Friday, January 29, 2016

Is Your Writing Group Too Nice?

I've been part of a writing group for over a year now with a terrific bunch of writers and it's been a great asset to my writing life. We share our work, talk about the publishing business, books we're reading, chat about our lives and laugh. We offer suggestions and encouragement. Our group is a safe, comfortable place to explore our work. We know that when we share a piece of writing, it will be treated with fairness and respect. We give each other slack. We are each other's biggest fans.

Our writing group is a vastly different experience than what you'll find in most college workshops, where a collection of not-necessarily like-minded souls are thrown together. Sure, you'll find a few kind people here and there, but also a few sticklers, a curmudgeon, that one person who 'doesn't get' your work, and a competitive type or two who are more interested in their own talent than anyone else's. Even with careful ground rules in place, workshops can be a little intimidating--and that's actually a good thing. If you know your work is going to be met with a critical eye, you're more likely to try harder. A tough workshop is excellent preparation for the larger, even more critical world you'll face when you're published.

I was thinking about the difference between my cozy little writing group and a true workshop after receiving e-mails from two of our group members who were apologizing for not having anything to share for our upcoming meeting. At first, we'd all been great about keeping to our deadlines, but little by little our collective discipline was starting to erode. All it took was one person saying they weren't going to be able to make deadline and suddenly we all relaxed. I was probably the worst offender of all, not submitting work for months because I was editing my novel. It occurred to me that the reason why we all joined the group was to write more and to be held accountable for it. Instead, we were enabling a lack of discipline. We were being too nice to each other. I decided it was time for us to buckle down and I was going to be the meanie to say something.

I was a little nervous about sharing my thoughts. By bringing this problem to the fore I, too, would no longer have a free pass. But it had to be done. Overall, the other group members seemed to take it well and everyone agreed that we needed to buckle down.

To soften the blow, we changed our rules a bit. Instead of submitting our work every other month we changed our deadlines to every three months--giving us all a little built-in leeway. If we were unable to generate something new or didn't have a re-write to share, then we had to write a piece using a prompt. One of our members distributed a list of some interesting prompts she found on the internet.

It was settled. No excuses. No more missed deadlines.

If you're in a self-run writing group, I recommend an annual assessment of how the group is functioning and then making adjustments accordingly. Don't be afraid to set goals for your group. On a whim I threw out a challenge to everyone--by the end of the year, we all had to submit a piece of writing to a journal or a magazine. The piece doesn't have to be perfect--we just have to get over our initial anxieties about trying to get published and start getting into the habit of regularly submitting our work.

What challenges does your writing group face? How do you overcome those challenges?

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