For the complete list of columns in this series, .
Back when I was in college, one of the best things I ever did was join Xenobia, an sf&f writing group. It was a great experience. I didn’t do much writing back then, but the process of reading, giving critiques, and listening to other people’s comments taught me a lot about both writing and what I value as a reader. For several years, it served as one of my primary social groups. Some of the people I met there have become longtime friends — people I’m still in contact with today.
As a writing group, Xenobia is no more, alas. (It still exists as a kind of email list where people share news and encouragement from time to time.) And I truly regret it, because now that I’m finally trying to get my own creative writing going again, I find that I need both readers to react to my work and people I can bat ideas around with.
This occurred to me again the other evening as I was thinking about the teenage empath in my current YA science fiction novel. I want him to be able to sense other people’s feelings (not their thoughts), but also physical sensations as well, such as pain or lust. I’ve been trying to figure out whether those are two truly separate things (in which case one might conceivably develop into the other), or if physical and emotional sensations can’t really be separated. That’s exactly the type of question we could have had a good discussion about back in Xenobia days. But I don’t really have a place to start that kind of conversation nowadays.
I didn’t feel the lack of a writing group with No Going Back, partly I think because I knew that even without one, I’d be able to find people who would give me good feedback. And I did. Part of that was because of the kind of story it was — people had an intrinsic interest in the subject matter, and were relatively eager to give feedback on a book that was exploring new territory in Mormon fiction. Another part, I think, was because I’d been fairly engaged already in the community of Mormon letters. To some extent, AML, A Motley Vision, et al., were my writing group.
It’s different now. Partly that’s because no one has any community investment in the kinds of stories I’m working on right now. Mostly, though, I think it’s because I’m working in a different genre (YA science fiction). I feel the need to talk to people who read and write the kind of stuff I’m trying to write and get their take both on my writing and on the ideas I’m trying to make work.
Thinking about what kind of a writing group I’d want to be a part of, I find that I’m a bit… picky.
As I indicated above, one of the things I really want is people who have first-hand knowledge of the genre I’m trying to write. It doesn’t necessarily have to be as a writer, but at least as a thoughtful reader. Indeed, in many ways a thoughtful reader might be an even better reviewer than another writer. Unfortunately, the way these things work, there’s very little most writers (including myself) can provide in pay to their readers — except an exchange of comments, something that has value only to another writer.
The underlying economy of a writing group lies in the exchange of comments. If I want to get good comments, I have to be willing to give good comments. That’s something I’m pretty good at, based on past experience — except that I’ve gotten a lot slower at it in recent years.
Back about 15 years ago, I reviewed a book manuscript from a friend of mine who’s a professional writer. It was an excellent story. I put in about 40 hours looking at the manuscript and making comments, which he told me were more valuable than what he got from the editor at his publishing house. It’s an experience and an accolade I treasure to this day. I have also never been able to make myself read the published novel, nor the stories that were its sequels (though I’m hoping that will change someday).
For me, writing stories and reading/reviewing stories by other writers occupy much the same (highly exhausting) mental territory. I could easily see myself putting energy into critiquing other people’s stories that should be going into my own writing. But I know that if I want to make my stories as good as they can be, I need good comments — which means that I need to be willing to give them in turn.
That being the case, I would ideally like for the people in my writing group to be on a level that’s more or less comparable to my own in terms of skill and/or knowledge. Working with people who are still trying to figure out how to write sentences and paragraphs is likely to prove frustrating for them and me both. On the other hand, I don’t think I belong in a writing group with the professionals either. I’m still learning too many of the basics.
This is a problem that solves itself naturally when you get into a writing group early in your writing experience. To some extent, all of you in the group get to grow along with each other, with people dropping out along the way (as I did) if they aren’t ready to go there yet. Unfortunately, I took a 20-year detour between college and the start of my creative writing career, so I need to start over at this point more or less from scratch with respect to finding a writing group.
The other thing I don’t want is people who think it’s their job to fix my story. Mostly what I want is people who will tell me what worked and didn’t work for them, how they reacted to things as they were reading them. An articulate and intelligent test audience, as it were. Then once a problem has been identified, I may want to throw it open to the group for discussion. That’s a point where suggestions from other experienced writers could be highly valuable. Most of the time, though, I want to try to fix it first myself.
It also turns out that I don’t react well to theoretical or model-based criticism, by which I mean critiques that start from some particular model or theory of what a story should be like rather than from a reader’s perception of what worked or didn’t work in a particular story. Basically, I don’t react well to appeals to authority in any form, aside from the authority of the reader to describe his or her own experience. I can easily see where this tendency on my part could give (and take) offense in some contexts.
So where does that leave me in the quest for a writing group?
Up to now, this has been something I’ve thought I could defer until such time as I have a more complete manuscript and am ready to show it to someone. Basically, as I’ve commented elsewhere, I need to do my best to do the things I already know how to do before I go out and collect other people’s opinions about what I need to be doing better. And in terms of motivation, I know of old that involvement in a writing group is far more likely to function as a (highly enjoyable) social distraction from writing than as a stimulus to produce more.
Despite all of which, my frustrated wish for someone with whom to talk over the logic of my story serves as a reminder of the potential benefits of writing groups, even before my manuscript is ready to show to people. Maybe it’s time for me to start looking.