The Writers’ Group from Hell

red-flagIf you want to make it as a writer, there are tons of tips and tricks out there that will help you succeed, and many things that others will argue are a necessity for improving and strengthening your craft. An in-person writers’ group is one of those things. When you work on writing with others, you can help each other improve and get helpful critiques and hints from other authors that you can apply to your own writing. Or so I thought. I had a dalliance with a writers’ group a couple years ago that turned into a nightmare–detrimental to my writing and, I believe, to the writing of the other members. I’ll recount my tale of woe below, now that it’s been long enough that I can look back on it with some degree of objectivity. Keep this in mind as you consider your own writers’ groups so that you don’t stray down the same trail!

My husband and I moved to a new state a couple years ago. I’d been looking forward to getting more involved with the community since I had been a recluse at our last home, and we’d barely found an apartment when–ta da!–I’d gotten invited to a writers’ group. Yeah, I was excited. I hadn’t been a part of any in-person group of writers since college. This would be great. I couldn’t wait to pull out some of my projects and get to work! On top of that, many of these writers were published. They knew the magic steps that I could take for my own writing down traditional venues. How to land agents! How to win prizes!

I shouldn’t have hoped for much. This is a small town, after all. And it doesn’t take much to be a “published” author. I actually got my first red flag before even attending. Apparently, it wasn’t the kind of group where I’d need to print out and pass around samples. I figured that we would probably simply orally discuss the work of the night. Then I started attending, with my husband.

I really, really wanted to like it. A group like that was what I’d been hoping for! But they never seemed to have a problem with my works-in-progress. As in, every time I read, I would get praise and applause showered on me as if I were a celebrity author. I know I’m not that good. There are plenty of reviews on Amazon who can vouch for my flaws, and I can only hope to master more of my craft over time and effort. But this group never had any problems at all. Actually, they didn’t seem to have problems with anyone‘s writing. Every week, everyone would go around and read a sample, applaud everyone else, and go out to eat in the end. It wasn’t useful. I wasn’t feeling challenged or pushed.

Then it got worse. My husband had been reading recent works of his and met with the usual praises and adoration week after week. One week we tried an experiment. He read something he had written in high school, something old and stale and fan-fiction-ish. They loved it just as much as his recent works, if not more. There was a problem with this. I wasn’t sure at this point if I even wanted to attend. So we did one final experiment. Warning: what I am about to say is pretty disturbing from a literary standpoint. Prepare to cringe.

We knew it was time to shake the system. No one in the group was going anywhere, and most of the “published” people had only been featured decades ago. It was simple enough. One week, we decided to critique one of the leaders (I’ll call him Doug). It was a decent critique, helpful but not demeaning. Doug had some over-used words in his draft, and we weren’t connecting to one of the characters. Only a few tweaks that could happen in a later draft.

Silence. Around the room. Glares. Fury, embarrassment. Afterward, another group leader came up to us and said that Doug didn’t request his works be critiqued. Doug had taken up a half hour of every single night with his writing–and he hadn’t even wanted a critique.

This was a mutual fan club, not a writers’ group. We never went back, and I will think twice before sharing critiques with another writer I meet in person. Moral of the story: no critiques means no improvements. Writers’ groups are not supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to bring out tears–and from those tears, better writing. I’ve met with some much stricter people over Scribophile who have really helped me improve. And I’m less afraid of reading bad reviews. I need to know my weaknesses if I want to survive.

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