by Patricia Averbach
Writing groups have always been part of the literary life. Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes belonged to The Bloomsbury Group. Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, and George S. Kaufman were members of the Algonquin Roundtable, while fantasy writers, J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis were members of The Inklings. Despite their fame, these authors found sharing work and stories with fellow writers to be invaluable. Who else could understand why they are driven to do something that is so frequently painful and so seldom lucrative? Who else could help them hone their craft and guide them toward publication?
In earlier times writers groups were dependent on the physical proximity of their members. In the digital age we can and do create community across continents. Reaching out to other writers has never been easier. However, despite the benefits and availability of support, I have recently come across quite a few would be authors who eschew all help and are, in fact, terrified of sharing their work with anyone.
Three reasons come to mind. The first, and possibly the most prevalent, is simple stage fright. Some writers are terrified that their work will be subject to ridicule or not stand up to the standards of others in the group. They shrink at the thought of criticism, even when reassured that everyone’s writing has strengths and weaknesses and that everyone in the group is there to learn and to improve.
One of my oldest friends, who will go nameless, has just completed his third novel. They are suspense thrillers involving a spy whose cover identity as an internationally renowned gemologist allows him to travel the world without raising suspicion. That’s a pretty good concept. And he has talent. He has an eye for setting, especially for the streets and cafes of European capitals, and an innate ability to create captivating plots. However, his characters aren’t fully realized, his dialogue is wooden and his sentence structure needs some work. A good writers’ workshop would elevate his game. Sadly, he will never improve because he refuses to share any work in progress. He self published his first novel a few months ago. His friends each bought a copy and told him what a great job he’d done. What else could we say? Once readers have your book in hand don’t expect unbiased criticism. Unless you snag a New York Times review, the time for honest feedback is prior to publication.
The second reason I hear for not sharing work is fear of copyright infringement. It seems that many aspiring writers come up with stories that are so good they’re sure they’ll be snatched up and stolen by anyone who reads them. They don’t know that it isn’t possible to protect an idea or a story line (Section 102(b) of the Copyright Act.) Ideas are like air; they’re in the public domain.
Here’s the deal on copyright and theft of intellectual property. First, your work automatically belongs to you even without filing anything with the U.S. copyright office. (I’m obviously speaking to American writers here, but I assume there are similar protections in Canada and the UK.) In the extremely unlikely event that you have to demonstrate that you are the original author of a piece that someone else has published under their own name, the fact that your critique group can vouch for you is compelling evidence in your favor. So, in a sense, sharing work with a writers group can actually protect a copyright. If you want to learn more, here’ a link to an excellent article on the subject by Jane Friedman.
The third, and least cited reason for avoiding writing groups may be the one with the most credibility. I’ve heard writers say that they know as much or more as the other members of the group, so why care about their opinion? Good point. The truth is that writers groups are wonderful places to find support and motivation, but only the best are capable of providing in depth analysis. Many times, all the members are struggling beginners so “critiques” tend toward unmerited praise for mediocre work or obsessive focus on niggling details and copy edits instead of structure and character development.
The solution is two-fold. First, if at all possible, seek out groups whose members are slightly more advanced in the craft. If you have the money, pay to participate in workshops led by known, experienced writers. These sorts of workshops range from pricey events featuring Pulitzer Prize winning authors in exclusive resort locations to respected local authors offering low-cost workshops at your public library.
The second option is to participate in workshops with the understanding that even the best groups can’t substitute for your own creativity and vision. Listen to what the other participants say, but don’t take their comments too much to heart. Incorporate the suggestions that resonate with you and ignore the rest. Your workshop isn’t your editor or “book doctor.”
It’s the place you go for motivation, support and tips on publication as you work toward mastering this otherwise lonely craft.