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
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.
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.