Tuesday

The Problem With Writer Groups? Where do We Start?

       by Michael Neff 

DISCLAIMER: for those of you who feel you are part of a fruitful writer group, may Godspeed you onward. Please consider the information below as being useful for reality checking your situation in the future.

For many years I've realized the futility of obtaining useful and project-evolving advice from the average writer group. In consideration of this epiphany, I recommend that writers limit any given writer group to a critique of prose narrative, and seek response in defined categories (e.g., clarity, imagery, dialogue, originality, pacing). If the group members as a whole are reasonably intelligent, non-axe grinding, non-narcissistic, non-mentally ill people who happen to be avid readers, they should in theory be able to provide some measure of decent feedback to you regarding your narrative. You need to look for commonalities, and not take everything at face value. Any group going beyond this limitation needs to be serious minded in the application of strictly defined critique criteria.

At some future point, however, a dedicated novel writer should seek advice from a professional (at least e.g. at writer retreat). Why? Because the professional can provide nuanced advice on proper narrative composition, openings, novel hooks, etc. that are beyond the reach of the standard writer group. Substantially better advice comes from successful acquisition editors or literary agents who have been in the business for many years. Their ability, honed by experience in the ms submission trenches and by immersing themselves in their chosen genres, outweighs the advice of even a published author who can only speak from his or her own frame of reference. 


In a recent Algonkian workshop, for example, an invited author recommended to one of the attendees that she start her novel in a car. Unknown to the author, this was terrible advice. Yes, terrible. Each year, thousands of new writers start their novels in cars. It's a running joke with agents, and I can't think of a better way to get an instant rejection than by starting a novel in a car. Even more ridiculous circumstances are created by money hungry colleges that match academic-trained literary authors as instructors with student genre writers. A good example of this is the Stanford Online Certificate Program ($7000+). Not only will the writers get highly questionable advice, but they will pay through the nose for the privilege (while also receiving online "critique" from a group of non-professional writers, many of whom are not in their genre). 

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From "Why Critique Groups MUST DIE":
Also, editing is best done on a keyboard, or with a red pen. Not out loud in a social group, where peer pressure and weird dynamics can screw up a draft in two seconds flat.


Below is a screenshot of a great interview between Hallie Ephron and Lorraine Bodger on the shortcomings of writer groups and how to possibly improve them. This is highly recommended reading.

NOTE: YOU MAY NOT KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN "HELP" AND REAL HELP.



Hallie is right. You need to consult professionals. Consider. Would you try to build a livable and quite stylish home on your own without an architect and a professional home builder simply because you had the ability to hammer a few boards together with nails? Of course not. You would acquire the expertise and skills before you began. And yet, new writers approach the creation of a thing equally or more complex, such as the writing of a competitive commercial novel, in the belief they can do so because they have a story idea, can type words on a page, and have read a few magazines about writing. They consult with other new writers as ignorant as themselves and proceed to build a house called a novel, but one that will not risk their lives because fortunately for them, it is all on paper. 

Below are select views on writer groups. Enjoy.
I found myself reviewing all the reasons why I hate writing groups (screenwriting or otherwise). In a nutshell, I find them to be anything but helpful to writers. Most of the participants are bad writers to begin with and have no real experience or expertise to offer other writers. Members typically are unpublished or unproduced, unschooled in screenwriting craft themselves (that’s why they’re in a group), and they almost never know how to give constructive criticism (i.e., “make the Mercedes a pickup truck”). Input from group members usually falls into three categories: empty praise, vicious critiques, or banal suggestions. I also find that, over time, familiarity within the group between members begins to undermine any real advice that might be offered, as cliques form... [more]
Accolades for writer groups she has belonged to (all were good!) and a sample of her published fiction from FIRE IN THE MIST: 
I know I’m not in the majority when I recommend that you get involved with a writers’ group. Dean Koontz apparently loathes them, Harlan Ellison despises them, and I’ve read advice from dozens of other pros whose work I love and whose opinions I value who say writers’ groups will do everything from steal your soul to cause your writing to break out in pox. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend that you get involved with a good writers’ group when you’re getting started. I credit what I learned from my early groups (plus enormous amounts of hard work and persistence) with leading me to publication ... [more]
I’m also uncomfortable with the group-think I’ve seen develop whereby one person says, “This really isn’t a mystery. You should recast it as a mainstream novel.” And pretty much everyone else keeps making the same criticism, adding their own twist on it, even though you know in your gut that they are absolutely wrong. Yet the pile up continues and you start to doubt yourself. Then afterwards when you ask one of them about it, the person will say, “Oh, well, I didn’t really think that. Not really. I mean it might help, but I doubt it. You probably just need to make it more of a psychological mystery, you know?” ... [more]
Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults. In fact, I would venture to say that most writers are not rejected due to prose, but rather, they meet the slush pile because of tragic errors in structure. Traditional critique groups can tell you nothing about turning points or whether a scene fits properly. They lack the context to be able to discern if our hero has progressed sufficiently along his character arc by the mid-point of Act 2. They have zero ability to properly critique pacing, since pacing can only be judged in larger context ... [more]
I know two writers who stopped writing for years because critique groups convinced them they do not nor ever had “what it takes” (though the one of them who’s resumed writing has more what it takes than I do.)  I’ve known a half a dozen writers who became obsessed with whatever the particular bugga boo of their group was, like “Don’t mix latinate and anglo-saxon words” to the marked detriment of their prose.  I know writers who continue writing stuff that obviously will never sell, not because it’s what they want to do, but because their group has convinced them anything else is selling out.  In fact, I’ve known more harm than good caused by writers’ groups ... [more]