Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How do you prevent an antagonist from ruining your writers group?

I run a weekly writers group. No committee, I'm too much of a dictator for that, just me. One week writers read from their own work to get feedback. Depending on numbers they tend to get between six and ten minutes to read. That's around 1000 to 2500 words, plus another five to ten minutes to receive the criticism. The following week we have a go a writing exercise which always starts with big groans and then excitement as the creative juices start flowing. Across the year we run in house writing competitions, days out for inspiration and I'm always on the look out for places members can read, plus we produce a yearly anthology.

I run an all welcome, all abilities group.

When it comes to criticism I hold the view that once you have read your piece aloud you have lost ownership of it. If criticism upsets you - don't read. Maybe it's because of my own way of viewing criticism. I believe if you don't want people sticking their nose into your life offering solutions, don't tell them your problems. If you want everyone in a room to say wow your work is great, don't read it out at a writing group.

When a writing group works well it is a truly amazing place. You find that your writing ideas are flowing, your confidence growing, and you are learning about new opportunities, and finding different places to send your work.

The Writers @ Lovedean currently have eighteen regular members on the books but attendance is around 11 to 12 a week, with 10 members needed each week to cover all costs.

Occasionally you get a member who doesn't fit or changes the dynamics of the group, acid tongued, loves the sound of their own voice, lives for confrontation, jumps at any opportunity to argue about politics. 90% of the time you find that your membership drops as the person in question sucks the life out of a group until they don't get the emotional kick back they want, then they leave.

Recently, I received an enquiry email and phone call from someone interested in the group. Usually I'm all for saying come along and meet us, but for the first time ever I didn't. Something about the types of questions he was asking gave me the impression that ours wouldn't be the first writing group he tried. And then by one of those 'it's a small world consequences' I bump into someone from the writing community only to find out that another group is thinking about folding because of this individuals monthly diatribe and the feeling of being in a therapy group.

So how can my group reduce the risk of a malevolent new member spoiling what we have?

For the last couple of incidents I have solely relied on what I call my core 'sane members' for support. Anyone in a writing group can quickly realise when someone is there solely for the purpose of putting their own writing career first. Fair sensible individuals can provide a mountain of support.

I was asked today what are the biggest problems that can face a writing group, it took a lot of thought (and this is not just from running the Lovedean Group but my 20 years experience of writing groups and writing courses.) Anyway here is my list;

  • Those wishing to monopolise the discussion, you will find that they are quiet until they have read and then will change to subject to anything other than writing. Totally and selfishly unconcerned about those who are still waiting to read.
  • Someone who is producing a lot of writing and wish to have more reading time, they have more work therefore they MUST have more time. They will come late read and go early once they have read. They only turn up when they want something and they tend to believe no one else notices. I ask you this - do you notice when someone doesn't pay their round at the bar? Enough said.
  • Rude, dismissive or hurtful criticism can be a problem. But as I've mentioned before I usually have an idea of the people in any group who I trust to give a really honest informative feedback I ignore the rest. For everyone you find who likes your work you will find someone who doesn't like it. But criticism should be given in a fair constructive manner.
  • The oversensitive can be a real problem anywhere but in a writing group it can be very draining. Let's face it you go to a group for a couple of hours each week or month. You read, you get feedback, you decide whether or not to take it on board, you have a cup of tea a laugh and get on with your life. The oversensitive will make a general feedback comment a mountain of misery that can suck a group down. They flutter from one member to another complaining about this so called slight which no one else noticed, or cared about. Or which tended to be an unwise joke.
  • The negative. No one can ever get published unless they are famous or know someone. They are jealous of anyone else's success and wait for weeks to jab and hurtful personal comment in.
  • The drama king or queen, they burst in late instead of sneaking in and sitting down they don't care that someone else has waited thirty minutes to read, and was in the middle of their piece of work. They want to tell you all about that cow at ASDA who wouldn't give them cash back and this story is more important than someone who was reading, it was too important to wait until the tea break. And it is never a one off.

I think our group does need to have a discussion about what is and what's not acceptable.

In one of my old writing groups the clock started the moment it was your turn. We never had a problem of someone wasting time looking for the correct sheet of paper, starting searching for their glasses while everyone else twiddled their thumbs, no one made those long dialogues of I don't know if I should read it, it's not that good, it's only a first draft. Or the one I really hate...I've brought two pieces of work you haven't heard either which should I read? Well obviously the one you want criticism on doh! Then there is my all time grating on the nerves, do you want me to read it? So you have to start massaging their ego before they even start.

What is needed to make a cracking good writing group is a grown up attitude? There are always going to be people who are a better writer than you. Someone is always going to read some magnificent piece of fiction just before you read you first draft, not sure where it's going bit of dribble. It is normal to feel jealous if someone swans in with a publishing deal.

As an organiser you must make sure everyone gets the opportunity to read or to join in with any opportunities you provide. The point of a group is to be kind and supportive of one another. To have fun. To learn. And currently we have a great group of folks at our groups.

Like the saying everyone is a fruit and nutcase. So if you are a fruit or a nut come along - but if you have some other agenda please just move along.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent blog post. I need to go away and think about what you have said but I already know that I agree with so many of the points you made. Looking forward to seeing you at the hub in Oct.