Getting the Best from Your Writer's Group
It's good to work with others!
Here's why you may want to join a writer's group.
Working with other writers can really help!
Being an author is a solitary business. No matter how you do it, the job involves spending hours on your own getting the words down on the page. A writer's group can make a huge difference. An activity which can be very isolating actually introduces you to other people with the same interests and problems. But not everyone really benefits from membership. There are ways in which it can stifle your creativity and kill your ambition. It takes a little care to avoid this.
To start with, be clear on what you need from the group. If you are an absolute newbie, you probably want encouragement to get started. If you've been writing for a while, you may need something to help you out of a rut. Perhaps you are close to publication and you just need a little extra polish to get there. People can help you much more if they know what help you need. A good group will have authors with a variety of different skills.
The main thing is, be prepared to give out advice and encouragement freely. Don't allow your group to divide up into amateurs and near professionals. It may be true that some of the group doesn't get your work. You may also not be able to relate to some of them. Just remain constructive, positive, and encouraging. They may be doing the same back to you.
Some people worry that they are just using their group for encouragement, and you can see how that might happen. You write well, but somehow your work never gets published. On the other hand, your group really likes what you produce and is very complimentary about it. Is it right to turn up once a month to have your ego stroked?
Yes, of course it is—if that's what keeps you writing! Going along to be sociable and to collect some encouragement is perfectly fine. It sounds a bit "unprofessional," but then professionals do exactly the same thing. They have plenty of people to motivate them. Their agent. Their publisher. Fans. It doesn't really matter what gets you to produce your best work, as long as you produce it.
The social side is important for another reason, too: finding individuals that can be of specific help. The average group will have people at many different stages of their careers, from shy newbies to very experienced authors. Not everyone can help you, they may lack the experience or just don't write the things that you do. So it pays to talk specifically to the people who can. Maybe two of you in the group write science fiction—why not get the other person to give you more in-depth analysis of your work? The poet may try to help, the romantic novelist and the teenage emo could be worth listening to, I guess, but you are much more likely to get useful feedback from someone more in tune with your work. There's absolutely no harm in building up those particular links.
The only downside of writer's groups is that they can become an end in themselves. The same way that writing courses can actually stop people writing because they show you what you still have to learn, not what you need to know. It's tough to stand up and face rejection, to submit again and again knowing that you will hear "thank your letting us see your work, but..." So it can become very tempting to stay within the cosy confines of your friendly group. You may never see print, but once a month, people tell you how great you are.
The best way of avoiding this is to encourage others to grow. Share leads and build a climate of ambition where everyone is trying to reach an audience. In other words, if you are worried about becoming a big fish in a little pond, have a go at making the pond bigger for everyone.
You are probably wondering if I attend a group myself? The answer is yes. Once a month I head out to a pub by the sea and share my work with other authors. I always show them what I'm working on and gauge their response. Yes, some of them get me more than others do, but I respect them all for their individual skills and think about what they have to say. And yes, there are a few people there who are able to help me more than others, and I work with them a little more closely. Has it helped me? Yes. I also hope that I've been able to give some of them the same support and encouragement they have offered me. Because at the end of the day, it's about what you contribute, not what you get. That's really what makes for a good group.