So You Want to Join a Writing Group Part IV: Walk a Mile in My Shoes
We all know what we like to read. Some people gravitate toward literary fiction, while others dig mysteries. That guy over there may not care, as long as he’s reading a good, compelling story. Your girlfriend might be a romance nut, and you might be into steampunk, cyberpunk, or biopunk. I may prefer books with lots of pretty pictures and small words.
Similarly, most writers know what they want to write. Sure, they can cross genres and experiment, but even then, they know their target audiences, whether they’re readers of sci-fi, poetry, or historical fiction. It’s important to consider these inclinations when joining a writing group. Sure, you might luck out and find people who’re writing the same thing as you. In that case, you can rest assured that your fellow members are reading your work as experienced consumers of that genre. They know the score, and they can give you solid advice.
This kind of homogeneous grouping may seem ideal, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, being among writers with identical goals and interests can create an echo chamber in which everyone ends up producing the same thing. Folks can get so hung up on genre rules and requirements that they lose sight of interesting, unique writing. If your goal is to make lots of money producing a genre work that blends in with its predecessors, this might be the best method for you. The drawback is that it may not help you improve overall as a writer.
Alternatively, you could end up in another common scenario, with a group of people with different writing backgrounds and interests. Let’s say two people are writing historical fiction, one is working on a collection of military short stories, another is writing a romance novel about horse trainers who elope to Mexico, and you’re starting on a seven-part epic space opera series inspired by the War of 1812. Things could go poorly. Imagine this unhelpful conversation taking place in that workshop:
Writer One: “I like your story, but I think it could use more, I don’t know…”
Writer Two: “Go on.”
Writer One: “Well, maybe it’d be better if it had spaceships. Or lasers.”
Writer Two: “It’s historical fiction about the fourteenth century. They didn’t have spaceships. Or lasers.”
Writer One: “Well, okay, not that we know of. It needs more humor, though. It’s too serious.”
Writer Two: “It’s about the bubonic plague.”
Writer One: “Have you considered including twins? Or some kind of prophecy?”
And so on, until Writer Two rightly punches Writer One square in the nose. Or, since he’s a writer and probably not Ernest Hemingway, he just settles for breaking the other guy’s pencil.
Is this the way things always happen? Of course not, but it does illustrate an important point, that we shouldn’t let our own preferences or inclinations rule the way we give advice. What we should do in situations like this is think about the author’s purpose and the audience she’s trying to reach, consider those things, and base our criticism on that understanding. We need to walk a mile in their writing shoes.
For instance, it wouldn’t be fair of me to criticize the novel The Silence of the Lambs for not being hilarious. Why? Because Thomas Harris didn’t set out to write a comedy. His purpose was to create a thrilling, engrossing, and creepy novel, and he did a superb job. I can bemoan the fact that it isn’t funny until I draw my last gasp of air, but all I’m doing is expressing my personal preference, saying, in essence, “I didn’t like the book because it wasn’t funny.” Am I correct? Well, I’m as correct as someone can be in such a subjective situation. Does my criticism matter? Not to the guy who wrote The Silence of the Lambs. He did just fine.
The most important thing to do in any writing group is ensure you know what your group members are attempting. If they’re writing science fiction, keep that in mind, and if you haven’t already, maybe even accomplish a bit of reading in that genre. If they’re trying to be funny, be on the lookout for effective humor and try to view it from a critical perspective. Are they attempting existential comedy, or are they relying on lots of bodily functions to garner laughs? Does their strategy seem to be working? Showing that kind of initiative is a good way to make a friend, for one thing. It also gives you additional experience as a reader, and that is always a good thing.
Another option is to be up front about your inexperience in a genre and use that to frame your criticism. It’s often helpful to say something like “I’m not a science fiction reader, but this thing struck me about your story. You might want to consider whether your audience would have the same reaction. If you don’t think they would, never mind.” Even if you’re not an expert in the genre—and even, in some cases, because you aren’t an expert—that kind of honest feedback can be invaluable.
Some of the best advice I’ve received in workshops has come from people with varied reading interests, folks who were able to respect what I was doing without having similar interests. At times, I’ve even felt they gave me better feedback because of their outsider’s perspective. I like to think their experience with my advice was just as positive.
In the end, there’s still a chance you’ll come across someone who disparages your chosen genre, gazing down the length of the workshop table at you with a look that says “Oh, you’re one of those kinds of writers.” Don’t let it ruin your entire experience, though. Even if it does happen, you can still make the best of your situation and benefit from other people’s critiques. That’s the reason you showed up in the first place, remember?
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One of the most important and beneficial things an artist can do is join a community with others who are doing similar things. Writing groups aren’t right for all writers, and finding the perfect fit can be a difficult process, but the potential rewards are well worth the effort. This piece is one of a five-part series on the ins and outs of navigating writing groups.