Writers Groups And How To Use Them

You'll find writers' groups everywhere. Writers come together like geese. It's part of their natures. There are basically three kinds of writers' groups: puff, literary, and destructive.

A puff group is fun to belong to. Whenever anyone reads a work, the criticism goes like this: "I loved the image of the flower growing up through the swimming pool. I loved every one of your characters more than I love my mother. Oh yes, and the green tortoise on the tie was a wonderful controlling metaphor. "

This type of group often serves brownies and has a potluck every so often. After your work is read and discussed you will leave feeling like you're ready for the Nobel Prize. It's wonderful. Unfortunately, this type of group has ruined more writers than the McCarthy Committee. Stay for the brownies, bring soda biscuits to the potluck, but do not let them read your work, even if they pay you. You can gain nothing from flattery. It will destroy your determination by making you think your highly flawed first draft is a finished masterpiece.

A literary group is easy to spot. Ask the leader if he likes Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. If he has even read it past the third paragraph, you know you're in a literary group. This type of group will read your work and compare it to the masters. They will say things like "Oh, you should read Smirnoff's Confessions of a Mad Madam." You'll learn more about existentialism and imagists and Freudian allusions than you ever dreamed there was to know. Literary groups serve brie and white wine (the kind that comes in bottles with corks, never the kind that comes with screw-on tops). The cheese and wine are often very good. The criticism is invariably very bad. Knowing that you write like Bertha McFauncy will not help you an iota. The kind of writers you encounter here will be writing "experimental" prose. Why they are experimenting and what exactly the experiment is, most of them won't know.

The destructive groups are the only kind that are truly worthwhile. On your first visit to a destructive group, you'll think you've fallen into a new kind of psychotherapy where the idea is to destroy the writer's ego. You'll hear things like "Hey, come on, punch it up, your characters are acting like a bunch of panty-waists. These guys are supposed to be Marines, not hairdressers!" This is destructive criticism at its best. In some workshops, attacks on the author are allowed. You'll hear things like "You write vapid crap like this 'cause you're just a housewife. Get out in the world!" Or, "This reads like it could have been written by a Republican," and so on. Most destructive criticism groups, however, limit the criticism to the work. They have plenty of fun turning your precious prose into cole slaw. This is good. It's hard to take, but you don't make steel in a hot tub; you make it in a blast furnace.

Okay, at first you'll get mad. Maybe you'll cry. Or get drunk. Bang your head against the wall. But then, if you're prudent, you'll sit down, sort out the criticism, and start asking yourself what the others see that you don't.

You will have to be careful, however. Critics often try to get a writer to write the book they wish they could write. Be sure in your rewrite you are rewriting your book, not someone else's. Ask yourself what can be done to rewrite it to answer your critics without changing your premise. If you're writing a love tragedy, don't let your critics talk you into a happy ending. Be sure there is a consensus in the group. Don't let one or two vociferous members make you think you need rewrite where you don't. Ask the others what they think. If most of your critics agree, you probably will have to rewrite.

Then wait a few days, ponder the criticism, and think what you might do in a rewrite. Discuss it with your critics. Then go at it. Be ruthless in changing what needs to be changed, but do not change a word unless it is your firm conviction that you can make the manuscript better.

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