Six impossible things

A Group of One’s Own

January of 2010 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the first time six would-be writers in Minneapolis got together and formed a critique group. Within five years, all seven of the eventual members sold, and six are still publishing (the seventh went back to his first love, music and songwriting). You may have heard of us: the Scribblies, aka the Interstate Writer’s Workshop. Me, Steven Brust, Pamela Dean, Kara Dalkey, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, and Nate Bucklin.

Ever since, I occasionally get asked what we did so right. Why were the Scribblies so successful?

I’ve had a lot of chances to observe other writing groups since we all got started, and I’ve been in a few of them myself, and I think a large part of the answer to that question is, we were lucky, and I don’t mean lucky about our writing or our submissions. I mean lucky in the people we ended up with in the group. Because we didn’t ask each other any questions about what we wanted before we got started (except of course “Do you want to join a writing group?”). We just jumped right in. And the first and biggest reason I’ve seen why some writing groups stick together and others fall apart (after the sort of personality conflicts that can occur in any sort of group) is a mismatch in the expectations and needs of the various members.

It seems to me that there are three basic things that writing groups do: they provide a social group of people who have similar interests, they provide a support group of people who understand the hard parts of the job, and they provide serious comment and criticism that’s hard to get anywhere else these days. Most groups perform all three functions to some extent, but most also end up focusing primarily on one of the three.

The problem comes when someone who really needs a support group ends up in one where most of the other people want serious criticism, or someone who really wants lots of good criticism ends up in a mostly-social group. If people don’t recognize that some folks need and want a different mix, the best outcome is that some of the members will quietly leave. The worst outcome involves blowups and shouting and friendships that may never recover.

I’ve been a visitor at meetings where it was simply taken for granted that nobody would say “anything mean” – meaning, you weren’t expected to say anything negative at all, not so much as pointing out typos. When they got to me and the group leader said, “Now, we’re going to get some of that real Scribblies criticism!” I had to tell them that no, they weren’t. Because while we certainly included positive comments, “real Scribblies criticism” very much involved saying negative things. We pointed out everything from weak characterization to plot inconsistencies, pacing problems, slithery viewpoint, and awkward or ambiguous sentences, and we weren’t nice or hesitant about it, either. We didn’t have the time.

Because that’s the other reason I think we were so successful: We all took both our writing and the group very, very seriously. We had six members to begin with; seven, eventually, and at the beginning there was rarely a meeting where we didn’t have material from at least four people to go over (and it wasn’t always the same four). Once we hit our stride, we generally had at least six people with material every month, and we had to go to two-to-three-week intervals in order to keep from having ten-hour marathon critique sessions. Very occasionally, someone wouldn’t have time to read and critique everything before the meeting; even more rarely, life would intervene and someone would miss a meeting, but neither happened very often.

The Scribblies were a critique group with occasional support and social functions. We photocopied our pages and passed them out to other members a week or so before each meeting, so everyone would have time to read them and scribble comments in the margins before the meeting. At the meeting we went over each project (usually a chapter or three of a novel, but sometimes a short story, and on a few memorable occasions, complete novels that the author had been storing up to dump on us in one fell swoop) page by page, with everyone making whatever points they had and arguing about them.

The author wasn’t prohibited from joining the discussion, but he or she didn’t get any more floor time than anyone else, and had the ultimate right to cut off discussion by saying “Thank you, I will think about that.” Once in a while, the author would say “OK, what I was trying to do here was X, and obviously it didn’t work” and we’d discuss why it didn’t and what could be done instead, but mostly, as I remember it, we didn’t make suggestions unless the author asked for them. We just pointed out things we thought were problems and things we really liked, and let the author decide what to change and how during revision.

Meetings were all very chaotic, with lots of arm-waving, occasional eye-rolling, and quarts of coffee and tea. We took breaks now and again (you really can’t go for ten hours straight without snacks or pizza or take-out or something), but we kept them short. We never had a leader; we never needed one.

I learned an enormous amount from the Scribblies, as much of it from doing the critique of other people’s work as from having my own done. Still, I don’t recommend crit groups for everyone. Some people are hermits, or just can’t accept comments, or need a writing group that provides more support or socializing. If it’s not for you, don’t force yourself. For those who are interested, though, it can be a great experience and very, very good for your writing.

(I originally did this post for back in July, but I thought folks here would like a look at it, too.)

  1. I remember reading about the Scribblies and dreaming of having a group like that of my own. Instead I’ve had bad experiences with writing groups were I would end up self-censoring because I knew it was stuff the rest of the group wouldn’t like.

    Since moving out of an English-dominated country, I have joined an amazing online group and have finally connected to a wonderful group within the larger one where we provide honest positive but sharp critiques. And like your group, we discuss what’s not working, not how to fix it. That’s up to the author unless s/he asks for ideas.

    And I’ve learned not to let my ego get in the way of the feedback. If someone says something negative it’s because they want to make the book better and I ought to listen carefully.

  2. You wrote: “Ever since, I occasionally get asked what we did so right. Why were the Scribblies so successful?”

    i always thought it must have been the water you had there. I figured there was just something magical about the water in and around Minneapolis!

    • Alex – I personally have a very strong bias in favor of not making suggestions as part of the crit, but I’ve known other, very successful writers who do want suggestions…and I’ve known a few folks who can’t verbalize their critique any other way. So it’s one of those “your mileage may vary” things.

      Marina Fournier – More likely it’s the winters. Cold, dark, long – what else is there to do but stay inside and write? 🙂

  3. I have tried and tried to find and/or start a critique group many times over the years, with no real success whatsoever. So I read this with a great deal of envy.

    Although I suspect luck had a great deal less to do with the Scribblies’ success than your post suggests.

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,