From 2010 through 2014, I participated as one of the founding members of a writers group that met every other Tuesday at restaurants around Hollywood to trade script notes and war stories. There were eight of us in total, all with representation, though none had yet experienced what they would’ve defined as their “big break.” We had genre screenwriters (including yours truly), drama and sitcom scribes, and even a comedic playwright, of different genders, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds. Everyone brought a distinct skill set and perspective to the table.
That was nothing if not an interesting time to be a screenwriter in Hollywood. The disastrous 2007–08 Writers Guild strike left the once-robust spec marketplace decimated, bringing about permanent systemic changes to the industry: Studios were no longer—with very rare exception—buying and developing original materials any longer, opting instead to aggressively franchise their vast libraries of branded IPs (hence the endless Star Wars and superhero movies retarding our culture at present), and since those jobs only go to screenwriting’s top one percent, the lion’s share of screenwriters out there could neither find work nor make sales.
But in 2010, the full impact of that paradigm shift hadn’t yet made itself undeniably evident, so everyone—screenwriters, agents, managers—were still operating, however futilely, under the old model, in which spec scripts were churned out by writers under the developmental “guidance” (read: marching orders) of their management, then shopped by agents lured out of hiding only by the dangling carrot of their 10% cut. “Spec’ing” is a demoralizing practice in the best of times, and those were hardly the best of times.
But our writers group was a tremendous source of comfort and counsel to me during that period. It was a regular opportunity to get out of the house for a night out, to socialize with folks who understood the particular anxieties, frustrations, and exhilarations of attempting to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood. It made the town a far less lonely place. All of us, not just me, looked forward to those Tuesday evenings. But more on why they eventually reached their end shortly.
HOW THE GROUP WORKED
The way our critique circle operated was like this: There were two hourlong slots available per meeting to review written materials—meaning a script or treatment—and two half-hour slots for extemporaneous exercises, be it informally workshopping a concept or logline, rehearsing for a formal pitch meeting, asking follow-up questions on a previously submitted project, troubleshooting a creative matter, or even polling for advice on how to handle a professional quandary, like a strained relationship with a producer or manager. It was a support group as much as a critique group.
Submissions were collected via e-mail at the end of the week by the de facto leader of the group, then disseminated over the weekend before an “off” week, giving everyone about ten days to read the scripts and prepare notes on them for the next meeting. Some members, like myself, chose to provide our colleagues with written feedback in addition to whatever was discussed in committee, but that was strictly optional; mostly it was just about participating in the intense give-and-take debate at the roundtable. If your material was under the microscope, those were exhausting and often frustrating sessions.
But they were also, regardless, reliably wonderful and thrilling nights, too. Removed from the business of Hollywood (more dysfunctional now than ever), the creative process can be a joyous thing, and it’s fun to participate in that—especially when it’s someone else’s project, whereby you get the pleasure of partaking in the brainstorming without having to commit to the long-term hard work of bringing that to fruition. Plus, it’s fascinating to observe how other creative minds work, to see the kinds of stories and characters they conjure. It makes you realize that no two sets of eyes see and interpret the world in quite the same way.
WHAT A WRITERS GROUP OFFERS
So, for what it’s worth, here are the advantages to taking part in a writers critique group:
- Camaraderie. Writing is a solitary and often lonely profession spent in the confines of your office and, more to the point, your skull. There’s great encouragement to be taken from sharing your experiences—not merely your material—with those who directly relate to your plight. Such can be the fuel that keeps you going when the grind of the creative process—as well as the creative industrial complex—wears you down.
- Direct feedback—that is, project-specific developmental notes. You get a diverse set of reactions to your material, and the opportunity to workshop ideas with folks who understand the craft of storytelling. The energy and enthusiasm this interaction produces often more than offsets the sting of criticism.
- Learning to take feedback. The leader of our group taught me how important it is to distinguish the suggestion from the note. Case in point: A reader says to you, “You know that scene at the masquerade ball? Any chance, like, maybe a bomb could go off midway through that? That would shake things up!” That’s a suggestion. The note underneath is that the scene at the masquerade ball is insufficiently compelling. The suggestion itself may or may not be the right fix—it usually isn’t—but the underpinning note has identified a problem that you the writer can now determine how to best address.
- Learning to give feedback—that is, mastering the practice of offering notes, not suggestions. Suggestions indicate what you would do with the story were you writing it—only you’re not. This is someone else’s story, and you’re merely trying to help him achieve the best possible realization of his vision.
WHERE THINGS GET TRICKY
So, given all of the above, why is it my association with our writers group came to an end in 2014? Several factors contributed.
When we started the group, we were all in our early thirties, only one of us—me—even married at the time. Cut to a few years later, wedding bells and babies were happening in rapid succession. Consequently, that meant less time and less energy to spend four-plus hours on a weeknight talking shop with colleagues over drinks and dinner, to say nothing of the effort required to read the submitted materials and prepare notes in advance. Those are, let’s face it, the privileges of being young and single.
Success also happened. Some of us found ourselves with writing assignments, or staff positions on television shows, further limiting the time we had to invest in the group. So, for both personal and professional reasons, attendance became dispiritingly spotty in the final year, often with four or fewer members present on a given week. Thusly, the diversity of feedback, as well as the interpersonal dynamism that had made the group so special in the first place, diminished considerably.
In addition, success bred resentment among those that hadn’t yet attained it. Gossipy cliques had already formed within the group once we’d started to become intimately familiar with one another’s personalities and, more saliently, one another’s materials. After several samplings of a particular writer’s work, you become attuned to his bad habits and creative shortcomings, and that results in an impulse to judge a new piece of writing before you’ve even read it. I was guilty of this myself: I knew that if Jane Doe volunteered a script, it would likely be well-structured but riddled with flat dialogue; or when John Smith submitted, the jokes would be hilarious but the plotting slipshod. And more often than not, I would only discover upon reading a given submission that my prejudices were founded.
With that in mind, you can imagine that when Jane harbors an irritation with—if not an outright bias against—John’s substandard command of structure, and then John gets assignment work off the strength of a spec Jane weighed in on creatively, unemployed Jane is left simmering. That started happening. So, personality conflicts and professional jealousies unquestionably poisoned the well after a while.
I’ve since spoken to other writers—ones not affiliated with my group—about their own experiences in a formal critique circle, and the consensus seems to be that these associations have a shelf life of about five years, give or take. Like most relationships and experiences, they’re of a particular period in our lives—important at the moment but not built to last. Even the legendary Algonquin Round Table barely existed for a decade, limping through its waning years to the inevitability of dissolution. It’s important to recognize that even if you find and join a group with dynamic collaborative chemistry—mine was alchemical, but that was a lottery win—the magic doesn’t last forever.
SHOULD YOU JOIN A WRITERS GROUP?
So, where do I net out on writers groups: worth it or not?
We don’t improve without feedback, without guidance. Period. We need to put our work out there, have it torn apart, and learn from the experience. Nearly everyone I’ve ever known has claimed to “have a great story” in them, but few have put pen to paper and actually realized that ambition, let alone to any measure of creative and/or commercial success. Having the drive—not just the dream—to tell a story, to commit to your craft, and to produce a piece of work worth all that effort is a rarity. Peer feedback is an indispensable and unavoidable component of that journey.
And yet here’s what I consider the biggest drawback when it comes to soliciting feedback: Inexperienced or insecure writers might find themselves discouraged or even dissuaded from developing a project—particularly something idiosyncratic or questionably commercial—by a vehement peer critique. Would anyone beside the author herself have seen the market potential of an S&M reimagining of Twilight? Or an outer-space adventure in which mathematics, and not derring-do, is the preferred instrument of problem-solving? Certainly no agent or manager—I promise you this—would have allowed, let alone advised, Fifty Shades of Grey or The Martian to be written. Wouldn’t have happened.
But both E. L. James and Andy Weir had a vision, and I suspect that had either of them submitted to the counsel of an advisor—be it a mentor, a manager, a critique group—in the developmental stage of those self-published projects, that vision would’ve been discouraged, or at very least reshaped to resemble something else—something more conventional, more familiar. And what’s the point of storytelling if you don’t try something different, something that could’ve only emerged from the nebula of your particular imagination?
Early in my career, I made the mistake of capitulating to the dogmatic precepts of my management, which yielded neither professional prosperity nor artistic satisfaction. Later, when I decided to pursue material more in line with my own sensibilities, they would simply refuse to take it to the marketplace—a widespread problem worth exploring in a future post—hence the reason I fired them and quit the business. (These were the same visionaries, it’s worth noting, who assured Ransom Riggs that moving forward on a weird little novel he’d conceived called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children would be a catastrophic career setback, though that miscalculation has unsurprisingly been stricken from the record.)
My point is, there are all sorts of people out there—some of them even well-meaning—who are going to try to persuade you, for one reason or another, to compromise or abandon your vision. Hell, I’ve been one of those people myself! Both in and out of my critique circle, I’ve read material from colleagues that I deemed anywhere from deeply flawed to diabolically appalling—and some of it has nonetheless gone on to be produced and/or published. One of the worst specs I ever read—written by a friend—went on to find a buyer and has since become a considerable hit, as well as a burgeoning cross-platform franchise. (And, incidentally, it’s still terrible.)
It’s a good thing, then, that writer didn’t put any stock in my criticism! Which reminds me of something master of horror John Carpenter, who’s experienced no shortage of career highs and lows, said in 2014:
“I’m here for a short period of time on this earth, and, by God, I want to do it the way I want to do it. And it may not be what you like and what you want, but fuck you.”
Yeah—ditto that. We have to learn, as artists, to follow and protect our instincts. Hollywood is particularly effective at driving that out of us, but writers groups can play their part in eroding them, too. However…
Creative instincts need to be tempered with discipline of the craft, and that’s where writers groups can be invaluable. More than the notes you might receive on any one project, participating in a regular, structured critique circle—preferably with colleagues at or above your own skill level—sharpens your analytical acumen. You’ll learn to identify bad habits in your own writing practices, as well as deficiencies in your work, and thus more effectively diagnose solutions that suggest story possibilities.
The best possible boot camp in which to develop those skills is a writers group, whereby you’ll be reading works-in-progress by fellow scribes of comparable proficiency, workshopping solutions together, and learning to nurture and respect the creative instincts of artists—your own foremost. And once you’ve got confidence in your instincts and mastery of your craft, there will be no limits on the fictional worlds you’ll be empowered to create.
So, if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing right: Be stubborn enough to protect the conceptual integrity of your idea, regardless of what others may say, but humble enough to seek out opinions and see if they can’t guide you toward the best possible realization of your artistic vision. That’s the delicate balance every artist needs to achieve. A good writers group can be an effective way to find it.