tracycembor

Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

My Writing Group Experience

I took the plunge in the last month and joined a local critique group to get some feedback about my works-in-progress.  My inner critic and I have been spending lots of time together, so I was ready for some external reviews.  Upon reflection about my experience, I realized it was both similar to my expectations as well as very different.

Writing Group Session One

I left four-month-old Ace with the babysitter for the evening.  While my brain knows that I’m not tied to my baby boy, my heart was feeling guilty about not being there for him, even if it was just for a few more hours than normal.

Propellors01The meeting time for the group was “don’t show up before 6:45, we start at 7:00.  Manuscripts are read in order of arrival.”  So despite dropping Alex off, negotiating monsoonal rains, and driving to a new destination, I arrive at 6:50 and am mortified to learn that a dozen people have already arrived before me.

There are no introductions; almost no one says hi to me.  While I’m a big girl and fairly outgoing, this is intimidating.  I wonder if I have stumbled out of the Land of Southern Hospitality and into New Jersey by mistake.  I sit down, wave across the table at the one person I know, then the readings get started.

I sit from 7:00 to 9:30.  I had planned to leave by 9:00 at the latest, but I wait, hoping I can read my first five pages.  Eventually, I have to leave, knowing that I am late to pick up Ace and that my husband is sending texts inquiring about my estimated time of arrival.

So how did my first writing group experience go?  I listened to other people read their five pages, most of which were terribly depressing.  Characters were dying or being carted off to prison, others surviving earthquakes or enduring humiliating situations.  I wonder if these writers will even understand where I am coming from with my steampunk fiction that has the levity of a space opera.

And I didn’t get to read.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.  It take me an hour to pick up Ace and get home.  I’m exhausted, Ace is clingy, and I’m wondering if this writing group thing is a good idea.

Writing Group Session Two

With some trepidation I decide to go back two weeks later for the next meeting.  I figure that it can’t get any worse, so I put on my big girl panties and show up at 6:45.  Everyone is getting out of their cars as I roll up and park.  Obviously I’m going to need to show up at 6:30 and hang out, holding my place in line if I want to read each time.

My husband is keeping both Ace and Sweetpea this evening.  Again, while my head knows that it is healthy for me to do something besides work and family stuff, my heart is feeling guilty for abandoning my family.  I’m probably not in the best frame of mind as I arrive.

Gear 01The group is a bit more friendly now that I’m not a complete stranger.  Apparently showing up again counts for something.  There’s a bit of small talk, then it is time to get started.  The group leader says that I can go first since I didn’t get to read last time.  It’s considerate of them, and I experience a moment of warm fuzzies.

The pleasant feelings evaporate quickly as I realize that I now have to read my manuscript.  My mouth gets horribly dry, and for a moment I forget how to talk.  I stare at the page, then the words spill out in a rush.  I’m so nervous that I can’t hear myself speaking, so I have no idea if I am talking too slow or too fast.

I stumble a couple of times over awkward phrasing, making a note to clean those up, as well as finding a few more typos.  It amazes me how there are always more typos to find.  The advice about reading your work aloud is true; it helped me see my manuscript in a new way and find areas that need fixing.

Then it is over, and the other writers start commenting.  They remark on some point of view errors and that they would like more sensory details.  There are some suggestions about the diction of the dialogue being inconsistent

I’m feeling good until someone at the end of the table asks, “Is this steampunk?”

“Yes, it has goggles in it,” I say as nonchalantly as possible.  Crap, they didn’t get my story at all.

“What exactly is steampunk?” another writer asks.  My stomach starts to feel queasy in response to this question.  Oh dear…

Red BirdsI explain what steampunk is to the best of my ability without using any SF or Fantasy references, mentioning the anachronistic or alternative power sources, the Victorian sensibilities, and the punk rebellion against established institutions.  Once again, I feel like I have everyone on the same page as me.  I should not have counted my coglights before they were lit.

“What is the setting?  Is this set in London in the 1800s?” a third writer asks.  This is a problem.  My story already has a page of set up before we get to the action.  If I have to also explain right off the bat that this is in Rivenloss, a completely made up world that has nothing to do with England, I’ll have a couple more paragraphs for readers to slog through.  I’m not sure how to overcome this.

“Can you explain what cogs and coglights are?” someone else adds while I’m still considering how to introduce the larger setting more effectively.  At this point I bite my tongue.  It is common in SF and Fantasy for an author to mention a widget, show how it is used, then not explain it in detail until later (or sometime never if it was window dressing and not story relevant).  I had not considered defining these items explicitly.  People are being polite, but I can tell they don’t read my genre of fiction.  I want to ask if they feel that explanation is necessary, but I get the sense they would say yes, so I shut my mouth before I ruin their goodwill.

I collect the written copies of my manuscript, which have useful comments about repetition of words, grammar issues, and more typos.  I put them in my folder and wait for the next reader to begin speaking.

Reflections

Was this useful for strengthening my prose, finding typos, and overall polishing up my manuscript?  Yes, I received some valuable feedback.

Was it helpful in considering the storyline, especially considering how it stacks up to the rest of the genre?  Probably not so much.  Someone mentioned that people would call the police if a guy tried to kiss a girl he just met.  In a lighthearted fantasy story like mine, I think concerns like this are often waived unless the menace element is played up beforehand, but it is possible that I’m mistaken.  What do you think?

Will I keep going back?  Yes, but I will consider what manuscript I bring and why I want feedback.  I need to look other places to see if elements like sky pirates are a good idea (and yes, they are always a good idea).  For diving into the nitty gritty to get my work ready for publishing, I think this could be a positive experience.

What have your experiences been with writing and critique groups?  Do you feel like they help your writing, and if so, how?

21 comments on “My Writing Group Experience

  1. Michelle Proulx
    July 9, 2014

    Sky pirates are always a good idea!

    Now that we’ve established that, lol …

    So I think the problem really is that you’re not in the right writing group. It’s great to have people who specialize in different genres hearing your work, but if they have NO idea what you’re talking about, there’s only so much decent feedback they can give you. It’s like reading Harry Potter to someone, and them stopping you every five seconds to say, “What’s a wand? What’s a wizard? What’s a dragon?” Etc.

    In terms of the writing group I’m in right now, there are about 8 people in it, and it’s the same people each week meeting at one of the members’ houses. We coordinate via email beforehand for who’s reading, and the readers (usually 3 per meeting) bring in enough copies of their piece for everyone to have one. There’s tea, and cookies, and a really friendly atmosphere. And everyone’s in the same genre (sci-fi/fantasy), so we all have some idea of what’s going on.

    Anyway, I’d say find a new writing group :) They sound like nice people, but I don’t think they’re what you want. Although even people with no idea about your genre can still provide valuable feedback about actual writing style, pacing, etc. But if there are other writing group options, I say take them!

    • tracycembor
      July 12, 2014

      Yeah, you are right this isn’t the best-fitting writing group for me. Since some of their stories didn’t resonate the right way with me, I probably am not the best person to critique their work either. It is unlikely I’m going to ever write anything that isn’t genre fiction, so I’ll need to keep my ear open for a new group.

      Part of the concern with my current WIP is that it doesn’t have enough of the expected steampunk elements. I want to know if that makes it off-putting for readers who have expectations of a particular genre. That’s not something I can ask this particular group who don’t have a reference for context.

      There is also the challenge of finding a SFF group near me that has an opening and meets at a time convenient to my work/mommy schedule. This might end up being the biggest challenge. Your writing group sounds pretty awesome.

  2. mandyevebarnett
    July 9, 2014

    I joined a writing group with no real writing experience at all over 4 years ago. My aim was to find a creative outlet. It has changed my life – this group of individuals (constantly flowing in & out of membership) have supported, encouraged and listened to my multi-genre offerings. I was welcomed from the first meeting and have made firm friends with many members. I’m even the current secretary. I think you should look at other groups, which would appreciate your genre(s) – it will enable you to grow and the responses will probably be worthwhile to you. Good luck.
    My group has local & virtual members – http://www.wfscsherwoodpark.com
    Take a peek
    Mandy

    • tracycembor
      July 12, 2014

      I’m so glad to hear about your positive experience with a writing group, so much so that it even changed your life! That is so awesome! We can all hope to be so lucky to have such a chance AND to be open-minded when that opportunity comes along.

      The people in my current group were fine; I didn’t mean to demonize them. It just wasn’t the social soirée I was anticipating. I will continue to look for other like-minded people to share my work with and receive more genre-relevant feedback. Thanks for your warm wishes. :D

      • mandyevebarnett
        July 13, 2014

        I hope you find a group that meets your needs. Good luck

  3. Brie Childress
    July 9, 2014

    My one and only experience with a writers group kept me from sharing anything else for the next seven years. I read aloud ten pages of nonfiction that I was trying to pass off as fiction. I was completely out of my comfort zone and felt like I was taking a big risk by sharing the piece. I’d rewritten it several times and I wanted to know if my character was believable, and whether she invoked pity, empathy, disgust, or boredom in in the reader. Could they relate to her? I read my piece, seeing my new typos the gnomes had snuck in during the car ride there. This was followed by a long silence and my copies were handed back to me. Someone had added commas everywhere. Someone else had scratched out every comma of mine, and the only comment on that was not unrelated to my grammar was from a retired psychiatrist: “What is her diagnosis?” I was bitter about my wasted effort and it still angers me now.

    • tracycembor
      July 12, 2014

      Gosh, your experience sounds horrible. How unfortunate that you had to endure such an unfulfilling critique session. My experience was only disappointing, certainly nothing like this.

      I had to laugh about the commas — too many or too few, everyone has to agree to disagree. While there are some grammar rules, personal style is such a huge factor in their usage.

      And yes, those typo gnomes are devious bastards. They keep gumming up my perfect prose too. ;)

  4. jowensauthor
    July 9, 2014

    The only writing group I’ve been in was the two creative writing classes I took at the community college years ago. I found the comments useful for the most part, and the teacher is the one who actually made me think about writing for publication, when he suggested I try to publish the novel I did as a project for his class. I ended up self-publishing it, but because of his comment, I feel I actually do have talent and could be published one day. As for your experience, even if they don’t understand your genre, I think they gave you some good feedback by pointing out grammatical and syntax problems, and pointing out questions someone new to the genre might have. But if you’re looking for feedback from people familiar with your genre, you may need to find another group, possibly one specializing in the genre. And I agree, sky pirates are always good :D

    • tracycembor
      July 12, 2014

      The professor at the community college sounds like a very supportive teacher. While I’ve taken a couple of writing workshops, I’ve never taken a full-term creative writing class. I wonder what I could learn from such weekly instruction that could take my work to the next level. (I’m sure there is so much I could improve!)

      The idea of writing entry-level steampunk is not a bad idea; it’s just not one that I had considered previously. Making writing accessible for new readers is important, if not crucial, for writers to consider. Even with just these couple of critique sessions and discussing my experience, I have learned so much and been able to look at my manuscript in a new light too. :)

      • jowensauthor
        July 12, 2014

        Glad to hear your experience was helpful :)

  5. Hannah
    July 10, 2014

    Pirates in general are a good idea–sky pirates are even better!

    I’ve never workshopped any of my fantasy for a lot of the reasons you stated–in addition to the fact that my professors specifically ask that we NOT bring in genre fiction (which then opens the argument about what constitutes genre fiction etc etc.)

    While your reviewers may not be familiar with the genre, I think it’s encouraging that they want to know more–it means they’re buying into your world even if they don’t understand it.

    • tracycembor
      July 12, 2014

      I’m disappointed to hear that your professors don’t want to see any genre fiction. Makes it sound like it is a lesser kind of writing than what they are having you turn in. I’m sure Neil Gaiman would love to hear how your professors feel.

      I agree that it was cool that the reviewers were asking questions and want to know more. I’m not running screaming from the group, but I will keep looking for a SFF group that will be a better fit for me.

      • Hannah
        July 14, 2014

        They prefer “literary fiction”–which is still a “genre” in my opinion. Most of them claim it’s because they have no experience with SFF, so they can’t truly critique it. That may be true–and I know there are some programs and professors who are more welcoming towards SFF and other genres. I will admit that learning more about literary fiction has shown me how much my fantasy writing plays into stereotypes of the genre–not in a good way.

        I need to find a writing group myself–since I do have things I can’t bring into class. Hopefully you find one that is the right fit!

  6. L. Palmer
    July 10, 2014

    I second Michelle Proulx. I’m very lucky with my current writing group in that even if we don’t write the same genre, we discuss things like story and character. We don’t worry so much about ‘cogs’ and ‘goggles’ and more work on does it tell a good story.
    It also helps we have a great moderator, who is encouraging even if he isn’t a fan of the genre. We all work on making it a positive environment – of providing constructive feedback while also pointing out what we do like. My writing has greatly improved over the last year or so since joining the group.
    Also, we have other people read the work out loud, which gives us a good clue as to where something has gone wonky.

    I personally am looking for some people to be critique partners with – someone to trade raw drafts back and forth with and give feedback in return. If you are interested in trading at least one five page piece, let me know. (My main selling point is I actually know fantasy and steampunk). My e-mail address is: lpalmer@lpalmerchronicles.com

    • tracycembor
      July 13, 2014

      Your writing group sounds great, and having others read your manuscript aloud could be useful. I think that when I read my own work aloud, I glossed over a few snags automatically and didn’t realize I what I was doing. I probably wouldn’t do that if I was reading someone else’s work.

      I would love to be a critique partner with you. I’ll reach out to you offline. ;)

  7. ericjbaker
    July 10, 2014

    Disclaimer: I am open-mined and believe people should be free to do what works best for them in love, life, art, entertainment, and work, provided no kittens are harmed.

    That said, I am not a fan of writing groups and, while they might help some people from a moral-support standpoint, they often do more harm than good.

    It always boils down to the same problem: The other group members complaining that they don’t understand all 350 pages of your manuscript after hearing only 5 pages of it.

    Are these people at all capable of using logic and reason? Have they not read a book before? Do they not realize that discovery is one of the key elements that keeps you reading a novel? They’re basically telling you to start your novel with a synopsis of your novel. Do not listen to them. They do not understand the art of writing on a level that justifies them giving you advice.

    Imagine if Agatha Christie started a novel this way:

    “Hercule Poirot is a private detective, which is a person who is hired to solve crimes and conduct investigations outside the purview of law enforcement. In this story, he will go to a country estate belonging to a duke. A duke is [two pages of exposition about aristocracy in England in the 1920s]. The house at the country estate was built in 1760 and [two pages of exposition about the architecture and history of the house]. He goes there to solve a murder of the Duke’s sister, Winifred. She was killed by Luigi, the retired stage actor who stays in the guest house, because she was the only one who knew Luigi’s real identity as a jewel thief. But M. Poirot will not figure it out until page 225 and will not reveal the Luigi as the killer until page 280, when all the suspects are gathered in the parlor.”

    Cool. You understand the whole novel now, and you would have no questions about settings. That is, if you don’t mind all the secrets spilled and stick around long enough to wade through all the boring exposition.

    Put another way: 5 pages is probably 1.7% of an average novel. Can you look at 1.7 percent of Leonardo’s The Last Supper and tell it’s a masterpiece?

    I much prefer to have a couple of knowledgeable beta readers look at my entire manuscript and give me professional advice.

    By the way, I’m from New Jersey. If any of the people in your writing group give you a hard time, say so. I’ll teach ’em about Jersey hospitality. Free cement shoes. A trip to the Hudson river at midnight. The works.

    ;)

    • tracycembor
      July 13, 2014

      The only way I’m going to be harming kittens is if they fall off their chairs laughing from some of my manuscript typos. I’ve had a few that were amazingly horrible. >_<. If I can find one of these gems, I'll let you know.

      That's a great point that it is tough, if not almost impossible, to provide comments about a character or a storyline without the whole of the story for context. A five-page snapshot is not a good representation of anyone's work. A summary would be good, but that would ruin the "picking-up-the-book-for-the-first-time" impression.

      A likely reason that writing groups are asking for all the questions to be answered up front is that everyone starts with the beginning of their manuscript. If you have a 300-page rough draft, how far would you have to read at 5 pages per week before you started reviewing the secrets behind some of those hints on page 1. Maybe chapter 3-4 at the earliest, which would probably be 30-50 pages into a manuscript; therefore, it would be 6 to 10 sessions to ask your members to hang in there for the first payoff.

      Additionally, these hints are a promise to readers that you're going to reveal the whole picture. However, since you haven't given them anything on page 1, you haven't been able to demonstrate you are good as your word and will keep the promise. If they can't read the whole manuscript and control the pace, this might make them anxious. I bet they don't like waiting to open their Christmas presents either. :P

      And maybe your work is just so good that readers can't wait until you finally reveal the juicy parts. I've been saying "you" and "yours" in the above comments, but that equally applies to me too.

      I like thinking that I've written 1.7% of a masterpiece like The Last Supper. Makes me feel more positive about the words I've gotten on the page recently.

      If I end up needing cement shoes and a long walk off a short pier, you'll be the first guy I call. xD

      • ericjbaker
        July 13, 2014

        Sometimes I inadvertently position my hands 1 key to the right or left and start pecking. Beyond typos. “Hello my name is Eric” becomes “Jr;;p ,u ms,r od Rotv.” I’ll get halfway through a sentence wondering what’s wrong with my keyboard.

        Did you know the Last Supper was almost destroyed by allied bombing in WWII? My advice: Keep your manuscript away from air raids.

  8. Tara Sparling
    July 14, 2014

    Hi Tracy. I have to be honest. That experience sounds awful! I wouldn’t go back, myself.

    I’m a member of a writing group which formed out of a creative writing class. The best thing about it is that we understand what each member is trying to do, so it’s never about whether or not we like or understand someone else’s piece; it’s about whether the group member has achieved what they set out to do. Also, we learned our manners, when it comes to delivering critique in a helpful way, in the classroom. After a while, familiarity with each others’ genres helps greatly. It can also makes us blind to each others’ faults as the years pass, so you still need beta readers for that.

    Such a stressful and competitive environment as the one you describe, where people are competing even to read in the first place, sounds to me like a nightmare. If there wasn’t a better writing group in my area, I would join or form one online, or else run the risk of being turned off my own writing entirely.

  9. M T McGuire
    July 15, 2014

    I remember first starting in a writing group. There were always a couple of people who, I know, loathed the genre I write in and I would watch them manfully trying to hide their sinking hearts and glazed eyes as I read my stuff to them. Others at the group loved my stuff and got it completely. Everyone’s feedback was invaluable but the like minded folks were the ones who boosted my confidence had helped me forward. So I guess your question is, are you getting enough from this group to carry on? It may be worth it if only to find other writers and maybe develop a smaller more specialised group of your own. That worked for me…mif it helps.

    Cheers

    MTM

  10. M T McGuire
    July 15, 2014

    Mif? If… Blummin auto correct.

Comments are closed.

Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

Weekends are reserved for my Music Playlist.

Writers of the Future Honorable Mention

About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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