Joining a Writers Group
The start of another year is like Christmas for the resolution industry. The gym will be crowded and meetings at Weight Watchers will be standing room only. January is also when we see a big influx of new members in our local writers group.
Seems there are lots of aspiring writers out there. Some have maybe only thought about writing a book. Others have finished works that keep getting rejected. They want to know if I did something they didn’t do that made a difference. That’s not what they say, of course, but that’s what they really want to know.
Quite a few successful writers–far more knowledgable and experienced than I–have written books about how to write a novel and/or how to get published. If you want to get published, read them–as many as you can–until they all start sounding alike. I refer back to some of my favorites every few months and learn something new every time.
Beyond learning everything I can about writing fiction and the publishing industry, joining a writers group has been an essential ingredient in the recipe for my success. Participating in the writers group brought to life the things I was reading about in the “how to” books and gave me opportunities to practice what I was learning. Feedback from the other writers let me know if I got it right or not.
I’ve heard horror stories about writing groups. I’m guessing some of the many writers who have attended one or more of our meetings and never came back tell horror stories about us. There may be bad groups out there, but more likely, it’s a matter of fit. You either fit in with the other writers, or you don’t. Here are some of the writer types we’ve seen in my group in the two years since I became a member.
The Not Yet Ready. We used to get new members who lacked grammar, spelling, and/or basic writing skills. Now we require a writing sample to screen them out. Critiquing submissions is time-consuming enough without having to correct spelling, punctuation, and things that should have been learned in grade school. A few errors isn’t a problem, but when line after line contains them, the best help is going to come from someplace other than our little group.
The Literary Genius. At the other end of the continuum, this brilliant writer joins to teach us a thing or two about creating literature. He or she submits a sample for critique, knowing we won’t have anything but glowing praise for such a beautifully crafted manuscript. Expecting that we’ll be dazzled, this writer is shocked into a stunned silence as we go around the table offering our comments. After we rip them to shreds, they conclude we don’t know what we’re talking about and never return.
The Free Riders. These folks want all the feedback they can get about their work, but they’re too busy to provide feedback on the other submissions. Like the rest of us aren’t busy. They get a polite email message after the meeting to let them know that ain’t how we roll. Yes. It’s time-consuming to critique four or five, 5000 word manuscripts every two weeks. But that’s the cost of membership, so pay up or move along.
The Commander in Chief. Now and then we get someone who, at the first meeting they attend, wants to change the way we do things. Some have even said we’re doing it wrong–that we should do x, y, and z instead. It’s not that we’re unwilling to change, but our system works very well. The results speak for themselves–three members have landed book deals since I joined in March 2011 with four more headed in that direction. So to these writers, we politely say find another group or start your own.
The Wounded Bird. A fragile ego and/or a long history of emotional abuse causes some writers to thrash around at our meeting like a robin with a broken wing–and they haven’t even submitted anything yet. With tears in their eyes and much gnashing of teeth, they chastise us for focusing so much on what’s wrong with the pieces we critique. Guilty as charged. Praise is nice, we all want to hear that someone likes what we’ve written. But focusing on the good stuff does nothing to improve a manuscript. Get help, honey.
The Disobedient. We have rules for a reason. Submissions are due on a certain day and must be in a particular format. It’s not that we’re prissy–it’s that anything else causes problems that make an already time-consuming process take even longer. That’s why publishers and agents have submission guidelines, and writers who fail to follow them usually get rejected without a second look.
The Humble. These writers are often intimidated by the group’s high standards and considerable expertise. I know I was. They pass on offering any comments, thinking they have nothing to offer. We tell them that’s just not true. Everyone who comes to our group is a reader, and as such, able to provide invaluable feedback about something that was confusing, whether the characters are believable, and if the story drew them in. Trying is practice, and those who keep at it soon find they have a lot to offer.
The Mentor. The range and depth of expertise within our group is impressive. Each member brings a unique talent and perspective that, taken together, results in feedback at least as good as most professional editors would provide. We’re also a support group for each other in ways that matter even more to me now that I’m published.
The Sponge. Anyone claiming to know all there is to know about writing a novel is a liar. No matter how skilled, good writers always look for ways they can get better. Sponges come to the meetings curious about how we’ve critiqued their work, but are just as interested in the discussion we’ll have about the other submissions.
I don’t know about other groups, but we welcome the humble, the mentors, and the sponges with open arms. Sooner or later, the other types either convert, or decide that our group really isn’t a good fit for them. The ones who keep coming back are my friends now, and they know they’re always welcome at…
My Glass House