Thursday, March 13, 2014

Should I Join a Writing Group?

That depends.

Some people swear by them. Others don’t.

I’m one of the others. Prior to this year, I had never belonged to a writing group. Neither did I seek out a less formal network of critique partners or beta readers. I drafted my YA debut, Survival Colony 9, without input from others (unless you count my teenage daughter, who counts a lot to me, but who wasn’t exactly an objective reader). Once I located an agent and she located an editor, I got lots of input--multiple edits between the two of them. But before that point: no critique.

When I tell people this, they look at me in amazement. Not amazement like, “Wow, you’re such a great writer!” Amazement like, “Wow, you’re such an idiot!” For those who swear by writing groups, drafting a book without them seems like the height of folly.

But here’s the thing. As with everything in writing, there are no hard and fast rules. There are preferences and possibilities. Groups are great. But they’re not for everyone.

I’m becoming more aware of this at present because, thanks to my local SCBWI chapter, I joined a writing group last month. I wanted to give it a try. It consists of about ten members including me, all of them producing children’s literature (though most write MG and picture books, not YA). I’ve sat in on a couple meetings so far.

They’ve been good meetings. I like my fellow members. One of them, against all odds, is the younger sister of a close high school friend. They have great things to say (and their own work is awesome). As the new guy, I’m trying to keep up, to learn the others’ writing, to be as helpful as I can. I’m also hoping to get some good feedback on my own stuff.

It’s too early to tell if all this will come to pass. It’s too early to tell if I’ll stick with the group after our current eight-session schedule runs its course.

But I will say this: so far, it’s not really for me.

Maybe that’s just because I’m new. Maybe it’s because so few other group members write YA. Maybe it’s because the WIP I’m showing them is a total mess at the moment, and yet, given my current focus on my upcoming debut, I’m not feeling any great urgency to whip it into shape. Maybe it’s because this group is a bit too big for me; receiving nine opinions all at once can be daunting. Maybe it’s because the group leader has a dog, and I don’t like dogs.

Or maybe it’s that I’m genuinely not a writing group guy.

As writers, we all have to find the way that works for us. I’d strongly encourage any writer to try out a writing group (or two or three) to see if they suit you. I’d make every effort to go into it with an open mind (something I hope I’m doing). I wouldn’t avoid it because you’re shy, or embarrassed, or (worse) disdainful of other people’s opinions. I’d commit to it for a specified period of time, and hope for the best. If it works, fantastic.

But if it doesn’t, if it turns out that due to any number of factors--personal style, time commitment, and so forth--you’re just not a writing group kind of person, I wouldn’t consider that a personal failing or a professional liability. Instead, I’d tell you to find some other method that works for you. A best friend. A writing class. A bunch of beta readers. Your agent and editor. Your teenage daughter.

Critique is one of the fundamentals of the writer's life. But how you go about obtaining it can be as unique as the writer's own voice.

4 comments:

  1. Great topic, Josh! I started the opposite of you. I started with one crit partner, then a group of two other writers (to me, three is the ideal number, 10 seems excessive and exhausting) but being that I was so green I joined yet another group (at the same time!) so I had five/six people giving me conflicting feedback. I ended up leaving one group after a year or so, and the other group eventually died but in the meantime I had met three other writers (my blogging sisters) and worked with them, plus my husband and sister in law. So, as you can see, I was full of advice. I am grateful for all the help I received at the moment and I think some of those writers taught and helped me A LOT, but I wouldn't do that again. One thing that I've learned is that if you show your work to writers, they will ALWAYS have something to say. I only have a couple of writers read my work now, and one beta reader who's not a writer. It's a lot less stressful and overwhelming. But the important thing is that I trust myself now and don't need a hundred of opinions to tell me when my work is ready to submit.

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    1. Thanks, Lorena! I think that's a great point--while we all need feedback, the goal is/should be to get to the point where we can be good critics for ourselves!

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  2. This is a good topic, Josh. I've been a member of a writing group for over a year and it's been both a huge help and sometimes not so much. A lot of it depends on where YOU are as a writer, and what you need; and also that your group members understand your category and genre and can provide helpful feedback on that. It's good to acknowledge when something DOESN'T work for you so you can spend your valuable time elsewhere. Obviously you're doing fine without one, so why fix something that's not broken? :)

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    1. Thanks, Kiersi! I will say that at last night's meeting (which took place after I wrote the post), I got some excellent feedback on a different WIP. So we'll see how things unfold!

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