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Writer’s Craft #70 – The Perils of the Writers Group

April 30, 2012
Justine Graykin, author

Justine Graykin


Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science and Humanity — well, Science, anyway –- and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device. Find her work and bloggings at justinegraykin.com


Joining a group is the essential antidote to the classic isolation of being a writer. A good group provides feedback, prompts, deadlines, support and encouragement, as well as valuable tips and connections. But you never know what you’re going to get when you join a writers group. I’ve been in a few, and made some long-standing friends in each. We’ve kept in touch long after abandoning the group, and still occasionally share our work. But it’s hard to find a group you want to stick with, because there always seems to be at least one of several “types” who attach themselves to the group and pollute its dynamics. Maybe you’ve run into them:

The Airy Poet. Even though this is a group ostensibly put together to talk about prose, this person comes and insists on reading you his/her latest poem. It usually has to do with finding one’s inner peace on a beach or among wise trees, the pathos of abandoned elderly people, the joy of one’s pet, or the aching glory of love. When they read your work they always gush unhelpfully with uncritical encouragement, because that’s what they want from you.

The Condescending Mentor. Loves to drop excruciatingly overused phrases like, “using all the tools in your writer’s tool box” and “you’ve got to kill your little darlings.” Is really too gifted a writer to be bothered with your amateur attempts, but they are willing to lower themselves to help you in your struggle. Manages to work in seemingly casual references to their New York agent, dreadful editor, unreasonable publisher, or soon-to-be-released critically-acclaimed best-seller, at every opportunity.

The Stylebook Nazi. Has read everything Stephen King ever wrote about writing and can quote it chapter and verse. Always knows exactly where your commas ought to be, and bleeds red ink all over your manuscript. Circles every adverb and scathingly points out how often you use passive voice. Writes like Stephen King, but without the substance or originality.

The Sweet Earnest Thing. A genuinely likeable, well-intentioned person who is the victim of a parent/teacher/spouse who said, “Gee, honey, you have such talent! You ought to be a writer!” Has virtually nothing to say, hasn’t a clue about pacing, world-building, or creating vivid characters, but can put together sentences without grammatical errors and spells reasonably well. Somehow, you just haven’t the heart to tell her the truth, so you keep encouraging her and cursing yourself in your heart of hearts for not having the courage to tell her outright that she hasn’t a hope in the world of getting published anywhere outside of Reader’s Digest.

What have your experiences with writers groups been like? Have you encountered characters like this, or others who make the experience less than productive? How do you cope with them?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2012 10:38 am

    Hi Lynda
    Laughed, and grimaced (which one am I?) on reading your blog. I agree regarding the friendships that can be formed in a writers group, and I acknowledge some of the “perils” too. Our local writing groups sustains at about 12 – 19 people, many have come and gone…some quickly. There is a core group who have remained constant, and this is where the friendships develop. I want to be supportive of fellow writers, and appreciate their support as well, we all share the same angsting over plot lines, character development, writing amidst the chaos of an active family; however, a recent development is that many of my core group are self publishing and I’m placed in a dilemma of conscience when support is defined as “tagging, liking, and reviewing (even if unread)” each others’ work. It’s just something I can’t agree with. I wonder how other authors feel about this? I’m sure they get the same requests frequently.

    • May 2, 2012 3:35 am

      I know I’ve done it (the tagging, liking thing) at the urging of fellow writers, but I do feel uncomfortable about it. I suppose it’s what one must do when one is self-published. Still, I think it cheapens the process. I’m distinctly ambivalent about the whole business of self-publishing for reasons that others have articulated already and at length. It’s a devil’s bargain. In fact, making to leap to try to get published (particularly a novel) is like jumping into a mosh pit. You’re as likely to get stomped into the mud as thrown up into the air.

  2. JohnP permalink
    April 30, 2012 7:03 pm

    Another superb column, Justine. I belonged to a terrific group overall, with, teeth gnashingly enough, a couple of exceptions. The one I would like to add –or perhaps append to one of yours– is the critiquer who begins with ” this was pretty good but what I would have done was, ”

    Best’

    -John

    • May 2, 2012 3:38 am

      Thanks, John! And yes, I know that one. Beware “I really liked this, but…” Get ready for the trashing.

  3. Zena Shapter permalink
    May 1, 2012 1:13 am

    Thanks for the chuckles! I run a critique group in Manly and recognised every writery type you mention. Thankfully they come and go, but always seem to leave us to settle back into our happy rhythm of critique and development. Gotta love ‘em though – no one else will, he he!!!

    • May 2, 2012 3:40 am

      You’re welcome! And yes, one must be patient. They have their use. Heck, they provided me with material for an entertaining blog.

  4. kellyaharmon permalink
    May 1, 2012 5:19 am

    My face to face group has been meeting for a lot of years, and we’ve had our share of folk who just didn’t belong. My two “favorite” types are:

    1 – the “know-it-alls” who don’t accept criticism of any type, and therefore don’t improve, and
    2 – the “vacationer” who never submits anything, but loves to read everyone else’s work (usually offering little criticism)

    Thankfully, these types usually manage to weed themselves out!

    • May 2, 2012 3:46 am

      Yes! Especially #1. They always argue with any criticism, which makes one wonder why they are there. No, we know why they are there. Being in a writer’s group supports their authorial self-image. They are waiting for us all to sit back, whistle softly and gaze at them with admiration, murmuring, “Wow! This is so powerful, so lyrical, dear god! You must get this published and share it with the world!” And then we have the ignorant, blind audacity to criticize it.

  5. May 1, 2012 9:17 am

    All of these examples show folks who are not seeking to improve their writing, but validation.

    I’d like to add, “Seeking for a Silver Bullet”: they know that there is something missing from their manuscripts, and they want the critique group to find and fix the thing that is keeping the story from being published. Not to be confused with “I’ve Written This, Now Where’s All My Money?”

    Then there is, “I’m the Main Character in my Personal Movie, and I’ve Got the Manuscript to Prove It.” These folks submit stories about their adventures and lives, and then can’t understand why readers come back with critiques like, “low tension,” or “wish fulfillment plot.” Not to be conused with, “Here’s my Fantasy Role Playing Game Log Written Up As A Story.”

    I think it helps to focus critique group members by being clear about what kind of group it is: is the group’s purpose to teach writing skills or to act as story sounding boards? Is the group primarily a social group for writers or for networking? Is the group focused on short stories or novels? When the group is clear about being, say, a science fiction and fantasy genre short story group, that helps the poets and memoir writers know that they might not be a good match for he group.

    As a final note, at the Wordos, we encourage folks to focus on the text being criiqued, not on the author.

    • May 2, 2012 3:53 am

      Bless me, yes — “Now, how do I get rich and famous?” Find a different profession, dear. As to the others, they suffer under the illusion that their lives, inner lives and fantasies are as fascinating to others as they are to themselves, which is very rarely the case. Although there are many, many examples of ordinary lives being rendered fascinating by a skilled writer. I wish they’d stop — it only encourages the unskilled ones.

  6. May 2, 2012 8:12 pm

    LOL – well, whenever I get the urge to get a little judgy about my fellow writers I always stop and think “Dear God – I bet someone just had the same thought about me!” :-) However, the one that always gets me and which I know no one was saying about me because this is my pet peeve is the “Exception to Every Rule” – the writer who just knows we’re all dying to read the next fifty pages of his/her hot mess of a ms. and agrees to do us a favor by submitting WAAAAYYYYY over the allowed page limit for critique. That one has driven me from several critique groups.

    • kellyaharmon permalink
      May 3, 2012 4:08 am

      Terri – I forgot about those folk! In the past, when someone sent something way over the limit, I only critiqued as far as the limit (unless it was only a page or three). Thankfully, those people have gone.

      Their reasoning: We weren’t meeting their needs. *Ahem* This is especially annoying to hear from people who have joined the group long after it’s been established, and want to bend it to their own will…

  7. May 3, 2012 4:08 am

    I’ve attended a few writing groups over the years and I now run one over here in the UK. You can find us if you Google ‘Manchester Speculative Fiction’.

    I recognise some of those types and the difficulty some writers face in finding the right group, but I’m not sure it’s fair to land all the blame with the group. In my experience it’s more about whether a writer and a group just happen to ‘gel’. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t the writer should just move on and try another group. If a writer continues to struggle to find a group that works for them, then they should perhaps consider that they’re not suited or not ready to attend a writing group yet. They should perhaps leave it for a year or so, then try again.

    I’d say that for every Stylebook Nazi there’s a Mr/Ms Oversensitive who simply isn’t ready for any form of constructive criticism–and if you get those two in the same room it never turns out well. I’ve seen some shocking punctuation over the years, especially when it comes to dialogue, and it can be tough for a new writer to be confronted with a page full of red ink.

    Saying that, I personally don’t think that a writing group meeting is the right place to discuss standard punctuation anyway, unless it’s a particularly thorny issue suitable for debate. In our group we try to encourage marked-up copies to be handed back to the author with punctuation/grammar issues clearly identified, and then the conversation can focus on the real issues of voice, content, story arc, characterisation and so on.

    I also encourage members to always consider one or more positive comments to make about another writer’s work. It’s easy–kinda lazy really–to just point out what’s ‘wrong’. Constructive criticism means: “I’d prefer to see less of that and more of this.” If you keep this in mind you can’t go far wrong.

    I’m a real fan of writing groups. When they work, they rock!

  8. May 4, 2012 2:32 am

    The writing group I have belonged to for many years now, here in White Rock, BC, is a bunch of folks who might get together once a year, or once a month, or not.

    The focal point of our get-togethers is always what we’ve written lately, but we also share info about which publishers and/or agents are looking for what type of material, or anything else that seems pertinent. Even advice on such diverse how to prepare a martini or a zucchini casserole, or manufacture a traditional Japanese sword.

    It is just this kind of loose-fitting kind of relationship that has seen three of us go on to become published authors. For a place with such a tiny population, that’s not bad.

    • May 4, 2012 3:38 am

      Same here. I live in a tiny little cow town (painfully evolving into a bedroom community) with a small but vibrant knot of creative folks. We had a writer’s group that endured for several years on just that premise — chatting about writing, marketing, family problems, town gossip, recipes, and at Christmas time, smuggling booze into the library where we met for our party. Unfortunately, we had one core member who clung tenaciously to the group even though her over-sensitivity and artistic temperament sometimes drove others out. Eventually there was a major dust-up that imploded the group. I really miss that group, and still keep in touch with them all (except for the Injured Party, who is still barely speaking to me).

      • May 5, 2012 4:26 pm

        I hope that, at the very least, you observed and salvaged a few snippets of conversation, the sort of thing that, with just a change of name here, a different time frame or location there, can make for a really interesting written passage somewhere down the line.

      • May 5, 2012 6:57 pm

        But of course! Am I not a writer? It is compulsive, instinctive. We collect everything, like the round stones, bits of string and shell, feathers and acorns, odds and ends, that end up in one’s pocket after a walk on the beach or in the woods. Shiny treasures in the magpie’s nest. Treasures in the attic. You never know when it might come in handy.

  9. May 13, 2012 4:14 pm

    Nice work. I think I see a bit of myself in each of the types, with the exception of the airy poet, because I just can’t write a lick of poetry and I know it. Now off to figure out who I have to kill off in my next story.

  10. May 14, 2012 7:03 am

    hey, what’s wrong with Readers Digest?—
    To paraphrase pilots — any venue that pays is a good landing …
    oops, sorry, I was supposed to be sweet and earnest (is that as in the “Importance of being…”, or “Earn-est” relative to paid work similar to ‘sexist’?)

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