Writing Groups: Turning Problems into Progress

Part of the fun in being the author of your own blog is hosting a guest. Please welcome Lisa Cron: writer, instructor, and story consultant. Lisa shares on the pros and cons of writing groups, and how problems can be turned into positive experiences for the writer, and for the work-in-progress.

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Lisa Cron

It’s a delicious irony when you think about it — writing is a very solitary act, and yet its ultimate goal is to communicate, and with a wide audience at that.  Which is why as we strive to coax our story onto the page, a writers group can be incredibly helpful.  In fact, writers groups offer two fabulous benefits before you even get out the door.  First, they provide a concrete writing time frame – and nothing focuses the mind better than a rapidly approaching deadline.  And second, they give you a reason to get out of your pj’s, close the laptop, and actually leave the house.  But there are two main areas where writers groups can inadvertently do more harm than good.  Once you’re aware of them, you can sidestep them, and flip them in your favor. First, the problems:

1. Writers groups tend to focus on the prose, so good writing is praised. And what could possibly be wrong with that?  Isn’t great prose what hooks readers? Surprisingly, no, it’s not. What actually hooks readers is the story beneath the prose. In fact, if a story is good, the prose can be decidedly not — The Da Vinci Code, anyone? Not so the other way around.

The problem with praising prose in and of itself is that the writer often becomes so attached to it that she’s afraid to cut it, even when she suspects it might be holding her story back.  I’ll never forget the stricken look on a student’s face when I pointed out that several lyrical sentences on the first page of her novel were getting in the way of the story she was telling. “But my writing group told me they were beautiful, and I shouldn’t even think of cutting them,” she said.  Then she did. In fact, she cut the first 40 pages of her novel, and a month later, a publisher expressed interest.

2. In a writers group you can only workshop about a chapter at a time. What’s wrong with that?  Story is a cause-and-effect trajectory.  So the important question isn’t: Does this scene work in and of itself?  It’s: Does it make sense given what happened up to now? Does it move the story forward? And hey, why does the reader need to know this? These are questions writers groups often miss, especially if they’re caught up in the beautiful prose.

So, how can you make sure you get the feedback you need?

1. Make sure the group knows exactly what happened prior to the scene you read and what you think will happen next, so they understand its intended purpose, storywise. Then, once you’ve read it, ask them: What do you think was important? Based on that scene, where do you think the story is going? What leapt out as a “setup”?  What do you think the protagonist’s agenda is in this scene? Questions like this help immeasurably, both in terms of pointing out where the story in your head and the one on the page might diverge, and in triggering new story possibilities that hadn’t yet occurred to you.  What’s more, they tend to weed out the judgmental statements that can shut a writer down. It’s not about what the group liked, or what they didn’t, it’s about the expectations they had based on what you read.

2. If you get negative feedback that you don’t like or don’t agree with, while you don’t have to follow it, you don’t want to discount it, either. There’s an old saw that goes, “If twelve people tell you you’re drunk, even if you’ve never had a drink in your life, go home and sleep it off.”  In other words, while the group may be utterly wrong about what caused them to decide your story needed help at that point, and even more misguided about how you might solve it, something pulled them out. This gives you the opportunity to dive in and try to figure out what it was.

Chances are that what the group is responding to is a glitch in the emotional or psychological credibility of how your characters are (or aren’t) reacting to what happens.  That doesn’t mean you have to scrap the story you want to tell, it just means that you might need to dig deeper (and probably make external plot changes) in order to bring your story on to the page. In this case, it also helps to remember that neuroscience has revealed  a truth every kindergartner knows: one negative statement carries the emotional weight of ten positive ones.  They’re a gut punch.  They don’t really negate the good stuff, it just feels like they do.

3. Don’t forget to consider the source. It’s like in life, when your significant other does something squirrelly, and you turn to your friends for advice.  You always know whose attitude is going to be, “He called five minutes late? Dump him!” and who’ll say, “Well, I know that the fact he slept with the entire glee club looks bad, but . . .”  In other words, make sure that you know each writer’s idiosyncrasies, and how they see the world, so you know what advice is likely to be objective, and what might be a wee bit too subjective to have merit.

Having the courage to view your work through a writers group’s eyes helps assure that you’re communicating the story you want to tell.  But at the end of the day, when you’re back in your pj’s, fingers flying over the keys, your story always belongs to you.

What do you think of writers groups? What’s the best (and worst) advice you ever got from a writer’s group?

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Lisa offers more great advice on her website, Wired for Story. You can also follow her on Twitter, or check out her UCLA Extension Writers Program instructor page. Her upcoming online course is entitled the Inside Story.

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16 responses to “Writing Groups: Turning Problems into Progress

  1. This is the problem I found when I read a WIP to a writers’ group, many moons ago. I had a great start, lots of lush writing. They adored it. But what they couldn’t see was that it was going nowhere, although I had a trembling feeling that I was going wrong. I love your phrase ‘the story beneath the prose’ – that’s what we really need to prioritise.

    • Oh, Roz, I know that trembling feeling.

      Lisa’s post gives me some great questions to carry into my writer’s group next time around. And, your comment reminds me that I have to pay attention to that gut feeling, even when the feedback I receive is good. Like Lisa says, great prose is one thing, but my plot line still has to gel.

  2. Pingback: Is Your Writers Group Helping or Hindering Your Story? | Wired for Story

  3. I love your suggestions around questions to ask … the biggest challenge for me in writers’ groups has been that “one chapter every 3-4 weeks” challenge.

    While hearing about good prose is a boost to keep us writing, a group or beta reader that can articulate what’s not working is invaluable, even if it feels like a gut punch at the time. I agree that it’s better not to discount and yet consider the source — it’s quite a balancing act!

    Terrific interview, Christi. Thanks.

    • Cathryn,

      I’ve been thinking about that “chapter at a time” piece, and I’m almost ready to work on my manuscript alone for a while, until it’s ready for a beta reader. I just signed up for one more round of sessions with my writer’s group. After that, I may take a break. It sure is hard to let go of the group, though; I love the “deadline” aspect.

  4. Great post, Lisa! And thank you, Christi, for hosting.

    I agree with Cathryn, that one chapter at a time through a group is challenging. But your suggestions on how to get the feedback you need is perfect. It’s exactly what I needed to hear as I start submitting my next novel.

    Thank you.

  5. Roz – Thanks! I remember very similar experiences — writing lush, lyrical prose and even as I read it aloud to the group, I’d be thinking, “Geez, what IS my point here?”

    Cathryn – So glad you find the suggestions for questions useful! I know exactly what you mean about the gut punch, it can be disorienting — especially when they zero in on something that suddenly seems so damn obvious that you can’t believe you missed it. For me at moments like that it helps to take a nice short nap in the fetal position, then come at it again refreshed. A snack helps too.

    Linda – Thanks! So glad you liked the post. Asking those questions really can help get past the one chapter at a time problem by focusing the group on the story-specific information you want your beautiful prose to convey. It’s a win-win!

  6. The hugest best thing about face-to-face live-and-in-person writing groups is the opportunity to read aloud to real people. The more you do it, the easier it is to catch a glimpse of somebody looking at their watch when you’re in a scene that is skim-material, and should be cut. But then every once and a while you can see that couple of sets of eyes that can’t do anything else but want to help their ears listen. “There must be some gold in that last paragraph!”

    The reading aloud opportunity…whether it’s limited to a word count or five minutes — that’s all about learning when you really own your story via physical reactions of everybody in your live listening audience.

    • George, I agree. The reading aloud aspect is a wonderful benefit to the writing group. Though, I wear reading glasses, so I don’t always see everyone’s initial reaction. Still, the practice of reading aloud puts the story in a different form and allows me to catch mistakes as well.

  7. The most effective writer groups I’ve been in have a leader – I’ve been in a terrific one for a few years now, led by Robert Vaughan at RedBird RedOak in Milwaukee and he does an amazing job of getting the critiquers to dig in and avoid the not-so-helpful “pretty prose” comments.

    • Pam, I completely agree, the leader can make or break the group and the experience. I’m in Kim Suhr’s group at RedBird RedOak, and it’s just been amazing — a great group of writers and Kim is a wonderful role model when it comes to giving feedback.

  8. George — Great point! A writer once told me that she’d always read her work to her husband, who of course loved everything she wrote. She never told him that the real reason she asked him to listen was so she could watch for his “tell.” Whenever he got bored in real life, he’d sort of jiggle his right foot ever so slightly. So she always knew when a section needed tightening, no matter how much he told her it was perfect.

    Pam – You’re so right — a good group leader makes all the difference, sounds like you’re in a great one! I’ve found that an astute leader tends to sharpen everyone’s eye, and so the entire group begins giving more insightful comments. There’s such an infectious vitality in brainstorming, it always makes me feel like a kid, in the best possible way!

  9. Pingback: A Common Writers Group Rule You Want to Break | Wired for Story

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