Remember opening your bedroom curtain in the morning to find the first heavy snowfall of the season blanketing the ground with a foot of pure, unspoiled, pristine snow? You couldn’t wait to get out there and roll around in it. Snow, glorious SNOW! Then after about four hours, the magic wore thin; you had to pee, you couldn’t feel your fingers and your face hurt because some jerk nailed you in the head with an ice-ball. Jerky jerk-off.
So it is with writers groups. Consider the following:
SNOWFLAKES AND WRITERS GROUPS; A QUALITATIVE STUDY:**
1. No two are alike.
2. Made of frozen water molecules.
3. Descend from the sky in the winter months.
4. Are a pain in the ass to deal with sometimes.
1. No two are alike.
2. Made of unfrozen writers.
3. Descend on the 24 hour Starbucks every second tuesday of the month.
4. Are a pain in the ass to deal with sometimes.
**Source- Edna Goobles, Ph.D, “The Compendium of Useless Comparison: Frozen Precipitation and Writers Groups,” The Journal of Unemployed Smart People, Oct 27, 1992, 78.
Don’t get me wrong. I love writing groups. No question of it. I belong to several of them. Critique groups are the most effective weapon against being a sucky writer you have in your writers arsenal, next to actually writing. They are a precious womb of support, encouragement and guidance for newbies, and an invaluable source of objective feedback for the experienced. Plus, knowing that you’re going to have to go out in public from time to time will prevent you from neglecting your personal hygiene and allowing your toenails to grow as long as crazy straws.
Groups are the bomb. In my more than twenty years experience with them both online and in person, I’ve concluded that they are populated like B Grade Gangster Movies: loaded with stock characters. Here are a few of the usual suspects that you are likely to encounter should you join one (which you should):
THE LONG SUFFERING LEADER– Generally among the most accomplished and long-standing members of the group. Nobody else was kind or dumb enough to take the job, so they are group lead. They are committed to helping members stay productive, disseminating useful information and keeping the meetings on track, on time and as pleasant as possible. They’re are acutely aware of the groups weakness and strengths and have one simple goal: to get through a meeting without any arguments, insults, or crying. Many are also founders, members or leaders of other groups as well. They are your best ally as a new member. Let them help you until you are confidant of your place in the group and don’t hesitate to ask for their help. It’s what they are there to do.
Their Motto: Can We Wrap This Up…Please?
THE NEWBIE– This is you, private. Being the newbie in a writers group is like being the mid-year transfer student in a classroom. You’ve missed the beginning of the school year and everyone has already found their BFFs, but they will all be curious about you. Excited to see a new face. Then they’ll try to size you up and wonder where you will fall in the groups hierarchy. The good news is, chances are you won’t be the only neophyte on the block. There will likely be others just like you: excited, intimidated, nervous, willing and eager to learn. Hopefully they will be lovely, as I am sure you are. This is your crowd, so sidle up to other newbies for the first couple of meetings until you feel comfortable migrating to other members. If you are new to writing, the oldies will be happy to school you in the ways of the writers world. They will be dying to share their hard-earned wisdom. Let them. This is magic time. Take advantage of it. Let people share their experiences and give you guidance. Not all of it will be good, so ask you group leader (or whomever appears to be the smartest person in the room) so they can help ferret out the diamonds from the dinosaur poop.
Their Motto: Can I Sit Here?
THE NON-WRITING TROLL-These types may also find themselves as leaders of groups. Well-intentioned and knowledgeable, they love the art, craft, business and world of writers and writing. They are generous with their help, always willing to share their considerable wisdom, and are a veritable walking, breathing, farting encyclopedia of valuable information. Why? Because they spend all of their time reading about writing, instead of doing any ACTUAL writing. They likely have a huge reserve of great story ideas and a couple of half-finished novels lying in the back of their closet. They are also unusually prolific readers. They’ve got a remarkable memory for books, authors and resources, and can give critiques that are thoughtful, well-reasoned and right on target. This is a great person to hang out with. Their enthusiasm can be contagious and they are a great place to go if you have questions about….well…anything. If you are looking for the latest copy of the Writers Guide to Publishing or a list of fantastic website resources, chances are they’ve got it all.
Their motto: A Pound Of Research Is Better Than A Crap-Load Of Writing.
THE FLAMETHROWER-These individuals pride themselves on giving accurate, specific and pointed criticisms which can, and often do, upset other writers. Especially newbies. They make no apologies for their harsh delivery. To them, writing is a full-contact sport, so you’d better be wearing an athletic cup. If you have one of these in your group, and you have yet to develop the tough, scaly reptilian hide of a seasoned scribe, make sure that you ask this person to email their feedback instead of delivering it live in front of others. They may have been expelled or asked to leave other groups in the past, and have likely inspired more than a few newbie writers to quit writing and take up other hobbies like target-shooting or binge-eating. Don’t discount their advice, just make sure to protect your tender literary nads from their full frontal assault. Chances are they are pointing out some important flaws in your work, they just don’t seem to have ability to do it without punching a hole in your sternum, ripping your still-beating heart out with their bare hands, holding it up in front of you and tearing a piece off with their teeth.
Their motto: If You Can’t Take A Punch To The Kidneys, Get Out Of The Ring.
THE THERAPIST-This kind soul is the water bucket to the Flamethrowers fire. If critique groups are American Idol, they are the Paula Abdul. They never have anything bad to say about anything. That’s the bad news, cuz after all, you’re there to learn where you’ve gone wrong. The good news is, they will offer you encouragement and support regardless of how bad your writing is. If you are a newbie who is struggling with your writerly self-esteem, they are a great ally to have, especially if your work is being critiqued. Be warned, however, don’t expect to get any meaningful criticism from them. They will coddle you like a doting parent and worry about hurting your feelings too much to offer any critical insight into your work.
Their Motto: I Loved It!
THE BLOWHARD-They usually have a lot of credibility and the experience to back it up. They may even be the most accomplished of the group. They may also be the biggest jackhole, too. If they aren’t the group leader, then they think they should be. Their belief in their own intelligence, wit and talent is almost as boundless as their capacity to annoy everyone else in the group. They commonly submit material for critique, only to counter every note they get with an explanation as to why it’s perfect just the way it is thank you very much. They may be the first long-time member to approach you and offer their help, but be warned: their desire to take you under their wing may have more to do with them wanting you as a fan than a new friend. The irony of these characters is that they are sometimes as lacking in personal esteem as they are possessed of talent. If you decide to hang with this breed, remember that it’s in their own best interest to keep you insecure, so if you start to feel put down by them, run fast in the other direction.
Their Motto: Blather blather blah blah blah.
THE SILENT WIZARD– If you’ve got one of these in your group, you’re in luck. They know a shit-ton, just like the blowhard may, but they don’t suffer from the same need for attention and validation as the blowhard, so they tend to be fairly quiet until they have something important to say. They are usually very productive and talented writers. They don’t broadcast all the stuff they are working on, but rest assured, they’re doing some cool effing stuff. Chances are they are either published or on the verge of being published. They are willing to give advice and guidance to newbies if you ask, but YOU WILL HAVE TO ASK. Take them aside privately and invite them to lunch in exchange for a chance to pick their brains. Don’t try to attach yourself to them like a suckerfish on a spermwhale, however, they have no desire for a protege. They’re far too busy getting their own stuff done to teach you how to fix all of yours.
Their Motto: Just Write, dammit.
NEXT UP: CRITOCALYPSE