If not, Y shouldn’t be in the group. Or I shouldn’t.

A writer’s group can be the most important thing in your career. It can help you improve your writing, it can help you make contacts. It can be a social support when you get rejected, it can be your reality check when you make a sale and they point out you still suck.

If you really are serious about writing, make sure you find a group, but remember, a poor writer’s group can be just as detrimental as a good one is helpful. Make sure you find a good fit.