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Writing Groups, Writing Clubs, and Writing Seminars



I've been asked about "writing groups" so often that perhaps it's time to address the subject.

My feelings about "writing groups" are predicated on my background and my concern for fellow writers who are trying to establish themselves beyond amateur status. I've sat in on more than a few of these groups which only reinforces my concerns especially since I've also done my fair share of teaching in schools and colleges.

I will go this far: writing is a very solitary occupation and I fully understand why people who attempt it have an often desperate need to seek out sounding boards. I'm not just convinced that such venues as "writing groups" or "clubs" or "seminars" are the correct and proper sounding boards since, in actuality, one is dealing with other competitors for a shot in a very small niche and one must therefore question the honesty and sincerity of whatever criticisms arise within such gatherings.

Further, I don't understand how these groups, more often than not, claim that getting together is that overused buzz term: "networking". To me, networking is achieving a professional contact. Are there editors or publishers or agents or producers who are members of these writing groups? No. So how exactly does this qualify as networking? If a fellow member is lucky enough to get published, he or she hardly has the capability of getting another member published because that is not how the system works.

It always reminds me of the prevailing and maddening fad in Hollywood in which someone is going to "take" a meeting. They never have meetings, they take them. Where they take them, I have no idea because more often than not "taking a meeting" involves being seen going into the office of someone important or being seen having lunch with someone important. The "being seen" is usually the most essential part because unless both the people involved have track records, nothing usually comes of the "meeting". Spinning wheels like that drives me crazy. I want and need an end result not some vagueness. But people feed off and exist on such things. I don't pretend to understand it.

I think that writing groups, no matter how well-intentioned, enter into that territory of vagueness  with the "being seen" element attached. Writing is not fueled by vagueness or validated by publicly attending a group.

Then there's the so-called exercises these groups purport. Tricks to overcome writer's block. Tricks to get in the mood. Tricks to unclutter your mind. Tricks to enable a "free flow of creativity". I'm old-school. I establish a premise, I sit down, and I write. Then I edit. Then I write some more until I know I'm finished. Writing may be a talent or a calling or a need for expression but it's also a job. Do it. Above all, writing is a discipline.

A pet peeve of mine is that these groups state the obvious in some form of decrees or commandments. One constant instruction seems to be that dialogue should sound the way people actually speak. Well, this is not only something which should have been taught by the time each and every member got to high school English class (if not earlier) but it should be realized by anyone and everyone who reads books. It astounds me that such a thing has to be told to any aspiring writer or that any "group" or "club" feels the need to state it. They would be better served to stress grammar and punctuation both of which have fallen embarrassingly by the wayside.

Then, inevitably, at some point, one of the so-called exercises in these groups is for one person to write a paragraph and another person to write the follow-up paragraph and a third person to write the third paragraph and by the time the group is finished, "let's take a look at the story we've got!" As a gimmick to fill class time in eighth-grade English when a teacher has no lesson plan for that day, that's gosh-darn swell but what does any of it prove to adults or bring to adult writing skills? It's a time-waster. It's a momentary "let's feel good about ourselves" game. Other than working on a variety show or certain forms of situation comedy, group writing is the death knell of any project so why undertake such a waste of time? To demonstrate that one person may be more immediately clever than another? Now there's something which will surely squelch the creativity of practically everyone in the room.

To that end we have, what I consider, the worst aspect of these groups: the sharing of works-in-progress. I've been a working member of the arts community for most of my life. Because of that, I also believe that therapy is a good thing—especially because members of the arts community face more constant rejection than in any other field. But I think therapy is a very personal, one-on-one undertaking with a credentialed licensed professional and I, personally, have never thought group therapy to be effective because it can lead to embarrassment which is counterproductive in such vulnerable situations. In exactly the same way, I view "writing groups" or "writing clubs" or "writing seminars" which employ such group therapy methods of reading works-in-progress aloud to all the other members as counterproductive. Unless your peers are professionals—published writers, editors, publishers, agents—they really aren't in any position to judge or even help and they may very well hurt. At best, judging is still perception based on personal likes or dislikes and from professionals it is also dictated by whichever markets they can tap. Unless a proposed work is unreadable and riddled with a lack of grammar and story-sense, it doesn't always mean that the judgement is valid even if the judgement comes from a pro.

Of course, there is always someone in charge who will claim that since a writer has to face the public sooner or later, such sharing of works-in-progress helps in tempering but I will tell you from experience that that is only true of an established writer. Unjustified and non-professional criticism can stop any novice dead. Is that really what such organizations should do? If members need help, set up a mentor program one-on-one with a professional; not an amateur group exchange.

I've always considered that the whole concept of "writing clubs" or "writing groups" or "writing seminars" or "writing workshops" or anything similar boils down to someone other than the writers making something off these gatherings. In the case of seminars and workshops, it is usually money. I object to that because the end results are dubious (I have the same objection to college courses which do not enhance one's major—especially in preparation for the outside world). It is also the very reason why my agent will not handle "how to" writing books. When it comes to clubs and groups, organizing is usually done altruistically for a feeling of helpfulness and accomplishment. Unfortunately, in some cases, it is also to feed the head person's ego. My problem isn't with either type of leader (altruist or egotist) but with the over-reaching scope of the groups they set up. The truth is that one can learn the fundamentals of any art form but one does not always have the innate talent to pursue or succeed at that art form. Learning dance steps doesn't mean that you are blessed with rhythm or showmanship. I find giving false hope quite objectionable because it can hurt unsuspecting people—and when those people are friends and/or neighbors as in a "writing club", criticism of one another's work can also create unnecessary friction in very close quarters. I simply don't think that is fair or kind or wise.

If you want to have a group which discusses new trends, possible markets, from what perspective to tackle a story, plot problems, legalities, and host guest speakers to share their professional experience and work habits (with the proviso that no member descends upon such a speaker with his or her manuscript for consideration) that is all valuable and then I'm all for it—but only within those parameters.

One last thing for serious consideration...

Until recently, writing groups were dormant—a thing of the past. In the first three-quarters of the last century, everyone was out to write "the great American novel". But such undertakings were not for the squeamish since they involved icky things like typewriters and paper, erasers and/or correction fluid. What's more, it took stamina to try and get publishers to even read a manuscript by an unknown. It was just plain hard work. Would-be writers then switched gears and sought to tackle "the great American screenplay". After all, screenplays have less words and use less paper and Hollywood is so much more glamourous. But glamour aside, it was even more difficult for unknowns to get scripts read by movie producers. Now suddenly there is a boom in e-books. No typewriters. No paper. No erasers or correction fluid. Everything on a computer screen looks so nice and neat and ready to make that leap to a wide audience. It's a new bandwagon on which to hitch a ride. Writing workshops and seminars are suddenly back in vogue because of the ease in which e-books can be produced by just about anyone and everyone. But what the organizers never really detail to attendees of such gatherings is that unless an author has a track record in actual print or unless the author is a known expert on a non-fiction subject, e-books are still not considered entirely legitimate in the exact same way that direct-to-dvd movies are not considered worthy fare.


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