To Group or Not to Group?

This afternoon I will suffer the slicing and dicing of scalpels in the autopsy procedure known as “roundtable” when fellow members of the Novel-in-Progress (NIP) group of Austin review 25 pages of Redline, the second of a planned series that begins with Pilot Error.

I joined NIP in early 2003 when I felt that my progress in learning the craft had stagnated and I needed to break free from the confines of my writing desk. The following thoughts provide a personal retrospective of eight years in the group.

Each writer has to determine whether a group serves a useful purpose. This raises a fundamental question as to whether you care what anyone else thinks. Assuming you do, or you at least are willing to explore the possibility, the next question is whether  you should discuss your novel with anyone until it is complete at least in first draft. Some writers think that’s a mistake. Create your novel in isolation and seek comments from others only during the editing process with subsequent drafts.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Pilot Error was complete when I joined NIP, but Redline isn’t. Today will be my third roundtable with it, which means that 75 pages out of about 250 written so far will have been critiqued. I participate in a smaller group as well, however, so all of the incomplete Redline manuscript has been reviewed by others at least once. In the case of both novels, the experience has been positive enough to continue participating.

Like any social entity, each writer’s group has a distinct character that changes over time, and a writer needs a group compatible with his or her personality and interests. The most basic criteria is the difference between what I might choose to call a “fluff” group, in which the primary objective is to participate in a mutual admiration society, and a “true” critique group.

These are my personal distinctions, of course, and they result from my belief that it serves no useful purpose to hear anyone else validate what I already think. If I don’t feel the pages I submit are good, why would I submit them? The benefit derives from being challenged to re-evaluate what I’ve written. Then it’s up to me to decide what to do with the critiques.

Roundtable comments exist on a continuum. At one end there’s what I might call a “light bulb” moment. A reviewer might say something that resonates with me to the point that I can’t wait to get home and incorporate it. At the other end resides the “bogus” comment, something that I feel deserves an immediate trip to the trash. Most of the positive roundtable experience for me involves the middle ground with comments and suggestions that I end up incorporating in whole or in part after further consideration.

Comments also vary by how often you hear them. Some are offered only once, receive no support from other members of the group, and are often the ones the most easy to reject. But one member can also see something no one else does, and it becomes an item you immediately accept because it needs no supporting opinion. Unanimous comments are the hardest to reject because if the group is good enough to stay with, widely held opinions carry the weight of authority that you have already accepted as beneficial by choosing to participate.

When I joined NIP, I anticipated that the primary benefit would be derived from my own roundtables. That has not proven to be the case. The basic reason is that much more time is spent reviewing other writers’ material than in being reviewed, and my long-term participation is due to the fact that I have learned as much or more by writing critiques than receiving them. Two distinct factors, neither of which I could have predicted, serve to illustrate the point.

First, very few of my writer friends have much personal interest in commercial genre fiction. To critique my submissions, they have to depart their “comfort zone” and vice versa. This fundamental difference requires a unique approach to both writing reviews and receiving them. To my surprise, forcing myself to critique something I would never buy for my own reading pleasure, but with the commitment to provide the most useful comments I can, might well have taught me more than if I were reading a mystery/thriller. The requirement to “get outside myself” has been a prime source of valuable lessons.

Second, but just as important, is the fact that a room full of writers can read the same 25 pages and come up with such a variety of things to say about it. “Why didn’t I see that?” is a common personal reaction to the comments of other reviewers.

A third factor also deserves mention. While roundtable discussions appear at first glance to be the heart of any group, in reality the associations that develop outside the group provide even more benefit. Identifying a few writers as “critique buddies” that you can trade material with on a regular basis is the only way to be reviewed with sufficient frequency to directly enhance your own writing.

Most important to the writer’s group experience is that egos must be left at home. If you don’t have a thick skin, you won’t last very long, especially since some reviewers are less able than others to assess the difference in impact between what they say and how they say it. That’s reality, and you either deal with it or the experience will be more trouble than it’s worth.

At eight years and counting, I’m a writer’s group junkie with no plans to go cold turkey.

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