Jeff’s Pep Talk: Finding the Right Writing GroupPosted: November 6, 2019
Finding the Right Writing Group
Every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
A good writing group is something of a rarity. Not because there aren’t hordes of talented writers out there looking to provide and receive feedback in a friendly, encouraging environment, but because finding a writing group that complements your own experience and skill level can be tricky.
I’ve belonged to several writing groups, and I’ve even backed out of a couple because I could tell they wouldn’t be a good fit. It’s good to have a group, especially if you’re just starting out. The feedback provided by peers can be enormously conducive to leapfrogging higher and higher up the skill chain. Sort of like leveling up in a role-playing game. Forgive me for mixing metaphors, but my level ten warlock leapfrogger was once a paltry and underpowered level one.
A lot of us come from a liberal arts background, so we’re familiar with what a writing group entails. Many humanities majors find college-level workshops and seminars frustrating, because the feedback offered can vary so wildly from asinine to inspired to well-meaning yet unhelpful. Like I said, skill level is important. One of the first criterions for finding a group that fits is understanding you won’t get much out of peers who’re more or less skilled than you are. It may sound kind of cold, but don’t join a group of newbies if you aren’t one. You’ll have to be honest with yourself here. It just won’t do you any good if you can’t incorporate someone’s feedback because it’s either too advanced or too basic.
Another major criterion for finding a good group is to meet with people who have similar tastes and interests. Probably not going to help much to show your young adult romance novel to a bunch of hardcore military sci-fi buffs. Well, not necessarily. It’s not so much that folks who’re interested in other genres can’t help you. It’s just that they’re not as likely to know the ins and outs of what you do, and that can be problematic if they encourage you to change elements of your stories that are perfectly fine and otherwise perfectly saleable.
Internet writing groups can be a great place to start. My first major group out of college was an online science fiction forum. I shoveled a hell of a lot of stories through that place, and the feedback I received proved enormously helpful. The other writers there preferred a different strain of speculative fiction than I did, but my style and theirs were close enough it didn’t matter in the long run. Plus, I got to develop my voice in a dynamic environment, exacting, demanding, yet also encouraging. That’s kind of the sweet spot.
Finding an online group is as easy as a Google search. For the more agoraphobic amongst you, it doesn’t even require you to leave the house, but it stands to reason, meeting people face-to-face is almost always the preferred method. There’s likely to be some local writing groups in your area, especially if you live in the city. Just Google it; see what’s out there. Might take some trial and error, but if you can find a workshop environment you like, you might even be able to sniff out a publishing opportunity or two. Plus you get to socialize with other writers. We’re a friendly bunch, once you get to know us. Just don’t feed the horror guys. They’ve got something nasty growing in their guts.
Don’t forget, too, that there are plenty of great, more-or-less reasonably priced national workshops. Thousands of people pour into conferences, cons, and other smaller workshops every year, and participating in them can be pretty exciting. The basic point is that although you write in a vacuum, your work is ultimately meaningless if you can’t see its flaws and acquire the ability to revise appropriately and then publish it. And you want to get published, right? Right.
Last but not least, you could always go for an MFA. Speaking of seriously expensive, how about those Major of Fine Arts degrees, huh? I’m kidding (not at all kidding). I’m an MFA guy, so I know how valuable a good academic writing program can be. One thing of note, MFAs tend to focus on literary fiction, which means you’ll have to look around a bit if you’re more into the popular stuff. I come from such a place, however. I know from whence I speak.
MFA degrees are pricey, but the upshot is once you’ve got that nice shiny diploma, you can teach. Now that may either floor you or make you queasy. Not everyone is built for academia, after all. Still, to have the option, and to have acquired expertise along the way, it’s a valuable proposition, no?
The basic truth is that writers are pretty secluded creatures most of the time, and it can be of enormous benefit to get out into the world and exchange words and ideas with like-minded people. We never really grow out of the need for it, either. Sure, publishing may become easier the longer you do it, but the writing itself most assuredly won’t. And like I said, it’s difficult to see the flaws in our own work. Think like a muscle. Resistance make stronger.
And don’t be afraid if you’ve never been a part of something like this before. One of the biggest crimes I can think of in the world of art is talented people keeping that talent to themselves. They could be wonderful, masterful. Who’d ever know? You’ve got to start somewhere. Plus, having a good group often gives you that little kick in the ass you need to keep your nose to the grindstone. That’s never a bad thing. Gentle kicks in the ass, now. Remember, it’s a sensitive area.
Regardless of what road you travel by, keep working through the long months and years and eventually you’ll find the right alchemical reaction to become the writer you want to become. Just know that a good group can help you make the transition in half the time. Think long and hard about maintaining your personal writing bubble indefinitely. Good art does not, should not, and never will exist in a vacuum. I’ll stake my claim on that one.
Show people what you can do. Otherwise, all your significant, burgeoning ability is akin to a world-class meal prepared for four yet fed to the dog. Yeah, the dog’s happy, but he’s not likely to praise you for your exceptional flavors. Until next month, everyone. Pep talk over. Now go out there and be some doggy!
. . . body. Go out there and be somebody. Sorry.
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