Monday, December 17, 2007

When to Let Go of Your Writing Group

I recently stopped going to a fiction writing group in my town. There was no big blowout; everyone was always civil and pleasant. But still, I felt I just wasn't getting what I wanted out of it. Finding a community is an important part of succeeding as a writer, but it's got to be the right community. If you're not getting what you want out of your writing group, it may be time to move on. Here are a few signs that should let you know when to let go.

Everyone's extremely negative. This one's the most obvious--if your group is full of people who just rip each other's manuscripts apart without much thought to constructive criticism, you need to get out of there. No art can thrive in a hostile environment, and if you leave the group feeling like you never want to show your writing attempts to anyone ever again, the group is just too tough to help you. Even if your draft needs a lot of work, the people in your group should always offer criticism that's meant to help you out--not tear you down. And no matter what shape your manuscript is in, your group menbers should always have something positive to say.

Everyone's extremely positive. Then again, too much positivity can be just as damaging. It can lead you to be blind to your weak points, and it doesn't teach you anything. It feels good to get praise--but it doesn't help you improve much as a writer. Next time you're in your group, listen to what other participants say about the work there. If people heap praise on work that seems like it could use some improvement, this may not be the right group for you.

The other members aren't on your level. Are you the star of the writing group? If so, this group of people may not be challenging you enough. And if you're the scapegoat, your confidence may be suffering as well as your manuscripts. Feeling like the worst writer in the group can be draining, but at least you might be learning--if the other group members are supportive and focused on helping you improve. But being the star is probably worse, because you aren't learning much at all. For most people, the best group is comprised of people within the same ability range.

Nobody is familiar with your genre. Poets, memoirists, genre fiction writers, literary fiction writers, short story writers--all are doing different things with their writing, and a devotee of one genre may not understand all the issues faced by a writer in another. If the other people in your group are versatile enough to comment well on a range of genres, this may not be a problem. But if the people in your group don't understand or just plain don't like or approve of your genre--this often happens when literary and genre fiction writers meet--you may be in trouble. It's often best to work with like-minded people who understand your writing market.

It's the wrong time in your writing process. The main reason I left my last writing group was because it was just the wrong time for me. I was in the middle of a first draft. Things were constantly in flux. I was experimenting with character and plot. I thought that feedback would help me along the way, but I soon found that it only confused me more. I realized that I have to work out the kinks in the rough draft alone--then I can show it to others.

You're putting in more work than you can handle. A writing group is a lot of work. In addition to keeping up with your own writing, you have to read and make insightful comments on others' work. This was another reason I left my group--every member would hand in a thirty-page chapter, often only days before the meeting was set to take place, and I found I was just spending more time than I wanted in critiquing others' work. If it starts to get overwhelming, you may need to take a breather.

You don't feel inspired. The ultimate purpose of any writing group is to inspire you to keep going. If your group is making you feel like you never want to write again, it's not helping. Find a group that makes you feel great about your writing--but also points out where you can improve.

Not every writing group is created equally. If you're putting in more than you're getting out of it, or if you don't feel inspired to write more after every meeting, it may be time to let your writing group go.

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