Sunday, March 19, 2006

Writers Groups

Recently, there was a debate about writers groups on the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) mailing list. The debate started when one writer stated:

Who has the time to read other people’s junk? I need every spare minute I can grasp just to work on mine. I hire expert readers, and editors to make sure my stuff has quality. And even then … my editor … rips it apart and makes it better. My advice, don't waste your time on a group. Write, write and write some more.
After a little hiatus to talk about the impending release of the reprint of my novel The Immortal Game, I’m back to blogging about the process of writing and bringing to market my most recent novel, Candy from Strangers, and a writers group was an integral part of that process.

I can think of at least four benefits to writers groups:

  • Critique Feedback – This is the obvious benefit and the only one the writer from the MWA list considered, but his/her counter is that “professionals” would give you better feedback. My feeling is if you take care to select the group you work with, the quality of feedback will be on a professional level. What’s more, you get the benefit of discussion amongst the group: both to talk through divergent opinions and to brainstorm solutions for problems uncovered in a critique.

And no matter who is giving you feedback—hired “professionals” or other writers in your group—it’s incumbent upon you to do your own evaluation of the validity of the feedback and accept or reject it on a case by case basis. I find the benefit of working with feedback from a writers group is that you come understand the types of feedback each person is best at—one writer may be good a line editing, another at realistic dialog, etc.—and you can use that knowledge to your benefit in filtering the feedback. You can also filter feedback based on whether or not the particular individual giving it has the profile of your “target reader,” and perhaps be more sensitive to suggestions made by people in the group who fit that profile.

The converse can be true, too: it’s sometimes very eye-opening to receive feedback from writers who are not working in your target genre or would not be the sort of person to buy your book if they saw it in the store.

  • Writing to a Deadline – My current writers group meets once a month and submissions are due four to five days before the group assembles. I try to submit one chapter each month and I find this discipline helps me make steady progress on a novel.
  • Critiquing Makes You a Better Writer – I find that reading other writers’ work with an eye towards making suggestions for improvement helps me to better understand what does and doesn’t work in fiction. Good writers read a lot, and even better writers read a lot and analyze what they are reading.
  • Camaraderie and Support –Writing is a solitary activity. Getting together once a month with others who are struggling with that same solitary activity can help ease you through a rough patch or motivate you when you are stalled.

I’ve written novels in an out of writers groups, and my experience has been that it took much longer to get my book to a level I was satisfied with when I wasn’t in a group. And since I worked with professional editors in the latter stages of the rewrite process in both scenarios, I don’t think that a process that relies on paid-for editors and readers alone is superior.

In the next few posts, I’ll give some specifics about two of the great groups I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in.

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