Got an email the other day from a writer who's aiming to set up something similar to the GSFWC in their own town and wanted to pick my brains. He'd noticed it was an open workshop, run along Milford lines, but some of the people he's got interested in setting up a critique group are, it seems, a bit worried at the prospect of being swamped in dross--shoddy copyism and outright fanfic. So, he wanted to ask how we at the GSFWC handle new members. I wrote him back, basically as follows. Thought it was worth posting for the interest of others who might have similar questions. So...
You might want to drop Neil Williamson a line too,
as he's sort of fallen into the role of official organiser--first
contact for new members, intermediary with the venue and whatnot--but
I'm happy to blather a bit about the workings meself.
So, the GSFWC is kind of an anarchist collective. Yeah, it's run along
the Milford lines: the story is posted on a Yahoo Group in advance for
everyone to download and read; on the night, we go round the circle one
by one, each member giving their critique; the critiquee has to stay
schtum unless asked a direct question; at the end, they get to rebut;
then we go to the pub, where they get a pint to make up for the ordeal,
and we all blether away.
And yep, it's an open door policy. Nobody really being in charge (no
secretary or treasurer or bollocks like that) is aimed at no internal
politicking, and that rules out controls on entry. If we had to debate
who got in, who didn't, that's where I think there's a risk of it all
going pear-shaped, becoming about the irrelevant social status stuff you
get with any such group, rather than the writing above all else. All we
really have is Neil Williamson acting as pointman, and a few long-standing members
like myself who'll make an effort to ensure that at least one of us is
along if another can't make it, in the event of a new member. Someone to
explain how it operates and such.
Neil tends to be the first line of contact, as most new members find us
via the website and drop him an email. The advice is usually to come
along and sit in on a session, see how it works. We meet in a room in a
church--pubs being too noisy, we've found--which costs £2 a head, but
for new members there's a "first time is free" policy. New members
should see from the session itself that it's no-nonsense... chatty
beforehand, but then sleeves up and down to business. We're not wholly
inflexible about the conch-style "X is speaking, so everyone else STFU"
structure, but if it gets a bit feisty, you want someone ready to
tactfully remind people that they've had their turn (or will have it
shortly.) "We can discuss that after in the pub," is a useful tactic.
In practice, we've evolved a sort of principle that once a speaker has finished,
if you've already spoken but something that person said sparks a realisation, a
polite "Oh, I meant to say that too," or "Can I just add something
quick?" is not verboten. But it has to be pithy as fuck. Us senior
members try and lead by example more than anything. (Though I'm probably one of the most fail-y when it comes to "Oh, I just thought of something else!")
We generally stress that there's no pressure to submit something
immediately; indeed, we encourage new members not
to be too keen, to come
back for a few sessions and get a good sense of what they're in for. If
someone immediately wants to submit a work, that's maybe even a warning
sign, I'd say, that they're looking for validation rather than feedback.
Like, if it was the latter they'd want to gauge the quality of feedback
they'll get. Or they'd be more reticent about whether their work was of
a standard. Not sure why, but it just seems like the ones who sit in on
a session and immediately want to put something in... they tend to be
the ones least likely to fit in.
To be honest, we've had our share of hobbyists and cranks like that over
the years, but they tend not to stick around. I don't think we've ever
had anyone want to submit actual fanfic, but if that were to happen, it
would be outwith the remit: the aim of the GSFWC is explicitly to try
and push stories up to a professionally publishable standard, and fanfic
is automatically not professionally publishable by dint of copyright
issues. It's worth being upfront about that aim then. As I say though, I
can't think of any time we've had to veto a story on those grounds.
Otherwise, if new members are looking for the empty back-slapping of a
mutual masturbation society, they're in for a rude awakening. The ones
who bring in hobbyist drivel or therapeutic wank, they're not really
aspiring to create sellable work. They're not aspiring to create work readable
by anyone other than themself. They don't really want the
Circle to help improve their work in that respect. They just want to
show their handful of poop and be told what a clever boy they are. The
simple way to deal with them: just critique the work as you would any
You may need to talk around the fact that clearly the writer is a fucking mentalist
, but a Mary Sue is a Mary Sue and bad fiction for
that reason. A personal symbology that's utterly inaccessible to another
reader cause it's based on the can of worms inside the writer's head...
that will make a story a failure, plain and simple. You can be tactful
if you want, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, be blunt
with stuff that's embarrassingly revelatory of a writer's nutjobbery,
and say, "Sorry, this reads as therapeutic writing. It reads like it's
processing personal stuff as an end in itself, not to engage with an
audience via narrative." A useful tack: "I don't see what market there
is for this." Again, it pays to be clear about the aim of professional
Ultimately, if someone brings in some crazy ass godawful derivative BDSM
Mary Sue which is unwittingly putting their personal dysfunction on
display, if you just tell them exactly how bad it is and why... you're
giving them the opposite of the validation they want. So they don't
stick around. The hobbyists and cranks are actively averse
no-nonsense critique, and the worst are relying on the social
inhibitions of others, on people's natural reticence to say something
that might be hurtful.
For that reason: don't pussyfoot around it. If a work is so bad that
you're automatically a bit loathe to be completely
honest in case you
hurt the writer's feelings, that's exactly when you want to be merciless.
No suger-coating or they'll use that as a get-out clause. Hell, if they
want validation, that's all they'll hear. So you don't give them it.
You're not there to coddle their ego, accommodate their insecurity. If
you give em no quarter, they'll quickly get the message and fuck off.
Actually, I'd say as long as you have one member ready to play the Bad
Man, that can be all it takes. "Hi, I'm Al, and I'm afraid I'll be the
Bad Man this evening." Others will cleave to a notion of constructive
critique, and actually I think it's best for that to be the default. You
might even go easy on a first-timer to see from their rebuttal whether
they're a lost cause. But if you really don't think they have anything
to contribute, someone just has to man up and give them the
no-holds-barred critique they so
don't want to hear. Never personal.
Never empty dismissals like "shit." But if a writer is the type of
writer you don't want, the plain truth about their writing will drive
To be brutally ruthless about it, in fact, a few hobbyists and cranks
coming in now and then can actually be useful. A bunch of roughly
competent writers won't see the flaws in their own writing; that's why
they're only roughly competent and that's why you want a workshop in the
first place. But they may not be able to nail down the same flaws in
each other's writing either, because at a roughly competent level the
wrongness may be too subtle. With hobbyists and cranks, those flaws are
so blatant you can't miss them. So you learn from them
missteps are, and once you're attuned to them, you start to see them in
other writers at your own level, and then you start to see them in your
own work. The true benefit of a critique group, I've often argued, is
not the feedback you get
but the feedback you give
. Truth is, the
stories you fix on the basis of feedback may be improved, but the
stories you write once you've sharpened your own critical skills will be
a quantum leap better.
So if someone wants to bring their dreck to your workshop looking for
validation, I say let em. Chew them up and spit them out. Slice those
stories apart in an autopsy, without an iota of compunction, and learn
the anatomy of fiction as you do so. Let it be an object lesson to each
other as to what to expect. Be ready to take it as you dish it out.
Think of it this way: if you're loathe to be totally honest with the
dreck, are you sure you're not going to be pulling punches with each
other? If you can cut the crap, ditch the "supportive" cock-fluffing
with someone so oblivious of their incompetence that you feel like
you're kicking a puppy... well, then it's a piece of piss to do that
with your mate. It's a piece of piss for your mate to do that with you.
Which is what you should want.
An important point: some of those who bring dreck will not
looking for validation. They will be real writers who just don't know it
yet. They'll be cranks who're still looking at it as a hobby, but who
have a spark in them, a seed of something more. They'll be bugfuck
mentalists whose work is utterly impenetrable, who don't really expect
it to be published, but who somehow still think it's awesome, can't see why
it's shite. Where those looking for validation will just slink away
after a blunt critique, never to be seen again, these ones will be
galvanised into rethinking their entire approach: who am I writing for?
am I writing for? how do I show these fuckers the awesomeness of
what I'm trying to do? Put them
through the same crucible of brutally
honest critique and they might well be transformed.
Everybody is shite when they start. I'd say my own early stuff when I
started at the GSFWC was epically abysmal, failing on far more levels
than any number of new members we've seen over the years. First story I
ever submitted Bill King described as "bad Doctor Who fanfic." It wasn't
intended as such (I hated Who) but he was spot-on to nail it to the
wall like that. And if Bill hadn't put that bullet in the forehead of my
precious hobbyist ego, I daresay I'd have never got my shit together.
Ultimately, I can appreciate where closed critique groups are coming from,
and each to their own, but for my money, an open door policy is a good
thing. The occassional hobbyist crank is a feature, not a bug. If
nothing else, to be an icehearted motherfucker about it, they're good
practice, grist for the mill, and once in a while you actually end up
with a better writer than you might get if you were admitting only those
already roughly competent. Competence is about conforming to standards,
after all, some of which are conventional, some of which could do with
being challenged. With a closed door policy, you could be imposing
conformity, mediocrity. Fuck that shit.
So yeah, that's my tuppence worth. If you do have problems getting your
group off the ground, or if you just want to pop through for a look-see,
by all means come on through. I'm sure no one would mind you sitting in on a session,
and you'd be welcome to join us in the pub, chat with other members. I
am, as you can probably tell, one of the more opinionated members on
this stuff, with more of a "fuck em if they can't take it" attitude.
It's probably worth sounding out others to get their alternative
Labels: Writing Craft