Some people can write in a vacuum. For others, collaboration is essential. I lurk around somewhere between the two. I feel it’s important to flush your story out independently before you let other people in who might influence it. Personally, I don’t want someone else’s visions polluting the story I am writing.
Regardless, at some point, (hopefully after you have finished, or are close to finishing the first draft) you might want to start reaching out and getting outside feedback. For me, this is the stage before going to Beta Readers and after the first draft. Essentially, it is an element of my self-editing phase.
I was messaging a fellow blogger, A.M. Bradley, who wrote a post about trying to locate writing groups. While I will let this intrepid pioneer chronicle the journey of searching for the perfect group, I thought I would touch on what you should look for in one.
A writing group is a gaggle of writers who meet to discuss their work and provide useful feedback to each other. I always envisioned them to be similar to the literary club the Inklings. Their membership included J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and many other greats. They were just a group of brilliant writers, in a pub, talking about their classic works and enjoying each others company. The sad truth is, a lot of writing groups are full of literary blow-hards who are only interested in quoting other peoples work and listening to themselves talk. Fear not! There is a group out there for you, and these are the things you should look for in one.
Look for groups operating within your genre.
You don’t go to a restaurant and ask the chef to give you a close shave, so why rely on someone who only reads and writes romance to provide feedback on your horror novel? The naysayers are probably going, “But a real literary connoisseur isn’t limited by genre!” Maybe there’s some truth to that. I’m just saying, if I’m marketing a book to horror or romance readers I want someone who enjoys these genres to be critiquing it. Not someone who is forcing themselves to read it to appease a writing group.
There should be some ground rules.
This may seem like common sense, but if you are new to writing groups and you’ve stumbled into one lacking structure, know that’s a red flag. The group, upon meeting, should have to stand, place a hand over their heart, and recite from memory the groups rules. Okay, so that’s crazy. However, there do need to be rules.
Depending on the size of the group (I would advise a smaller more intimate group) time is going to be essential to the success, enjoyment, and usefulness of your meetings. For example, each meeting you will submit X number of pages for review the following week. We each have X amount of time to provide feedback. We have X amount of time to respond to feedback. No cell phones (barring emergencies obviously) and so forth.
People should know when to show their cards and when to hold them.
So you’ve found your genre specific group and it has rules. Good deal. You are all huddled together in the corner, clutching coffees (or booze), and waiting with baited breath to hear feedback. The feedback is coming, but wait, this clown missed the point I was trying to make with that passage. You open your mouth to protest. Stop. Just don’t.
Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells made a phenomenal podcast on their website Writing Excuses about writing groups and touch on this specifically. Keep in mind, these aren’t my words, they are the words of super-legit published authors (I’m not worthy…I’m not worthy). If you won’t listen to me, listen to them.
Wells states that, “When your thing is being workshopped, shut up. You sit, you don’t talk. If you start to defend your work while others are critiquing it, you will get into arguments, and it will be a useless writing group.”
Taylor adds, “And the other thing to keep in mind, in that regard, is that if you’ve written something and it can’t defend itself without you saying stuff, it’s broken and it needs to be fixed.”
People should know the difference between providing feedback and inciting a duel to the death.
Limit feedback to match the goals of the group or individual. Some group members may want you to provide them with ideas as to where the story should go (not recommended). Some just want to know what you thought of what is already written, and why (recommended).
No writer that I know of wants to hear, “Hey, have you considered completely changing your main characters motivations to more align with this?” That’s not feedback — that’s changing the course the voices in someones head are guiding them down. We have enough voices in our heads pulling us along without another one derailing us into no mans land.
Even worse, no writer wants to hear, “The last few paragraphs were riddled with typos and didn’t make any sense at all – maybe grab a grammar book and try again?” That my friends is a word bullet. Rephrase to, “There were some inconsistencies in the last few paragraphs that made it a little hard to follow. To be honest, it left me a little confused.” This sort of social awareness should be common sense, but I’ve heard worse statements made.
Even in my own group, which has been meeting together for years, I have an understanding of how to communicate effectively with each member. It’s not a one-size-fits-all method.
People should share what they think, not what some amazing wiz-bang published author wrote and would think (because we don’t really know what they think).
If you can’t think of a bunch of feedback, that’s okay. It means the writer conveyed their story in a well written and interesting manner. Just say that. You don’t need to start searching through memoirs, autobiographies, and self-help books to create feedback.
Don’t say, “Stephen King would probably tell you to stop focusing on describing clothes so much. You know that’s a pet peeve of his? I read about it in his book On Writing.” We would all be so lucky to have Stephen King in our writing group — bad news though — Stephen King you are not (unless Stephen King is reading this, then you are more than welcome to cite yourself old chap). When it comes to writing groups, be you, not the mouthpiece of someone else.
People should take notes.
Nothing says, “I don’t give a flaming crap rocket about what you are telling me,” more then someone who sits blankly and stares at you during feedback and doesn’t take notes. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you should be jotting down notes. Honestly, even if you do have a mutant eidetic brain you should take notes anyways.
Part of the strength of writing groups derives from the camaraderie of coming together with a sect of like-minded individuals. If you are sitting down with people you don’t know, taking notes, and being receptive to criticism, it tells everyone you mean business and take this writing thing seriously.
Let me put it another way. You sit down with two pieces of work to critique. One is your best friends, who always gives you useful feedback. The other is some weird guy/girl from your writing group who doesn’t take notes and just mouth breaths at you the whole time you provide feedback. Which one will you read with more interest and care? Be the best friend.
Lastly, and most importantly, people should check their ego at the door.
If you are looking for someone to read your work and gush about how amazing it is, email it to your parents, or girlfriend/boyfriend, or siblings, or whoever. I’m not saying you can’t be upset about criticism (never let them see you bleed), but if you are going to turn red and go radioactive when someone tells you they aren’t connecting with a character, or idea, then maybe a writing group isn’t for you. For me, I would rather a small circle of people tear my work up so I can rebuild it stronger, then go willy-nilly into the night and have critics publicly crucify my work on every review website and blog scattered among the interwebs. (It will probably happen anyways, but hey, that’s writing for you.)
Hopefully, some of this helped. There’s plenty more hot tips out there, and I encourage you all to share them. Heck, maybe you disagree with some of this completely. If you have an experience or differing opinion, share it, I’ll make sure it posts (as long as it isn’t a string of incoherent expletives).
Sometimes you just fall into a writing group and it’s hunky dory. Sometimes you have to search far and wide. Regardless of your situation, don’t settle for a crummy group. If you can’t find a group, it’s time for you to make one. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!