Watching the Stephen Colbert Pluto youtube video made me think about writers groups. That’s really not as weird as it sounds. New Horizon took nine hours to get to the moon when it took the Apollo missons three days. So it was already booking it. And you should be to. The last thing you want to do is think that you want to write a book and then join a writer’s group. The most important thing that you’re doing as you’re flying your way to meet up with Jupiter where it’s going to be when you get there is to MASTER YOUR VOICE. Some people can do this with constant criticism raining down from multiple people who all at various levels of subconscious want you to write the way they do, but…honestly, do you want to take that crap shoot? What if you come up snake eyes and it kills all joy you’ve ever had in writing? The worst part about asking people to critique your stuff is that the wrong kind of group will tear you down and make no effort to try to build it back up again. Your voice is what is going to sell whatever idea that you have, no matter what genre or world. Nurture and develop it, don’t offer it on an altar of your own futile progress. The harsh, dark, secret reality of writing that no one likes talking about is that most people have to learn how to write.
So, you’ve done it. You’ve made it to where Jupiter is. The most important thing about writing groups is to know when to join them, learn what you can, and then get out if that’s not your final destination. New Horizon cut off two years of its travel time by sneaking up behind Jupiter, falling into its orbit, pick up the planetary speed as it was winging itself in the direction New Horizon wanted to go, and then get out when it was again where it needed to be but travelling so much faster than it had been on its approach.
So, do that with the writing group. Maybe not the sneaking up behind, start with an introduction and sit in on a couple sessions so that you know that this group is critique based, it’s publishing oriented (if you are too) and that the sacrificed manuscripts don’t just talk about what the author did wrong, but what they did right and most importantly, suggestions on how to fix it. Those suggestions are probably going to be wrong for a whole bunch of reasons, but the most important part is that they’re suggesting how to build the story back up.
Plan your exit. The problem with critique groups is that the vast majority of them are great for short work and terrible for long. You’re not going to be able, nor should you want, to have 20 people critique your first draft of your 27 chapter novel over 27 months. A) that’s too many people and it burns out new eyes for the new draft. B) That’s over two years. People are going to go and come and miss months and join and leave and that group two years on are not going to be the same ones you started with. Your first draft is not your final draft, and if anyone is doing line edits, they’re telling you what silverware to put in your cutlery drawer when you don’t know where your kitchen is going on. First drafts need to focus on the skeleton, and that means a few people making a first/overall impressions with it. You’ll be able to find and network with these people in the writing group. Writing is all about karma; when you find the people in the group you would cross hot coals to get your book critiqued by, don’t ask them to critique your book. Ask to critique theirs. I learned more from critiquing unpublished books than I ever had through any other means, and yet still people only critique to be critiqued and they fail to learn. WE ALL MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES. If you see ten books all not putting the action on the page and it bugs you to tears, but you don’t put the action on your page for reasons, reasons, reasons, don’t you think that that will bug other people the same way it bugs you? Your reasons reasons reasons are the exact same reasons the other person learned, but if it didn’t work for them, and you’re not a golden child whose words tumble out like pearls for thundering praise, it’s probably not working for you too, bud. #sorrynotsorry.
So when do you leave? When you’ve learned all you can. When you’re starting to sell and your deadlines just don’t permit you to wait for people to get back to you. When people give you critiques that you know are false and just do not have the time to explain the wheres and whys. If you find a good group that you like the people in, the good news is you don’t have to physically leave the space while leaving the writing group’s orbit, you can still be a contributing member of the group, but your ship is still sailing onward.
Being a writer isn’t a destination, it’s an amount of fuel in your tanks. Use it the best you can. If New Horizons were coming back to earth, it could have used Jupiter’s orbit to throw on the brakes or stop entirely, just depending on how it took up its orbit. It’s not just that some writing groups do not help people, it’s that they actively hurt writers. If a newbie taking his very first baby to a pro-angled writing group will be torn to shreds like a motherless zebra to a pack of starving lions, you do not want to join that group. If it’s a cult of personality, you don’t want to join that group. If they have different emphasis, they’re self-publishing, you want to go another way, don’t join. Pick your destination before join and be travelling at your top speed when you get to where the group is.