Thursday, January 31, 2013

Writing Groups; The Good, The Bad, and the Wary

One year ago this month I was at the writers’ conference, Life, The Universe, and Everything down in Orem, Utah, sitting in the main conference room awaiting the start of the next panel discussion, when author Dan Wells stood up and loudly asked everyone in the room who was interested in joining a writing group to raise their hand. Many of us responded, to which Dan replied, “After this panel, all of you go into the next room, meet each other, and form your writing groups.” I met most of the members of my writing group that day. A few have dropped off, and a few more have joined, but overall, the core of our group came from that meeting.

Since the idea for our group blog, The Writers Ramble, came from our writers group, we decided it would be appropriate for our first discussion to be about writing groups; what they are, how they work, what purpose they serve, and what you should be wary of.

So, why join a writing group? I heard it said once that the first draft of a story is for you, the second draft is for your readers. If you’re someone who writes simply for the enjoyment that you get out of writing, and you have no intention of ever publishing your work, then a writing group may not be necessary for you. However, if you have aspirations of publication, it’s imperative to learn how to write for others.

Now, that doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice your style or taste to please the general masses. That’s selling out. Write what you want to write. However, if you want your tale to reach a vast array of people, then you need to learn how to craft a story that will move someone’s heart, stimulate their mind, or some combination thereof. For that, it’s best to have a group of people who can read your work and give you feedback on what touched them, what bored them, what made them laugh, and what offended them.

How does it work? Our group, affectionately nicknamed the Word Vomit Writers’ Group, meets once a week to discuss stories or chapters submitted the week before by our members. These meetings can be done in many different ways. Some groups like to meet physically, others submit works to each other via email or other means. They then critique the work and send it back. Our group meets online in a Google Hangout. This works for us because we get that face-to-face time, but in the convenience of our own homes.

So what are the pros and cons of a writing group? I've put together a list of five reasons to join a writing group and three warnings.

The Good.
1.      Feedback
      The best way to improve your writing is to share it with others and gather their opinions. Based on the feedback you get, you can add or remove aspects of the story to make it a stronger piece. This doesn't mean you must change everything that someone suggests. It's your story. But if several people comment on the same issue, it would be wise for you to consider revising it.

2.      Knowledge
You can learn a lot about writing from books, blogs, school, or just practicing your writing in general. However, there is not enough time in the day for you to read every book, blog, and lecture out there on writing. By meeting regularly with a group of people also focused on learning the craft of writing, you can tap into their knowledge and learn from the books and lectures they've learned from, thus increasing your own knowledge.

3.      Networking
A good friend of mine, and a member of my writing group, Jayrod Garrett, once pointed out that, though we can attend different writing conferences and workshop to meet successful authors and network with them, it is the other aspiring authors around us who will be our peers in the future as we all grow and become published. Spending our time together, helping each other to improve our craft, will help lift us all up together.

4.      Friendship
This last year, as a member of our group, I have formed some wonderful friendships that I believe will last for years to come. I've met new people through these friends, thus making more friends. And if there's one thing we can all use a little more of, no matter who we are, it's friendship.

5.      Fun
We have a blast at our meetings each week. Typically we spend the first hour—when we are supposed to be having some sort of writing activity—chatting and goofing off, sharing things we've read or seen, and just having a good time. I look forward to our meetings every week, and only some of that excitement has to do with the writing.

The Bad.
1.      Un-productivity
As I said, one reason to join a group is to learn from the other members. And if you are still a fledgling writer, with a lot to learn, it’s to your advantage to join a group of people whose skill is greater than your own. However, as you grow and learn and improve in your writing, you have to avoid groups where the other members have nothing to teach you. If you are the most skilled writer in your group by a long shot, then all you’re doing is teaching writing, not learning about it. And that’s very noble of you, but you may not be growing from it.

Currently, our group is all about the same skill level. We are learning a great deal and sharing that information, so our meetings are very productive. If this ever ceases to be the case, it will be time to consider leaving the group.

2.      Mismatched Members
When I first began searching for a writing group I was invited by someone I met at the meeting of a local chapter of a writing club to join her group. I was honored and pleased to be allowed in. The first week I was a member, I received the submissions of a few other members for review. I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I hated every piece. It’s not that the writing was bad (though few were gems), but the subject matter was so far outside of my own interests that I couldn't begin to allow myself any emotional involvement in the tales. I realized that I would not be a productive member of that group because I couldn't advise them in ways to improve a story that I held no interest in.

You need to seek out people who share common interests and probably write or read in the same genre as you. However, you should also have some variety in your group. If you all write the same stuff, you will limit yourselves on what you can learn. Our group has writers of sci-fi, high fantasy, urban fantasy, contemporary fiction, horror, and even some historical fiction. 

3.      Stagnation
As I keep saying, the great thing about writing groups is being able to learn from its members. Eventually, however, you will all have learned what each other likes, thinks, expects, etc. You will run out of ways to productively help each other. This stagnation will only hurt your writing. Either you will cease to improve in your writing, or you will begin to write specifically for the members of your group, for which your writing will suffer.

The bottom line is that a writing group can be a wonderful thing if you find the right group of people. Look for people with interests and skill levels similar to, if not greater than your own. Try to offer constructive advice on the other members’ works and be gracious in accepting criticism of your own writing. Be a productive and contributing member. And if/when you feel you are no longer gaining anything from your group, politely thank them for the time you've had together and begin the process of searching for a new group that will suit your new needs.

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