Failing Upward: Writing Group Blues

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 20th, 20122012-09-20T14:46:00Zl, F jS, Y at 7:46 am2012-09-20T14:46:00Zg:i a


Dear Julie:

I recently joined a writing group here in NYC. It was a labor intensive application process – essays, writing samples, personal interview, audit session. I had some questions re: the leader in terms of his personality and how we would work together but I put them aside and went to the audit session. The other members were very nice and gave me some valuable feedback on my script. So, my problem is this: When I read their scripts, I was not impressed – at all. Now, I know I am a newbie and have a TON to learn but it was pretty clear to me that they need to learn even more. Without patting myself on the back too hard, it just seems like I am at a more advanced stage than they are and so, I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort to continue. I’m kind of thinking about it like my tennis game – when I play people who are worse than me, I typically play to their level…and vice versa – if my opponent is better than me, I play better. I know I only improve my game when I play people better than me, not when I play someone worse. Do you think this applies to screenwriting? Can I really only get better by having more advanced, knowledgeable writers critique my work? So…what do you think? Is it worth it to make the effort and join the group? Oh, I should also mention that I now know for a fact that the leader will drive me nuts (controlling, arrogant, condescending), though I did like everyone else. This is my first experience with a writing group. Help!!

-Annoyed in Annapolis

Dear Annoyed:

I can see where the audition to even get IN this writing group would be a bit, well, annoying. On the other hand, you have to give this group kudos for being very careful about who they admit to the group. You say that you are not impressed and that it’s clear many members of this group still have a lot to learn: Do you mean that in terms of basic craft and execution? And if so – what percentage of the group is literally writing bad pages? By bad pages I mean too much black, clumsy action lines, two-dimensional characters and wooden dialogue. Or do you mean to say that you weren’t impressed because you didn’t think the scripts you read were commercially viable without theme or universality?

Well – in any event, there are two ways to look at this:

Get Out Now
If you’re already annoyed and having doubts, if your attitude (fair or not) is that you are a much better writer – get out and get out now. If nothing else, your attitude about this is going to poison what you contribute to this group and certainly what you’ll get out of it.

Chillax, Man
A writing group really does have room in it for all sorts of skill sets. That said, it depends on how advanced you really are. You are a self-admitted newbie so we’re not talking about plunking John August into this group, right? Measure the distance between yourself and your fellow group members and ask – is the distance such that I can still get valuable, insightful and intelligent feedback? And is it such that I can give valuable, insightful and intelligent feedback as well? Or will you spend time nicely explaining why the 15 page flashback (suspiciously similar to a scene in THE DARK KNIGHT) is probably not a good idea to a high school senior from Poughkeepsie? Unless the distance between you and the rest of the group is that vast, you probably have more to learn and to gain from your fellow group members than you think.

Here’s what is a big drag to have in a writing group:

The Whiners: spend their allotted time complaining about how they couldn’t write this week and they have to get a root canal. Or they whine about the story and how hard it is and how unfair Hollywood is.

The Long Talkers: take their turn and then 3/4 of someone else’s. They are self-centered and go on for miles about the backstory of their main character and how Mamet-like their dialogue is. They bore everybody else and they do not hear comments as much as use them for mulch and a jumping off point for their next rant. When they DO give comments on your work, they go on and on til even you are bored.

The Takers: show up late and leave early. They don’t attend every week. When they do, they’re all about THEM. They pretend to listen to your pages and your questions but they don’t care and it shows. Ambition drives them, but a self-centered attitude guarantees that if the apocalypse came during writing group, they would be the first out the door.

The Know-it-Alls: Their comments are brusque and opinionated. They don’t ask questions of your material, they make statements and give directives. They leave you feeling confused and annoyed and attacked.

The Emotional Tinderbox: cries at group a lot. Always has personal drama. Takes up time talking about break-up with boyfriend and how writing sucks and Hollywood is unfair. Will seize upon something in your script, even positively, and will gush over it to an embarrassing degree.

In my opinion, Annoyed, a good writing group should have one, underlying mission statement and that is to support one another with positive feedback, thoughtful criticism and intelligent conversation, no matter where each writer is on the curve. Even a very new, not very good writer can give some great feedback. You seem to want to know what’s in it for you. But you need to be thinking also about what you can bring to the table for the others. Don’t be so quick to judge; you might be surprised.

That said – if your gut tells you this really isn’t going to be a fit in terms of the group leader’s personality (I find that alone slightly odd; writing groups I have been a member of have been fairly egalitarian) and you feel strongly that the other writers are ALL at the very beginning of the learning curve, get out while you’re ahead.


6 Comments

  • Trina0623 says:

    I totally agree with all of Julie’s comments (and I’m not just kissing a**). I’ve been in your exact position before, except without jumping through all the hoops. I dropped out because I knew I would not be motivated to keep going.

    I think you should move on if only because you probably will be so irritated by the moderator that you won’t enjoy the meetings.

    Since you are in NYC, I’m sure you can find another writers group you would actually click with. If you were in Poughkeepsie and there were no other options, it might be worth sticking it out.

    After reading Julie’s list of unpleasant writers group members, I am SO much more grateful for my group here in Minneapolis. We don’t have anyone even close to any of that. Even though their scripts are not always the type of movie I would go see, I appreciate that they are good writers. I think I will bring them doughnuts this Saturday morning!

    Good luck with finding a new group. It’s so worth the effort. I learn so much from commenting on other people’s work. Going to group is the highlight of my week (except this week it was finishing a script).

  • Emily Blake says:

    My group had two of those people, so that made me laugh. You described them to a T.

    There were a few people in my writers group who wrote scripts that I didn’t think were particularly good, but they still gave me good criticism because they could see things in someone else’s script that they couldn’t see in their own.

    I left when I felt like the mission statement of the group changed and I was getting better notes from people elsewhere, but for a while it was a good source of notes even if we weren’t all on the same level.

  • Third World Girl says:

    I feel you Annoyed.

    I’m a NY writer and I thought long and hard about whether to join a group. When I did, I had similar reservations from an initial session…i.e. was disappointed with the profile of folks in the group. No sold writers, no repped writers, no big contest winners.

    But you know what? I kept going just to hear the work read aloud and I’m glad I did because I realized, as we grew comfortable with each other, the quality of feedback totally superseded the writing credits of the group.

    Sure it’s nice to be inspired by great work among your fellow writers but often you can learn as much/more from a screenplay that’s *NOT* working than one that is. Also, just because a person can write, doesn’t mean they’re capable of quality feedback. I was part of another group for a while that had very prestigious members but they were sometimes reticent to critique each other or couldn’t really articulate script problems very well.

    If you feel uncomfortable with the leader, yes, by all means, move on…but I wouldn’t judge the value of a group on quality of pages alone. If a group can make you write by giving you some kind of deadline to meet, and provide great feedback and support, I’ve found it’s totally worth it.

  • MovieGuy76 says:

    I tried getting a group together in Miami. At first it was great. We met twice a month and would read and critique our work. Then, some in the group stopped writing. Although I would try to motivate them, all I would hear were excuses. Eventually the group disbanded. It was a shame because I actually enjoyed getting together with other writers. It’s not like Miami is L.A and full of screenwriters. However, there was a silver lining to the whole experience. I met my current co-writer there. We’ve been writing ever since and have great synergy. I’m currently working on starting a new group in the summer.

    One lesson I learned is to set ground rules. The number one rule being “Write or Leave”. There’s no point to being in a writers group if you’re not going to write. Also, inform the group that the criticism must be positive and constructive. Lastly, to not take the reviews personal.

    Anyhoo…

    I say you start your own group if you feel the group you joined isn’t working for you. This way you can form the group into the image you envision. And if that doesn’t work there’s always Triggerstreet. :^D

    Rolando

  • anthony says:

    Well I am kissing ***! (Just kidding) I wouldn’t think at any stage of the game you think the other scripts are bad. Screenwriting is a learning experience and were always learning. Unless your Aaron Sorkin, they shouldn’t be complaining of how bad the scripts are.

    I just listened to Julie’s podcast again at Film Method. Julie states good scripts are everywhere but in order to become a BETTER writer you have to read BAD scripts. I do disagree with Julie’s comment that we should pass up getting help on our first few scripts. I’m on page 63 of my first ever one and I feel fine.

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