Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Writers' Groups

Yes, this is the blog for the Stop-Watch Gang, and I am a member of the gang, thus, I continue to "drink the Kool-Aid" when it comes to being objective about the merits of belonging to a writers' group. But my weekly writing tips column wouldn't be complete without a discussion on the pros and cons of belonging to a writers' group.

Writers are solitary creatures. We stuff headphones into our ears, sit off in the corner with a notebook or a laptop, and live in our heads. This job requires alone time. The office must have a door that closes. The kids must respect my need to be left alone. That said, once the zero draft is complete, we sit back and say, "Yeah, baby! Best I ever wrote."

Then we give the project some space while we work on something else and the doubts creep in. Did that character have an arc? Could I have added more sensual experiences? Should I explain more or cut out the info dumps? Was the ending satisfying?

Writers require feedback.

So we form groups. Each group provides something that perhaps another group cannot provide. It's okay to belong to more than one group.

If you're fairly new to writing, and you've submitted a few stories that have come back rejected, you're probably wondering what you're doing wrong. A writers' group can help, not only to read your work and help you to see the particulars that you cannot. On the flip side, each time you read other writers' work and have to find the great parts and shortcomings in their work, you will become that much better at seeing the same problems in your own work. Each critique provides Free Practice (FP) -- the chance to improve your own writing through the pens and keyboards of other writers.

FP is the main reason to join a group.

The other benefits are all secondary. You will make contacts in the business that can help you to network in your pursuit to build a brand. Your group members can cheer from the sidelines when you succeed and provide a shoulder to lean on during the dark moments of self-doubt and rejection. The extra sets of eyes and ears will help you to be more aware of emerging markets, tight deadlines, and related opportunities such as conventions and appearances.

FP keeps you going. Sometimes, when you put your butt-in-chair and you don't quite feel like writing, you can always begin the session by reading one of the stories you promised to critique but haven't gotten around to yet. FP is like the transition drug for a writer, it gets your critical juices flowing, and provides accountability when you need it. After all, if you promise you will do something, meet a particular deadline or post to your blog, and you make that promise in front of ten other people who will call you on it when you fall short of the goal, you have all the more incentive to succeed. To meet that deadline.

At this point, you're probably wondering what the negatives could possibly be. Because I've sold you on joining a group. I've basically knocked you over the head and insisted you join a group. Really. You should! But...

Remember that it's your story. First and foremost. You must advocate for your story, even in the face of critique.

The way the Stop-Watch Gang works, the person receiving the critique must listen, without responding, as each member of the gang speaks for their five minutes (we USE a stopwatch) mostly about all that is wrong with the story.

That's a tough pill.

Once everyone has had their say, the writer has time for rebuttal, follow-up questions, etc, and the critiques becomes more free-flow.

Then I go home. And for me, that often means a long car ride where I stew and wonder about all that was said about my "baby" and all of its flaws. That is the part where all writers must develop a steel-enforced-backbone. The story is MINE. I understand and embrace its purpose. Its goals. Its theme. I must sit down, with my butt-in-chair and do whatever work is required to bring the story to a happy fruition, without being too emotionally attached to any one part that might need to be cut.

I reiterate: It's YOUR story.

You don't have to make any changes unless they feel right to you; unless they help bring your story closer to exactly what you were hoping to say. If you feel that the group members didn't "get" your story, then perhaps their crits don't apply. (Though you may very well have plenty of work left, to ensure that future readers will "get" your story.)

The best piece of advice I can give you is this sliding scale.

If only one person mentions a point, think about it, but don't make any changes.
If two or three people mention the same point, you probably need to change it, maybe not in the manner they suggest, but with some type of modification.
If four or more people make the same point, you need to heed their advice, because they're probably right.

Yes, math, once again, has a practical application in the real world. Aren't you glad you learned to count? And you thought you didn't need to know math to be a writer.

The other negative you must consider is that writers groups tend to turn all stories into "circles." Think of your story as a rectangle. Or a polygon with plenty of corners. (Yes, I have a math degree, work with me here.) As each member applies their critique, their comments essentially shave another corner from your story. The more shaves, the smoother the edges, until what's left is no longer a rectangle/polygon, it's a circle.

If every story is a circle, then they'll all feel the same. No edges. No sparks of brilliance. No outliers. No bumps that make the reader sit up and take notice, for good or for bad.

You as a writer must always hold this danger in the back of your mind while you're digesting critiques. I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep a copy of the "old version" of a story before you sit down to make post-critique-session edits. Because in a week, you might go back to that old version and keep most of what you had before, throwing away the majority of the edits you made to please your writers' group members. If you try to please every reader, you will end up pleasing none, you will have a story that is so smooth, it is soulless.

The soul of a story is what makes it brilliant.

In summary:

Join a group. Digest their comments. Use what works, Discard the rest. Remember that your story belongs to you, and you must treat it with the respect it deserves. Don't cut out its soul. But make it as strong and independent as you want your child to be that day they move out and take on the world on their own.

Great, I've convinced you. Now, you're probably asking, "How do I find a writers group?"

--> The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

--> Critters

--> Codex (A group for more experienced writers who have won an award or attended a major workshop)

--> Post a flyer at your local library.

--> Take a class/workshop. Two of the groups I belong to are made up of members from a workshop I attended.

--> Network. In my field (SF/F/H) conventions are the best way to accomplish this goal. (This is how I weaseled my way into the Stop-Watch Gang.)

1 comment:

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