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writing well with others

Ever heard the expression “crab in a bucket?”

This describes a fascinating crab phenomenon known to crabbers the world over. You can fill a bucket nearly to the rim with crabs and none of them will ever escape. When the intrepid crab seizes hold of the edge of the bucket and begins his quest for freedom he finds himself immediately grabbed by his fellows and dragged back down.

The crab in the bucket will never escape.

This is a metaphor that unfortunately fits too many writers groups and a rather appalling number of other educational environments. Like that one crab, too many beginning writers surround themselves with a peer group of writers no better informed than themselves and never climb out of that bucket.

I’d say “the blind leading the blind,” but I think we’ve done the metaphor thing proud with our poor little crab.

So you’re assuming I’m going to recommend you avoid writers groups, right? Wrong. I’m in two of them. I spend about eight hours a week in groups. Let me tell you about them:

Group One: I joined this one four years ago. It was filled with UCLA MFA students (all alumni now). When I joined there were four of us. Two quit within two years. One decided that professional writers don’t attend writers groups (not true, but she left anyway). The other left in a rage after a critique and was never seen again. This happened just as we all gave him glowing notes on a new outline—go figure!

Group One has added and lost other members along the way. For more than a year there were just two of us. We’ve had one non-UCLA person, but she stopped bringing in material soon after joining and eventually quit. Now we have three members. All UCLA MFAs. Our only rule is “no hitting,” although I’ll admit I have pounded my head on the table at least three times.

We meet every Saturday at noon at the founding member’s apartment. Our meetings last four to five hours.

Group Two: This one began two years ago, and I am one of the founding members. It started just as I was graduating from UCLA. In my last year I had a particular 434 professor I liked. He knew more about structure and dramatic theory than anyone I’d ever met, and was very popular with the students. Several of us asked him if he would teach a writing group. Now we pay him and he drives up to L.A. from Long Beach to hold a weekly group. We meet for three or four hours every week.

What do these two groups have in common?

-I know and respect the writing of all the members.
-I know I will learn something every time I go.
-Nobody in either group is impossible to deal with or crazy.

That is the heart and soul of a good writing group. I’m not going because I think I know so much and want to lord it over other people. I am going to take a break from a week spent wrestling with what skills I have and to try to learn something new.

My undergraduate degree was in art. Every week people would bring in their work. I didn’t like most of it. But there were some brilliant people in the department. When I saw their work I was not jealous of them, because they were doing something I liked but couldn’t do. Wouldn’t do. The same should be true in a writing group. It’s just easier to detect in a group of artists, because it’s visual. I love the work my fellow group members create, even when it’s nothing I would choose to write. I am learning from them. Expanding my understanding of what’s possible.

Why you should be in a group:

1. To learn to take criticism. I bet I surprised you. I bet you were expecting “To become a better writer.” Nope. That’s #2. This one has to do with playing well with others. I would prefer that your peers be the first to tell you that your script needs work. I would prefer that you lose your cool in front of them. I would prefer that you pound your head on the table in front of them. I would prefer that none of these things happen in your first meeting at a prodco. I want you to learn to accept good criticism as a gift. And I want you to develop a humble, grateful poker face when you receive it.

2. To become a better writer. There it is. Yes, I think you can become a better writer on your own. You can study and read and work hard and you will get better. But it will happen ten times faster if you put your work in front of others. Classes can do it and writing groups can do it. I am in the process of developing a new script. I take my ideas in to my two groups. Everyone contributes ideas, advises me about movies I should see and books I should read, and warns me about movies that might be too similar to mine. They don’t do the work for me, but they let me see my ideas through multiple points of view. Heck, they even check my grammar, spelling, and diction. Free editing!

3. To help others. It’s not all about you. Your fellow writers need your help. Even if you’re just beginning and can barely explain what works for you and what doesn’t, try. As time passes you’ll be amazed at how much you learn from hearing and reading the work of your fellow writers. When the script is not yours the pressure is off. Who cares if the only solution is a total rewrite if you don’t have to do it? Your defense mechanism doesn’t deafen you when the criticism isn’t flying at your own head. You will learn faster by criticizing others than you will by writing your own work.

4. To network. Don’t make this your main reason to find a group. Yes, you may be able to take advantage of industry connections forged by your fellow members, but be patient. I heard of a writer who joined an existing group and at the first meeting demanded an introduction to the group leader’s agent. Don’t be that person. Be the person who learns how other writers made their connections and try to follow in their footsteps. If someone likes your writing well enough to recommend you, you’ll have your “in.”

5. For your mental health. Writing is a lonely enterprise. As much as your family and friends may love and support you, they don’t understand what you’re going through. To a civilian, you are going to be very annoying at times. You need to be around other people who understand you. You need to be able to complain, and whine, and even cry. In my Group One we have an agreement: if anybody cries, we all have a whisky. I miss some of our former members. We’re all such stoics these days.

How to find a group:

-Sign up for a class in your community. Recruit your classmates. Heck, it worked for me! Of course, that was a major film school. But all of my fellow group members are also in a second group. Everyone in L.A. is connected to everyone else by six degrees of writing group membership.
-Check the Internet. Post a message on a screenwriting board. If you’re in a large enough community you should be able to find other willing writers. If not, there’s nothing wrong with on-line groups. You’ll need disciplined group members, but they’re out there.
-Network at conferences. Sometimes attendees’ name tags will list their home towns. Grab people who live near you.
-Craigslist and other bulletin boards. On line and real world. Post a flier in the English department of a nearby college.

Getting Started:

Imagine that you’re not forming a writers group—you’re starting a new nation. What kind of government will you have? Democracy or dictatorship? Authoritarian or anarchy? Will you tax your citizens or be an autonomous agricultural collective (thank you Monty Python)?

My Group One is a democratic agricultural collective. We all have equal vote in what goes on and we don’t pay for attending, beyond bringing snacks and ingredients for a weekly salad lunch.

Group Two is taxed (we pay to attend) and authoritarian (we have a professor for our Fearless Leader). I would suggest that you begin with some authority structure, even if you know your fellow members. Strange things can happen to people in intimate, pressure-filled situations. Ever read Lord of the Flies? More on that later. Both of my groups require a vote on new members, and we’re very gunshy about adding people. To our credit, we haven’t had bad experiences.

Ask that writers audition for your group. As I stated earlier, you have to respect (and hopefully admire) the work of your fellow writers. You don’t all have to be in the same place in your careers, but you don’t want to be in a group where you’ve written five scripts and nobody else has finished their first. The opposite, however, can definitely be to your advantage. A mix of experience is good. You can also do well in a group of writers who are interested in different genres, if you are all open minded.

Make sure that new members serve a probationary period of at least a month for weekly groups. Make sure their work is put before the group during that time. You need to know how they give and receive criticism. Give them time to cease being on their best behavior. Hold a secret vote among existing members on the new member’s inclusion.

How many people should you have in a group? As I mentioned, my Group One was down to two people for a long time. We managed to fill five hours a week just fine. We are now three, and I have no desire to grow from there. Of course, we’re a fairly advanced group. We fight over some issues beginning writers shouldn’t even think about.

My Group Two is larger. We have a half-dozen members on any given evening. Every week our Fearless Leader gives us a lecture on writing and theory, and then we work on material. Not everyone gets his or her work done every week. I wouldn’t recommend a group larger than six members.

Where to meet:

The most common and least successful option is to meet at different group members’ homes on some kind of rotating basis. Something always goes wrong at the last minute. Somebody’s kid gets the chicken pox or someone has to go out of town and the whole thing falls apart. Instead, try to find a public place you can use. My Group Two met in the community room at the Fairfax Farmers Market for more than a year. Yes, we had to pay for it, but that increased our commitment to attend. Find something similar. Perhaps one member lives in a condominium or apartment development that has a rec room available.

How often to meet:

I am devoted to a weekly schedule. It may be impossible for your group. I find with a larger interval between meetings it gets too easy to forget or skip meetings. But do have a mechanism in place that allows members to take a sabbatical. The pressure can get to people. Some people will leave for vacations. Some will not attend when they’re absorbed in writing a particularly intense script. This is a group, not high school. Nobody should get in trouble or be kicked out for taking time off (within reason).

What to do:

Here is the pattern for a typical session of my Group One:

-Whining about life/writing (30 mins.)
-Business issues (30 mins.)
-Read & Critique (2 hrs.)
-Lunch (30 mins.)
-Read & Critique (1 hr.)

As often as not we spend another half hour in the parking lot talking about what we did that day. You can see that it takes some time to settle into the day’s work. You have to clear your thoughts of other issues and catch up with each other. Our system isn’t perfect—we have lunch around 3:30, but we do well in the snacking area.

Group two is similar:

-Whining about life/writing and ordering pizza (30 mins.)
-Lecture (30 mins.)
-Eating pizza (30 mins.)
-Read & Critique (2 hrs.)

The heart of both groups is Read & Critique. This is also the heart of the 434 in UCLA’s MFA program. The method there is for each student to bring in ten pages of their script (or an outline or treatment), which the group then reads aloud, the author having assigned the speaking parts. That is what we do to this day. If you move efficiently, every member of the group should be able to have their work read. Some professors at UCLA would use timers to limit critique to fifteen minutes for each student, but that doesn’t happen in my two groups. Some writers need more time than others.

We also critique entire scripts on occasion. This often happens before a writer begins a rewrite. The writer gives out the script one week and we all read it and prepare notes for the following week. Yes, a good writing group will ask you to give some of your time outside the group.

A good group will also do more than offer criticism of your script. It will keep you up to date with what is going on in the industry. You will hear from your fellow members about research they’re doing, books they’ve read, classes and conferences they’ve attended, and marketing tactics they’ve tried. You will have the advantage of knowing writers who are at different places in their careers. You will learn.

When it all goes wrong:

Get your parachute; you may have to bail. Note that this is easier if you have joined an existing group and it doesn’t work out for you. What if you’ve started a group and it goes bad? What if the group meets in your home? Trouble.

Assuming your group is not swept away in a flood or struck by lightning, your problems will come from personalities. Beware of:

-The Crazy. ‘Nuff said. You might have to burn your house down to get rid of these folks.
-The Cruel. Some are obvious. Others are unctuous and subtle. They feed on the dreams of their fellow writers. If they never seem to like anything and never offer constructive criticism, boot them.
-The Accolytes. These people have welded their brains to one of the screenwriting gurus and cannot think independently. If Syd Field or Robert McKee didn’t say it, it can’t be right. It’s usually best to invite these people to leave. It saves you the mess when the rest of the group rises up and kills them.
-The Perfect. Somewhere along the line somebody told this person that they were a good writer. This can be a tragic thing. This writer now assumes that every word that drops from their fingertips is flawless. Their writing will never change. It will certainly never improve. They will not take criticism, but they sure as heck expect you to do everything they tell you.
-The Diva. They absolutely have to have their work critiqued first every week and manage to swallow most of the group’s time. Theirs is the first voice heard when other writers receive their critique. Just annoying.
-The Depressive. This person is doomed. Nothing they try is going to work. They sit in the group week after week with a small dark cloud over their head, rain falling on them. Can cause a contagious bummer.
-Batman. This writer appears from out of the shadows when there’s trouble (with their script) and then disappears. They will never show up if they don’t have material. The worst will appear with an entire script, get the other members’ notes, and vanish. They do nothing to help others. Get rid of them.

I’m sure you’ll find others. And some of these people can be rehabilitated. I’ve met every one of them. Only the crazy cannot change.

End notes:

Not every writer needs a writing group. Not every writer needs the opinions of others. We call them poets.

You will face the opinions of others every day as a screenwriter. Your work will live and die at the whim of twenty-something business majors. And at the informed opinions of brilliant people who have been in the movie business for years. You only get one chance with these people. Wouldn’t you rather have a first read from other writers you respect?

I would.

A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. -Thomas Mann