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.
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?
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.