Writers' Groups from Hell
By John B. Rosenman
Copyright © 2007 by John B. Rosenman, All Rights Reserved
Some years back, still smarting from a
critical roasting by my writers' group of one of my most brilliant and
inspired stories, I had an idea for a themed anthology that would be the
most horrific and frightening ever published. It would be called
Writers' Groups from Hell, and compared to it, vampires and
werewolves, sadists, and serial killers would be like a visit to Arby's.
Extreme splatter-gore? Cosmic monsters? Creepy, gothic, Ramsey
Campbell-like atmosphere? Pah! They wouldn't be in the same ballpark.
I even started a story in which Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, and Lovecraft's Old
Ones team up to commit a string of ghastly and unmentionable crimes only
to run right into the arms of an overly-critical writers' group. As
Kurtz would say, “The horror, the horror!”
Some writers' groups can be horrifying,
or, at least, a complete waste of your valuable time. And since life is
short, what can be worse than that? I've heard of groups which are
nothing more than mutual admiration societies. They meet at each
other's homes for prolonged events accompanied by food and booze and
listen as each member reads his work. Afterward, they reward him with
tumultuous applause, tell him how wonderful his junk is, and reach for
another piece of pizza as the next participant rises with his
Uncritical praise. We all want it, but
the sad truth is, it's almost always a dangerous delusion, a tempting
lie that will hurt rather than help our creative pursuits.
Then there are writers' groups that
involve another snare. They are vicious, confusing, discouraging, and
demoralizing. Their members have transparent envies and agendas,
personal crotchets or preferences, and they are opinionated readers
rather than discerning critics. Often, their "critiques" reveal not so
much the merits or demerits of what you've written but some personal
inner quirk, wound, neurosis, or impenetrable denseness. Perhaps worst
of all, their comments may be all over the waterfront and resemble a
dozen blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and thinking it's
a refrigerator. You sit at the table or lounge on the floor, and listen
as they grind their myriad axes and their sage words go around the room.
"I didn't understand the
ending. It's too ambiguous. Why does Jesse leave Gladys? I
thought he loved her!"
"The ending doesn't work. It's
too obvious. Jesse should have left Gladys years before."
"Why does the green leaf
in the first sentence glitter? It's just a leaf."
[I actually got
(Thinly veiled disgust, implying
that you’re a pervert who shouldn’t be allowed near children.)
“Why are you so obsessed with sex? I find this scene sick.”
"Why Jesse's hair? Why not his
hand or belt buckle?"
(Thinly veiled contempt, implying
you shouldn’t give up your day job.) "I didn't like this story.
It's ridiculous, clumsy, and fails on all levels. You shouldn't
write about leaves anyway."
"A gun goes off outside and
Jesse thinks something might be wrong? DUH!”
(A look around to see if others
appreciate her wit and urging them to join in her mocking laughter.)
“Not very bright, is he? And you expect us to believe he’s a
“I have just a few changes to
suggest. Why don't you make Jesse an old black man instead of a
young white hippie and make him a quadriplegic. And instead of
breaking up with his girlfriend because he can't stand her jealousy,
have him do it because he finds out he's gay. And I don't like his
negative attitude toward women. Make him an outspoken supporter of
women's rights. That way, when the church roof caves in, we mourn
him. As it is, I don't care a rip about your character."
“This story’s too expository.”
“I like the exposition. It’s
poetic. And I like the idea about making Jesse an old black guy,
except I think Puerto Rican would be better. And I don’t like the
name Jesse. Call him Eduardo.”
Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but
comments like these are fairly common. Clearly, when one joins a
writers' group, one must be prepared not only to accept criticism but to
critique it. Some criticism is about as helpful as an impacted tooth,
and you follow it at your peril.
This brings me to the two main points
of this essay. They are as follows:
What is the benefit of joining a writers' group, anyway? Or, put
another way, why subject yourself to such insults and obtuseness?
What should a good writers' group be like and how can you
Question # 1. We need writers' groups
because we are not perfect. That is, as gifted as we might be, we have
limitations, inadequacies, and blind spots. Good as we are, we can
occasionally profit from a fresh and different perspective. Perhaps
someone has specialized knowledge we lack or sees that a particular
theme needs to be explored further. Perhaps someone else is a brilliant
line editor and can improve a clumsy patch of writing or highlight an
inconsistency or implausibility. Whatever the case, since we are not
like Mozart in the movie Amadeus who simply writes down his
symphonies as if he is taking “dictation” from the Almighty, we can
usually benefit, sometimes greatly, from others' input.
The main caveat here is that it is
still our job to judge what others say, to critique the critiquers,
especially when they disagree with each other and offer contradictory
There are, of course, other reasons for
joining a writer's group, including the opportunity to interact with
folks who share your interest in and enthusiasm for writing. Writing is
often a solitary and lonely pursuit. The camaraderie of a good group
can be inspiring and uplifting, and make you feel that you're not alone
but part of a community of like-minded souls. Plus, you can learn not
only about writing but about fellow writers, who are often amazing.
Finally, at its best, a writers' group
can be fun. My group laughs long and often, in addition to doing its
job. We enjoy being with each other and have a good time.
Question # 2. You can recognize a good
writers' group because it helps writers to improve what they write and
to sell it. Also, the flavor and feel of its meetings is sociable and
productive. Some of the comments and criticisms may bite and make you
tense, but when you consider them objectively, you realize they serve
your central mission, which is to produce the best, most marketable work
Now, for specifics. I'm not saying the
following guidelines are the only valid ones or that every writers'
group must conduct itself in this precise manner. All I know is that
for the past eighteen years or so, it has worked well for me.
1. I find that the ideal group size is
between six to eight members. Too many more and a writer gets
overwhelmed with critiques. Too many fewer, and there simply are not
enough viewpoints to revise the work well enough. However, at times our
group has chugged ably along with as many as twelve members and as few
as three or four. In my judgment, it just hasn't been as effective. An
important requirement is that the members be capable and discerning
readers. If they're poor, having a hundred of them won't do you any
2. A two-week break between meetings
is about right. If we met every week there wouldn't be adequate time to
read and comment on every piece and to write a new one ourselves. As it
is, we can relax a little, and then start preparing for the next
We limit ourselves to no more than thirty pages per meeting for
each writer. It's just common sense. Fifty or more pages would be too
We mark the stories up in advance and comment on each one as we
move around the table until everyone has had a chance to comment. After
the meeting, we give the edited, marked-up stories to the writer.
Written comments should be ample and clear enough so that the writer can
understand them later. How honest should critical comments be? Very
honest. At the same time, no one should be cruel. You can give a
hard-hitting critique without eviscerating someone. Inevitably, though,
feathers will sometimes be ruffled.
5. It helps to have a facilitator.
Basically, what he does is set up an official schedule (in our case he
reserves the room in the library every two weeks for six months in
advance). Also, he picks the person who starts critiquing, and he makes
sure no one is taking too long and we don't run out of time. Now and
then someone will get bogged down in detail. In this case, the guy in
charge will nudge him.
Our meetings are structured but not rigid. I said before that
we laugh a lot. While we usually don't interrupt a critique,
occasionally we do, whether it's to make a point on the story or to
question what the person said. Sometimes a difference of opinion will
be aired as a result. As for the writer on the hot seat, he feels free
to respond to comments, perhaps to ask questions or to disagree with a
criticism. However, we discourage detailed defenses of one's work. We
are, after all, there to hear what others say, not to rebut it.
While someone's being evaluated, he evaluates what's said. Some
criticisms are just dead wrong. After a while, if the members remain
the same, we learn about each other's preferences and modes of
thinking. Some readers are better than others, but almost all have
their strengths. One person will be good with detail and line editing.
Another may make broad, sweeping comments that prove helpful. Yet
another may prefer concrete endings that leave little to the
imagination. You, as writer, have to sift through and assay their
responses, deciding how seriously you should take them. If one person
makes a criticism or suggestion you disagree with, you might decide to
ignore it. But if two, three or more do it, you probably want to give
it a second look.
After you receive your story with everyone's comments, you take
it home and revise it based on them. Then, if you feel the story still
needs work, you may take a revised version back to the group. Here,
folks need to be tolerant and patient. I've resubmitted a story or
chapter on numerous occasions. Usually I do it only once, but sometimes
I've done it twice. And there’s no guarantee it will work.
Occasionally a story will just sicken and die. You can’t save or heal
it, at least not yet. Usually, the revision process is a productive
one. You keep improving the story, making it better and better,
refining it to a point where you just can't improve it any more unless
you put it in a drawer for a year and return with a fresh eye.
When I get to this point, I sometimes e-mail the story to a
person in the group whose judgment I respect. This is the fine-tuning
stage. Afterward the story should be ready to face the rejection mill.
Hopefully, I've done my research and sent it to the best market. And
then I begin writing my next story, because I want to have one ready in
eight days when we meet again.
That's about it. As I said before,
this method isn't perfect. After all, a writers' group is made up of
flawed human beings. At times even the best group can be hellish and
counter-productive. But over the years, this approach has enabled me to
sell over a hundred stories as well as a couple of novels. One member
of our group has already sold four novels of a detective series to a
Ultimately, a group such as ours
depends on two things: serious writers who are willing to listen, accept
criticism, and work hard to improve their work, and competent,
perceptive critics who genuinely want to help them. When both
conditions exist, wonderful things can happen.