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  • Donald J. Bingle, Writer on Demand

Writers' Group Dynamics


Janine Spendlove let me guest blog on her site during the Kickstarter for Frame Shop because, well, she's generally a swell friend. Check out her site and books at www.ailionora.com. Check it out You may recall that Janine's book, War of the Seasons: The Human, ws one of the stretch goals Kickstarter. Here's the text of my guest post:

You understand quite a bit about group dynamics already.

After all, you went to high school.

High school is all about group dynamics. How to relate to classmates, how to relate well with teachers without being hated by your fellow students, how some groups interact with other groups (nerds vs. jocks vs. thespians vs. druggies, etc.). Once we leave high school, we like to think that we leave a lot of that group dynamic stuff behind. After all, once we are adults, no longer confined in a space whith others not of our choosing, we can pick our friends and just not interact with people or groups we don’t want to, and if someone upsets us, we can just drop them from our life. But that’s not really true. Friends can be hard to drop and dropping family members from your normal interactions is even more complicated. Besides, there’s always group dynamics at work—known as office politics—and the group dynamics of the PTA, neighborhood homeowners’ association, fantasy football league, gamer group, reading group, and on and on.

Every group struggles with group dynamics. What to do with the person who overshares or insists on always taking charge or insults everyone else or shirks their responsibilities or just won’t shut up?

Writers’ groups have these same issues, but they are compounded by the fact that the purpose of a writers’ group is generally not just support or camaraderie or socializing, it is to help one another become better and more successful writers. That means that the core of a writers’ group is all about advice and criticism, two things that put a strain on group dynamics in any context. If you don’t criticize in a writers’ group, it might as well be a reading club. If you don’t give and take advice, you might as well be sitting alone in your room actually getting some more writing done.

So, what are the key attributes of good group dynamics for a writers’ group?

One, everyone must be willing to give as much as they get. No one wants to work at reading, thinking about, marking up, and critiquing the writing of other authors and not have the others do the same for him or her. Sure, sometimes you may be especially busy or forget to read everything or be rushed in your comments, but you need to pull your weight in the long run. Remember, that you will probably learn as much from critiquing other work as you do receiving critiques on your submissions because you will criticize things that you then notice you sometimes do yourself. Also, don’t worry if some people make comments you don’t. Some members may be particularly gifted or focused on a particular aspect of feedback (scene blocking, pace, point-of-view, realistic dialogue, adverbs, or whatever), but it is important to participate in commenting, not just seeking comments, in order for the group to work smoothly. If you’re not willing to critique, you’re not really looking for a writers’ group; you’re looking for a free editor. And, by the way, if you’re not willing to consider and possibly apply the comments you receive, you’re not really looking for a writers’ group; you’re looking for an audience.

You need to react properly to comments. Don’t be defensive, but don’t slavishly take all comments. It’s your work and you know best what you are trying to accomplish with it. Part of being a writer is dealing with comments from agents, editors, readers, and reviewers. You need to learn to treat those comments seriously, but decide which ones are appropriate to take and which ones are misguided or simply wrong.

When critiquing, you need to balance comments, good and bad. Sure, favorable stroking can help wannabe writers with their confidence and, frankly, everyone loves to be loved. But, if you are just golf-clapping at everyone’s submissions, especially at the terrible ones that really need work, you’re not helping anybody. At the same time, only saying negative things, especially if done in a nasty or arrogant way, can be debilitating for those still lacking confidence and makes the atmosphere at the writers’ group tense and unpleasant.

You need to find a group where you respect the other participants because if you don’t respect them as writers, or at least critical readers, you won’t respect their comments. Some groups deal with this by having small groups, all focused on the same genre (literary, mystery, memoir, children’s books, or whatever) or the same type of writing (short stories, poems, novels, screenplays), so that the comments all are rooted in relevant experience. Some groups even have threshold requirements (a minimum number of published works or somesuch) so that amateurs aren’t commenting on professional writing. I, personally, belong to a large, open group of diverse interests, genres, and qualifications. Why? Because sometimes a poet can add something wonderful to a thriller and sometimes knowing that an average reader can’t follow a plot twist without more explanation can be valuable insight.

My latest mystery/thriller novella is set in a writers’ group which tries, but doesn’t manage to follow these suggestions for good group dynamics. Accordingly, it is filled with personality clashes, arrogant and overly-harsh criticism, taunting, and, ultimately murder.

I didn’t let my writing group see most of it before I was finished. Thank heavens, it’s not about them.

Check out the Kickstarter for Frame Shop at http://kck.st/YMyWaS .

Aloha,

Don

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