Writing Groups: Purpose, Productivity & Professionalism

A Bored Writing Group

Some people can write in a vacuum.  For others, collaboration is essential.  I lurk around somewhere between the two.  I feel it’s important to flush your story out independently before you let other people in who might influence it.  Personally, I don’t want someone else’s visions polluting the story I am writing.

Regardless, at some point, (hopefully after you have finished, or are close to finishing the first draft) you might want to start reaching out and getting outside feedback.  For me, this is the stage before going to Beta Readers and after the first draft.  Essentially, it is an element of my self-editing phase.

I was messaging a fellow blogger, A.M. Bradley, who wrote a post about trying to locate writing groups.  While I will let this intrepid pioneer chronicle the journey of searching for the perfect group, I thought I would touch on what you should look for in one.

lewis-inklings-featuredA writing group is a gaggle of writers who meet to discuss their work and provide useful feedback to each other.  I always envisioned them to be similar to the literary club the Inklings.  Their membership included J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and many other greats.   They were just a group of brilliant writers, in a pub, talking about their classic works and enjoying each others company.  The sad truth is, a lot of writing groups are full of literary blow-hards who are only interested in quoting other peoples work and listening to themselves talk.  Fear not!  There is a group out there for you, and these are the things you should look for in one.

Look for groups operating within your genre.

You don’t go to a restaurant and ask the chef to give you a close shave, so why rely on someone who only reads and writes romance to provide feedback on your horror novel?  The naysayers are probably going, “But a real literary connoisseur isn’t limited by genre!”  Maybe there’s some truth to that.  I’m just saying, if I’m marketing a book to horror or romance readers I want someone who enjoys these genres to be critiquing it.  Not someone who is forcing themselves to read it to appease a writing group.

There should be some ground rules.

Writing Group Rules.jpgThis may seem like common sense, but if you are new to writing groups and you’ve stumbled into one lacking structure, know that’s a red flag.   The group, upon meeting, should have to stand, place a hand over their heart, and recite from memory the groups rules.  Okay, so that’s crazy.  However, there do need to be rules.

Depending on the size of the group (I would advise a smaller more intimate group) time is going to be essential to the success, enjoyment, and usefulness of your meetings.  For example, each meeting you will submit X number of pages for review the following week.  We each have X amount of time to provide feedback.  We have X amount of time to respond to feedback.  No cell phones (barring emergencies obviously) and so forth.

People should know when to show their cards and when to hold them. 

A Waterloo.jpgSo you’ve found your genre specific group and it has rules.  Good deal.  You are all huddled together in the corner, clutching coffees (or booze), and waiting with baited breath to hear feedback.  The feedback is coming, but wait, this clown missed the point I was trying to make with that passage.  You open your mouth to protest.  Stop.  Just don’t.

Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells made a phenomenal podcast on their website Writing Excuses about writing groups and touch on this specifically.  Keep in mind, these aren’t my words, they are the words of super-legit published authors (I’m not worthy…I’m not worthy).  If you won’t listen to me, listen to them.

Wells states that, “When your thing is being workshopped, shut up.  You sit, you don’t talk.  If you start to defend your work while others are critiquing it, you will get into arguments, and it will be a useless writing group.”

Taylor adds, “And the other thing to keep in mind, in that regard, is that if you’ve written something and it can’t defend itself without you saying stuff, it’s broken and it needs to be fixed.”

People should know the difference between providing feedback and inciting a duel to the death.

Unwanted Feedback.jpgLimit feedback to match the goals of the group or individual.  Some group members may want you to provide them with ideas as to where the story should go (not recommended). Some just want to know what you thought of what is already written, and why (recommended).

No writer that I know of wants to hear, “Hey, have you considered completely changing your main characters motivations to more align with this?”  That’s not feedback — that’s changing the course the voices in someones head are guiding them down.  We have enough voices in our heads pulling us along without another one derailing us into no mans land.

Even worse, no writer wants to hear, “The last few paragraphs were riddled with typos and didn’t make any sense at all – maybe grab a grammar book and try again?” That my friends is a word bullet.  Rephrase to, “There were some inconsistencies in the last few paragraphs that made it a little hard to follow.  To be honest, it left me a little confused.”  This sort of social awareness should be common sense, but I’ve heard worse statements made.

Even in my own group, which has been meeting together for years, I have an understanding of how to communicate effectively with each member.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all method.

People should share what they think, not what some amazing wiz-bang published author wrote and would think  (because we don’t really know what they think).

Angry Critic.jpgIf you can’t think of a bunch of feedback, that’s okay.  It means the writer conveyed their story in a well written and interesting manner.  Just say that.  You don’t need to start searching through memoirs, autobiographies, and self-help books to create feedback.

Don’t say, “Stephen King would probably tell you to stop focusing on describing clothes so much.  You know that’s a pet peeve of his?  I read about it in his book On Writing.”  We would all be so lucky to have Stephen King in our writing group — bad news though — Stephen King you are not (unless Stephen King is reading this, then you are more than welcome to cite yourself old chap).  When it comes to writing groups, be you, not the mouthpiece of someone else.

People should take notes.

take notes.jpgNothing says, “I don’t give a flaming crap rocket about what you are telling me,” more then someone who sits blankly and stares at you during feedback and doesn’t take notes. Unless you have an eidetic memory, you should be jotting down notes.  Honestly, even if you do have a mutant eidetic brain you should take notes anyways.

Part of the strength of writing groups derives from the camaraderie of coming together with a sect of like-minded individuals.  If you are sitting down with people you don’t know, taking notes, and being receptive to criticism, it tells everyone you mean business and take this writing thing seriously.

Let me put it another way.  You sit down with two pieces of work to critique.  One is your best friends, who always gives you useful feedback.  The other is some weird guy/girl from your writing group who doesn’t take notes and just mouth breaths at you the whole time you provide feedback.  Which one will you read with more interest and care?  Be the best friend.

Lastly, and most importantly, people should check their ego at the door.

ego.jpgIf you are looking for someone to read your work and gush about how amazing it is, email it to your parents, or girlfriend/boyfriend, or siblings, or whoever.  I’m not saying you can’t be upset about criticism (never let them see you bleed), but if you are going to turn red and go radioactive when someone tells you they aren’t connecting with a character, or idea, then maybe a writing group isn’t for you.  For me, I would rather a small circle of people tear my work up so I can rebuild it stronger, then go willy-nilly into the night and have critics publicly crucify my work on every review website and blog scattered among the interwebs.  (It will probably happen anyways, but hey, that’s writing for you.)

Happy hunting! 

Hopefully, some of this helped.  There’s plenty more hot tips out there, and I encourage you all to share them.  Heck, maybe you disagree with some of this completely.  If you have an experience or differing opinion, share it, I’ll make sure it posts (as long as it isn’t a string of incoherent expletives).

question-markSometimes you just fall into a writing group and it’s hunky dory. Sometimes you have to search far and wide.  Regardless of your situation, don’t settle for a crummy group.  If you can’t find a group, it’s time for you to make one.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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Beta Reading: Make Enemies & Shatter Dreams

*DISCLAIMER*

If you want to Beta Read and make friends and allies – do the exact opposite of what this blog post recommends.  This is a tongue-in-cheek article. 


 

Someone has reached out to you for a Beta Read.  You don’t really have the time.  You don’t really read books.  You don’t even like the books genre.  But hey, it’s your chance to shatter some dreams, invoke your will, and see someone cry as you destroy their creation.  Of course you say yes.  You’ve prepared yourself to drive the dagger in, now let’s talk about how to twist it about.

Tip #1: Disappear from the face of the planet.  Not only should you not read the book after you receive it, you should erase yourself from existence.  Change your email, block them from social media, grab a burner phone and turn off your old one.

beta reader.jpg

It’s important the needy and vulnerable writer feel complete and total isolation.  Their imaginations are broken and set to overdrive already.  Within a couple weeks they will think what they wrote offended you.  They will assume this is why you removed them from your life forever.

This method is especially powerful when you send a short email saying, “We need to talk about the book…,” before you drop off the grid.

blind read.jpgTip #2:  If you must read the book, make sure you are thoroughly distracted.  Have you ever read while at a heavy metal concert?  You should!  Especially if you are a Beta-Reader.  The more distracted you are when you read the book, the less of it you will remember.

This way when the author asks you what you thought of miscellaneous good guy #3 you can honestly say, “That name doesn’t ring a bell?”  You will be able to wring out their anguish and drink it.  I mean seriously, were you going to take notes?  Hah!  That’s just crazy!

Tip #3: Skim, skim, skimaroo!  Trust me, only the most idiotic of Beta Readers actually reads every word the foolhardy author wrote.  Let’s face it, most of that crap is just filler anyways.  All the author is going to care about is that you have a very rough concept of the flow and plot of the story.

If you don’t skim, you might actually get attached to the work.  Worse.  You might even care.  If you care, the author has won – don’t let this to happen to you!  You need to be clueless.  If they see that glint of wonder in your eyes, you will fuel their passion.  What you need are eyes of depraved emptiness.  A void for the writer to fall into and be lost forever.

Tip #4: Read the book carefully then apply misdirection.  If you really want a good chuckle, read the book very carefully then purposefully mix up the plot and flow of the story when you review it with the author. When the author emails you back to get clarification (and they will) refer to Tip #1.

Beta Reading Gone Wrong.jpg

Other forms of misdirection include and are not limited to:

Leave a detailed review, then apply the plot of The Sixth Sense to the ending book.  “I couldn’t believe the main character was dead the whole time!”  When the author blasts you back with a confused email – refer to Tip #1.

Asking unrelated metaphorical/symbolic questions.  “Was the main characters pistol actually symbolic of his repressed homosexuality?”  When the author asks why you thought that – refer to Tip #1.

grammarTip #5: NEVER point out typos – EVER!  As a Beta Reader you shouldn’t care about typos at all.  I promise you, if you catalog each and every typo you see with paragraph and page numbers the author will just delete the email.  Not only have you just insulted him/her, you have showed what a competent reader you are.  You go showing initiative like that and guess what, more Beta Reads are going to be coming your way.

Now, I do encourage you to catalog typos.  But use this catalog for the long game.  Wait until the book goes to print then begin flipping to the pages where you observed typos.  If you find one remaining, know that you made it happen.  Now is the time.  Email the writer and let them know you found a typo.  Pour a glass of wine and savor their hatred.

The Predictable Plot

Tip #6: Plot holes are the shallow graves where shattered dreams are buried.  If you find plot holes, rejoice.  You can basically stop reading their work at this point.  The author has dug their own little grave.  By no means should you point them out.  Now you could write down plot holes that don’t have resolution, annotating carefully the page and paragraph numbers.  If you do, it should only be for use like mentioned in Tip #5.

Tip #7:  If a sentence is jumbled make sure you only mumble.  If sentences are jumbled, obviously the author was too lazy to write correctly.  As a Beta Reader you shouldn’t have to put in the extra effort to point these out.  You should be insulted!  Don’t worry, those burning insults will be rectified when the book goes to print.  All you need to do is go to Amazon or GoodReads and look at the reviews.  Slather on those one star reviews like a healing balm.

Last Tip, Tip #8:  Never let the author see you bleed.  Don’t ever use the word, “feel,” when you discuss the work with the author.  If you start telling them your feelings they are going to know you were emotionally touched by their writing.  What are you trying to do, motivate them?  That’s insane!  Feedback should be completely analytical and devoid of emotional context.  Emotion is the elixir that fuels the aspiring writer – starve them of it and watch the shards of their dreams break away.


Kind of dark huh?  Well I was going to write a cookie-cutter, “How to Beta Read,” post, but instead I thought about the times I’ve been burned, or my friends have.  Truthfully, if someone has entrusted you with a Beta Read, they are honoring you.  It’s a free sneak peek into something that person cares about immeasurably.  Do them the honor of being the best Beta Reader you can be.

beta-reader-superhero

Awesome blog post on Beta Readers from Chronicles of Alsea.  Click the image to check it out.

Doing the opposite of what is listed above would be a great start.  I’m not saying all of these things should be Beta Reader responsibilities, but if you do those things too, you are an authors ally.  You become a shield against the coming storm (editors, agents, publishers, future readers).  When colleagues or friends ask me to Beta Read, and I have the time, I give them every tool I have at my disposal.  It’s my way of saying, “I care.”

When it’s all said and done, the most important thing you can do is simply read the work.  If nothing else, at least read it and leave an honest opinion.  All the other stuff is just cherries on the sundae.

What kind of experiences have you had with Beta Readers?  Are you still nursing some wound?  Or have you been lucky enough to score solid ones?  Let me know, I’d love to hear about it.

That’s it for today.  Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

Copyright Info (final)

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