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We're starting a new group this weekend and I'm very excited. We've all taken workshops from Christina Baldwin so we'll be referencing some of her work (highly recommend Storycatcher and Life's Companion). We all know each other pretty well, so we probably won't be contending with the intimidation factor that some groups can bring out (in me!). I think it will be a pretty organic process.
I've been part of writing groups in the past - primarily songwriting groups - and find that it really gives me good incentive to write so I'll have something to share with the group. A couple of my best songs were written just hours before the group met.
Share some of your experiences with creative groups (positive or negative!).
I will share some specific experiences later, after others have chimed in.
The writing groups I've worked with have been tremendously important to my growth as a writer. I've had good feedback on my work that has helped me improve it, but I think it's been even more important to be forced to read work in the early draft stage by other writers and make a serious effort to figure out what didn't work for me as a reader and why, as well as what did work and why. It's all too easy to dismiss criticism of one's own work, but when we read boring or confusing passages in someone else's work, we know they're not working, and it makes me feel more humble about accepting criticism of my own work.
The best writing groups criticize the work, not the writer, and recognize that readers vary in what they like to read. Groups become counter-productive if readers expect writers to adopt their suggestions. I think this may be the most destructive dynamic that can arise in a writing group. I once worked with a group in which one member became overly involved with my project and very insistent about changes she wanted me to make which didn't fit my goals for the work.
On the other hand, writers should not react angrily if they think a particular criticism is off-base. Even when a criticism or suggestion doesn't prove useful, writers need to recognize that readers can only offer their own reactions to the work, not the reactions another reader with different literary preferences might have. Quite often, though, I've found that a criticism or suggestion that struck me as wrong on first hearing it, actually turned out to be quite helpful after I had a chance to reflect on it.
Some groups adopt a rule that writers are not allowed to respond to criticism, because it's all too easy for a discussion to degenerate into an argument between a writer defending his or her draft and a reader insisting ever more strongly on his or her criticism (or else giving in and no longer offering criticism). I've never worked with a group that succeeded in enforcing a rule like this, though. I do think it's useful for writers to ask for more explanation or clarification about a criticism they don't completely understand. But it's a good policy, I think, for writers to keep reminding themselves just to listen instead of offering defenses.
From what I understand, most of the participants in this group are published (I've not published anything in a long time) and wonder if that matters so much.
Also, have you found that it matters if the participants work in the same (or similar) form, genre, etc.?
There were five of us last semester and seven this semester, and I love having it only be Plan-level writers - I've taken other writing workshop classes and you always get a student or two who couldn't construct a story to save their ass.
The only problem I have with it is, we've got this one guy in the class who's working on a novel. And it's pretty much the worst thing I've ever read, and every other week he turns in thirty, fourty pages of it and he never proofreads. It's really funny though because he's got the plot down but can't write well, and I'm always shaky on plot but do write well, and I can't help but wonder what would happen if we teamed up and wrote the damn thing together.
I always worry that I'm too cruel commenting on other people's writing - rather than being too nice to spare their feelings, I'll tell them exactly what I think, even if it's harsh. It's probably quite useful to them but I can't kick the feeling that they all secretly think I'm a bitch.
1. Students are prevented from submitting more than 25-pages of work at any one time. The first story students workshop is always a short-short (under 1000-words). I highly suggest that subsequent stories should be between 5 and 15 pages. Thirty or forty pages is in excess. It tries the patience and the good will of the rest of the members.
2. Students do not correct a person's grammar, spelling, or punctuation. It is not a composition workshop, nor is it a line-editing session. We might make general comments about diction, grammar, wordiness, etc., just enough to suggest that the student really needs to spend more time editing and that the quality of the work is affected by lack of attention to editing.
3. I don't teach a workshop without also assigning several readings. These readings become our shared experience and a way to comment on student work and to explain what we mean. Each story I assign has a "lesson" about writing that I want to stress. When I comment on student work, I refer to the assigned stories often.
4. We can all avoid seeming to be "cruel" if we have good examples to back ourselves up. So, instead of saying, "You're too wordy," you can say, "I'd suggest that you take another look at Raymond Carver's story, 'Cathedral.' Here is an example from Carver's story (then quote from the story). Do you see how powerful that is? How might you convert some of these bloated sentences into a form that is more sleek, poignant, powerful, and effective"?
If you've published in the past, villandry, your skill level is probably pretty high, even if you haven't published lately. Keep in mind that even people whose published work is very fine will be showing unfinished drafts. I don't think anyone whose work is any good ever reaches a point where they feel totally confident about their writing. (The supremely confident types, in my experience, usually write impenetrable prose that may be deeply meaningful to them, but not to readers.)
I think sometimes it matters whether the participants work in the same genre and sometimes it doesn't. Someone who reads and writes exclusively in one genre (for example, sensitive literary works) might not be very good at critiquing something in a very different genre (for example, thrillers). But someone who reads and enjoys a variety of genres can be good at critiquing a wide variety of work, even if he/she only writes in one particular genre.
It's more important, I think, that the participants all enjoy and respect the type of work each member aspires to write (whether or not they've reached the skill-level they aspire to - which none of us has, of course, however good we might be). Someone who despises romance novels really can't usefully critique the manuscript of someone who aspires to write a good romance novel, and someone who thinks literary writing is unutterably boring can't useful critique a literary manuscript.
Ambushed, you should not, I repeat, not! team up with this guy. And people who don't proofread are not entitled to have their critique groups serve as proofreaders. People get paid for proofreading, and should, because it is a horribly tedious job. Have you read Anson Dibell's book on plot, called, "Plot"? It demystified plotting for me, and I discovered it was not as difficult as I had always thought it was. Not easy, necessarily, but not as difficult as I had thought. And it's my opinion that literary novels do, contrary to popular opinion, have plots, but they are constructed of different types of events - more often inner events involving personal growth, rather than outer events involving activities.
I think in my writing, plot is secondary to characters. The reason I write is because there are all these people in my head who want to get out, and they have lives, and when I write a story, I'm showing you a bit of their lives, the part that wants to get out. So maybe nothing important happens. Maybe there is no plot. But it's important that the story gets out, even if it's just a day in the life of an extremely boring character. It's plot enough for me.
Also, read that young man's stories WITHOUT a writing utensil in your hand. You are wasting your precious energy. Read quickly to get a gist of the story and address global concerns only. I know what you mean about "needing" to correct his work, but you will get used to ignoring these specifics; I am speaking as one who knows.
Every writer must learn to use words precisely and accurately. This is the essential task of a writer, becoming adept with the basic tools of the trade. We have to fall in love with words, and with the way we can put them together to create all the effects a page of writing can create. Someone who is persistently sloppy in the use of words is being disrespectful to the whole writing process (as well as to his readers).
Obviously, different characters require different styles of grammatical or ungrammatical usage, but part of having respect for words is also to understand how to correctly and consistently use a variant style of dialogue or narrative for the characters and settings it's appropriate for.