Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Five: Writing Groups
Key points: when your thing is being workshopped, shut up. Heisenberg’s Law of Writing Groups: whenever you interact with your readers, you are changing their reactions. When you are workshopping someone else’s piece: Be descriptive, not prescriptive. Start with good things. Then talk about large issues that would make you put the book down and stop reading. Next talk about big problems. Last, if there’s time, touch on the paragraph and sentence level issues. But make sure you let the writer know what they did good and how you reacted. Be willing to discard three out of four suggestions to find the real problems.
[Brandon] we’ve had lots of requests for podcasts on writing groups. Dan and I started a writing group about eight years ago [at least]. I’m not sure if Howard has ever done one. [Yes] so let’s start with how you find a writing group? Howard, how did you find a writing group?
[Howard] my brother invited me to a writing group where we were doing screenplays and I tried writing screenplays. I wasn’t very good at it.
[Dan] I found mine the same way you found yours. Which was we were in college together and we both worked on a science fiction magazine and we were both in the same science fiction writing class and at some point we both realized oh hey we were both interested in this and we talked and we both wanted to write novels and we formed a writing group together.
[Brandon] whereupon Ben said me too.
[Brandon] a lot of people ask me, “how do I start a writing group, how do I do it?” I’m always kind of baffled by this question because it’s always been natural for me. It’s just been — I hang out with people — I know a lot of people who are interested in writing. I get the sense from people who ask this question that they don’t know a lot of writers. Any suggestions? How do you meet writers? How do you start a writing group?
[Dan] it’s like you said — you already were hanging out with writers. So that’s the first suggestion — hang out — find — write — local clubs — if there’s a magazine you can join in a college, do that.
[Howard] major in English
[Dan] if you’re still in college, this should be very easy
[Brandon] take some writing classes. But I think the fanzine thing is a good thing. Look and see if there are any fanzines locally.
[Howard] I cannot emphasize enough how important the local fan community is. I had no connections with anybody locally. I’d been cartooning for five years before I finally got a hold of somebody who was running LTUE and that one contact cascaded into — well, I met Brandon and I met Dan and I met 30 or 40 other people who are all local professionals and it all came about as starting to attend those conventions.
[Brandon] yeah, go to the conventions. It’s going to take trial and error. Sometimes you are going to end up in a working group with people that you don’t want to be in a working group with. But it’s going to take effort and time. And you are going to have to try some and you know they’ll fall apart or you’ll end up just conflicting with people in the group. It will just take work.
[Dan] we have to point out — most cities of fairly large size have writing organizations already built. I just discovered last year that there is a league of Utah writers.
[Brandon] Barnes & Noble. Eric is pointing at me. We’re live before a studio audience here at Dragon’s Keep [screams] and Howard is holding up cards to make them do strange things. Barnes & Noble has lots of writing groups and book clubs. Bookstores often do. A lot of the independent bookstores will have these too.
[Dan] libraries will as well. Getting into a reading club is also a great way to find a writing group.
[Howard] Dragon’s Keep has hosted in the past a National Novel Writing Month group once a week.
[Brandon] oh yeah. Nanowrimo… is a great way to meet writers.
[Dan] it’s a fabulous way. They have their forum completely split down into states, and each of those states is split into communities. Sign up for that and within a week or so you will be contacted by local writers
[Brandon] let’s move on. Let’s assume that you’ve been able to get a writing group together. How do you make it work for you? There are distinct ways — things you can do. When in a writing group, you’re either workshopping someone else’s piece or your piece is being workshopped. Let’s take it first in your piece is being workshopped — how do you make it effective for you as a writer when your piece is being workshopped?
[Howard] don’t date the GM?
[Howard] oh wait, writing groups. I’m sorry. That was very random. Although it might be pertinent. Romantic involvement in a writing group …
[Brandon] why are you looking at me? That never happened to me — not even once.
[Dan] I’m going to say — when your thing is being workshopped, shut up. You sit, you don’t talk. If you start to defend your work while others are critiquing it, you will get into arguments, and it will be a useless writing group.
[Howard] the other thing to keep in mind in that regard is that if you’ve written something and it can’t defend itself without you saying stuff, it’s broken and it needs to be fixed.
[Brandon] it tells you something. This is so hard to do, but I think it’s the number one point I would make to anyone who wants to do a writing group is when you’re being workshopped, say as little as possible.
[Howard] it’s also the hardest thing to do
[Brandon] it’s really hard. It’ll drive you crazy. You want to explain to everyone how you really are brilliant. You want to say all I’m going to explain that later on. I did think of that, I’m not an idiot. But you know what, everything that someone says tells you something. If they are wondering about something that you have explained later on, then you’ve done the right way. You raised questions in your readers and that’s perfect, that’s what you want. If they’re confused by something then that tells you I need to fix this or maybe that’s a confusion you want. You are doing market research. You are like the person showing the commercial to a bunch of people who want to try the product and what you don’t want to do is get up afterwards and say well the commercial was really bad but this is why you really should buy our product
[Howard] I don’t know if that came through or not
[Dan] we haven’t miked the audience despite the fact that we’re having them say things
[Dan] I had something really important to say and then our dumbfounded audience threw me completely off track
[Brandon] don’t say anything
[Dan] don’t say anything. Just sit there and take notes
[Brandon] right. Take lots of notes. Say okay they were confused by this point, this point they didn’t even notice so that means this, it looks like they picked up on my foreshadowing, it looks like I have a bad paragraph here. Take lots of notes.
[Dan] I will mention that it occasionally is very helpful and certainly allowable to ask questions. If they’re getting to the end of your section and they haven’t talked about this thing yet and you really want to know their reaction, go ahead and ask them. But don’t say why didn’t you understand this, that’s not a good question.
[Howard] the example you brought up — oh, I’m going to explain that later — if you present that in the form of a question, “does it work if this is explained in act two as a big reveal?” If they think it works, great, if not…
[Brandon] you may even want to just wait until Act II, and say then, “do you remember the foreshadowing? Does this work for it?” If you say this gets explained in act two what you end up doing is letting them know that it’s coming. And you then taint them for giving you comments on that for the future. And everything you say — it’s Heisenberg’s law of writing groups — whenever you interact with them, you are changing their reactions, the less you can interact with them, the better.
[Howard] you lose the ability to get a good reaction later.
[Brandon] the more… you’ll get very offensive and you’ll want to argue and that will make people not want to give you feedback because they will feel that you don’t accept their opinion — that’s another big problem with speaking.
[Howard] that can break the whole writing group as well. As soon as there’s a feeling of contention in there, it all falls apart.
[Brandon] let’s say your workshopping someone’s piece. How can you be most effective in helping them workshop to make their piece better?
[Howard] use profanity when you find something you don’t like.
[Brandon] okay. Thank you, Howard.
[Howard] that’s — don’t use profanity. Make it a personal attack. Use personal attacks, don’t attack the piece, attack them personally.
[Dan] the ad hominem writing group
[Howard] have I identified a couple of things not to do? Am I using sarcasm appropriately? Did I foreshadow that right?
[Brandon] I’m going to say that you want to when you’re workshopping someone’s piece — we often say this in my writing group — it’s prescriptive versus descriptive — the more descriptive you can be, the better. Meaning say this is how I felt, this is how I reacted, rather than saying you should do this. Stephen King says he hates writing groups. I may be quoting this wrong — he says it’s because people tend to ruin his work. I think it’s because Stephen King is a discovery writer. He sits down, puts people in situations, and starts writing, and if he shows chapters while he’s writing it they’ll give him all kinds of suggestions which will completely derail the book. You don’t want to be giving too many suggestions. You want to be saying I was confused by this, I like this character, I don’t like this character, rather than saying you should do this with this character, they should go to this place. If you can phrase it as I’m curious about this, that’s better than saying do this.
[Dan] you have to realize that the author is the expert in their own work. So you just tell them your reactions to it — this is what I thought at this point, this is how I reacted — they can then decide how best to use that information.
[Howard] we got that in season one with the worldcon interview with Moshe. Where he said he sat down with Brandon and said here’s where it’s not working for me…
[Brandon] the really good editors often do that. They say I’ve identified a problem, go for it. And you as a reader — you’ll be identifying things and honestly sometimes they are even problems. You just want to give reactions. Say good things too, say what’s working. Writers need to hear this. It’s what we forget a lot. In fact I think it’s time — I want to mention — the Janissey philosophy of writing groups — our friend Janissey — is she here? She took off. She suggested and this has worked pretty well in one of my writing groups that you start with good things. And then after that, you talk about the things — that people talk about what they thought were the most broken with the piece — so they could talk about the large issues first. But you want to do is stay away from the sentence level issues that are going to get rewritten and reworked anyway so it’s kind of like she says do three levels. Level III problems are problems that are so broken that you would put the book down and no longer read. There shouldn’t hopefully be a lot of those. But we want people to be able to mention those and have time for those before we move on to other stuff. Then level II are problems that are pretty big problems that you had with the piece. Then level I are little issues, paragraph issues — if we don’t have time for them, so what?
[Howard] I like the idea of making sure that you are positive. That you identify — call out the good things in the work you have been reading because writers — interestingly enough for a group of people who create things and put them out to the mass market — they have very, very fragile egos. And it’s very, very difficult to receive criticism as we’ve talked about in this podcast. And you can soften that quite a bit by identifying the things that you like. Those become your good karma points for being able to point out the level III problem in the second chapter…
[Brandon] well, it will really help them a lot to know what they’re good at doing. I think early on when I was having readers read my books, it was very useful for me for them to constantly say to me Brandon, I love your magic system. That identified for me you know that I want to make this a hallmark of my style, I think it’s something I’m really good at, let’s emphasize this, let’s do what I do well, and spend a lot of time on it. It was very useful to me when people said that.
[Dan] you know, one of the best comments I ever got in a writing group — halfway through my second book in my horror trilogy, we sat down and said let’s start Dan’s good things. And our friend Ben said, “Dan, after reading this chapter, I never want to be alone in a room with you again.” That’s the best possible compliment you can give to a horror writer. I was delighted by that.
[Brandon] that needs a placard.
[Howard] that needs a placard?
[Brandon] whatever those things are
[hisses and boos]
[Dan] that’s also a compliment to a horror writer. Punk audience.
[Dan] should we talk about writing group quirks?
[Brandon] go for it
[Dan] this is one thing we have noticed. Our group does a chapter a week. One of the great things about that is it lets you drill down into a chapter and get a really great handle on it. One of the bad parts about it is that it means the writing group is reading your book over the course of about a year, usually.
[Brandon] or sometimes with my books 2 years
[Dan] and that can mean that you foreshadow something early and they’ve completely forgotten it later. If they’re waiting a week between each chapter, they’re going to forget a lot of stuff, tension won’t be building as well as it should be, and so there’s a lot of the time when you get feedback you just have to say is this real or is this just the writing group quirk?
[Brandon] that’s very important to realize. Sometimes writing groups don’t give good feedback in that area. That’s why it’s good to have alpha readers too — meaning people who read the whole book through — and if you can address those specific questions at them when they’re alpha reading — you can say did you feel this, did you feel that this was foreshadowed well? I have a lot of problems with this in my writing group because I’ve had this — books that we do one chapter a week — and I’ve had 80 chapter books that I’ve workshopped and you don’t go every week sometimes…
[Howard] it seems to me that the solution then for the person who’s submitting things to the writing group is to submit their first few chapters and make sure that questions of style and character and voice and dialogue and whatnot — setting — get those addressed early and then take the book all to yourself and write most of the way through it and then get some alpha readers to help you out.
[Brandon] I almost always suggest if you can finish the whole book before you workshop it. Or do exactly what Howard just suggested — I do this a lot — write three chapters, workshop those three chapters, see what peoples impressions are, and then write the rest of the book. To not let it get derailed. You will have problems particularly with this quirk that if you’re writing as it’s going and workshopping it as it’s going — people are like oh you need to keep the tension up… ask for changes…
[Dan] I do want to point out though especially for early writers — the biggest benefit for me when I started writing group as an incentive to write was that I knew I had to get a chapter done that week or my writing group would laugh at me. That’s a really big thing and it can be a big incentive.
[Dan] we don’t have a lot of time left, but one of the weird writing group quirks that I want to warn people about is people will often get hung up on one thing. Someone reading through the book normally would never think about this. But it’ll happen all the time in a writing group. Some personal mention something while talking about your chapter and then the whole group will start to think about it and then the next week they’ll start to think about it again and they’ll blow it way out of proportion.
[Brandon] it happens a lot. It gets in the writing group unconscious that this issue is a big problem with the book even though it’s not… plague you for…
[Howard] time to take the book someplace else?
[Brandon] no. It’ll happen in every writing group. You just have to be willing to understand and when people give you feedback… I take maybe a quarter of the suggestions. One out of four. One out of four suggestions works pretty well. You have to be willing to discard three out of four suggestions when you go to a writing group. Maybe two out of four. Just going to understand that you’re looking for that one out of four that they say some, “I completely missed that. You’re completely right. Oh my goodness, how did I miss that.” And then you rewrite it. We’re out of time. Thanks to our studio audience.
Current Mood: scribbled
Current Music: Put A Girl In It, Brooks & Dunn