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Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Why are Writing Groups Crap?

by Louise Wise

You get all sorts in writing groups, the Ain’t I Brilliant writers who read aloud from pretentious manuscripts as the other Ain’t I Brilliant writers nod thoughtfully while waiting their turn to be pretentious. These aren't brilliant at all, they just think they are. People like this will belittle anyone who threatens their Ain't I Brilliant group, and are recongisable by their scruffy business suits, complete with sweat-marks.

Then you have the There for the Coffee Only writers who are mainly women (I’m allowed to be sexist because I’m a woman!), and whose children are probably stinking of poo in a pushchair somewhere in the corner of the room. These read aloud their work only to be interrupted by someone saying, "Oh, our Rosie Petal managed to stay dry all night.” Or. “I like your shoes. Where’d you buy them?”

Can’t forget the Retired Gentleman. He’s always in a group and ready to dismiss anyone under 30 as having no life experience and couldn’t possibly have anything worth writing about. He’ll read his work out so sllllooooowly, and insist to the person taking the minutes that he only has “two sentences left” but then takes up another five minutes reading his work. Oh, and it'll always be about the war.

Students: Ugh! The cocky, “I’ve a degree and better than you” twenty-somethings who’re quick to point out the holes in your plot using humongous words. These are Ain't I Brilliant in the making!

They sit thumbing their mobiles, looking petulant and bored until it's their turn to speak. 

The Minute Taker is needed to stop people taking up someone else's reading time, but these are usually so fierce I'm sure their day job is a bouncer outside some vomit-encrusted-nightclub. 

You’ve finally plucked up courage to read and when you do she or he is standing with a stop watch yelling, "five minutes to go, four minutes and 58 seconds, four minutes and 57 seconds," and so on.

They scare the heebie-jeebies out me!

Everyone's had someone in their group like the people described above. Patti Hultstrand, author of Time Conquers All, Rescue in Time and Battle for Time has met all of the above at her writing group, and shares some words of wisdom:

As an author, we learn more with each completed book under our belts. Each book gets easier to write and edit because you learn the lessons from the previous works. Unfortunately, with this gradual learning, we find that we need a writing group that is closer to equal, if not even more knowledgeable than we are, or else we no longer grow or learn from others. I am reminded that one best selling author once mentioned this when talking about her current success with her writing group. She only worked in a writing group that included published authors. They were closer to equals and had already experienced the wounds of severe editing.

There is also this additional problem when dealing with newbie writers and that is, they have not built up a tougher skin in regards to critiquing their work. When I try out a new group, I do not hit them with all the corrections and suggestions I could make, but I find myself toning down their critique. Unfortunately, it is usually the group leader who takes a dislike to me because I dared critique them at all, when all the others in the group held them up on some pedestal.

These experiences have left me without a writing group home. This made me wonder if I should start a new group for mid-list authors who want to deal with like-minded writers who want to boost their skills by working their books, not just catering to each other's egos. This does not allow for growth as a potentially successful author.

Jennifer Thomson author of Bullying: A Parent's Guide and Caring for Your Dog had a mixure of Minute Taker and There for the Coffee writers. She says: The one and only writers group I ever went to, had this man in it. He cycled there and had a pair of shorts on and every time he leant forward we could see everything! Another member of the group had chronic fatigue syndrome and when she missed the next meeting the woman who's house the group was in, accused her of being lazy. I stopped going after that.

Col Bury says: I prefer to use an online writers group. I've not looked back since I joined Writers News Talkback forum.

Ann Swinfen met the Retired Gentleman group: I joined a writers' group at a time when I'd published one academic book and lots of journalism, but no fiction. At my third session we were all asked if we had any news . . . it went round the circle . . . one person had a small item in the (very) local weekly newspaper. Loud applause . . .when it came to me I said I'd just signed a two-book contract with Random House. Total silence. Evil looks. At the coffee break the only published writer (crime, with Hodder) came over and said how pleased he was. He's remained a good friend. I stuck with the group for a year but found it of little use. A few years later I was asked to give them a talk. The attitude was a bit different!

Prue Batten agrees: I have to say, I find writers groups full of puffed up people who frighten me. Rather like those who presume to lecture at Adult Ed. Think I'd rather stick with peer-review groups or pay money to an editorial agency for no-holds barred comments.

Who have you met at your writing group? Some of the above or different ones? Maybe you're lucky and have the perfect group. Please share, we're jealous.
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