Question of the Week: Writer Groups
- February 25, 2022
- Keenan Powell
I’ve had mixed experiences with writer groups. When I’m in a good group, the big payoff is tapping into the collective enthusiasm for writing. Because to be honest, sometimes bleeding in front of the monitor in one’s cave can be a drag.
I lost enthusiasm for my current work in progress (WIP) a few months ago. I wouldn’t call it “writer’s block” because that’s like hexing yourself. It was more like I lost touch with my characters’ motivation. So, I just kept throwing scenes on the document in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way.
But through the kind comments and questions of my fellow group members, I found my way back into the story. And I don’t discount the incredible value to my own process that comes from critiquing others’ WIPs. It is so much easier to see what another writer needs to do and having seen that, to see how that applies to one’s own work.
Last night I woke up with an idea, so elemental I shouldn’t forget it, but I got up and wrote myself a note anyway. And that’s how I know I’m back on track.
So, I asked my Sister Miss D’s, writers of murder mysteries, about their experiences and this is what they said:
Writers’ Groups can take several forms. My first online group was formed by Guppies—five writers at very different stages of the craft, which was difficult. We submitted approximately 20 pages every two weeks (if memory serves). A big problem occurred at the end when four of us had come to the end of our manuscripts (all in the 80,000 to 90,000 range, but one writer still had 100+ pages to go. Later, I was invited to join a group that came out of the sadly discontinued Seascape Writers’ Workshop put on by Hallie Ephron and Roberta Isleib. One member dropped out right away (she’d decided to focus on another interest). Four of us exchanged portions of our manuscripts, and the feedback was really helpful. Two more eventually dropped out, leaving just me and one other person. We are still…well, I guess you’d call us “enhanced beta readers” for each other. I really value her input.
The inherent problems of writers’ groups are many: writing different genres, different levels of craft, not agreeing on guidelines such as how many pages to submit and how often. Guppies has a helpful guideline for all this, by the way. If only people took it seriously! My dream has always been to find a writers’ group that meets in person. It’s never happened.
Finding a great writers’ group must be a matter of luck. If you’re part of one, you are blessed!
I’m in a ‘public one’ right now, we are literally findable on Facebook and anyone can join. It has been more of a place to connect in person with local writers than a Beta readers group for me. (Although I should say that the quality of the feedback is very, very high and there are published authors in the group, plus writing faculty so we are perhaps a “random group” anomaly.) I think each group is about what you want/need from it. I would have benefited from a hardcore ‘your pages are due’ group this past year. I do need a deadline, and not one that is self imposed.
For some years I belonged to a writer’s group that was all non-fiction writers, except for me. I enjoyed it because they approached my work as readers and the advice was useful. But I spend so much time reading work for my day-job (as a teacher at Gotham) that I found, eventually, that I was just reading too much and not writing enough. So now I’m not part of a group, but I do ask my agent what she thinks, if I’m stuck. I also happen to be a maniac about deadlines, so that’s never a problem.
I’ve belonged to two writer’s groups.
The first was in-person, way back when. There were only four of us but the idea was to add people as we went along. However, it turned out one of the members wanted her work to be critiqued but didn’t want to critique the rest of us. She thought everyone was much a better writer than her. Another decided it was too hard to come into the city for the meetings (before Zoom). And though the third was willing to critique the rest of us she was totally focused on her own writing, took up most of the meeting time, then quit when she got what she needed. The group lasted about six weeks.
The second was an online group of about six Guppies where we submitted a chapter(or number of pages) each week and everyone critiqued everyone. We were all sort of at the same level and everyone participated. But I realized that submitting a chapter, continuing to write then getting a critique a month or so later didn’t work with my process. I write iteratively, that is I’m always circling back to change things to reflect the direction of the story as it unfolds. So I faced two problems: first, do I stop and try to incorporate the feedback into that chapter when I’ve already moved way beyond it. Second, because of the way I write the chapter may have already been changed and the problems identified may have already been corrected.
What works for me is a critique of the full manuscript. My wife, who my first reader, used to work with playwrights so she is able to give me honest but gentle feedback. I also have two friends that will critique if I ask. And then, of course, there’s the editor provided by my publisher.
Catherine, I completely agree about the complete manuscript critique (or a partial but not a week by week cycle). The trickle of critique off sync with my writing schedule has never worked for me.
I have been in a few very short-term online writers groups that didn’t work for various reasons.
I also was in a writers group that met in person for eleven years. Only two of the original members, including me, were in the group the entire time. I found the experience to be invaluable most of the time. The genres were fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry, fantasy, etc. The problem is familiarity. Sooner or later, the group begins to feel like family – isn’t that what group therapy replicates? The dynamics start to feel like sibling rivalry or some other family theme and people begin acting out these roles.
I learned a lot, read some fabulous writing, and met people I will forever call friends. But in the end, the group had a shelf-life, and I was done with the drama.
This is a painful subject because I’m still mourning the loss of my writing group. It was informal and we met once a week at a pastry shop. Most of the writers were there as a form of therapy and had no goals of being published. There were poets and people who journaled. The format centered around single word prompts, a group write-in for an hour, and then we read what we’d written in that hour. This format worked for me so well, I’m still in denial that it’s not around. It simply could not endure the pandemic.
Right now I’m in a critique group with ITW, but I’m not submitting anything because I’m in first draft mode. I’m offering critiques though. I find I need to submit second drafts or I get too discouraged from the comments. I’m okay with submitting as I write and the discrepancy in time doesn’t seem to affect my momentum. Mostly though, I rely on a handful of excellent beta readers.
I tried a writers’ group a few times. They just weren’t for me. We members were all at the same stage in our writing journey so there was no one more experienced to ask advice of. My peers could tell me if they liked something or not but I wanted technical feedback on the craft more than opinion on the content. I wanted a mentor, rather than a peer group. Part of the misfit with some of the groups could have been because I was the only one writing crime fiction and the other group members weren’t fans of crime fiction. Or genre fiction. Feedback from people who think they’re writing the Great American Novel isn’t necessarily helpful if you’re writing a murder book.
I can relate. In one of my first workshop classes, I was writing paranormal and I was waxing a little poetic with my language (as one is wont), and another student made fun of my writing in his critique. He literally took a paragraph I wrote and paraphrased it, making it silly. Granted, I was still learning how to write, but mostly he was making fun of the genre, and not of my ability. Grrr….
So, yeah. It’s important there’s no disconnects in taste.
Plus, it’s also important there’s no meanness! That’s terrible Emilya. (Bet he doesn’t have two books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble!)
Absolutely: no bullying! I left two groups over that. And the thing is, the person with the strong personality and strong opinions isn’t usually right, just insecure.
I was in a real world writers group one time and it was awful. Everybody was mean about everybody else’s writing. Now I belong to a virtual writers group and I love it. The other members are great friends and great writers. Our primary goal is to support each other. We always say “ all for one and one for all.” We have no formal critique process. If you want a critique you just send your stuff out. And it could be to the whole group or just one or two. We share the highs and lows, cheer for our successes and commiserate about the bad stuff. We keep each other up to date on classes or cool stuff that sounds interesting, and we all communicate by group text almost everyday. I love my virtual writers group. I can’t imagine doing this without them.
This sounds wonderful!
While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.
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