(Warning: I’m going to drop a couple of names during the following story. Unless you’re into science fiction or fantasy, you probably won’t recognize them.)
It’s the summer of 1986. I’ve arrived back in Fort Worth after a week-long vacation visiting friends and family back home in the Quad Cities. That Sunday, I picked up the paper and breakfast from McDonalds and found a shady spot to eat my Sausage McMuffins in the car and look over the want ads. (I’ve always looked at the want ads, even when I’m relatively happy in my job.) In the Announcements section, I read:
"Science fiction writing group meeting in Dallas at Walnut Hill Recreation Center. Every other Wednesday at 6:00. New writers welcome. Call XXX-XXX-XXXX."
Huh, look at that, I told myself. I had just been telling my friends during vacation that I needed to get more serious about my writing. And the day after I got back home, bam, here’s this ad. If I believed in Fate, or Kismet, or whatever, I’d have called it a sign. (Obviously, it wasn’t, because here I sit in 2011 with just one short story ebook to my name and nothing else to show for my efforts. At the time, however, it seemed perfect.)
I lived 30 miles from the Walnut Hill Rec Center, so every two weeks, I dutifully drove Loop 820 to Highway 121 through the Mid-Cities to get there. A handful of short stories were birthed during this time (including “The Angel of Lies“), as well as a couple aborted attempts at novels.
The group was organized by Dan Eiler, who had written a short story for Amazing Science Fiction and a teleplay that was produced on Dallas Public Access cable. Other members included: Margaret, a homemaker married to a successful businessman; Barb, who worked in credit finance; Bob, who played bass in a lounge act; Bill, a retail worker, I think; and Pat, who worked in the classified ads department of the Dallas Morning News. All of us were aspiring writers, some more talented than others, some more motivated than others. The most motivated of us all was Pat, who started selling short stories to a science fiction market almost as soon as I joined the group. Occasionally, a published writer named Lillian would stop in to test some of her latest material.
The format was casual. Someone would read aloud from their latest work and then we would go around the table and critique it. Mostly, it was good stuff — rough, but good. Bob was working on a Western Fantasy called The White Horse, and his narrative voice was perfect for the material. Barb was working on a rich, sweeping fantasy novel. Margaret was working on an Icelandic saga that was brash and bold. Bill was working on gay werewolf stories that were…a bit explicit. Maybe too explicit for that group. Dan was working on more science fiction stuff.
If you’re thinking about attending or starting a writers group, I have some advice for you:
1. Make sure you distribute work at least a week before the meeting. Give each other time to read, absorb, and critique. Critiquing on the fly gets uneven results, at best. Members are relying on their memories for their critiques, or are writing notes (thus missing part of your story) while you’re reading. Plus, someone with a great voice or any kind of theatrical training can sway the audience, possibly pulling focus away from the weaker elements of the story.
2. When you critique, don’t pull punches. “I really liked it” is of no help at all to the writer being critiqued, unless you can pull out specific examples of what you liked and why you liked it. The reverse is true, too. “I hated it” is just as useless unless you can back up your opinion. Remember not to overstep common courtesy, though. When I say, “Don’t pull punches,” that doesn’t give you license to become an insulting, shit-spewing dickwad. You ain’t Don Rickles, you ain’t Lisa Lampanelli, and you ain’t funny.
3. Grow a tough skin early, and grow it thick. When people are honestly critiquing your story, it does you no good to get defensive or say something silly like, “It’s in the story because it has to be!” or “Well, fine, I hate your story, too!” Listen to what your fellow writers have to say. Sometimes they know what they’re talking about; sometimes they’re full of shit. You don’t have to take their advice, but if you listen openly and honestly, it could help make you a better writer. Don’t take it personally — they’re not attacking you, they’re trying to help your story.
4. Don’t do what I did. Take your writing seriously. Don’t write something because you know the group will like it. Write something that you like, and just hope that the group likes it, too. (I sank into writing what I called “business card stories” — lame jokes that could be written on the back of a business card while doing your business in the mens’ room. Yeah, my writing was that tiny — and that shitty — back then.)
When I realized I was wasting my time and the group’s time by writing those silly “finger exercises,” I decided to leave. Dan and I remained friends for a while, Pat and I communicated a couple times afterwards, and Barb moved away to Atlanta. The group effectively broke up not long after I left. One event had no effect on the other, of that you can be sure.
Okay, I promised to drop some names. The Lillian I mentioned? None other than Lillian Stewart Carl, successful fantasy and historical novelist who published a reader’s companion to Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Miles Vorkosigan” series.
And Pat? Well, Patricia Anthony went on to have a successful career during the 90s as a novelist. She was called one of the leading voices in science fiction. Her books include Cold Allies, Brother Termite (optioned by James Cameron! — the motion-capture he began experimenting with to use in Brother Termite was adapted and improved for use in Avatar), God’s Fires, and Flanders. Unfortunately, Patricia hasn’t published a novel since 1998, but that’s another story.