YOUR TV GUIDE to Writers Groups: The Vicious Circle

Tawnya Bhattacharya is currently a writer/co-producer on NBC’s The Night Shift, and formerly wrote on TNT’s Perception, The Client List at Lifetime and on USA’s Fairly Legal, with her writing partner, Ali Laventhol. Follow Tawnya on Twitter @ScriptAnatomy.

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Overall, I’m pro writers groups. I’m part of an awesome one currently. We are five writing entities (six writers total, since I’m a part of a team), well balanced between males and females, working writers and those on the verge, and we all write drama. We’ve been meeting for just over a year and here’s the key for us, I think: we meet consistently, we are respectful and supportive of each other, and, for the most part, not really in direct competition with one another. We are writers at different staffing levels, or just trying to break in, or transitioning from features to TV. We have a horror/thriller writer, a former cyber geek who writes technology-based procedurals, a writer who does character-driven drama in unique worlds and so forth… Oh, and everyone is pretty damn smart and talented, too. That’s just my opinion.

After writing this I asked our writer’s group to say what they liked about our group and why they thought we worked, so you’ll see some of those quotes throughout this article. But when writers ask me whether or not they should join a writer’s group, here’s my answer: maybe. It’s not that cut and dry. My experience has been a good one, but I’ve heard the war stories and have been in one of those nightmares myself. So, whether to join a group or not depends on several factors, which I’ll get into shortly, but the important thing to remember is, that much like the beds in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, not all groups are created equal and not all groups may be the right one for you. It’s important you find a good fit. Before you jump into the deep end of the pool without any water wings, let’s go over some of the pros and cons of writers groups, what red flags to avoid, and how to create a functional and successful group of your own.

PROS OF WRITER’S GROUPS:

Fresh Eyes on your Work

Sometimes you’ve written so many versions of something that no longer know what’s working in your script and what isn’t. It can be extremely helpful to have someone experience your material for the first time to give you a fresh perspective.

More Brains, the Better for Brainstorming With

writers blockSometimes two (or three or four) heads are better than one. Maybe you have new ideas but can’t decide what to write next, or you’re working out a pitch, or rewriting something and feel stuck and need help weighing options between storylines or possible “ways in.” A smart group can lend their personal experiences and professional expertise to help you land on the strongest choice.

“This diverse brain power provides everyone with perspective and the smarts needed to develop amazing scene work, characters and situations that are truthful, fun and compelling.” ~ MP

Fine-Tuning Professional Etiquette

Your group is a great place, and hopefully a safe place, to pitch ideas and offer your thoughts on story. This practice will help you better navigate and contribute in a writers room. Group is also a place for you to learn how to give and receive criticism and notes gracefully – a necessary skill in this business.

Swapping Career Advice

A strong writer’s group can be an invaluable source not just for your writing but also for career advice, tips, networking or support. You’ll appreciate being able to turn to people you like, respect and trust to help you navigate this crazy business.

Camaraderie & Fun

I-Love-Lucy-candy-factoryWork and fun do mix, and it’s a good sign if you look forward to meeting up with your group because you enjoy their company as much as you enjoy their feedback.

“I like the honest forum it provides for ideas so I don’t get too far afield on a project that might be a waste of time. Also, I get to benefit from the experience of writers who have been staffed on shows. And even if I don’t have work for a particular session, I get to hang out with cool people, talk about ideas and creative process and drink wine.”
~ TG

CONS OF WRITERS GROUPS:

Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

I’ve had many writers who have developed and written and rewritten their scripts in their writers group then come to me to do a consult and it’s not a good thing when my first thought is: “what happened?” Naturally, having varying ideas coming at you can be confusing. And of course it can be problematic if members of the group are imposing their vision rather than supporting yours. But that’s bound to happen. It’s common to think in terms of what they would do with your story. Your job is to remain as objective as possible and to recognize notes that don’t ring true for you or notes that might be downright bad notes and veto them. It’s crucial that you, the writer, are able to remain an authority of your own work and be the keeper of your vision.

Lazy Writers

In the early phase of an idea, part of the fun is brainstorming, and there’s no better time to have everyone throw two cents into the pot. It often opens the story up in ways you may not have thought of, or can make you table an idea that your colleagues’ feel isn’t commercially viable or something you need to add to your portfolio. Alternatively, it can be extremely annoying when a writer is lazy with the development of their project and throws it at the group to figure out. Think of your group like your boxing team and your writing like a boxing match. Your comrades are there to help cheerlead and coach you and tend to your wounds. But you are the boxer. You are the one who has to go into the ring and fight.

Blowhards

It’s fine and dandy to meet and chit-chat up a storm, but the goal is to get to the work, so if the group is full of people who like to hear themselves talk – you know, the writers who like to wax on about how much they are writing, how many meetings they’ve had, and what industry bigwig just LOVES their work and deemed them the next Aaron Sorkin, Shonda Rhimes, and Vince Gilligan all wrapped up into one visionary talent – heed my advice: run, don’t walk. What’s happening is a manifestation of deep-rooted insecurity and it’s best to avoid it before it wears on your ever-loving last nerve and you find yourself looking for a poison that doesn’t leave a trace. The body count should remain in your script.

“I guess I’d say that what helps me the most is the professionalism. It’s not a social group, it’s a writers’ group. ~ ZA

Soul Crushers

Rejection is unavoidable in this business. There will be enough industry people who criticize and pass on your work therefore you do not need negative, toxic writers who shit on everybody else’s work in your writers group. The goal of giving notes is to be constructive and helpful, not to rip apart someone’s work to the point of making them want to find the highest cliff and throw themselves and their laptop off it.

“We have each other’s backs out there in the biz as we all progress in our careers.” ~ AL

Poachers, Highjackers & Thieves

How can you stop writers in your group from stealing your shit? It’s unfortunate, but it happens. I’ve heard several accounts of this and in one case it was allegedly so egregious that the writer was kicked out of the group. What you have to remember is that copyrights protect the EXPRESSION of the idea, not the idea itself. The thing is we all have access to and are pulling from the same sources of inspiration: books, newspapers, magazine articles, blogs, podcasts, documentaries, and films… Plus some ideas are just in the collective consciousness at a given moment. That’s why you’ll have a handful of ideas surface on the same subject (witches, Salem witches) at the same time, like Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story: Coven,” Brannon Braga and Adam Simon’s “Salem,” and Jenji Kohen’s “New World.” If someone hijacks your idea, don’t sweat it too much because it’s all in the execution. You can bring something unique to the idea that no one else can. Also, whose to say which idea will get any traction?

It sucks, but the point is, anyone can take an idea and run with it. Hopefully you’ve instilled the “no assholes or thieves” rule when assembling your writers group, but one thing you can do to protect yourself is to not bring an idea to your group that is in the early stages of inception. Those ideas are most vulnerable. I can already hear the excuses: ‘You haven’t really done anything with that idea yet, so.” “Well, yours wasn’t fully formulated and mine’s different because…” Bring in work that is more formulated and leave a paper trail –- so it’s more memorable. (See “Be Organized” below) This makes it difficult for someone to conveniently forget that you pitched an idea that just happens to be exactly like the one they came up with two months later.

What else can you do? Confront. Not everyone feels comfortable doing that, but I have zero problem saying, “Oh, that’s exactly like what we’re doing in X.” Call people on their bullshit, for gawdsake! If they know you’ll just take it lying down you’re an easy target.

Oh, and don’t forget to register your finished work with the WGA and U.S. Copyright.

FIVE FAMOUS WRITERS GROUPS

In honor of the fabulous five writing entities in our currently unnamed TV writing circle, here are some of my favorite writers groups.

The Algonquin Roundtable – aka, “The Board,” “The Round Table” and my personal favorite, “The Vicious Circle”, was a group of intellectual New York City playwrights, critics, actors, and comedians who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel. Notable members include: Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Harpo Marx and Edna Ferber.

482-algonquin
The Inklings

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are two of the famed members of this fantasy fiction collective associated with the University of Oxford, England. The Inklings convened at “The Eagle and Child Pub” in Oxford – now that’s my kind of writers group!

The InklingsThe Bloomsbury Group

This intellectual artist circle sharing and discussing ideas all lived or worked near Bloomsbury, London and boasted E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and John Maynard Keynes. I like to think The Bloomsbury Group met in “A Room with a View.”

The Bloomsbury Group
Stratford-on-Odeon

Named after one of their favorite bookshops in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, this talented crew includes renowned authors Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. Wonder if Gertie brought along any of Alice B’s magic browniesStratford on OdeonThe Fempire

Some of the coolest, brainiest, and, let’s face it, sexiest scribes make up this Hollywood TV and silver screen A-List Fempire which includes Diablo Cody, Dana Fox Liz Meriweather and Lorene Scafaria.

22fempire2_650

HOW TO CREATE YOUR OWN SUCCESSFUL ALGONQUIN ROUND TABLE

Have a facilitator. Writers groups should be focused on the feedback of the pages brought in, whether it is new ideas, tool work, concepts, outlines or actual pages. Of course, it’s lovely to catch up, gossip and eat guacamole, but “time is money writing” and the more you waste coffee klatching, the less time you are working to finish that script and make your dreams come true. I’ve heard of writers groups that last 5 or 6 hours or longer. Sometimes this is because the group is enormous, but usually it’s because a good chunk of time is spent discussing the nightmarish traffic on the way there, or all the meetings one writer is getting or not getting, or the woes of a terrible work schedule getting in the way of writing, or boyfriend or girlfriend issues, or Tinder hell, and general kvetching. In cases like this, it’s best to appoint somebody to “run” the meeting in order to make sure everyone’s work is getting attention. If your writers group is more than 3-4 hours long, then either time is being wasted or the group is too damn big! Which brings me to…

Limit the size of your group. Group shouldn’t be a “come one, come all” circus. I’ve heard of groups where a writer has to submit a script, everyone in the group has to read it then vote you in. However you decide to do it, smaller is better in my opinion. Four to six writers feels ideal to me. Typically people also have jobs or significant others or families, so not everyone can make it every time, but you want to make sure that if everyone shows up with work you can get to it all within a 3-4 hour window. Therefore…

Limit the work brought in. It’s up to the group to make the rules, but in my experience, development focused groups tend to be more successful and efficient. Set guidelines. Allow people to bring in an idea or 1-5 pages of development work or 10 pages of a script or a slightly longer document if it’s an outline. Maybe scripts are given to members of the group outside of group time. Some groups will only focus on one writer’s entire script per meeting and give overall notes and detailed page notes.

Have deadlines. Everyone needs enough time to read the work. So set a day and a time when work needs to be turned in and then make it easy to do so with…

Be organized. Make it easy for everyone to share and access work by creating using Google Drive or Dropbox. The group manifesto, rules and regulations, meet up addresses and other important information can be stored there as well.

Meet regularly. Take the time to find what works best for everyone’s schedule and be realistic about it. If you’re meeting weekly are you really giving yourselves enough time to create or turn around material? Don’t rush through the process and do things half-assed. If you meet every six weeks will the steam dissipate until the group ceases to exist? Some groups meet weekly or bi-weekly or once a month. Whatever you land on, be consistent.

“First, everyone’s commitment to not only showing up to the meetings but to contributing content consistently. Second, a prior knowledge of (most) everyone’s style/work/competency.” ~ MM

HANDLING FEEDBACK – GIVING & RECEIVING

Use a timer. If you know 4 people brought in work, then make sure everyone gets roughly the same amount of time or the time needed for whatever materials they brought in.

Create feedback rules. The last thing you want is mutiny. Once someone hurls the first grenade, it can get real Lord of the Flies real quick. In my Script Anatomy classes I always ask that writers point out what they LIKE first and then what’s not working (instead of what they don’t like) and why. They also are asked to try to have a pitch to fix the problem. This will come handy in a writer’s room. No on likes the naysayer. Granted, it is important to speak up when something is working for you, but offer a solution. In order to avoid “I didn’t like it when…” type of notes, focus on things like:

  • What emotional impact did the story make you feel?
  • Story sense and logic – is everything tracking?
  • Character goal and motivation – are they strong and clear?
  • Were the stakes high?
  • Are the act outs strong?
  • Is there an opponent creating conflict and obstacles for your main character?
  • Was the story arc strong and clear?
  • Are the core structural beats working and are they strong?

Asking yourselves these kinds of questions will help you deliver notes that don’t feel like a personal attack on the writer.

Start with the positive. List off what you liked and what was working before launching into all the things that didn’t work.

Be honest but constructive. Everyone is there to make the work better. Of course you can’t help but think of what you would do to the story, but try to come from a place of helping the writer realize his or her vision. Don’t be afraid to throw in your two cents, even if it goes against the writer or the rest of the group. But be constructive. Try to have a fix just like you would be expected to in the writers room.

Don’t defend yourself when getting notes. No one cares. Your scene or dialogue or moment either worked for the note giver or it didn’t. It’s your job to take it in, process it and fix it. Some universities don’t allow you to utter a peep during class feedback or you get thrown out of class. Extreme? Maybe. But I can see how that teaches one to listen and process and not defend their work. Whatever the notes are, sleep on it! Often times the notes don’t seem that “bad” in the morning as when you first head them. Take some time, you don’t have to process and fix everything right away. It’s more important that you make good decisions over quick ones. Sometimes solutions come if you go out for a walk, or when you least expect – like when you’re in the shower, etc. Knowing all of this can help prevent you from panicking during the initial notes meeting. Take a deep breath. It’s all going to be ok.

It’s okay to ask questions. As the writer, it is okay to ask questions or to say, “My intent was X. Did that come across?” Or “I did that because X, does that not make sense?” But if you, the writer, disagree with the note, keep it to yourself. Ooh, that one is so hard sometimes, right?

There you have it. So now all you need is other writers, right? How do you find your tribe? There are plenty of networking and meet-up groups out there, but one of the best ways to meet like-minded people who want to create a dedicated writers group is in class. You’ll get a chance to see what kind of writing they do and how they handle themselves when giving and receiving feedback. Our Script Anatomy alumni have formed writers groups with people in their classes that in some cases still meet to this day, many seasons later. To join us, check out our upcoming classes:

– Tackle the unruly beast known as the page-1 rewrite with instructor Michael Perri (NBC’s State of Affairs) in our Rewrite Lab.
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