Saturday, June 22, 2013

I Go To Learn

Writers' Groups have certain protocols that the fledgling writer may not know. Years back I finished my first novel and went trundling off to a local writers group that met at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. (I always thought the third word of UICA should be "contemptible" since I was generally unimpressed with the various objects d'art being produced there. I hope it has gotten better in the interim.) The UICA had the good sense to kick out the writers a couple years back.

Nevertheless, I've learned a great deal from attending that and other writers groups and I'd like to share some of that here.

A local writers group needs a table and chairs and a public venue. If you're looking for one near you, ask around bookstores and public libraries. You'll most probably find a circle of like-minded people.

Each of them has swallowed minnows in order to listen to you read with baited breath.

Or not.

Most likely not. Too many people have only one thing in mind at a writers group: "I have to pretend I'm interested until it's my turn to read." That's wrong.

  • You go to a writers group to learn. 
  • You don't want to have your ego stroked. 
  • You don't want to establish yourself as the alpha writer. 
  • You don't want to discourage a bad writer from inflicting his turgid prose upon the world. 
  • You go to learn.

Suppose you write Science Fiction techno-thrillers. You should listen to the romances and the poetry of others to gauge what works and what does not. Not so you can start writing in another genre or mode, but to learn what makes words work. Even if all you learn is, "I should not do that."

And when it is your turn to read, you want to maximize your learning opportunity. Did you bring 20 pages? That's too much. People have limited attention spans. After 3 to 5 pages, minds wander. You want people listening to your deathless prose not plotting to kill you.

Are you really, really good at Oral Interpretation? Tone it down. When your book is in some publisher's slush pile you won't be there to pronounce all the syl-AB-les with the right em-PHA-sis. Your dramatic pauses and artful intonations won't help you. And even if you are lousy at Oral Interpretation, don't do it.

I knew a writer who was horrid, and when he read he felt this need to do so in a Swedish accent. I have no idea what he was writing about, all I know is I'd think, "Bork, bork, bork," and remember Muppet Show skits. Happily, he doesn't come to writers group any more.

Don't be that guy. The guy who everyone silently sighs in relief when he doesn't show up.

He read in a cheesy Swedish accent even after people told him it detracted from evaluating his work. He didn't listen. You have to listen. And you have to act on what you hear. Even if that action is independently verifying the truth/falseness of it. If you don't listen, you can't learn.

And if you don't want to learn you have no business being in a writers group.


  1. Great column tonight, I'll have to remember these words of wisdom. In reviewing your column I found it to be both slyly hilarious and very informative. I am proud to say you are my brother.
    Your favorite little sister


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