Should you join a writer’s group?

I was going to write this EXPLOSIVE post about WRITER’S CLUBS (TM) and blow your mind with its powerful and prescient advice. Except I realised that I hated those kinds of articles because they’re just subjective points of view passing themselves off as empirical analysis. And also, most of what you read about how to be a successful writer is BS anyways.

So here are some ideas, just small things, you might want to consider before you dash off and sign up with a ragtag band of authors hell-bent on changing the world by getting rich.

ONE: Why are you joining a writing group?

I’m a cynical person. There’s no way around it. If I sat you down and asked the question, “Why are you joining a writing group?” I can almost guarantee that you would say, “To get better Kenneth. That’s why I’d go.”

You’d say that because it’s socially acceptable. Except some people go to a writing club to socialise. Others go to hang around authors. There are those who are looking to quickly increase the number of contacts they have in the writing industry (because they are brilliant and are just waiting to be discovered!). Then there are those who go because they want a cheer squad, and randoms who seek encouragement. Occasionally those with writer’s block wander in as well.

Yes, some people go to improve. I do. A lot of the people at my club do. The question is: Why are you joining one? Have a deep, honest think about it because there are many different types of writing clubs and you need to find one which meets your specific needs.

TWO: Are you good enough to join? Are you good enough to have your work critiqued?

Yes, I know, you’re very talented writer. I’m sure you are.

The only problem is I don’t believe in talent. I believe (like Ta-Neishi Coates does) that writing is a technical skill. To become “talented” you work at it. Regularly, often and you put in those 10,000 hours.

Being critiqued and reviewed at a writer’s club should be about finding those mistakes you can’t see. Getting fresh eyes to drill down on your style and hone it a little better. If you know you’re writing is full of errors, why not fix them yourself? Why do you feel the need to force strangers (or friends) to read fiction which is horrible because you can’t be bothered to learn how to edit?

More importantly, you need to be good enough to evaluate others works. If you don’t bring enough background and substance, how are you going to be able to provide quality feedback to others? Yes, writer’s group is about learning — but it can’t all be from one person while everyone sponges. That’s not a group, that’s an energy sucking hydra.

Which leads us to:

THREE: Are you emotionally mature enough to be critiqued?

The best people I know are self-depreciating about their skills. They say they’re not as good as they could be, they’re barely OK. Forget great. Alright?

However, they also know they need criticism to get better. They know it sucks, but they have accepted the fact that their work isn’t as good as it could be and they’re going to find out what’s wrong with it. They are prepared to have their soul destroyed.

It took me years to become comfortable with other people giving feedback on my writing. I knew it could be improved, but I liked living with the delusion of how brilliant I was. I didn’t want to to give that up. However, I also knew that if I asked for feedback, I had to be ready for the bad and the good.

So I didn’t go.

Some people want to be critiqued but on their terms. You can be. It’s called not submitting it for critique. You can self-evaluate, study on-line and learn through Google. No one’s stopping you.

But if you’re going to head to a writer’s club and be critiqued, you need to be ready to take it in your stride. You don’t get to put conditions on the evaluation or how someone will view your work. People are giving up their time (their limited time) to help you so you can get better. If you’re going to get mad or upset, don’t go.

Bringing us to:

FOUR: Will you change what you’ve been told?

It’s one thing to put together a piece of work which will be evaluated and make you the centre of attention for ten minutes; it’s another to go home and massage out all the crinkles in the coldness of your study.

No, I’m not saying you have to implement everything… but unless you’re “that one-in-a-million” author who is perfect, there’s going to be something you need to massage out of your style. Maybe it’s a word choice, maybe it’s a lack of tension or maybe it’s just putting the stakes in. The only thing you can guarantee is that it’ll be there and when they find it, you’ll feel like someone took your soul out and burned it on a stake. With a pig. On top of another pig.

There’s nothing more frustrating for people who have given up their time to help you (because you’ve admitted that you want help when asking for a critique) and then coming back each and every month with the same feedback. It makes them frustrated because they feel like they’re wasting their time, it makes you upset because they keep banging on about the same things (and why can’t they get what you’re saying anyways? It’s so clear!), and it’s just plain rude.

FIVE: Will you put in the hours?

Being a part of a writer’s club is a commitment. You need to critique works, go to meetings and keep on writing. Not just writing for submissions, but also other projects. You should be putting in 10 – 20 hours a week P/T on your writing. For every one point they suggest you improve on, I would say you’d need to spend at least 10 hours working on it.

Which means if they give you four areas to improve, that’s 40 hours of writing you should do before you even think about submitting another piece. Otherwise the same areas are just going to keep popping up in everything you hand to them.

SIX: Are you able to not submit but still attend?

Are you driven enough to keep working on your writing goals without submitting every month? Or do you need that constant, regular feedback to make yourself feel good about putting some words in a particular order?

Writing, in my experience, has to grow beyond the feedback loop if you want to get good at it. You have to be driven to want to get better (either at home or in a group setting) and you have to know punching words into a computer is for you. Writing (and art) is hard, cruel and evil. It smacks you around when you least expect it, forces a series of typos in the wrong space when you finally get your proof back, and humiliates you in totally unique ways each and every day. Are you willing to go through all of that without hearing, “You’re good! You’re great! Let’s all Celebrate”?

Needy people are difficult to keep working with. Publishers don’t like them, friends can get irritated with constant dependance.

Ask yourself this: Do you need the writing group to keep writing? Or is the writing group just one part of your writing journey?

And my number one rule after you start going: How can I make life easier for the other members of my writer’s club? What can I do to make my submissions better and more enjoyable for them? (So, that’s two rules, but what the hey?)

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