I just realized that I've been talking a lot about agent Nathan Bransford on this blog and not a lot about my own representation Upstart Crow Literary, and that sort of sounds like I think that Nathan's advice is more interesting or relevant than that of my own personal Agent Ted. Neither of those things is the case. The reason I haven't spoken more about Upstart Crow is two-fold: (1) they are relatively new (both in existence and to me) and (2) I thought I had them on my Google reader feed and that they weren't publishing anything, but I totally didn't because, apparently, even Google is too hard for me to operate.
So now that I've corrected that error, I wanted to talk about something that Michael over at Upstart Crow said in his post "Lies My Workshop Told Me."
I've spoken about my writing group before, and about how awesome they are, but I think there are some things you should think about before, during, and after you join a group. A good writing group can make your writing a hundred times better than it is today -- a bad writing group can make you want to commit mass murder. So how do you know if you've got a good one? Here are things I look for:
1. A variety of levels of experience. Sure, it feels nice to have everyone at the same level or below me in experience, but to really improve my writing, I need to be challenged. In my current group, there are some published authors, some represented authors, and some authors just starting the query process. Now, a different level of experience doesn't mean that a writer is better (or worse) than I am,* but a published author has had someone besides her mom look at her work, like it, and sell it, and that's a good thing to have for me, as an unpublished writer. A group of all beginners is, in my opinion, like the blind leading the blind.
2. Advice that you can respect. This takes a little while to determine, but once you have a group (or a critique partner) whose advice you respect, you have won the writing group lottery. Of course, this doesn't mean that I agree with, or take, all the advice that my writing group gives me. But when they say something, especially when more than one of them says something, I listen, because they have guided me in the right direction in the past.
3. Productiveness. By this I mean that the other people in our group should be producing things themselves. Not necessarily for every single meeting--this isn't a class, after all--but I find that people who write have more insight into what's going wrong (or right) in a story than people who don't write at all.
4. Enjoyment. I think everyone who has been in a writing group or class has experienced that one person who can't take criticism. The girl who cries. The boy who gets angry.** These people make a writing group no fun for anyone; they are upset, and that upsets others. We are fortunate in my group to have people who have experienced enough critique to be able to take critiques, even harsh critiques,*** with good humor. Some of the critiques have even become running jokes after a while. For the most part, though, I think we all like coming to the group and hearing what people have to say about our stuff. I find it invigorating, even when the critique itself is rough, because it makes me feel like my writing is worth thinking about.
5. An understanding of what you're trying to do. I write YA and, again in my own personal experience, I've found that people who do not write or read YA are not very valuable critique partners. They don't get it. They tend to offer advice like "tell me more about what's happening with the mom here."**** I suspect it's probably the same with romance writers or mystery writers or even literary fiction writers. Everyone in my group writes YA or children's stuff. We don't all write the same kind of stuff, obvs, but we all have a basic understanding of what YA generally does.
Really, though, the key factor, more important than anything else, is that the group works for you. I always approach a workshop or writing group with trepidation, because there are a hundred (a thousand, a million) ways in which a group can go wrong. But a good group is worth its weight in gold.
* There's no, like, hierarchy or seating chart or anything where the published writers sit at the head of the table. :)
** I know these are sexist stereotypes, but they are sexists stereotypes that have, in my personal experience, proved true thus far. I have yet to meet the Boy Who Cries or the Girl Who Gets Angry in my own writing workshops (although I have met both in my negotiations with other lawyers -- the world is a strange and wondrous place).
*** A harsh critique is not the same as a mean one, by the way. No one in my group is mean. But speaking the hard truth about something that is not working can be, well...harsh.
**** Basic rule of thumb for YA -- with rare exceptions, no kid wants to hear more about what's happening with the mom, here. :)