Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beware, Toxic

We’ve discussed before – I think – the absolute necessity for getting out of your head, now and then, and talking to real people, or at least those projections of real people that are various email and chat programs.

Even if you have a real job – but particularly if you don’t – writing will warp you. If you’re not in touch with other writers on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself wondering if you invented your family and friends and marveling at that amazing creation: your very cranky boss.

At least if you get together with other writers, you can argue about who wrote the cranky boss and – very important – why someone keeps writing editors that reject you.

More importantly, though, particularly in the beginning, it is important to get together with other writers and critique each other’s work.

But Sarah, you say – yes, you, the gentleman third from the left on the fifth row. Did you bring enough candy for everyone? – “My mother/Aunt Mimi/cat loves my work. Why do I need to expose myself to the critique of strangers that happen to be writers?”

Because your mother/Aunt Mimi/cat (and why is your cat talking to you? Worse, why have you taught your cat to read? You do realize if she gets hold of a work on mind-control and hypnosis we’re done as a species, right?) might not be playing favorites. They might be brutally honest with you. However unless one of them is a writer, professional editor, or somehow involved in reading a lot of the type of work you write (your cat? REALLY?)_they might spot something is wrong, but not be able to tell you what. Or even worse, depending on where you are, not be able to tell you how to optimize your work (ie. They’ll assume because it’s readable it’s good enough to be published) or assume it’s the worst thing ever written because there’s a mistake or two (i.e. “Don’t quit your day job, you have five punctuation mistakes!”) Meanwhile, someone striving to learn the craft, even if at the same level or not much advanced than you can help, because they might have discovered a way to solve something that’s bothering you. Yeah, you’ll do a lot of sharing of ignorance, but if you’re persistent and work hard, eventually you’ll stumble in the right direction.

There are many ways to find a writers group: call your local library; join RWA or the association best suited to your writing (RWA takes unpublished members. With other associations it varies) and ask about a local critique group; hang a sign on your window (be careful it doesn’t sound like a ransom note. They might think the cat is holding you hostage); and as a last resort, form one. (An ad on Craigslist might do that.)

Once you find a writers’ group, you must make sure it’s a good one. I will not mention any of the normal precautions when meeting strangers. (Meet in a public place first; have some common sense; don’t accept candy; don’t tell them your cat can read, etc.)

Instead, I will deal with: The Top Ten Signs that your Writers’ Group is Toxic.

10 - The dilettante group: You’re the only person in the group who writes. The others come for the cheese, the dominoes or to look at your talking cat. They might be lovely folks, but if you stick around you’ll also become one of those writers in name only. Come for the cookies, find another critique group.

9 - The generalist group: There’s someone who writes romance, two elderly ladies who write erotica, a punk rocker who writes biblical adventure, a gentleman who is writing his memoirs from the Korean war and those cute chicks who drawvampire picture books. No one is writing your interest which is – let’s say – fantasy. This means either they compliment you on coming up with this cool concept: elves! Or they tell you this can’t be fantasy, it doesn’t sound a thing like Harry Potter. (Or Tolkien.) RUN. Run very fast. If you stay you’ll find yourself having to include paragraphs on how and why your magical spell works. A fantasy editor will think you’re insane.

8 - The Personality Cult Group: There is one writer who is published – weirdly, usually this means one short story in a small press magazine ten years ago – and who therefore holds the key to all your future careers. In her mind, at least (and possibly her cat’s mind.) what she says sets the tone for what everyone thinks about your story. Worse, what she says is the “truth” engraved in stone and brought down from the mountain. This might be fine, if she is an icon in the field you hope to break into or if the person is understanding and empathetic enough to be able to guide you (and that usually only works in the beginning. Later, you’ll need more specific critique.) But if you’re writing SF and she writes for Ladies Home Journal and she thinks there is ONE right way to write, you will have a problem.

7 - The Clique: These people have been together since the time of dinosaurs. Instead of studying published works/the market/field blogs/etc, they have decided it’s much easier and greater fun to develop their own rules of good writing. These range from the loony “you can not use words of different derivation together.” to the otherworldly “No book with a character named Stephen can get sold in today’s market.” to the deceptively reasonable-sounding “No one will buy a novel over 100 k words.” If you stay there, you’ll join the clique. This would be okay, except their rules have nothing to do with what publishers want and will distort your style. If you stay a while, then leave, they’ll hate you. Meet, greet, drink the coffee and RUN.

6 - The Worshipers: Similar to the Cult of Personality, except the worshiped one is not a member of the group but some great writing teacher long departed. The difference between someone like me, who recommends a writer of how-to-write books like Dwight Swain, and a worshiper is that I don’t ask you things like “did you read what he says on page seven?” Unless you agree with them that this teacher is the be all end all of writing technique and that you want to write just like that, don’t bother. If you choose to stay, memorize the scriptures. And pray that this writing teacher IS the right guide to what publishing houses want right now.

5 - The Haters: face it, they’re just not that into you. It’s not even your writing. Conversations stop when you enter the room. They ask you when you stopped beating your cat. And of course, they hate everything you ever wrote. Give it up. Basic human chemistry is needed too.

4 - The Flounderers: they’re worse than your cat at critiquing. “I feel you’re just wrong here. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe it’s this other thing. Have you considered writing about cats?” If you can’t figure out what they’re saying and they can’t explain it, maybe you should consider finding a group that speaks your language.

3 - The Feuders: You’ve just joined the writing group where half the members are Montagues and the Capulets and you find your critiques being judged on the basis of which group you’re aligning yourself with. Beware any less than complimentary critiques or even praise if given to the wrong person. There will be revenge. Do I need to tell you to get out?

2 - The Concerned Ones: They’ll follow you outside after the meeting and give you “advice” strictly for your own good, of course. It will be stuff like, “You’ll never get published until you fix your commas.” The person giving the advice will have no more credits than you. But it’s their way of claiming superiority. They’re notorious for not giving their “help” in front of the rest of the group. If they’ve been in the group very long, don’t stay. If you’re both new, hope the concerned one leaves first. If not, you leave.

1 - The Flatterers: Everything you write is gold. Gosh, wow, oh, heavens, you’re even better than your cat. And your Aunt Mimi doesn’t love you enough. Would you like the comfy chair? Is that cushion what you needed? Have a cookie. We just love you. You’re so talented.
I’m not going to tell you to run. I mean, we all need a pat in the back now and then. But tell them you’re busy and can only come once a month (do you want to get fat from all the cookies?) Then find someone who will give you a good critique.

Questions? Suggestions? Additions? (What did your cat say?)


Brendan said...

Perhaps I should organise two writing groups. One which will be genuinely helpful and another full of (1) types.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

I've yet to see a whole group that fit one of these, but I'm pretty sure I've seen individuals of every type on your list. But, fortunately I've been pretty lucky with finding critique partners so far.

C Kelsey said...

Wouldn't a cat insist that you go with group 1? I mean, where there are cookies, there must be milk! :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Only you get tired. The first time your manuscript is "the best thing since Shakespeare" you're stoked. The second it's like "what, this one too?" And the third, you toss something off on the fly, just for grins and giggles and it gets the same treatment and then you go "uh." After that it's not fun.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


The sad thing is that over time even the best groups will go through phases where they are some form of those. Not always, but groups -- like people -- are fallible. If you haven't encountered any of them, you are very lucky indeed.

I don't want it to seem, btw, like you should think you're above groups. As I said, even a raw beginning group (what I've heard called "sharing the ignorance") can be helpful in the end. The group Rebecca Lickiss and I started ... oh, 18 years ago was. And we were so raw we had NO idea how anything worked. But all discoveries were shared, so we learned exponentially faster.
What I'm saying is that -- because even our group went through phases (the cult of personality when the one published writer joined for instance) that cost us probably two or three years in our writing development -- it helps to know when something is not right. If you're not just joining the group but it's your group and it's taken a turn for the worse, it's worth (sometimes) riding it out. It will fix itself, in the end, most of the time. (For instance we always went through a phase, every winter, when we were phoning it in, because there were a lot of parents in the group, and when the kids were ill, we didn't function.) However, if it's a group you're coming into cold, and you see this stuff: RUN AWAY

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Nah, chris. Not unless they are TUNA cookies.

C Kelsey said...

Tuna cookies... That may be the most epic idea I have ever heard.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...



I suppose you want them with lizards?

C Kelsey said...

Nah, maybe a little lemon juice and cracked pepper?

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

LOL, Sarah.

Very much enjoyed your list of group types.

I've been lucky in that the first group I joined was dedicated to the craft of writing.

The next group I started along with Marianne. We were 100% about the writing. It was so good for us.

I still miss the thrill of the 'Ofcourse!' moment.

Jim McCoy said...

I've had a lot of problems trying to find a decent group. I had one that met steadily (we WERE a writing CLASS after all) but it split up after the end of the semester. I need to find one, not just because I could use the help (No, I'm not saying that I don't need the help, I'm saying that there's another reason as well) but because I tend to write more when I have someone to write for.

My friends will all read my work and to them I float above the clouds, but that's not what I need. I DO have to admit that it's fun when a friend of my who is an artist draws a pic of my main characte, or when another friend does a custom action figure that looks like him, but that's not going to make my story any better. So I need to find a real writers group I guess.

Oh, and I don't have any cats, so I guess I've shorted myself one reviewer without even knowing about it.

Chris L said...


It's scary how good you are at holding a conversation with yourself (or your imaginary writer groupies).

Rowena put forward a great structure for a crit group on the ROR website. Got me so excited I want to start one myself.

I'll start with my imaginary writer friends, and maybe I'll get some real ones as I go along.

Kate said...

Um. Does it count that I'm too weird for almost every writers group I've tried?

Brendan said...

No Kate: They aren't weird enough for you.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I actually do little "tuna cakes" with garlic and pepper. They're good. Cookies they're not.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


A good writers group is a thing of beauty. I miss mine terribly, but between those who are too busy to meet and those who disappeared into the blue, I'm stuck doing it on my own.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


No. Don't think you have a big head. Increasing productivity and having support is ALWAYS a good side effect of writing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L

I don't have imaginary writer groupies. I have imaginary hecklers. It's sad. I don't get no respect -- even from my imaginary friends.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


For the Critique Coven? Nevah. We just need another two or three members. And the brat needs to be persuaded to write again.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Oh, we are, trust me!

Chris McMahon said...

Great post, Sarah. If only I had my hands on that list about ten years ago!

Talking cats - ridiculous! Of course, my Buddha statue whispers me things during the full moon . . . :)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris L,

hope you find some inspired writers to form a group with.

Kate said...


I wasn't talking about the coven - I meant pretty much every OTHER writer's group I've tried!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris Mc,

Heck, me too. I must find a time machine, and go visit my young self, and then...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L

I second Rowena

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


nah, you're just right for the coven. Witness the new collaboration idea!

David Barron said...

Bonus: Don't go to a writing group to pick up chicks. And don't say 'chicks' at your writing group. Or ever, really. 'Dames' is much classier.

I've mostly gone to the dilettante-style groups in person. I think those are the least objectionable of the list, because at least they're fun.

Brendan said...

Blast! David, I thought the Female to Male ratio at certain writing groups were their main attraction.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


In my defense, I call males "chicks" too -- there is just a certain type of mind that's "chick" -- it's worth it just for the look on their faces. Particularly when they're putzing with their car door in front of me, instead of getting out of the way and letting my drive past on city streets. A shouted "Stop fiddling, chickie and move it" gets you the funniest looks from quarterback type males. :-P
Dames might work. It's what my oldest calls women, and it seems to work.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yes, but weirdly, though I've seen people DATE while in the same writers' group, I've never seen it lead to a permanent relationship. I'm sure it does, sometimes, but it must be rare. I wonder why.

MataPam said...

Because a writer needs a reality anchor, and another writer might not be the best choice?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


If that's true I'm three ways scr**d, because not only my dearest husband, but my first born are writers. Marriage between writers happens. It's the critique thing, I think. Too easy to allienate the other when you don't like his punctuation. (THE closest Dan and I ever came to divorce WAS over paragraphing, many years ago.)