A Little Help From My Comrades: Reflections On My Experience In Writers Groups

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I STARTED DAYDREAMING a couple of years ago about dialing down my advertising work and, eventually, writing fiction full-time. To have more success getting published I knew had to write with more rigor and intention. A writers group seemed a logical step. Kindred spirits. Constructive critique. Insights on craft. Positive peer pressure to stick with it. Let’s do this! Two groups and hundreds of pages later, my group experience has been rewarding…but not always easy.

Writers are writers, baggage and all.
Writers are among the most engaging and frustrating people I know. We have great affection for one another, but our camaraderie can fray and devolve to feelings of competition or intimidation. I’ve seen members of my group bristle at my response to their work, which I later realize was too blunt. I’ve seen faces go blank when someone offers a minority point of view or a when a comment is delivered like a correction. Now and then, I go home ready to shred my manuscript and sign up for a pottery class. We are not always kind or sensitive to one another. Misdirected lashing out at our internal editors for all the ways they have hobbled our work, if you ask me. Or the false comfort that comes from feeling too much at home (think Thanksgiving dinner). Whatever the reason, I find some sessions are really rough.

Organic is good. More structure might be better.
My current group has been active since 2012. We meet every three weeks at a café for free-wheeling conversation, guided by few rubrics. We share pages by midnight the Monday before our Friday meeting. With our pages, each of us offers framing questions to focus the upcoming discussion on our top writing concerns. We critique in turn and try not to interrupt. Apart from the author’s framing questions, each person takes his or her own approach. It’s all good, but a little loose. We’re considering ways to bring more structure, among them, “lead” presentations, say on opening lines or dialogue, the occasional guest, and going to readings as a group and comparing notes over fortified beverages. They all seem worth a try.

Diversity is a positive.
Whatever weaknesses our group has, we excel in diversity. We are male and female; straight and queer; matriculating, teaching and working for the man; childless and approaching parenthood; married and divorced. We were raised in three different decades and on two continents. We each represent different blends of introvert and extrovert; intellectual and instinctual; politically aware and active. We are published and working on it, each of us writing in multiple forms. To date, we have shared short stories, flash fiction, poetry, film criticism, culture-rant blog postings, two film scripts, one play script in progress and one might-grow-up-to-be-a-novel. Even though I work in only a few of these forms, I have PLENTY to learn about dramatic structure and often find it more visible or instructive in less familiar containers.

Be open, but own your work.
I’m embarrassed to admit I was sideswiped by my comrades’ readiness to invest in—or challenge—my storytelling choices. At times I’ve given their spirited response too much sway. That’s led me to pursue ideas I couldn’t make work and, alternately, give up on ideas that I found more worthwhile than they did. Group has taught me to be open to all criticism offered, but also take responsibility for what I put on the page.

Own your work, but be open.
Occasionally, the group’s response to some choice I’ve made has exposed me as the controlling author who wants readers to share (not stray from) my feelings about a character or plot twist. Group has reminded me that the joy of reading is rooted in participation. That readers engage on their own terms with a writer’s characters/ideas, informed by their own life experience, expectations, passions, demons. All writers can do is extend an invitation.

Your rut might be a potential groove.
It seemed ridiculous when one of my comrades first hit on it, but I’ve come to agree: through changes in setting, characters, plot and form, each of us has a default story we keep telling. In my case, everything boils down to mourning some type of gulf between men and women.

How trite, I thought. Can’t you find a new story? Time get out of your rut! So I tried switching gears. But everything NEW! I came up with struck me as thin, unsatisfying. I felt defeated, lost interest in writing and finally stopped cold. I ramped up my reading and thinking time. I reviewed my notes from the last year of group sessions and looked for echoing comments—I found several.

In time, a decent question surfaced: what if my rut is potentially a groove? What if I got up close and personal with what I know about misplaced trust…betrayal…broken promises? It will take some courage, and might get messy. I’m giving it a try.
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SHARON JOHNSON writes advertising and other propaganda to pay the bills, and short fiction and free verse to breathe. Some of the latter has appeared in Cactus Heart and Floating Bridge Review. You can find her on Twitter: @sharonipov

Comments

  1. Nicholas Belardes says

    Hi Sharon,

    Here’s the one-page handout I give to anyone who comes to my workshop. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but my methods (compiled from studies, my own experiences writing and in working with editors, agents and publishers) have helped students to get published.

    It’s always the students who don’t want to listen, who get defensive, who argue, who tend to stay unpublished and leave the workshop. Also, better to kick someone out who can’t keep the peace, then to have arguments every week that don’t lead to growth. I don’t get paid enough by students to tolerate hate. I used to put up with it. I don’t anymore. Not saying your group gets that way.

    Random Writers Workshop: Techniques of Critique
    Instructor: Nick Belardes

    “The Art of Critique” by Writer’s Voice instructor Carol Dixon (paraphrased):

    The ability to critique well is a skill. It involves the ability to give constructive criticism. In most workshop environments, writers who are very close in skill level usually vary greatly when it comes to critiquing. During critique, it is your duty to listen to fellow writers, not to clarify or defend. If you need to explain your work, it probably isn’t clear enough or needs more work. It is also your role to filter constructive comments from unnecessary or unhelpful ones. The following is a basic guideline for participants to use in beginning to develop good critiquing skills.

    In order to give a constructive critique, you must first realize the purpose of a critique is to help the Writer. It should give the Writer some idea about how his/her work is received. The aim of the critique is not to destroy a work, but to give the Writer some ideas about where the problems are in the piece, as well as which parts work well. Your critique should not be structured to try to convince the Writer to write the story you would write or the one you would like to see written. Your critique should help the writer to best tell the story s/he is writing.

    What to Look for When Critiquing:

    1. What is the voice? Is the author somehow getting in the way of the story?
    2. Does each scene have a discernible beginning, middle and end?
    3. What is the Writer trying to say to you? Is the Writer’s premise true to the story’s logic?
    4. Is the language used authentic? Is it true to time, place, region and background?
    5. Is the writing poetic? Does it have rhythm, does it have a beat?
    6. Is the story dramatic? Does it contain conflict at its essence?
    7. Is the language tension-oriented, energizing? Does it move the story along? Pace?
    8. Are there parts of the story that seem out of place? Not needed?
    9. Is the story easy to follow? Are there places where you drift or seem lost?
    10. What character/situation holds your interest?
    11. Are there places where you feel more information is needed? Too much is given?

    More:

    1. Plot: drives the story through conflict. Is the plot scene-driven? Scenes are made up of narrative and dialogue. Is there an identifiable change in story/character?
    2. The Scene: Setting: imagery, sensory detail. Don’t be vague. Something must happen in a scene that changes the characters or their situations. Torture your protagonist.
    3. Structure: Narrative = cause and effect. Dialogue = reveals characters’ desires (active)
    4. Tension: timing events in scenes for full emotional impact. What’s the hook?
    5. Characters: alive, active, believable, traits, goal-oriented (external conflict/internal conflict).
    6. Point of View: Does it work for the story? Consistent? Too much “head-hopping”?
    7. Themes/Titles: History, sociology, psychology, literature, imagery, language, colors, moods, intellectual thought, religions, creation of emotional impact, etc.
    8. Grammar: Read George Orwell’s Politics of the English Language. Look for poor grammar, a disconnected voice, lack of author’s command over voice and language. Passive vs. active verbs, clichés, weak –ing constructions and was, had, that, this, those, vague filler words.

    Writers are responsible for:

    1. Researching how to write. Be self-driven.
    2. Creating a body of work. Writers write, always (See “Throw Mama From The Train”)
    3. Community-building. It’s more than networking and leads to more career opportunities.

  2. Sharon Johnson says

    Thanks so much, Nick, for sharing your experience leading the Random Writers Workshop and these guidelines. Just in time for my preparation for group this week! Good to have your read and this resource.

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