Monday, November 19, 2012

The Squeaky Wheel Gets The Shaft

 #34 If you are right and the group is wrong, nod, smile and slowly back away.

This is a Writers Mantra about writers' group etiquette.

If you are writing in this part of the 21st century, you've probably gotten the news that you should belong to a writers' group and you should run your prose past the other members before trying to publish your deathless prose.

I've been a member of a few writers' groups over the last decade or so and I wish I'd started sooner. You will find  prose that you think is perfectly acceptable can raise objections by one or more members of your writers' group.

Maxwell Perkins has been dead since 1947. In the intervening years no top-drawer editor has stepped in to take his place guiding literary talent through the shoals of a writing career. You need someone to tell you, "that doesn't work." And sometimes you really, really need someone to tell you that you just don't thank Hitler.

This is where a writing group is a very handy thing. Most mothers, siblings, or friends will read your stuff and pat you on the head saying, "Very nice dear." You might as well tape your manuscript to the refrigerator. Instead, you need someone who has an idea of what works or doesn't-work prose-wise. A person who writes is more likely to be that someone.

But there's a potential problem: Suppose you write stories wherein the protagonist solves crimes with two hard fists, and a hot gat. He likes his liquor straight, and his women pliable.

You'll do well if your writers group has a few manly men or right-thinking women (very, very far right-wing women). But you'll fail if the writers' group is chock full of pacifist, anti-gun, tea-totaling, radical feminists.

Writing is not a monolithic enterprise and what's catnip for some markets is dognip for others. And vice versa. A lot of what is called "bad writing" is just writing for a different market: Don't expect to sell your lesbian coming-out memoir to Zondervan.

In the ideal case, your writers' group will be a perfect reflection of your target market.

Often it is not, and that's the point of this mantra.

Holmesian readers expect Sherlock Holmes to draw some remarkable conclusion from something nobody else perceives. A non-Holmesian probably won't notice if this omission. Likewise, Science Fiction readers do not need to have certain SF tropes spelled out. I once had someone complain in writers group that he didn't know what an AI was.

Push this to the extreme. Suppose you are targeting a very narrow niche where everybody in that niche knows certain things and brings to the reading certain expectations. Further suppose that nobody in your writers' group is a member of that niche. You will get an earful.

Resist the temptation to argue. Resist the urge to vindicate yourself. You've asked the group for their opinion, they've given it, and you have to hear it.

Thank everyone for the feedback. You do not have to say aloud that you intend to ignore it. On another day they might be right.

Writers groups can be subject to groupthink. If you bring some prose to the group that's far enough outside their expectations, you'll catch flack because your prose doesn't match the groupthink. Since it's a groupthink, nobody will hear your reasons defending your prose. Thank everyone for the feedback, etc.

This works on the other side, too. When I feel the need to tear into someone who's written prose so wooden it is an insult to furniture I need to pause to ask myself why I think so:
  • Am I outside the target market?
  • Am I insisting the other write like I would?
If so, I should qualify my remarks accordingly.


  1. Appropriate advice for anyone attending a writer's critique group. The last remarks are especially important. Try this. Take a best selling sample to a critique with only the names changed. You'll be surprised.

    1. That's a neat idea. I've heard of it being done with taking famous novels and submitting them to New York editors just to see what they'd say.


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