Wednesday, October 17, 2007

TWENTY SIGNS . . . THAT A WRITING GROUP / WORKSHOP ISN'T FOR ME . . .

The October 2007 issue of O Magazine contains a nice article about a writing group called "The Finish Party." The eight member San Francisco Bay area group meets once a month, even though several of the members have to commute from LA in order to participate.

I came away from the article both a bit envious and with a renewed sense of hope about such endeavors. Over the years, dating as far back as my freshman year in college, I've been aligned with several different writing groups. My own experience with such groups has ranged from truly horrific to decidely mixed at best.

Sometimes the primary issue was simply a matter of conflicting interests and/or objectives. But more often than not, my own lack of patience with what I perceived as too much unadulterated bull crap came into play.

No doubt, some of the items on the following list (Twenty Signs That A Writing Group / Workshop Isn't For Me) are bound to rub some folks the wrong way. My reponse to that is . . . "Oh well." As I've mentioned before in the Old School Mix, what to me may reek like ten day old boiled cabbage, may to some one else have all of the savory appeal of birthday cake with ice-cream. It's just an opinion folks and one of the best things about living in the US of A is that we're each entitled to our own.

Anyway, this list is in no particular order, but the existence of more than one or two of these items in a group and on a regularly occurring basis will generally lead to the swift end of my participation.

1) The group is over-run by folks writing ghetto / gangsta / street / pimp /'I don't wanna be a freak but I can't help myself'/ type of lit. (Sorry, that's just not my kinda crowd.)

2) Lots of praise is given, but no real critique or discussion ever takes place. (Seriously, if all you want to hear is how great your work is, your best bet is to keep showing it to your Mama 'Nem.)

3) The group acts like it doesn't know how to function in the absence of its leader. (You know, where there is a set "game plan" this typically doesn't happen.)

4) Bad information is routinely passed of as fact and/or "The Truth, The Way and The Light." (Dag people, just 'cause the leader of the group or the dude with 20 self-published books under his belt or the wanna-be-editor who's out to take the rest of your money said "it," doesn't make "it" Gospel. Learn to double check stuff and solicit other opinions. Sheesh, when all else fails "Google."

5) The first thirty minutes to an hour is spent waiting on late arrivals. (Why? Am I the only one who thinks life is too short and my time too valuable to waste on folks who've obviously decided they have better things to do?)

6) No one knows when or where the next meeting will take place. (Ah, yeah, sounds like a plan to me.)

7) The consumption of food, liquor and/or weed appears to take higher priority than any actual writing, critiquing or discussion. (Gotta love those priorities, don't cha?)

8) Group members appear more interested in attending and scheduling events and selling their work than working on craft. (This is one of my major pet peeves. Sorry, while I can certainly see the benfits of such for some, every now and then, I'm simply not interested in doing marketing, making money or bringing attention to myself under the guise of providing a service to the community.)

9) Group members are strongly encouraged, instructed and/or required to dress alike. (Huh? Say what? Sorry, as one who treasures her individuality, just the thought repulses me. One reason I never wanted to join the Girl Scouts is because I hated those doofus-looking--oops--I meant, those cookie-cutter outfits.)

10) The group is over-run with groupies, star-gazers and brown-nosers. (In general, these types get on my nerves anyway. But in a group setting their presence is particularly distracting and annoying.)

11) There is no real accounting of the monies being collected. (Yeah, this always makes me want to hum a few bars of Prince's "Thieves In The Temple.")

12) A lot of time is devoted to writing exercises. (Really, if I wanted to do exercises, I'd sign up for a class, preferably one where I'd get a grade for my efforts. Sorry, but for me this typically feels like a huge waste of a group's time.)

13) The group has an on-line presence (or website), but very few people know how to access it or it is extremely difficult to do so. (To me, this is a sign that the parties involved don't really care).

14) The group leader is consistently late, missing in action or unprepared. (Is it just me, or does the lust for power and incompetence frequently appear to march hand-in-hand?)

15) Non-writing participants routinely critique the work of writing participants. (I'm saying, why are non-writing participants even in the group?)

16) Newcomers are never given any specific written information about the group--no rules or by-laws, no agenda, no member contact information, no meeting schedule. (I'm cool with a casual, laid-back style, but to me this is the mark of a group who isn't really serious.)

17) The poets in the group out-number those writing fiction. (Okay, I like poets. Some of my best friends are poets. But I don't really know a lot about writing poetry. Likewise, most poets don't really know a lot about writing fiction. Come on folks, lets keep it honest and real. Aren't we supposed to be helping one another?)

18) The leader dictates, delegates and castigates those who refuse to adhere to his/her personal program and/or agenda. (This may work with weak-minded, easily impressed folks who are open to drinking the Kool-Aid, but I'm grown and I'm neither easily enamored nor readily led.)

19) Members full of excuses and reasons why they NEVER have any work to submit to the group for critique. (Keep it real, y'all. Writing isn't a spectator's sport. Either you're committed and ready to do the damn thing or you're not.)

20) The group is primarily made up of self-published authors. (Nothing personal. I've just noticed that the goal of a lot of self-pub folks appears to be perfecting what they obviously view as little more than a hustle . . . rather than learning what it takes to improve their writing and story-telling skills.)

Again, to be clear, just because the things I've listed don't work for me, that doesn't necessarily make them bad. Feel free to share some of your own thoughts . . . even if they don't exactly jibe with mine.

10 comments:

Sharon J. said...

Very funny and very true! Maybe this piece will motivate your writer friends in Cleveland -- and that includes me -- to get our acts
together.

Lori said...

Sharon J.,
I've always thought you were fairly motivated. But the others . . . Well, miracles do happen, but actions generally speak louder than words(smile). Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Emanuel Carpenter said...

Not to step on your individuality Lori but you should consider posting on Blogging in Black. This is a damn good post and would make an excellent first post.

I was involved in a writers' group in C-town, and here were some of the concerns and issues.

1. Some folks didn't share their work because they were afraid their ideas were going to be stolen from group members. (Groups should sign contracts to avoid this.)

2. People were more interested in the business of writing than perfecting the craft of writing.

3. Attendance seemed to increase when we made the meetings a "pot luck" get together where everyone was asked to bring their choice of food or drink. (Attendance should be high regardless.)

4. Some folks ONLY wanted to have their work critiqued and some folks ONLY wanted to critique others. As a result, those doing the critiquing started to feel used while others wondered why the people who didn't submit work even bothered to attend.

5. Folks wanted to sell their published works to each other. (Of course, writers rarely buy from other writers in this setting. I think a solution would be to designate one or two meetings per year as a book sale or book exchange day to get it all out of their systems.)

6. People were afraid to hurt each others' feelings so a lot of times they would just say "It was good."

7. On the flip side, some people would rip writers a new one with their no-holds-barred critiques. (I personally like receiving these kinds of critiques but others have thinner skin.)

8. The writers who "made it" and got traditional publishing deals either left the group or wanted to be paid to share their expertise. (How the heck do you get traditionally-published writers interested and keep them interested in your group anyway?)

Now that I know a little more about the publishing industry, I'm not really sure of the relevance of writers' groups. Writers may be better off hiring professional editors than trying to get the free advice and opinions of peers.

I think writers should seek the critique of professional editors, professors, and even literary agents at workshops if they want to get honest opinions of their work.

However, if you insist on having a writers' group, the group should decide from the beginning what they are or are not about. They should designate leaders democratically, and have a backup plan for when things change. If they want time for socializing or discussing the business of writing, they should schedule it. They should also sign contracts adhering to the rules of promptness, financial dues, and copyright infringement.

MR said...

Amen! Maybe it was just my bad luck but it seemed like no one was interested in helping anyone in any kind of constructive way. And I quickly and long ago got tired of “one-up-manship”. You know what I’m talking about? Those folks burn me up! If God Himself came down and gave you a new car *they* could have gotten it with free gas for a year.

MR said...

I forgot to say I LOL'd at your comment about "Mama 'Nem".

Lori said...

Emanuel,
Appreciate the compliment. Of course, you know I visit "Blogging In Black" on a fairly regular basis. At some point, I'd love to submit a guest piece to them, but at the moment I simply have too many other priorities.

Thanks for sharing your comments and writing group suggestions. Given your love of contratcts, something tells me I'd need to hire a lawyer to read all of the fine print required to join your writing group (smile).

I do agree that one of the first things a group should do is define its purpose. Also, I agree that it helps if a group has a social component--if only because it enables folks to really get to know one another and quite often helps build a sense of trust. But when this leads to folks spending 15 minutes on writing issues and an hour of eating, drinking and shooting the sh#! . . . well, you know. And yes, marketing issues/the business of writing should be something the group addresses, but that shouldn't be the primary focus . . . unless, of course, the group decides that's all they're going to be about.

Personally, I think editors and agents serve one purpose and writing groups, another. The latter is more of an emotional relationship. The former is primarily a business one.

For instance, my agent may tell me she doesn't like something or it doesn't work for her, but she might not be able to tell me how to improve it. Likewise, my editor may be able to correct my manuscript's grammar issues and structural flaws, but she can't help me find my "voice" or even fine-tune it. And really, nor is it the job of either (agent or editor) to be a sounding board for all of our ideas or to give us the emotional support we writers often need.

I could go on, but I'd better stop here (smile).

Lori said...

MR,
Yeah, the crazy, the neurotic and the egomaniacs have a knack for drawing attention to themselves in these settings, don't they? LOL

But you can't let that kind of foolishness deter you. Within most groups, there are generally a couple of half-way sane, decent and serious folks, who really do want to improve and grow and help others do the same. You just have to find them or pray they find you (smile).

Emanuel Carpenter said...

Hey Lori,

Have you ever done any workshops where professors and professionals critique your work like Cleveland State's Imagination Series Workshops? I haven't but I was wondering if you could share your experiences from attending. I'm wondering if it they are worth the tuition and fees. Also, do you think novelists should complete a whole first draft first and then workshop chapters in their writers' groups? Or is it better to get opinions during the writing process?

Also, I thought you mind find this excerpt from Bookpage's Author Enablers interesting regarding their opinions on writers' groups:

All writers groups are different, and since you are starting the writers group, you get to make up the rules. Is that cool or what? As the initiator, it will be up to you to set the tone and provide some guidelines. Here are some tricks that have worked for us and other writers groups we know.

*Figure out how often it's practical to meet; then require that members make a commitment to attend all meetings. More writers groups fall apart due to a casual attitude about attendance than any other reason.

*All members should be within shouting distance of the same level of writing skill. This doesn't mean you all have to be working in the same genre—a variety of writing styles and themes can make for an interesting group.

*Try to meet in person, rather than online, if you possibly can—and have those whose work is being discussed read aloud. Reading aloud to others is the surest way to catch all sorts of little things in your own writing, like redundancies, awkward phrasing and redundancies.

*Decide how many pieces, and pages, will be read and discussed at each meeting. In a larger group you might want to take turns, with no more than three or four members' work being discussed at any one meeting. Distribute pages among group members at least a day or two before each meeting, so everyone has time to read and think about the material ahead of time.

*Establish a positive tone. Even if a piece of writing needs a lot of work, find something good to say. Critique one another's work in a supportive and constructive manner, but do critique—it doesn't help the other writers if you see problems but are afraid to mention them. Be as specific as you can. "This doesn't work for me" is not as effective as "I think if you dumped the first paragraph and started here, you'd have a more engaging beginning."

*Always write your suggestions down on your copy of the pages, and return them to the author.

*Remember that the reason you are all in this group is to help each other improve. Watch for patterns and themes in the feedback that you receive. If three out of four people think you should lose the three-page description of a cornfield, well, they just might have a point. Develop your strengths and work on your weaknesses, and you are guaranteed to become a better writer.

Lori said...

Emanuel,
Thanks for the excellent excerpt. All of those guidelines are dead on point. Of course, getting group members to embrace them is another story (smile).

No, I've never participated in the type of workshops you've mentioned. Nor am I familiar with the one you mentioned--Cleveland State's Imagination Series.

But before you invested any money on such, I'd strongly encourage you to do a thorough check of the credentials of the folks involved.
Find out what, if anything they've published and where. Find out who they've represented, the work they've edited, etc. If you're going to pay for advice, make sure you're getting your money's worth.

I'm not knocking workshops because there are some good ones out there. I know at least 4 people who have attended the Hurston/Wright Workshop and they all rave about the experience.

But thus far, all of the advice I've received from agents, authors and editors about my work has been for free. I also tend to think experience is the best teacher. Some of the best advice I've ever received came via a rejection.

As far as your question about getting feedback on a finished draft or a work-in-progress, well, my advice is to do what works best for you. Sometimes too much negative feedback in the early stages of a work, will cause a writer to shut down, lose or become confused about his or her vision for the piece. On the other hand, sometimes workshopping the first few chapters of a novel can help you assess your strengths and hone in on some of your weaknesses.

I prefer to have a finished first draft or to be at least halfway through a work before I start soliciting feedback. But for other folks, this isn't an issue.
Bottom line is, you've gotta figure out what works best for you.

Emanuel Carpenter said...

Thanks for the feedback and sorry about the typos. The brain is moving faster than the editor in me.