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Story Talk: Writing Groups for Screenwriters—Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid!

Recently, I got into an argument with a screenwriter who was raving about her screenwriting group. She waxed poetic about the support she felt, the valuable input, the feeling of connection she felt and all the other warm fuzziness that comes with being with like-minded people.

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What was there to argue about? Well, my response to her was, "Quit the thing immediately."

That kind of set her off, and so the argument began. Now, granted, I can be a bit snippy and self-righteous when I get all in a tizzy about something. I tried to cool my jets, but her effusive love affair with her writing group pushed too many of my buttons. So, we argued, and in any such argument, there are never winners, just losers. She wasn't bad or wrong in her devotion, nor was I in my criticism. But, that got me thinking—was there some happy medium between her "true-believer" mania and my "file for divorce" pessimism? What was the bigger picture here?

I found myself reviewing all the reasons why I hate writing groups (screenwriting or otherwise). In a nutshell, I find them to be anything but helpful to writers. Most of the participants are bad writers to begin with and have no real experience or expertise to offer other writers. Members typically are unpublished or unproduced, unschooled in screenwriting craft themselves (that's why they're in a group), and they almost never know how to give constructive criticism (i.e., "make the Mercedes a pickup truck"). Input from group members usually falls into three categories: empty praise, vicious critiques, or banal suggestions. I also find that, over time, familiarity within the group between members begins to undermine any real advice that might be offered, as cliques form, power struggles arise and rivalries fester as the "good" writers battle against the "bad" writers. After a year or so, the group inevitably resembles more "Rome before the fall," rather than some harmonious group of supportive and objective writers.

And then there is the simple logic of it: members of any writing group are normally on the same level as other members, when it comes to craft. Some members may be more talented as writers, but when it comes to nuts-and-bolts craft everyone is usually on the same level of competency (I'm talking about knowledge about story structure, pacing, etc.) It's rare that you ever get one or two members who are "stars" and know more than the group as a whole. So, what is the point of being there? Do you really want to get story feedback from people who are at the same level as you, when they don't know substantially more than you, or don't have any more expertise than you? Again, what is the point? If you're looking for positive feedback, call your mother. If you want real story feedback, call a professional; groups won't deliver what you really need: insightful, experienced, and objective input. (Now, obviously, there are writing groups that work. But, I believe these to be rare and anomalies of freak chance.)

There is, however, an even more fundamental reason why writing groups should be thought of as crimes against nature. Screenwriting is not a group sport. Movie making is, but not writing. Screenwriting is a solitary and isolated process. Every screenwriter I know who has any success in the field has complained to me, on their Facebook page or through other public forums, how miserable they are during the writing process; how lonely, how despairing, and riddled with fear and doubt. Well—welcome to the writing life! Joining a group to avoid this reality is simply not going to work. Writing process, as I have often said, is the literary equivalent to water boarding. A writing group will not save you from the sensation of drowning that awaits you when you leave its warm and fuzzy folds. Just deal with it and know that it will not kill you and that you will come out the other end. The group will only give you misdirection, premature or undeserved praise, and ultimately prolong your torture.

So, I guess, for me, there is no middle ground, no bigger picture that might serve as a basis for feeling okay about writing groups. For me the issue is productivity and process. I think you are just on your own when it comes to both. What should you do instead, if you are truly looking for useful input and advice? There are several more productive and realistic alternatives to writing groups:

  • Readers: Develop a group of trusted readers who will not tell you what you want to hear, but who will tell you the truth. Preferably people who love to read and who you don't know, or know very little. Give them specifics on what you are looking for with input and let them go at it. This will be real-world advice you can use.
  • Story Editors: Find a great editor who knows development. Line editors clean up your basic grammar, spelling, punctuation and usage. They also conform your text to proper style conventions. Story consultants give you the story and structure feedback most writing groups are clueless about. These are people who may not be good writers themselves, but they are great storytellers and they will help you become a better storyteller (writing and storytelling are different skills). Worth their weight in gold when you find them.
  • Classes: Read everything you can on how to write and take every screenwriting class you can afford. This can be a black hole of your time as well, if you are not careful, but there are some great story and writing teachers out there who can arm you with new tools and help you with learn how to survive the water board. But be careful not to trade one co-dependent love affair with another. People LOVE giving their power away to so-called experts. Story gurus and consultants (like me) are just resources to be leveraged. Don't hand your power away and drink anybody's Kool-Aid. My mantra: Listen to everyone, try everything, follow no one! You are your own guru. Many may poo-poo classes and consultants, but I say try them, you might like them. How are they different than writing groups? Classes end and consultants can be fired!

I know that there are many writers who will read all of this and feel compelled to come to the defense of their writing group. Feel free to do so. I have great respect for loyalty. But, consider that for all the time you will wast driving back and forth to group meetings, kibitzing before and after meetings, listening to other peoples stories and self-absorbed criticisms you could be writing at home and getting pages done. Maybe bad pages, but so what. Your first draft is always crap anyway. Everybody's first draft sucks. Join a group if you must; just know that it will take more than it gives and, in the end, may leave you feeling like you need a shower.

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