Writing Groups

Myke Cole is the author of the military fantasy SHADOW OPS series. The first novel, CONTROL POINT, will be published by Ace (Penguin) at the end of this month.

As a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deep­water Horizon oil spill. All that con­flict can wear a guy out. Thank good­ness for fan­tasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dun­geons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.

Sandra and I are old buddies from fandom, running into one another at a minimum of two cons a year. When she asked me to do a guest post for her, I was really psyched.

Until she told me the topic: writing groups.

Ugh.

See, here’s the problem. I have some strong opinions on writing groups, and they’re not generally popular ones. Worse, I think they’re good enough opinions that I want to share them with others. In fact, I’d been secretly hoping for a chance to.

And Sandra, bless her, had just given me the excuse.

So, I sat down to write this and decided to just be as honest as possible, trusting in the goodwill of the Inkpunks readership to see me through.

So, ahem. Here goes.

Here’s what I think about writing groups: I don’t like them.

Wait, wait. Wait! Stop. Seriously. Put the rock down. Let me explain.

I know that writers groups have done wonderful things for scores of aspiring writers. I know there are major pros whose established careers eclipse my nascent one who swear by them. I know that everyone is different and not everyone’s methods apply to everyone else.

But.

Sandra asked me for my opinion, and this is it.

There are folks out there who write for the sheer joy of it. They don’t care if anyone else ever reads their work. They don’t care if they’re ever published. The sheer emotional satisfaction derived from channeling thoughts into words on a page is sufficient. When these people are brilliant, and incidentally discovered, you get the Emily Dickensons of the world.

But most of the writers I know aren’t like that. They are writing to communicate. They want to connect with others, know that their message has been consumed, digested and reflected back to them. They want to have impact.

Such people are attuned to the opinions of others. In seeking that reflection, that impact, they are open and receptive to feedback. They are insecure by nature, pushing their words (and a bit of their souls, right?) out into the void to be judged. And they want to be judged favorably.

I am such a person. I admit it. I am a people-pleasing, praise-hungry complimen-monster. I want people to read my writing. I want them to like it. And I want them to tell me why they like it.

So, you put me in a room full of people who are reading my work and giving me their opinions and an unsurpising thing happens: I waver. I bend.

When someone criticizes something, I ingest it, ponder it. I am denied my primary goal (to be told I am a great writer), and even when my instincts tell me the criticism is wrong, I still have to resist the strong impulse to “fix the problem” anyway. Because in my heart of hearts, I will do anything to make that criticism go away, to set that ship right.

And when I am praised? Even if I know I am being praised for something that is undeniably a flaw (“I just love your use of the word ‘caliginous’ in that sentence!”), the same impulses move me to accept it, and leave the manuscript unchanged.

To be frank, my voice, my authorial voice, the thing that makes my writing mine, is too easily battered into silence by my ego.

Now, maybe you’re one of those tough as nails type. You’re self-assured, confident. You don’t care what anyone thinks.

Outstanding. I mean that. I envy you. I’m not that way, and I never will be. Admitting that was my first step on the path to going pro.

Anyway, I am not saying that a writer doesn’t need opinions. I firmly believe that you do. But I also firmly believe that those opinions are better garnered from a very small number of people chosen carefully for their ability to provide criticism in a way that allows you to preserve your authorial voice.

I have three “beta-readers” who I have close personal friendships with. That familiarity has bred enough contempt to allow me to stand firm against their advice when I disagree with it. One is a major force in the field, a professional who will be an institution in fantasy long after his death. The second is a “neo-pro” with a few major short story sales to her name and interest from industry heavy-hitters. The third is a fan who has never written a word of fiction in his life but knows the genre inside and out. I send work to them individually on a schedule-permitting (theirs) basis and get inputs separately. They don’t know one another and likely never will.

And that’s it. No group. As my career progresses and I make friends with other pros and fans, I may find other beta-readers, but I will only use them when my core three are unavailable. It’s critical to keep the number small in order to preserve my voice.

Because that voice is what makes me unique, and if I don’t respect it (and respect the personal limitations I know will impact it), I will wind up writing vanilla drek that nobody will want to read.

Here’s another issue I have with writing groups: publishing is a brutal industry. The odds of “making it” in the business (which I define as making a full time living from writing) or even getting a book deal with a major publishing house that still fails to make any serious money are really, really long. You are pummeled daily by rejection, forced to question yourself, ask the soul-searching questions: How bad do you want it? Are you wasting your time? It’s one long, dark night of the soul after another.

And that sucks.

When things suck, we seek solace from others who are suffering in the same battlefield. We lean on one another. We offer support. We band together in our sorrow. It’s a beautiful thing.

And it’s totally counterproductive.

I’ve seen too many writing groups that had devolved into sessions that were 90% group therapy, 10% discussion of craft. Discussions revolved around market response times, or the artfully termed “rejectomancy” (trying to read into the form and text of rejection notes to determine what the editor really meant). Like most things in life, writing is most successful when minimal time is spent bemoaning failures and instead spent working on strategies for success, and by that, I mean CRAFT. Not knowledge of the market, not networking, not anything else. All that stuff is certainly important, but secondary to writing well.

Bottom line: when you’re struggling to be a professional artist, it’s just as easy to be influenced by a charismatic person as it is by a knowledgeable one. In a field as subjective as writing, helpful and unhelpful advice is really, really hard to tell apart. The temptation to seek solace from the storms of a field that can be (to put it mildly) unkind, can distract from the need to focus on developing your craft, the most pivotal aspect of successful writing.

Let me close with the general disclaimer: If writing groups work for you, if they enfranchise you, improve your craft and your ability to get work done, if they push you towards success in this nasty industry, then OUTSTANDING. More power to you, work with what works. Full speed ahead. I never judge what is working for someone and certainly won’t bash anyone for being in a writing group.

But it’s not the road for me, for the reasons I’ve just laid out. And if you’re an aspiring writer who is bending like a reed in a storm, or spending more time leaning on your buddies than learning from them, it might not be a road you want to walk either.

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  Visit Myke’s website at MykeCole.com

 

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  • Paul Weimer

    What works for you is best.  Your path is clearly different, Myke.  I’ve never been in a group, so I have no firsthand experience to offer as evidence for or against the motion on the table. :)

  • http://helenlowe.info/index.html Helen Lowe

    Myke, my overall experience of wriitng groups coincides with yours on many points. I have found that there are other and more productive/focused ways to get constructuve critique.

  • http://twitter.com/davisac1 Amanda C. Davis

    While I love the people I’ve been in writing groups with, I’ve found the informal net of Twitter far and away more useful for improving my craft, pushing forward, and finding success.

    • Wendy N Wagner

      I’m with you, Amanda–Twitter IS my writing group. ;)

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  • http://twitter.com/ArachneJericho ArachneJericho

    I have a personality somewhat similar to yours, Myke. It’s not a wonder I haven’t been attracted to writer’s groups; even when they incarnate as online forums, I feel similarly about them.

    Twitter’s different, though.

  • http://www.blogspot.curiousworlds.com/ Rebecca

    I agree every writer must do what works for them. I regularly attend an open writers group and that works for me.

    I believe it has improved my craft and, I enjoy being in the company of other writers every other week. We certainly don’t waste time moping about the difficulties of publication. I love that it’s an open group, there are regulars who deliver dependable critiques and some regular weirdos – oh wait we’re all weirdos. There is no homework, which I don’t have time for anyway, whoever brings work gets it read right there and then we launch into 20 minutes or so of constructive comments.

    So, this is a basic first read kind of set up and often what is most useful is seeing what people got and what people missed. I have found that by bringing in work regularly, I am not only improving in a nuts-and-bolts way (oh, I should show my character walking into the room first…), but am learning about my voice as a writer as viewed through the other people in the group.

    I also love that it’s an open group. There is almost always a new face at any given meeting, some only attend one or two. Having a wildcard in the mix keeps things fresh. This element also always reminds me that part of my job when receiving a critique is to assess where the critiquer is coming from and how much to weight his or her comments.

    I agree that in the end, whether you’re getting your feedback from a few Alpha readers or from a group of people  sitting around a table, it’s still you and your work.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnAnealio John Anealio

    I was in a few songwriters’ groups when I first got serious about songwriting.  Some were better than others.  My problem was that people felt the need to say “something”.  I was never sure if there input was authentic.  Some people criticized everyone, some people praised everyone.  Eventually, I just stopped going. 

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  • http://twitter.com/kateoldkate kateoldkate

    I am finding that I am writing to please the people in my writing group – I know what they like, try to write it and I am losing myself a little.  I love the friendships, though, but it may be time to walk away.

  • http://twitter.com/SRoit S. Roit

    I agree. It depends on the personality of the writer, and the group in question. (And all THOSE personalities, of course.) I too, do the beta reader thing. Same person for years, now. I’ve seen it happen; a person changes their story every time there is a differing opinion, until they no longer recognize their own story.

    It bears repeating: one cannot please all of the people, all of the time.

    That way, lies madness!

  • Kaye Draper

    It’s great to see this post! After I wrote my first novel, I joined a critique group.  I have to say, in all honesty,  it destroyed my book and my self esteem- I kept taking it apart to try to “fix” it and then felt like it was a mess.  I’m totally with you.  I’m learning to form a thicker skin, but also that it’s OKAY to ignore some of the advice.  I can see groups maybe being more useful after a publication or two (strange as that sounds) because then you are more confident in what you are doing ( I hope) and less inclined to think, well- I really don’t know…maybe this person giving me feedback knows more about it than I do…

    I have heard professional writers and an agent or two caution against critique groups as well… so maybe we’re not the only ones who feel this way.