Writing: Writing Groups and Participation

Muses flying kites

Writing Group Participation


When you write in a vacuum at your own pace, the only taskmaster is you. There are no repercussions when your discipline slips. It is easy to get sidetracked and your work may sit for weeks without progress. This is one of the reasons that people join read-and-critique groups (online or face-to-face). Meeting regularly and having something to read is incentive to produce on a steady basis. All good, except when it isn’t.

Now, some people are ‘outliners’, who must have a road-map before they can get anything down. Other people are ‘seat-of-the-pants’ or ‘pantsers’ who just create organically. I personally fall into the latter category and have written about how this has gotten me into trouble more than once. My position has always been that no matter how you create, as long as you get something down, it’s all good. Everything comes together in a later editing phase.

This is where a group-influenced regular delivery schedule can be a real pain. You can’t submit half thought-out crap to your circle. So, what do you do? You edit and polish chapters of a work-in-progress. Now, that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

First Chapter Vicious Cycling

Polishing in a group environment can go wrong. Really wrong. I call the phenomena first-chapter-vicious-cycling. This is where a writer becomes obsessed with perfecting that opening that the group is giving negative reviews to. The problem isn’t the search for perfection, it’s the sacrifice of forward momentum. I’ve seen this create frustration to the point the writer gives up. It’s also the phenomena that inspired my article Dynamic Beginnings. To this, I say, ‘three times a charm’. Beyond three passes through the group, the reviews are just going to get more slanted and confusing. It can be head-bangingly infuriating that you just can’t seem to make the knuckleheads like it– or alternately your knucklehead just can’t seem to put the right words on the page to capture a good review. Just know you’re not alone in this feeling. Many writers experience this. Do not despair. Press on. By the time you get to the end of the book, you will have a completely different perspective on the opening. Revisit it after you’ve overcome the Herculean task of finishing the book.

Dog and Pony Performing

Writing is a lonely task. You do it alone. Your group is where you get to show people who share the writing affliction the fruits of your labor. We need strokes. We want to be told we’re doing a good job because it feels good. Yes, we’re adults not little kids, but it’s there in the back of our heads– really.

Now, writers tend to be fairly clever and perceptive animals. They note the things that garner a positive response from their reviewers. There is a pull and tendency to write specifically to elicit that positive response. Is this bad? This is one of those philosophical things where you need to decide for yourself.

One of my writer friends got really stuck on this and ranted ‘I was performing, it wasn’t me anymore, I was what they wanted instead’. I’m not certain it’s a rant-worthy pitfall, but it is something to be mindful of. Is the group’s preferences negatively affecting your style and voice?

A writer needs to have a certain level of confidence to have a specific ‘style and voice’, so if you’re early into your obsession with writing, chances are this is less likely to affect you. If you find yourself changing stylistic habits in order to alter group response, carefully weigh the merits of it. Will it affect your public readership response?

UPS Syndrome

The guys in brown don’t slow down. Group participation comes with a certain amount of pressure to perform and deliver. Especially if you participate in a paid group. Creativity is not an assembly line. That’s not to say that we should blow off keeping a regular schedule. Absolutely, try and keep a steady rhythm. However, don’t get caught in a negativity spiral when you can’t get something done to your satisfaction. Don’t present material you don’t feel is ready. The critique has the potential to drain your confidence. Why even go there? Bring it when it’s ready. Skip reading one meeting and get little ahead if you have extra time.

Now, that being said. When you start getting serious in your writing career and you’re confident in the thickness of your skin and confidence. Start pushing yourself to write faster. As you start dashing out material quickly, good things will come out of the speed and spontaneity. I have a writer friend who can dash off an entire chapter in a couple of two hour sessions. He’s blazing fast. He’s a seasoned R&C veteran, so he can take a whack without cringing in the corner. He gets lots of whacks though because he’s focusing on the delivery instead of the work’s quality. Further, it’s a time management issue. He lets trivial things take up other time slots so he feels the little time he spends is the ONLY time available. Don’t fall into that trap. If writing is important to you. Prioritize so that you have enough time to create quality work representative of what you can do.

Fragmentation Stigma

This is related to dog-and-pony but is more detrimental, both to you and the group you participate in. This happens to be a peeve of mine. This is usually done by a writer already well into a WIP or done with the first draft. They read the chapters they think are good to gauge the group’s response. Gah. Don’t read chapters out of order! First of all, how the heck can anyone know if it’s good if they don’t know the setup? Trying to tell the setup before the review just wastes time. Honestly, just trying to read the ‘best’ parts out of a book is just selfish. There, I said it. If all you want are strokes, seriously, you’re in a group for the WRONG reason. Do. Not. Do. This.

I’m going to stop hyperventilating in a moment. Bear with me. A habit of fragmented presentations will irritate your group if they are conscientious reviewers. Part of a review group is continuity and getting to know the characters of the story, following their growth arcs and so on. We can’t do that if you skip around. For the love of the almighty muses, think of your reviewers!

Almost done. *takes breath* One thing I’ve observed about this phenomenon, is there is usually just ONE person in a group doing it. Nearly always, they are oblivious to the discomfort they are inflicting on their fellow reviewers. Interestingly, there will be snarks about the out-of-order reading which are also ignored. Right now, some of the audience are nodding, because they have one of these in their group. Are you this person? STOP IT WOULD YOU? /RANT

Picko Pontification

This is reviewer oriented. Yes, nitpicks are appreciated, commas, periods, word usage and other trivia. However, I guarantee, the presenter wants something beyond what a style checker can provide. Mark it on the page and don’t use time to elaborate or drone on about it. Please.

Cross-talk and Content Crusading

These are actually moderation issues. Don’t start a conversation in the middle of a critique. This goes for presenters and reviewers. Talk after during a break. Yes we get excited about things we researched or whatever, but stay on point for everyone’s sake. The moderator should be riding herd on this, but if they aren’t, be tactful and remind your buddies to maintain focus.

Content crusading is commentary about the subject material. Novels often broach sensitive subjects. It is not your place to be offended and vocal about it. REALLY. As a presenter, if you have potentially offensive material, be mindful that some folks can be unexpectedly sensitive on a broad range of topics. You can never be too cautious, better to disclaim than to offend.

Wrapping Up

There are more nuances to groups to be covered, but these are some of the main issues. Having a good group can help tremendously. There are many hurdles to finding a group, being a genre writer being a sad not-so-trivial stumbling block that probably deserves its own article. If you do find a safe haven in a writing collective– cherish it. You have something special. It’s worth the work to protect and nurture that experience.

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