Friday, May 19, 2017

Writing Groups

Back in February, I wrote a post on how to avoid publishing before a book is ready. Near the end of that post, I recommended, among other things, finding a critique group of fellow writers. But what is a critique group? How is it organized? What does it do? Where would you find one?

The answer to most of those questions—excluding the last, in some ways the hardest—is “whatever you like.” So rather than get into all the possible variations, I restrict myself here to a brief overview of my own writing group, soon to celebrate its ninth anniversary.

We got started—and here is one answer to the “where?” question—when Ariadne and I independently joined a statewide writers’ organization. I saw that an open-forum writers’ group operated out of the local Borders (remember them?), but by the time I discovered the group’s existence, it had moved out of easy driving range. Through the statewide organization Ariadne, Courtney, and I eventually found one another, together with a fourth member who left after a couple of years, and our writing group was born.

We knew from the beginning that because we all wrote novels, we needed to be able to share at least a chapter at a time. So unlike the group that met at Borders, which had lots of people each exchanging five pages per month, we settled on no more than four people and a limit of thirty double-spaced pages, flexibly enforced depending on how many of us chose to share at a given meeting. Otherwise, we had only two basic rules: everyone must be actively writing; and barring an emergency, everyone must attend each session.

So what does that mean in day-to-day terms? Take Vermilion Bird, which has twenty-six chapters in the rough draft. After several months of not sharing, or sharing only an outline or character sketches or goal, motivation, and conflict charts, I moved into a regular rhythm of two chapters a month (25–35 pages). Up to this point, my critique partners have seen the first sixteen of the twenty-six, in some cases more than once. In particular, the crucial opening chapters took several rounds of suggestions to knock into shape.

This month, for example, I sent chapters 15 and 16, in the form of a Word document, to Ariadne and Courtney by e-mail two weeks ago. By the time we meet on Saturday, they will have read the chapters, probably more than once, and I will have read theirs. I expect to see a few comments on things they liked but also flagged passages that confused them, went on too long, verged on information dump, sounded “off” in terms of the dialogue, or—my particular bugbear because I was raised in chilly northern climes—included characters taking things far too calmly or behaving in ways better suited to an English drawing room than the Eurasian steppe.

I will take those comments, figure out how to respond without jeopardizing my inner vision of the story, and make changes. Then I will look at the chapters that follow to see how those changes ripple through the rest of the book, and revise those before sending the next two chapters for critique in June. If, as happened with chapter 15, a suggestion leads to a thorough rewrite, I may decide it’s best to share that chapter again. It’s hard enough juggling three different writers’ books over the course of a year or more without looking at a chapter that seems to bear no resemblance to the story one sort of remembers reading last time. At the end of the process, when the other group members have read all the chapters in ones and twos, we dedicate a meeting to one person’s work and read it from beginning to end to pick up continuity errors, repetition, missing setups, inconsistent characterization, and other issues that can slip from view during those thirty-page-at-a-time critiques.

The group—serious, as usual.

What makes it work, more than anything else, is the individuals involved. This is the factor in some ways least susceptible to control but most vital to a group’s success. We were lucky in that we turned out to be compatible, both in what we write and how we offer critique. An approach emphasizing the positive and offering suggestions without judgment or, worse, insult is essential. Grandstanding, posturing, and revenge games will kill a group before the members have a chance to figure out each person’s strengths and therefore which suggestions take priority. 

A mix of strengths—plot first and character first, for example, or historical and literary—helps each member grow. The group will also function better if the members are at about the same stage of development; people writing their first paragraph can learn from writers with several novels under their belt, but they find it difficult to offer criticism and are easily intimidated, which throws off the balance of the group. A bad group can do more harm than no group, so this element of the decision should take precedence.

But assuming you can find the right emotional mix, what are the advantages and disadvantages of critique groups? Why would you want to consider one, and why might you instead prefer to seek out another way to improve your writing?

First, the advantages: I learned to write from working with others who were struggling with the same issues I was and who provided specific feedback on my specific story, rather than the generalizations that how-tos on the writing craft necessarily supply. It’s fun to talk to people who understand what you’re doing when you sit in front of the computer for hours on end or know how it feels to wake up in the middle of the night with characters jabbering in your head. And in those crucial early years, especially, writing is a lonely exercise with few rewards and fewer ways to separate the bad from the good in one’s own work. A writers’ group that fits your style offers a great way to test things out and learn, however slowly, what works and what doesn’t.

The disadvantages are not many, but they do exist. Even with our thirty-page limit, getting through an entire novel of three to four hundred pages takes a year or more, plus the final read-through and revisions. The input from the group—even a compatible group—can move a writer in a direction that may not fit an as yet hazy vision, requiring eventual push-back. On occasion, we get over-involved in one another’s work and have to disconnect, allowing the person writing the story to have the final word on its form and its content. None of these issues is fatal, but they do need management. For me, the end result of a better book and the pleasure of working with fellow writers who really know me, my strengths and weaknesses, and how I approach a project is worth the emotional investment of learning how to take (and give!) comments, but your calculation may not be the same.

There’s much more I could say, but this is a blog post, not a novel. What has your experience been? Have you ever joined a writers’ group? Did it work for you? Leave a comment below.

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