Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way Out of the Forum

Last month I complained about my local writers' group because a handful of the members refrain from critiquing any piece outside the mainstream. Thus, anyone writing genre fiction, be it sci-fi, fantasy, or in my case, a story about a guy fighting crime whilst wearing spandex, will receive less feedback from the group as a whole.

Many of you recommended I escape post haste and join (or create) a smaller, more focused critique group. I thought it was sound advice, and went into last week's meeting fully intending it to be my last. I would call out the group for its behavior, stay for one final round of critiques, and then part ways, only remaining in touch with the few whose opinions I truly valued. But then a funny thing happened.

I enjoyed myself.

I raised the issue at the beginning of the meeting, reminding everyone that — as it states in the second line of the group's charter — fiction has many facets one can give feedback on that are independent of genre.1 A few people were quick to say they shared my sentiment; everyone else nodded in agreement. One woman even admitted her guilt.

Of course, it may have helped that the other four culprits from last month weren't in attendance. Three had stayed home because of the violent thunderstorms that had passed through that evening.2 Nevertheless, it felt like a minor victory.

We then went around the table and everyone provided useful feedback for the first story. Everyone, that is, except for the one woman who'd admitted her guilt just minutes earlier.3 But along with the critiques, we had a few good laughs, and afterward I stayed and chatted with a couple of the guys for another 45 minutes or so. For the first time in six visits, I left feeling positive about the group, rather than mixed.

Despite this, I don't know if I'll be heading back. Part of me thinks this was an outlier, that if I return I'll be asking myself why I bothered. Perhaps I should stick with my original plan, and just remain in touch with the few members whose opinions I truly value.

Or maybe, just maybe, the next meeting will coincide with another thunderstorm.

1 Dialogue, for instance. And description. There's also pacing, plotting, conflict, character arcs, character motivations, setting, structure, tone, and improper use of Comic Sans. (Here's a tip: Are you using Comic Sans? Then you're doing it wrong.)
2 That's right. I said "had passed through." As in, they'd already come and gone over an hour prior. It would seem these people can get scared off by both fantasy and reality. By both the futuristic and past events. By things both outside their comfort zone and things inside a temperate zone. (Yeah, that last one doesn't quite work. Too bad, I'm keeping it.)
3 She gave a two-sentence critique, the second sentence being: "I liked it." (In her defense, I've never heard her give a better critique.)


  1. I've tried to join a couple of writers' groups in my area but, so far, it always ends up being me and a group of old ladies all writing their memoirs. Since what I write seldom involves cooking or knitting, I haven't gotten very much in the way of feedback.

    Here's hoping for a thunderstorm on your next meeting...

  2. Maybe it was you. You came in with a purpose. Stated your needs clearly, and you got results. Sounds like it's worth another try. Laughter is good. Chatting it up with a few afterwards is priceless.

  3. It's great that you raised it with the group, though too bad that the majority of the culprits were not there. Sometimes it's good to get those things out in the open and discuss as a group (and great to see others agreed with you!). Sounds as though the woman who admitted her guilt didn't make an attempt to step up after the discussion, so I think it would be safe to assume it's going to be more of the same. That's a pretty clear sign right there.

    I think you have a good plan. Keep in touch with those in the group that provide useful and meaningful critiques, and move away from the others. Then determine if you want to join or form another group.

    I wonder if the 'good' group members would want to split off into a smaller group with you? But yeah, don't waste your time with this group if half the people aren't pulling their weight.

  4. Maybe a smaller group would be better. Might get better critiques as there would be less to critique.

  5. Exposure may be key. The more you are around a group the more comfortable they are going to be giving you constructive feedback. Starting over may set that back.

  6. if it were me, i'd give it one more go and see if the others actually stick to what they agreed to. If they don't, then i'd bail

  7. Great writers' groups that fit your exact needs are like houses that fit your exact needs - there aren't any. Unless you build it yourself.

    I participated in one for years that was okay, but sparsely attended; hosted another myself for years with a handful of great people and a whole bunch of, shall we say, not ready for prime-time-players?

    After taking some years off, I'm doing another one again, invitation only, no newbies (to writing, newbies to the group are welcome. I am done with the "pages" that are somebody's memoir pre-formatted with 7 errors per page.) New group is made up of the cream of the crop from previously. I love them all dearly - but this group has been 15 years in the making.

  8. Gotta take whatever victories we can get, even if they are nature-induced!

  9. M.J., since you write fantasy, how about a chapter where the characters adorn themselves in their finest clothing and sit down to a feast. Such a scene would probably bore me, but the old ladies might eat it up. (I'm kidding, of course. Never cater to your audience; instead, find a new audience.) And thanks for the well-wishes on the inclement weather!

    Mary, no, I can't take all the credit. Much of it belongs to my partner in crime, Mother Nature. (And it was actually someone else's story we were critiquing.)

    Liz, of course the only culprit in attendance was the one with no chance for improvement. Oh well. But as it is, I'll stick to my plan and see what comes of it.

    Alex, it's a trade-off. Smaller groups net less feedback overall, but hand-selecting members would likely provide critiques of a consistently higher quality.

    Budd, I didn't think of that, but yes, exposure could play a part. Any new collection of writers would need a couple sessions to warm up to each other, but the end result might be better than this group of mixed nuts.

    Falen, I may do just that. Of course, it depends on timing in regard to a) the arrival of Baby von Wilson, and b) thunderstorms.

    Beverly, glad to hear got a good thing going now, though I hope to get to a similar spot in a shorter amount of time. Luckily, you've already made the mistakes, so I can learn from yours and maybe churn out my new all-star writers' group by next Thursday.

    Jeffrey, I figure I earned that victory by besting the lightning storm on my way to dinner a couple hours earlier, while others cowered in their homes and places of business. And hey: a win's a win.

  10. This is one of the reasons I'm a bit reticent to join a critique group. I've heard some horror stories, for sure, but I've also met people who loved their critique groups. I think you should just form a secret new group made up of the people who give good critiques. Then you can imagine what the old group would look like on meeting nights. Would anyone say anything?

    Tina @ Life is Good
    and I are joining forces in another challenge. We're going to visit and comment at each of the participants, starting with the reflections post. We hope you'll join us!

    Shannon @ The Warrior Muse