Thursday, December 18, 2014

Writing Group Presentation: Part Two

Part 2: The Whys and Whats.

What can a writing group do for you? When I ask writing group members this question I usually get some variation on three basic points.

a. Writing is a lonely business. A writing group provides needed socialization. At work I get time to socialize with friends and colleagues, but in the summer when I don’t teach I might see no one but my wife and my writing group for weeks at a time. I like my privacy but even I need some human contact.

b. More than in most careers, writers put their innermost thoughts, fears, hopes and loves out in front of people. We take risks and it’s scary. Sometimes it results in rejection. This hurts. We begin to doubt our talent, our luck, everything. Only other writers will really understand and a writing group can provide needed emotional support.

c. To improve their craft, writers need reader feedback. Books on writing are good but there’s no substitute for receiving a critical evaluation of your work. Editors and publishers don’t have time. You can pay professional editors but that’s costly and you get one opinion. You can ask family members and friends but that’s generally a bad idea. You’re likely to get either glowing reviews or anger because they think you’re writing about them.

I once shared a story with my mom that I thought was really good. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes as she finished it. “Is this what you think of me?” she asked. I was devastated. And confused. The story was a Twilight Zone type twist ending tale. It did have an older woman character with gray hair and Mom, who was an older woman with gray hair, took it to represent her.

A writing group can be easiest and cheapest source of feedback available for writers. This is the major reason I’m in one.

Say you are starting to think that a writing group might be for you. What kinds of groups are out there?  Many. But, I think they can be divided into three broad types.

a. Support Groups:  Provide emotional & literary support for writers. Many such groups are professional and nationwide. Romance, mystery, thriller groups etc. I’m in HWA. Many have smaller local affiliates. You pay to be a member.
          Strong at: newsletters, markets, contests, speakers, workshops, social events, webpages, networking opportunities.      
          Weaker at: One on one feedback, the nuts and bolts of constructing a story or novel, actual practice at writing.
          Dangers of: Too much talking, not enough doing. People can sometimes feel they are accomplishing writing while not actually putting words on the page. In extreme cases, this can actually decrease a person’s motivation to write.
b. Discussion Groups: General discussion about writing. Such as: genres of writing, plotters vs pantsers, info dumps, importance of dialogue & description, writing habits, many more. Such groups often include discussion on what members are reading and their reactions.
          Strong at: socializing opportunities, philosophy and theory of storytelling, emotional support, spontaneous discussion of writing issues.
          Weaker at: One on one feedback, actual practice at writing, fewer networking opportunities.
          Dangers of: Same as Support groups with too much social, not enough writing. Themes may begin to repeat after a while.
c. Critique Groups: (The kind I prefer). Members read each other’s writing and make critical comments, both on what works and what doesn’t. Can catch anything from grammar and punctuation errors, to clichéd writing, to plot holes, etc.        
           Strong at: One on one feedback, nuts and bolts of writing, actual practice at writing, motivation to write, getting your words in front of actual readers.
          Weaker at: relatively fewer socialization & networking opportunities, less of the big picture, less spontaneous discussion of writing issues.
          Dangers of: Hurt feelings.



Brian Miller said...

i def prefer the crit long as people are not too touchy...if people are too emotionally involved with a piece it is pointless...though it is fun to just talk shop on occassion, but that can just happen over coffee...

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Great breakdown.
I get the support I need from the IWSG.
Sorry your mom thought that was her in the story!

BernardL said...

All good points, and a very concise description of pros and cons to social interaction. I would only add one con to the idea of critique and writing groups - when I write a novel, it would be impossible for a group from any category to know where I'm going with the story. It would then be impossible for them to critique it. I've never been swayed to the idea of writing by committee, changing things from suggestions made piecemeal by well intentioned authors. One of the most exciting things about writing is producing a novel, and letting readers decide in the marketplace as to its entertainment value. This is strictly my own opinion, and not shared on any large scale by anyone. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Brian, yes, it's frustrating to do a review and get nothing but defensiveness, or the old "That's just how I write." But it doesn't happen in our group too often.

Alex, yeah, that was kind of rough. IWSG is a type of support group, but without the dues. A wonderful group you started.

Bernard, one danger of critique groups that I didn't mention is that some folks will start to write 'for' the group. I find it pretty easy to resist that urge.

Unknown said...

Ah, very interesting, especially the anecdote about your mother. I had a similar experience as a young writer, but my mother -- rather than being offended -- became the harshest critic anyone could ever encounter. I suppose she meant well, but parents -- as I've learned since I've become one -- can be idiots at times.

I have seen some similar problems in writers' workshops in my classes; students can sometimes be cruel to others.

In any case, I am enjoying your blog, which I had (re)discovered after a lengthy absence.

I look forward to visiting every now and then; perhaps you will find something worthwhile in the future at my new blog. The welcome mat is out!

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I know what you mean when you say writing is a lonely business. Unlike you, I'm not even a professional writer. Sometimes I wish I were doing something else other than write and edit and rewrite stories in my newspaper job. Here we have writing workshops but not writing groups. Al least, I have not heard of any.

sage said...

I think I would like a critique group too. Are you going to talk about face-to-face groups verse virtual ones over the internet?

SzélsőFa said...

I too, have all the three listed reasons of joining a writers' group.
And I think the offline group is more of a Discussion group (with some urges to include feedback on each other's work) and the online group is a Critique group.

To sage: I guess there are many of those. The one I am in is loosely organized of people who in some way, once in their lifetime got in connection with one of the publishing houses. It operates as a facebook group. Any member can post his/her request of a beta~reader and he/she is required to offer the same service in return.

Charles Gramlich said...

R.T., thanks for visiting. I appreciate the comments. I'll check your blog out as well.

Prashant, I'm going to talk about people starting their own groups in a bit.

Sage, I believe face to face is better personally. But I'll address that.

Szelsofa, There are certainly hybrid groups out there but I think they mostly break down into the three major types.

Rick Robinson said...

Just dropped in to say "Merry Christmas".

Oscar Case said...

Thanks for your take on writing groups. I've been thinking about joining a local critique group, but start thinking about how it would go. How many in the group? How much time do they spend on each person's writing, etc., are questions I think about.

ivan said...

All true on writing groups.

Though I learned in graduate school that the best writing you do is in your head. Odd, that.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard, thank you, and same to you.

Oscar, I suggest no more than 5 to 6 for a critique group, if everyone is writing and submitting material. We don't have a time limit for submissions. Some are longer or shorter, or need more review. We try to be efficient with each submission.

Ivan, sometimes that is true.

Vesper said...

Very interesting, Charles. I also found very interesting your reply to Bernard. The danger of writing to please the group... Food for thought.

jodi said...

Charles-I would like to be invisible and just listen to the group.

Charles Gramlich said...

Vesper, groups sometimes do group writing and I think that is OK in moderation. If it's fun. But the goal has to be much bigger than pleasing a group.

Jodi, that might be fun for a while. We actually ask prospective new members to attend two meetings and listen to see if the group is for them.

Riot Kitty said...

Wow, your poor mom! That is kind of funny though.

Charles Gramlich said...

Riot, funny in retrospect. Not so much at the time.