by John B. Rosenman
Some years back, still smarting from a critical roasting by my writers’ group of one of my most brilliant and inspired stories, I had an idea for a themed anthology that would be the most horrific and frightening ever published. It would be called Writers’ Groups from Hell and compared to it, vampires and werewolves, sadists and serial killers would be like a visit to Arby’s. Extreme splatter-gore? Cosmic monsters? Creepy, gothic, Ramsey Campbell-like atmosphere? Pah! They wouldn’t be in the same ballpark. I even started a story in which Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Lovecraft’s Old Ones team up to commit a string of ghastly and unmentionable crimes only to run right into the arms of an overly-critical writers’ group. As Kurtz would say, “The horror, the horror!”
Some writers’ groups can be horrifying, or at least, a complete waste of your valuable time. And since life is short, what can be worse than that? I’ve heard of groups which are nothing more than mutual admiration societies. They meet at each other’s homes for prolonged events accompanied by food and booze and listen as each member reads his work. Afterward, they reward him with tumultuous applause, tell him how wonderful his junk is, and reach for another piece of pizza as the next participant rises with his masterpiece.
Uncritical praise. We all want it, but the sad truth is, it’s almost always a dangerous delusion, a tempting lie that will hurt rather than help our creative pursuits.
Then there are writers’ groups that involve another snare. They are vicious, confusing, discouraging and demoralizing. Their members have transparent envies and agendas, personal crotchets or preferences, and they are opinionated readers rather than discerning critics. Often, their “critiques” reveal not so much the merits or demerits of what you’ve written, but some personal inner quirk, wound, neurosis, or impenetrable denseness. Perhaps worst of all, their comments may be all over the waterfront and resemble a dozen blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and thinking it’s a refrigerator. You sit at the table or lounge on the floor, and listen as they grind their myriad axes and their sage words go around the room.
“I didn’t understand the ending. It’s too ambiguous. Why does Jesse leave Gladys? I thought he loved her!”
“The ending doesn’t work. It’s too obvious. Jesse should have left Gladys years before.”
“Why does the green leaf in the first sentence glitter? It’s just a leaf.” [I actually got this once.]
(Thinly veiled disgust, implying that you’re a pervert who shouldn’t be allowed near children.) “Why are you so obsessed with sex? I find this scene sick.”
“Why Jesse’s hair? Why not his hand or belt buckle?”
(Thinly veiled contempt, implying you shouldn’t give up your day job.) “I didn’t like this story. It’s ridiculous, clumsy, and fails on all levels. You shouldn’t write about leaves anyway.”
“A gun goes off outside and Jesse thinks something might be wrong? DUH!” (A look around to see if others appreciate her wit and urging them to join in her mocking laughter.) “Not very bright, is he? And you expect us to believe he’s a DETECTIVE?”
“I have just a few changes to suggest. Why don’t you make Jesse an old black man instead of a young white hippie and make him a quadriplegic. And instead of breaking up with his girlfriend because he can’t stand her jealousy, have him do it because he finds out he’s gay. And I don’t like his negative attitude toward women. Make him an outspoken supporter of women’s rights. That way, when the church roof caves in, we mourn him. As it is, I don’t care a rip about your character.”
“This story’s too expository.”
“I like the exposition. It’s poetic. And I like the idea about making Jesse an old black guy, except I think Puerto Rican would be better. And I don’t like the name Jesse. Call him Eduardo.”
Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but comments like these are fairly common. Clearly, when one joins a writers’ group, he must be prepared not only to accept criticism but to critique it. Some criticism is about as helpful as an impacted tooth and you follow it at your peril.
This brings me, perhaps belatedly, to the two main points of this essay. They are as follows:
1. Why attend or join a writers’ group anyway? Or, put another way, why subject yourself to such insults and obtuseness?
2. What should a good writers’ group be like and how can you recognize it?
Question # 1. We need writers’ groups because we are not perfect. That is, as gifted as we might be, we have limitations, inadequacies, and blind spots. And I dare say that applies even to some of the luminaries in this community. Good as we are, we can occasionally profit from a fresh and different perspective. Perhaps someone has specialized knowledge we lack or sees that a particular theme needs to be explored further. Perhaps someone else is a brilliant line editor and can improve a clumsy patch of writing or highlight an inconsistency or implausibility. Whatever the case, since we are not like Mozart in the movie Amadeus who simply writes down his symphonies as if he is taking “dictation” from the Almighty, we can usually benefit, sometimes greatly, from others’ input.
The main caveat here is that it is still our job to judge what others say, to critique the critiquers, especially when they disagree with each other and offer contradictory advice. But more about that later.
There are, of course, other reasons for joining a writers’ group, including the opportunity to interact with folks who share your interest in and enthusiasm for writing. Writing is often a solitary and lonely pursuit. The camaraderie of a good group can be inspiring, uplifting, and make you feel that you’re not alone but part of a community of like-minded souls. Plus, you can learn, not only about writing but about fellow writers, who are often amazing.
Finally, at its best, a writers’ group can be fun. My group laughs long and often, in addition to doing its job. We enjoy being with each other and have a good time.
Question # 2. You can recognize a good writers’ group because it helps writers to improve what they write and to sell it. Also, the flavor and feel of its meetings is sociable and productive. Some of the comments and criticisms may bite and make you tense, but when you consider them objectively, you realize they serve your central mission, which is to produce the best, most marketable work you can.
Now, for specifics. I’m not saying the following guidelines are the only valid ones or that every writers’ group must conduct itself in this precise manner. All I know is that for the past eighteen years or so, it has worked well for me. (Perhaps Dave Wilson, a former member of our group, will chime in later.)
1. I find that the ideal group size is between six to eight members. Too many more and a writer gets overwhelmed with critiques. Too many less, and there simply are not enough viewpoints to revise the work well enough. However, at times our group has chugged ably along with as many as twelve members and as few as three or four. In my judgment, it just hasn’t been as effective. An important requirement is that the members be capable and discerning readers. If they’re poor, having a hundred of them won’t do you any good.
2. We meet every two weeks from 6:30 to 9:00 pm. at a local library and pass out hard copies of our story, chapter, etc. to each member. A two-week break between meetings is about right. If we met every week there wouldn’t be adequate time to read and comment on every piece and to write a new one ourselves. As it is, we can relax a little, and
then start preparing for the next meeting.
3. We limit ourselves to no more than thirty pages per meeting for each writer. It’s just common sense. Fifty or more pages would be too much.
4. We mark the stories up in advance and comment on each one as we move around the table until everyone has had a chance to comment. If Mary starts critiquing one story, then the person who begins on the next is the person sitting next to Mary. That way we have a system. After the meeting, we give the edited, marked-up stories to the writer. Written comments should be ample and clear enough so that he can understand them later. How honest should critical comments be? VERY honest. I have lost sales because somebody wasn’t frank or explicit enough about a weakness to catch my attention. At the same time, no one should be cruel. You can give a hard-hitting critique without eviscerating someone. Inevitably, though, feathers will sometimes be ruffled.
5. It helps to have a facilitator. Basically, what he does is to set up an official schedule (in our case he reserves the room in the library every two weeks for six months in advance.) Also, he picks the person who starts critiquing, and he makes sure no one is taking too long and we don’t run out of time. Now and then someone will get bogged down in detail. In this case, the guy in charge will nudge him.
6. Our meetings are structured but not rigid. I said before that we laugh a lot. While we usually don’t interrupt a critique, occasionally we do, whether it’s to make a point on the story or to question what the person said. Sometimes a difference of opinion will be aired as a result. As for the writer on the hot seat, he feels free to respond to comments, perhaps to ask questions or to disagree with a criticism. However, we discourage detailed defenses of one’s work. We are, after all, there to hear what others say, not to rebut it.
7. While someone’s being evaluated, he evaluates what’s said. Some criticisms are just dead wrong. After a while, if the members remain the same, we learn about each other’s preferences and modes of thinking. Some readers are better than others, but almost all have their strengths. One person will be good with detail and line editing. Another may make broad, sweeping comments that prove helpful. Yet another may prefer concrete endings that leave little to the imagination. You, as writer, have to sift through and assay their responses, decide how seriously you should take them. If one person makes a criticism or suggestion, you might decide to ignore it. But if two, three or more do it, you probably want to give it a second look.
8. After you receive your story with everyone’s comments, you take it home and revise it based on them. Then, if you feel the story still needs work, you may take a revised version back to the group. Here, folks need to be tolerant and patient. I’ve resubmitted a story or chapter on numerous occasions. Usually I’ve done it only once, but sometimes I’ve done it twice. And there’s no guarantee it will work. Occasionally a story will just sicken and die. You can’t save or heal it, at least not yet. Usually, though, the revision process is a productive one. You keep improving the story, making it better and better, refining it to a point where you just can’t improve it anymore unless you put it in a drawer for a year and return with a fresh eye.
9. When I get to this point, I sometimes e-mail the story to a person in the group whose judgment I respect. This is the fine-tuning stage. Afterward the story should be ready to face the rejection mill. Hopefully, I’ve done my research and send it to the best market. And then I begin writing my next story, because I want to have one ready in eight days when we meet again.
That’s about it. As I said before, this method isn’t perfect. After all, a writers’ group involves flawed human beings. At times even the best group can be hellish and counter-productive. But over the years, this approach has enabled me to sell over a hundred stories as well as a couple of novels. One member of our group has already sold four novels of a detective series to a major publisher. So the system does work. Ultimately, a group such as ours depends on two things: serious writers who are willing to listen, accept criticism, and work hard to improve their work, and competent, perceptive critics who genuinely want to help them. When both conditions exist, wonderful things can happen.