Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

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M..
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Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by M.. » April 19th, 2011, 5:25 pm

I have never been a big proponent of joining a writer’s group. One college semester of Creative Writing class was enough to cure me of my need for peer review and delayed my pursuit of novel writing. After accompanying my friend Jason B. recently to his first writing group, I felt the same mad urge to run home, roll up my castle gates and fill up my moat with water. I even feel an inkling of sympathy for the editors, literary agents and their assistants. Okay, may be not, lest I’ll be thought of as a sympathizer of the enemy. Writers must stick together.

But I’m going to break rank here and p*ss off some people. But I have confidence that Jack Nicholson is wrong. I know you CAN handle the truth.

If you’re already in a writing group, and recognize any of these traits within yourself, it would behoove you to pull one or two trusted members aside and ask them if you are this person. Then I beg you, for your own good and the sanity of others, stop.

If you have never stepped foot inside a writer’s group, then my dear writer friend, heed the following warnings. I can never reclaim 2 1/2 hours of my life back so learn from me.

1. Avoid writing groups that hold their meetings in bars during happy hours. This one didn’t quite meet at an alcohol establishment but it was still an extremely busy restaurant during dinner hours. You can barely hear the person presenting their work or the critiques that were being doled out. Come to think of it, with this group, alcohol might have eased the pain.

2. Avoid Mean Girls, Jaws and others things with sharp teeth. It’s one thing to be candid; it’s another to be tacky or an outright bully. Avoid joining a group whose members use phrases like, “I wouldn’t write it that way.” Or “You should” and proceed to tell the writer how he would write the piece. Or “You suck.” We may think this last one, but part of becoming an adult is learning how to use filters. People trust you with their work. They are humans with real feelings. Use care, please.

I guess finding the right writer's group is like speed dating. Sit down, spend a little time, and when it doesn’t fit, quickly move on to the next.

What other do’s and don’ts would you like to share?

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Rosie Lane
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by Rosie Lane » April 19th, 2011, 7:59 pm

I'm biased by liking my writers groups, but my advice would be, go to one. Pick one that suits you, but definitely get out there and find one. The need for social contact should not be underestimated when you do something as isolating as writing. One of my groups meets in a small bar, and while it isn't as easy to operate there as it would be in a private space, it means we don't have to pay and I look forward to it anyway.

Rosie

Mike R
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by Mike R » April 19th, 2011, 8:07 pm

Critique groups are IMO very important. If you can't find one you like, make one. Go to a few, make some friends, and invite them to form a group. That way you get people you trust.

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by FrankCote » April 21st, 2011, 11:00 am

M.. wrote:One college semester of Creative Writing class was enough to cure me of my need for peer review
I'd like to maybe put it out there that a College Creative Writing class (or workshop) might not be the same thing as a Writers' group.

I had that semester (2 even) as well, and I didn't get to choose who was in it. Sadly it was full of very pompous artsy writer wannabes struggling to find themselves who frowned on sci-fi or basically anything readable. Commercial writing was 'populist' and 'bourgeois' (I'm not making this up, I swear) so any story that wasn't 5000 words of barely comprehensible crap was panned.

(For example, the story voted 'best' by the students started out like this: "I swam up the down stairs because the fish told me to. I tasted blue and smelled the news on the tv." and it continued to 10 pages, without plot nor characters. I still have it printed out somewhere)

At least with a Writer's group you have some input or control right? There's common ground.

I wouldn't know, I've never been in one, although I'd love to try it out someday.
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siebendach
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by siebendach » April 28th, 2011, 11:22 pm

M.. wrote:If you’re already in a writing group, and recognize any of these traits within yourself, it would behoove you to pull one or two trusted members aside and ask them if you are this person. Then I beg you, for your own good and the sanity of others, stop.

It’s one thing to be candid; it’s another to be tacky or an outright bully. Avoid joining a group whose members use phrases like, “I wouldn’t write it that way.” Or “You should” and proceed to tell the writer how he would write the piece. Or “You suck.”
"You suck" is certainly rude, and "you should" is certainly undiplomatic.

But the phrase "I wouldn't write it that way" is quite reasonable. It's specifically constructed to avoid implying "My way is the one true way", and to specifically imply "This is only my opinion --- maybe someone else would write it that way". The first rule of diplomatic critiquing is to always, always do so in those two contexts.

When I critique a story with an action scene that uses the word "suddenly" seven times in one paragraph, I respond with something like this: "I'd delete or change some of these." It is fundamentally the same as saying, "I suggest you delete or change some of these to avoid the repetition." I don't preach to them for six sentences about why it's a good idea, I just leave the idea for them to follow, or not follow, as they see fit.

If you implement a policy that, as a critiquer, I can't tell you what I think you should do --- or what I would do --- or express any concerns about what you've done --- then you categorically eliminate meaningful critiques. If you feel that a critiquer is wrong to suggest you change something, there's no point in seeking out critiques in the first place.

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by FrankCote » April 29th, 2011, 9:30 am

siebendach wrote: "You suck" is certainly rude, and "you should" is certainly undiplomatic.

But the phrase "I wouldn't write it that way" is quite reasonable. It's specifically constructed to avoid implying "My way is the one true way", and to specifically imply "This is only my opinion --- maybe someone else would write it that way". The first rule of diplomatic critiquing is to always, always do so in those two contexts.

...snip....

If you implement a policy that, as a critiquer, I can't tell you what I think you should do --- or what I would do --- or express any concerns about what you've done --- then you categorically eliminate meaningful critiques. If you feel that a critiquer is wrong to suggest you change something, there's no point in seeking out critiques in the first place.
I certainly approve of diplomacy when giving a critique (again, I caution that this is not something I have a lot of experience with) but couldn't there be also some merit in personally weathering "undiplomatic" critiques with a thick skin too? I mean, we writers face a LOT of rejection when we submit, so wouldn't that be practice of sorts?
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by siebendach » April 29th, 2011, 10:59 am

I don't know, I keep changing my mind about that one Frank. I try to be resilient in the face of rudeness, but I don't want to encourage it either.

I think the rudest thing in critiquing is just complaining about the kind of story the writer chooses to write, which is very different than the writing choices (POV, plot structure, etc.)

A suggestion like: "I think you should change the order of the first two scenes --- first the murder, then the homocide squad at the crime scene" --- is very different than, "I don't like this level of violence". A subjective reading choice that goes against the writer's chosen genre is not constructive criticism.

Don't complain that the police thriller has violent crime. Don't complain the erotic romance has explicit sex. Don't complain that the zombie horror story has lots of splatter. If you flat-out hate a genre so much you can't think objectively about it, offer to critique other genres. Conversely, if you love a genre so much that literally anything in it will please you, don't critique that either.

Join a group where everyone is not obligated to critique everything. That way, if and when you apply the suggestions to critique#1, when it's ready for another go-round next month, you can put it in front of fresh eyes

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by FrankCote » April 29th, 2011, 11:07 am

siebendach wrote:I don't know, I keep changing my mind about that one Frank. I try to be resilient in the face of rudeness, but I don't want to encourage it either.

I think the rudest thing in critiquing is just complaining about the kind of story the writer chooses to write, which is very different than the writing choices (POV, plot structure, etc.)

A suggestion like: "I think you should change the order of the first two scenes --- first the murder, then the homocide squad at the crime scene" --- is very different than, "I don't like this level of violence". A subjective reading choice that goes against the writer's chosen genre is not constructive criticism.
I can only agree here, I think that the latter is not a critique and has no place in a writer's group.

The borderline of that (and I've heard this, but I didn't really mind either way) would be, "the level of violence here doesn't work for me". I could take that in stride.

It must be difficult to critique works in genres that you don't enjoy or are used to. That's a big fear I have in joining a writer's group...what if they all want to write romance or twilight fanfic?
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by siebendach » May 1st, 2011, 8:49 pm

FrankCote wrote: The borderline of that (and I've heard this, but I didn't really mind either way) would be, "the level of violence here doesn't work for me". I could take that in stride.
I hadn't thought of that, but it's a good point. After all, while you can't realistically complain about sex in a romance or violent crime in a police thriller --- that doesn't mean that a writer's decisions to put a particular scene of sex or violence, in a specific spot, is always beyond reproach. These genres each have a range of what should be included --- some romaces include more sex, or more explicit sex, than other romances. Just like some police thrillers contain more violence, or grittier violence.
FrankCote wrote:It must be difficult to critique works in genres that you don't enjoy or are used to. That's a big fear I have in joining a writer's group...what if they all want to write romance or twilight fanfic?
That's why you have to be SO selective. There's no right answer to that.

For me, the answer is: no fanfic. It's one thing if you write paranormal vampire romance --- I flat-out dislike that genre, but I critique it anyway (more on that below). But if you can't even make the token effort of naming your characters something other than "Bella" and "Edward", then you're not actually attempting to write a good story. Who knows, maybe you have written a good story, but your first priority was plainly to indulge your love of someone else's story --- to have fun for yourself, rather than create something for the enjoyment of a reader. It can be fun, it can be educational and there's certainly nothing wrong with it. But the process of critiquing it is going to be inherently less educational (or useful).

So how do I critique a story whose genre I don't like, say vampire romance? Usually, I open the critique telling the author that I'm biased against the genre, so she can put my comments through the appropriate filter. Then I make a strong effort to confine my comments to things that aren't genre-specific. I avoid complaining that about things inherently related to the fact that any or all of the characters are vampires; this still leaves plenty to critique about. One example is: "Were you trying to surprise the reader with this plot development? To me, it seemed like the only possible way things could have turned out. . . go ahead and ignore this if that surprise isn't what you were going for, but if it was, you might try this."

With a genre I don't like, I go to a bit more effort than usual to leave positive comments: "That setting this confrontation in the abandoned asylum is a good idea because it's so creepy --- I'd build on this strength with a bit more description, to make it even scarier!"

I feel that the biggest compliment I can give to the writer of a story in a genre I normally dislike is this: "I normally hate this genre, but I found it easy to finish this one. Your narrative pulled me all the way to the end." I'm happy to say that I've given that compliment out a few times, and I've always learned something valuable in the process.

Because when someone's narrative manner is so good they can pull you through a novel-length story in a genre that normally turns you off --- well then, they've got something.
Last edited by siebendach on May 2nd, 2011, 9:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by Mike R » May 1st, 2011, 9:37 pm

I've been in a crit group with two romance writers for over seven years. Romance writers, provided they are not crazy, are fantastic critique partners. The romance world has tons of education events, online workshops, local chapters of RWA and so forth. Romance writers, at least the ones I've met, bring all that to the critique.

Now, let me explain the, 'provided they are not crazy' comment. Our crit group usually has between five and seven members. The two romance writers and I have been constants and we've asked others to join us here and there. Others are sometimes a problem. About six years ago, we had a group of seven and it split. In hindsight, a good thing. From then on we, the three of us, have more or less controlled who was in our group. We've had a few crazies, some that just didn't work. Some we asked to leave, others left of their own accord. The group we have now is five and we've been together, us five for about four years.

My advice, if you want to be in a crit group, form one with a couple good friends and try other people out until you find people that fit. You'll need someone in the core with the ability to ask people to leave. If you don't have one of those, don't open the group or the inmates will be running the asylum.

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by trixie » May 2nd, 2011, 12:19 pm

I'm part of a 4-person crit group composed of 1 MG, 2 YA sci fi/fantasy, and 1 adult fantasy. We were rolling along until last week when one person pointed out her expectations were not being met. We walked through the problems and I think we've come to an understanding (the issue was should the author incorporate the suggested edits before the next meeting, or will the author take all the recommendations once we're through our stories and then start on changes).

The biggest surprise to me is realizing one member of our group is a much better writer and his story is quite polished. Knowing he is reading my work prompts me to submit my best work, but I wonder if he would be better served by a more professional writing group.

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by sierramcconnell » May 2nd, 2011, 4:51 pm

I tried to go to the NaNo group here. I went for the entirety of NaNo and was at every meeting. I went for a couple after that, and then I realized something bad.

There were only two, maybe three people there I liked. And one was hardly ever there. I called her Waffles because of a comment she had made once and it sorta stuck. She was such a sweet thing, but she rarely came and I think it was because of the reasons I stopped going and spilled about later in a ranty post on NaNo. Sure, I was a little bitchy on that post, but I was honest.

There was a girl there who's immediate introduction was to say "hi, I have my own publishing company and several novels". She was outgoing, would talk over people, interrupt them, and tell them to shush. At first it wasn't so bad but then she got downright rude. I'm a shy person, but Waffles was worse than me. I think that might be one reason she stopped coming. Because she could never get a word in edgewise. And then Miss Publishing Company kept shushing me and talking over me when people would ask me questions, and then outright lied about scientific information that I attempted to call her on and she told me to be quiet.

Come to find out, the "publishing company" she had was a self-publishing and she was listed on Goodreads. Ooh. And the books weren't that supremely rated. She just talked out her behind about her 'model' cousin (her cousin, who modeled for her covers) and all these books she had published.

Yes. When you e-pub, you can accolaide yourself to death with that.

Pushy twat. I didn't go back because of her, and her friend who came not to write, but to grade tests. Her friend who was a teacher, and who thought what we were doing wasn't all that big a deal. What.

So yeah, writer groups. WHO NEEDS THEM. It just reminds me that there are people out there that are just like everyone else in the world. Complete jerks. Some are nice, yes, but you can't get to them because of the complete jerks.
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by siebendach » May 2nd, 2011, 9:06 pm

Mike R wrote: My advice, if you want to be in a crit group, form one with a couple good friends and try other people out until you find people that fit. You'll need someone in the core with the ability to ask people to leave. If you don't have one of those, don't open the group or the inmates will be running the asylum.
This is SO, so, true . . . !

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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by FrankCote » May 9th, 2011, 9:04 am

sierramcconnell wrote:I tried to go to the NaNo group here. I went for the entirety of NaNo and was at every meeting. I went for a couple after that, and then I realized something bad.

There were only two, maybe three people there I liked. And one was hardly ever there. I called her Waffles because of a comment she had made once and it sorta stuck. She was such a sweet thing, but she rarely came and I think it was because of the reasons I stopped going and spilled about later in a ranty post on NaNo. Sure, I was a little bitchy on that post, but I was honest.
I had a slightly better reaction to my NaNo group here, but after the second year the "cool kids" started dropping. I went last year and it was basically 30 people writing fanfic.
The local forums weren't much better.

I wish the people I met in those first 2 years were still around and writing, I'd form a writer's group with them. Out of that group there's only really one person that writes and is interested in a writing group but her schedule is so crazy we're having trouble starting things.

I'm toying with the idea of starting a group on my own, but I'm not sure where to look (beyond the forums I'm part of) for local writers and I'm not sure I want to get together with total strangers.
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Re: Speed Dating of a Different Kind: Choosing a Writer's Group

Post by siebendach » May 11th, 2011, 9:36 pm

Rather than starting a group on your own, you might try the reverse. Join some very large group, where there's bound to be some people you'd like to work with. Make sure you exchange contact info with those you enjoy working with. When you get sick of the group, try and form your own with other people you've met.

Note that the people who ask to join your new group, don't have to abandon the old group. Lots of people belong to more than one critique group, particularly when it's online and there's no drive time involved

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