On Writing Groups

Writers have this…I guess you might want to call it a ‘reputation’ for not always being the most sociable type of people. At least, that was the old school stereotype. If you go by your standard stereotype of the modern writer, traditional or indie, you run into people that are constantly posting, constantly interacting, etc. etc.

And this post has nothing to do with any of that.

Well, not entirely.

I wanted to write a little bit about writing groups and the good that can come out of them as well as some of the pitfalls you might run into.

So a writing group, using the vaguest possible definition, is a group of writers who get together to…well, write. The most common way they operate is a group of 5-7 people will submit work to a centralized hub/person, and then the group will critique the pieces as a whole.

The positives

I think the best thing about writing groups is that they help develop a tough skin and also help you come out of your shell and share your work. If you want to make a career out of writing, this is the biggest plus.

Writing with other writers can also make your writing stronger, both for the ‘writing for an audience’ sense and also in the craft sense. Even if you are writing in entirely different genres, there’s always something to learn about writing, even if it’s how someone else writes. Sure, there are hundreds of thousands of podcast and Youtube hours that you can check out, but there’s something different about doing in realtime with a human being (virtually or otherwise). And if you’re trying to get out of investing time and money into an MFA program, writing groups are a good way to reduce those cravings.

When the chemistry is there, it can be a fantastic experience. One of my favorite writing group moments happened a couple of years ago. A longtime friend invited me to take part in a little tiny writing group that he had formed with two others. Although the experience was short-lived (due to time and family commitments we only met for a few months) it felt really cool to sit down and write and have an experience that mirrored that of my MFA.

The cons

Chemistry. Writers…we all have to deal with that ego monster, and if there’s no chemistry then it’ll just make that monster rear its ugly head much sooner than expected or wanted, and it can sour someone on the general writing experience. A couple of years ago, my ex-wife and I attended a writers’ group in town. Same process I described earlier: submit pieces, make comments, and then discuss these when meeting with the group. Luck of the draw, she was the one picked to submit with a few others, and when we got to the group, NO ONE had read the piece, offering only the most base level of critiques.

And I think that’s why chemistry matters, because if you have chemistry with someone, that comes with respect.

Years before that, I joined a writers’ group on reddit. The prompt: slice of life involving numbers, I think 300 words max. I wrote a little thing about people crossing the border.

“It’s too political!” I remember the guy said, dismissively, before moving on to a different story. That was the feedback.

There was nothing political about the story other than the fact that a Mexican writer wrote it, and that’s something I’ll talk about later — how BIPOC authors cannot be separate from their identity because their very existence can be seen as political.

Anyway — that’s the chemistry aspect.

There’s also a downside to writing with people outside your genre…there are certain things you take for granted/accept. Tropes, styles, etc. I’ve done some consulting work for [redacted] and when I read the first manuscript, it was a struggle. I was coming at it from a literary style of writing and didn’t even consider that the way this particular genre worked meant a big ol’ middle finger to the conventions I thought worked.

And a final ‘con’ — time. I love Dungeons and Dragons. These last two years, I’ve loved the idea of playing Dungeons and Dragons more than actually playing it because of the time commitments. Even if you were to keep a 3-5 person group, that’s still 5 moving pieces with moving schedules to keep track of.

So how to find your group

Honestly? Talk to friends who also want to write with you. They (hopefully) already have some chemistry with you. Pick a time and pick a place. Google Drive tends to be very friendly for things like these. Submit something reasonable. I’m talking about at MOST, a chapter of your story, or three different poems. Then make the comments throughout the week. Get together at an appointed date to discuss.

And of course, set expectations for reviewing things. I deeply dislike the compliment sandwich.

“hey, you’re good!”
“thanks!”
“your piece makes the baby Jesus cry”
“oh.”
“but I don’t find you totally objectionable as a human being!”

I’d rather comment things like: “Consider putting this descriptor earlier in the paragraph,” instead of a forced compliment. I still try to find something to comment on, but it’s got to be free and not tied to two critiques.

In person, there’s Meetup, I’ve had mixed results for that. And now since the Pandemic there are several options available on Discord* I’m in a few of them.

Besides that — Meetup has options!

*You just have to avoid the Obsidian Palms bad habit of joining a Discord group and then being entirely inactive on it.

Published by obsidianpalms

Hugo Esteban Rodríguez Castañeda is a writer and educator hailing from Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley. He is the author of “…And Other Stories” (2018, La Casita Grande Editores) as well as other short stories, poems, and essays that have appeared in places like The Airgonaut, The Acentos Review, Picaroon Poetry, Neon Mariposa, Mathematician Transmission and the Texas Poetry Calendar. He is a graduate from the University of Texas at El Paso's MFA program and hus fiction has been recommended as part of Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net slates and was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50. He is currently a reader for RUBY Lit and occasionally freelances as a content editor for a publishing company. A fountain pen enthusiast, he lives in Northwest Houston and is most at home at coffeehouses, shopping malls, and mosh pits.

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