Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 5: Writing Groups

So you’ve got a fantastic idea for a book or a short story, but where do you go from there? Who can give the incentive to write, the support to keep going when it gets hard, and the tough love to let you know when it sucks? The answer: a writing group.

Writing groups can be difficult to put together and manage, but when everything clicks the rewards can be invaluable. This week we discuss all the ins and outs of how to find fellow writers, organize your group, interpret their advice, and overcome the common pitfalls that might get in the way.

This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by Fablehaven by Brandon Mull


57 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 5: Writing Groups”

  1. My general rule when I’m receiving critiques is that if nobody comments on it, it’s not a problem. Yes, it’s nice to hear that people like my work, but if that’s all you have to say (which is awesome!) then there’s no need to spend much time on it. When GIVING critiques, I’ll usually point out the stuff I have problems with, and the stuff that I think works *exceptionally* well. Because knowing what works exceptionally well is also useful, but a string of comments that adds up to “Ooh, I like!” is not.

    I don’t think it hurts to point out sentence-level stuff, but unless it’s a really repetitive problem I’ll just mark up a sentence on the manuscript and not even mention it in actual workshop discussion.

    You guys hit the nail on the head when saying “don’t talk” (except to ask questions, of course – I always leave them until the end of the workshop if there’s something I want to ask) and be ready to discard a lot of suggestions. One thing I always keep in mind when considering peoples’ critiques is that all comments are useful, even if I don’t end up actually using them. I think this is an especially helpful outlook when you get conflicting advice from your writing group (which WILL happen, and can be frustrating). It’s helpful to know your readers’ reactions. If not all of them feel the same way, it’s helpful to know that too.

    One writing group “quirk” that I don’t think you guys mentioned – remember that the atmosphere is a little artificial. Often in writing groups I’ve seen people get into a dialogue about whether or not a specific part of a piece is working. This is useful too, as long as people are supporting their arguments (and as long as they have new things to say) and sometimes Group A will convince Group B that point X is not as big a problem (or a bigger problem, or whatever) as group B thought it was. It’s useful to know that people’s perceptions of something might change as they think about it – not a bad thing – but remember that your average reader probably isn’t going to go home and discuss this with ten of their friends.

  2. By the way, when bolding and italicizing, do these forums take HTML or UBB code? I’m tired of using caps/weird grammar to emphasize stuff.

  3. @Raethe: HTML code works fine, though obviously application embeds and other hacks are going to be parsed out by WordPress’s airtight security algorithms.

    Good comments!

  4. I have an online writing group that I enjoy a lot. We met in an online class and then formed the group when it ended. The feedback and act of critiquing are both somewhat helpful, but perhaps even more helpful is the support you get from each other (who else in your life understands staying up til 2am writing, then waking up at 6am for 8 hours of work?). We act as each others cheerleaders more than anything- and sometimes all you need is a friend to tell you JUST KEEP WRITING! Plus, the deadlines are great motivators.

    But on the opposite end, I’m currently in a writing class that is really destructive and negative. There is some serious genre bias going on in my class, and the teacher is the worst culprit! So it really depends on the people and if they “get” what you are doing and the genre you are working in.

  5. Thanks Howard. Hooray, I can format things now! Wheeeeee!

    Yeah, genre writing is one thing you have to be REALLY careful of in university. I consider myself very lucky – the proff who teaches fiction at my university is very open-minded when it comes to accepting genre writing, and classmates have been pretty good about it too. It just boggles my mind when Dan and Brandon (or whoever else) just casually reference the science fiction classes they were in in university. I think the Ivory Tower Bookthumpers over here would have a seizure.

  6. I’ve never been part of a regular weekly writing group, but I’m part of what I might consider an unofficial writing group. I have a couple of friends who also write and as we finish things we send them around to each other for critique and comment. It’s not like going to writing group every Saturday night, so I’m not sure if it’s a writing group or if it’s actually mutual alpha readership. I suspect it’s the latter now that I think about it a little more.

    Either way, I think it pays to have someone who is familiar with your writing doing the workshopping. My friends and I have been reading each other’s stuff for more than 10 years now and we know each other’s styles and tendencies so well that they can tell right away if something works in one of my chapters and, if it doesn’t, they know what I will probably do to fix it and can make specific suggestions. I suspect that being part of a long-time writing group like Dan and Brandon have gives you that same level of support. That has to be a plus.

  7. I’m part of two writing groups at the moment. And interesting decision on my part, but I’m still waiting to figure out what works for me.

    The big thing that I am discovering is that I much prefer to be in a writing group with other speculative fiction writers. If people don’t understand the genre you are writing in they give very different comments and are confused about things that the audience or market that I’m actually writing for would never be confused about.

    It never bodes well when someone says, “I really hate science fiction, but I thought….”

  8. I’m in a writing group in Second Life. We use Google Groups to post writing, then post the critiques, as well as discuss them in Second Life. It works well for me and I’ve learned quite a lot!

  9. Sam makes an interesting point. And while I think it is kind of nice to have people you’re familiar with in your writing group (it makes it a lot easier to receive honest criticism for one, when people don’t have to pussyfoot around you for fear of offending you) it’s also nice to get criticism from people who maybe don’t know your work so well. They might be less willing to accept something that will be explained later, or whatever, and that’s good to know.

    Regarding Eliyanna’s comment, I don’t know, I actually like having readers who aren’t speculative fiction writers (well, as well as some that are). Yeah, sometimes comments from people who don’t know the tropes of fantasy or whatever have to be taken with a grain of salt… But I think it’s helpful to know if your writing does or does not appeal to a wider audience then just the people who frequent the science fiction/fantasy bookshelves.

  10. Our current writing group has a fantasy writer, an SF writer, a horror writer, a paranormal romance writer, and a YA writer who dabbles in all four. Plus we have three people who don’t write at all. We find that the wide range of genres is sometimes nice, because it brings in a lot of perspectives and gives us a lot of variety when we read, but it’s also sometimes a bad thing because so many comments start with the phrase “I’m not in your target audience, but…” or “I don’t know anything about this, but….” So it can be good and it can be bad. I think it helps that we’re all “genre” writers, though; if we had someone in the group with no background in SF or fantasy I think they’d be a lot less useful.

  11. I’ve experienced genre bias from a teacher before, and it was almost enough to make me stop taking writing classes. I poured my heart into a short story I wrote for her class, and while my peers gave me helpful and positive feedback, she gave back comments which made it clear that she hadn’t even read it carefully. Worse, her grading system involved trying to make everyone’s work look like it would if she had written it herself: “In order to get a good grade, you must change x, y, and z in these specific ways.” She wasn’t interested in leaving any room for individual styles. I always meant to go back and revise that story my own way, but I still have trouble even looking over it without becoming angry and frustrated.

    Thankfully, a year later a friend talked me into taking another writing class, this time with a teacher I already knew I trusted. It was for poetry rather than fiction (creative writing at my university was only categorized by fiction, poetry, and drama), but it was the best experience I had in four years at that school. Rules for workshopping were based on making observations about each other’s poems and the impressions they left. The main difference between the two classes seems like what Brandon was saying about being descriptive. It’s a lot more helpful to know what readers see in your work than it is to get specific suggestions about what to change and how to change it. No two people would tell the same story in the same way, and even when taking good advice the goal is still to tell the story your way. Or, rather, the POV character’s way. :)

    Most of the students from my poetry class still keep in touch and share work through a website one of them set up. It’s not exactly a writing group, but it’s fun. :)

  12. I tried an online writing group, but it pretty much went nowhere. I am going to have to try going “live”.
    Anyone here in Northern Utah County want to make a go of it? I’ll even offer up cookies for the first meeting. Plus I think I can arrange for prizes after a period for things like consistent attendance, furthest commute and other such things. Who knows, maybe we even have a published author in the area who can participate and lend some credibility. Heaven knows I don’t bring any to the table (other than the cookies).

  13. Your mileage with online writing groups will vary a lot. I’ve had great experiences at Liberty Hall Writers, and some so so experiences. Most of it revolves around the quality of the critiques (and I don’t mean whether they liked my story :-) Notebored is another site with some great folks, and they create small teams of people to help each other with novels. Very laid back.

    The podcast (great as usual!) reminded me of this article by James Gunn: http://www2.ku.edu/~sfcenter/critique.htm


  14. @ Anyone

    Does anyone have a good writing group critique form designed specifically for speculative fiction? (Not a general critique form, I have plenty of good examples of those.)

  15. Um…. gjys? Er, and gals…

    Y’know, if someone could figure out a way for us to post our projects around, we could all, y’know, create our own online writing group. Maybe.

    I know, crazy talk! A whole batch of us writers all looking for others like ourselves to be in a writing group. I just can’t imagine being a part of a group of people who regularly whing about our writing…

    (Was my sarcasm set high enough? I had it set to eleven…)

    Oh! Oh! We could call it READING EXCUSES!!

    *tick* *tick* *tick*

    (I’m just waiting to see how long it takes Howard to figure out how charge for admition…)

  16. Hey now. Howard is always acutely aware that his fans don’t have infinite resources and tries very hard to ensure that anything he offers has real value. I doubt he would charge for us to join such a website.
    However I wouldn’t put it past the three of them to want a slice of the royalties of anything that got published as a result of help from the site. :D

    Ya got a good idea there though. I’m up for it. Does anyone know how to set up a website such as that? I may be able to put the computer box together, but I suck at making it do stuff.

  17. Stupid suggestion: you might want to use a wiki. That way, anyone who joined could add content in a you-don’t-have-to-be-a-computer-genius way.

  18. I’d suggest an actual forum, actually. It means that everyone would have to register, but you’d be able to make the content members-only, just in case anyone’s worried about putting their content online.

  19. Ah, that’s right–if your ultimate goal is to get published, you should avoid putting your work out there for just anybody to read. Something about first right of publication.

    Ah, well, I did warn you that it was a stupid suggestion…

  20. Yes, I am a bit paranoid about plaguism.

    Raethe, did you notice that the PDF I sent of my script is read & print only? No copy or paste allowed!

  21. Jen: When it comes to first time rights, that’s mostly a concern with short stories. Publishers (to the best of my knowledge) don’t care about first serial rights when buying novels… But you’re right, it can be an issue when it comes to publishing short stories. Not all publishers care about first-time rights (Jim Baen’s Universe is one that doesn’t, for example), and not all magazines will consider Internet publication a problem… but most will.

    Making a members-only forum would probably solve that problem though. A lot of the places that do specify no Internet publication also say that online critique groups aren’t a problem, just as long as not just anyone can see them. They just want to make sure the story hasn’t already hit its target audience by the time they publish it. A few beta readers are of no concern to them.

    Karl: I, uhh, have been kind of sort of doing homework/writing my book/buggering off to other countries and, er, haven’treallylookedatityet.

    But I did take a few moments to admire your nifty cover page?

  22. There’s really no excuse for my not being in a writing group right now being in J-school quite literally surrounded by writers at all times. Yet I haven’t been in one for over two years now.
    So why is the procrastination fairy telling me to wait until after I’m done with finals and projects?

  23. Is there any way you three could do a segment on weaving in multiple perspective into each other? I recently started trying to add a third POV to my first draft, and I’m worried that I’m ruining the pacing, and I’m not sure exactly how to fix it, especially since the first two POV’s are similar to each other, and the third is radically different (as in set in a different time, place, were the connection between the three story lines isn’t at first apparent). Any advice on how to balance this?

  24. This is off-topic, but I wanted to thank our podcasters for getting such great guests. I didn’t know about Patrick Rothfuss, but I just finished reading Name of the Wind and oh-my-god, I loved it.

    I’m always looking for books to buy and I really trust the recommendations that come from this podcast. They’ve all been right on.

    Keep telling me what to read next!

  25. Raethe: It was a rhetorical question to highlight the fact that some of us are already making attempts to share our work with others from this here very same forum.

    “Next on Cover Art Excuses, how to get people past the first page! Fifteen seconds long, cuz that’s our attesion span!”

    Homework/writing a book/that other thing about countries are all fine and noble pastimes, and should be a priority about all others, including (but not limited to) sleeping, eating, grooming, breathing or reading scripts.

    JEEPERS! I’ve got a test tomorrow!! I’d better go study!!! (No, really, I do)

  26. If we can get someone who has been part of a writing group to help run the forum AS a writing group, that could well work.

    Oh and Karl, trust not in the security of PDF locks. I know of multiple programs and hacks to get around them.
    Some people should never let marketing people use Acrobat. They always manage to mess thing up. Had a stupid project team leader who managed to not only lock up the file that all the team needed to work with but also embed it in a locked PowerPoint presentation as well.
    Sometimes I don’t miss being an IT guy. If I were honest, it is most of the time.

  27. Am I the only one who gets an adrenaline pump when I hear one of our favorite podcasters say the words, “…in our forums…”? Sadly, I still check _every_ time a forum is mentioned. Even if I’m listening to an old podcast for a second (or tenth) time.

    I know enough about forums to break them. Beyond that, my skill is limited to posting spam. I would SO join a Reading Excuses forum. That is, if I’m allowed.

  28. I don’t the point of PDF locks and whatever else is to make it impossible to get at one’s work, because that would be, well, impossible. It does make it more difficult, which makes people more likley to go do something else.

    WEKM: I should imagine a forum should pretty much run itself, shouldn’t it? Unless you’re asking people to volunteer for the position of Workshop Etiquette Nazi.

    In other news: You know it’s too late when you have difficulty spelling etiquette.

  29. If someone is that determined to break my siimple locks to copy my modest stories, then my stuff is just that good (which I doubt). It’s really there to block out the 99% of folks too lazy to write their own material and who would be too lazy to crack my locks.

    So I’m willing to accept reasonable precautions and will accept reasonable risks.

    Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me!

  30. Raethe: you nailed it. I figure we would need someone to help keep things in line with a regular writing group.
    So, does anyone know where to start?

    Oh, and Karl, I’ve learned that they are out to get us all.

  31. Shall I just throw up a forum for us or something? I can do that reasonably quickly, so it’s no problem.

    But only if someone else names it for me. I suck at naming things. (FIRST comment I got in a recent workshop: New title new title new title.) Or are we going to stick with Karl’s Reading Excuses? Of course, our favorite podcasters probably WOULD demand royalties then. ;)

  32. Ithink Reading excuses would be a great name, you know, in a tribute kind of no royalties kind of way *whistles*
    We’ll all just mention the podcast in our soon to be awesome novels when we sell them ;)

    But seriously, I think it would make a good name and I also think Brandon, Dan, Howard or Jordo (Jordan?) can say for themselves what they think of such an initiative, and about the name.

  33. I think Reading Excuses is great, and I’m happy to offer space in our forums on Timewaster’s Guide. I can go set it up right now if you like.

  34. That’s great, Dan, if you wouldn’t mind doing that. Thanks!

    Any way you could make our posts invisible to people not logged in while you’re at it? That’d my one request. ;)

  35. Please, this is a great idea.
    Of course now, I won’t be able to listen to the procrastination fairy anymore. Oh well, I don’t really need sleep anyway. *sigh* time to go buy a whole lot of coffee.

  36. Hi guys

    I kind of set up a forum a few days ago, just waiting to hear back from Brandon if it’s ok to post a link (don’t want to step on anyone’s toes or anything)

    its nothing fancy or special, just a free one (i don’t have the money to buy web space ect. lol)

    if someone can make a professional one, it would be awesome!

  37. ahh, i don’t know how to delete posts,

    Sorry guys i totally missed Dans post, (waking up and reading don’t go to well for me, lol.)

    Please disregard me previous message lol ><

    Can’t wait for next weeks podcast!

  38. I’ll pipe up and add my 2 cents in as well. I’d love to be a part of Reading Excuses. If it’s on TWG, so much the better since I’m on it all the time. Thanks Dan!

  39. We already have a writing group forum on TWG and a group that uses that forum to coordinate meetings over IM.

    I think that Reading Excuses should be the same, use the forum to coordinate meeting and talking but send people stuff over e-mail. I’m really hesitant to have any section on TWG’s forums that are only accessible to certain people, I’m also hesitant to host people writings due to legal issues.


  40. I imagine that the pieces being worked could be emailed to those wishing to participate, then it would just be the discussion of them in the forum.

    Send your piece to a group email, (or have an email list of those wishing to participate) then we could go over it before the discussion starts on the forum. As well, that would allow people with odd work scheduals like mine to participate too.

    Would that work?

  41. My suggestion was not to exclude other MEMBERS of the TWG, just to make the forum only available to members… But I think WEKM has the best solution, actually.

    Thanks much, Dan!

  42. That’s what I like! Go away for a really long, internet deprived weekend and come back to find the problem solved! I should have thought of this sooner!

  43. the question I have about writing groups is how do you protect your work when your unpublished ideas are being shared amongst other people. i have been answered before with make sure you trust the people in your group, but this entails that these people would be your friends and may have biased opinions towards your work. where does copyright come into play in protecting your work, and should you copyright your own work, or rely on a publishing company for that. i know this falls under the buisiness of writing umbrella, but it has not been discussed. i bring this up because i have written lyrics for a living for about 4 years now and in starting out, i had several of my works stolen, copyrighted and lost to me forever. i now work for a company writing only for them so this is not a problem for me anymore, but in a market where your on your own until you sell a book, how do you keep your properties safe, yet still get feedback, and will submitting pre-copy written manuscripts raise the rath of editors?

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