My name is T. Jay O’Brien and I am the Moderator of the Coronet Writers Lab. I have served as Moderator since the Lab began back in April 1997. I mention this simply to let you know I am pro-writers groups, and I have some standing and experience to base my opinions on. There are many benefits for you, the writer, to derive from a good writers group, some of which you may not have considered before.
There is a fundamental axiom that this entire article is based on – The only way to get to be a better writer is by writing, a lot.
Yes, there are other activities you should engage in to build up your skills and ability to provide trenchant criticism on the material you hear. But for developing the craft of your writing, nothing beats the butt in the chair, fingers on the keys. You simply have to write.
To belabor the point and stir the pot a bit, without writing, a lot —
- Entering screenwriting competitions will not make you a better writer.
- Signing up for classes will not make you a better writer.
- Reading books about screenwriting and other subjects will not make you a better writer.
- Reading scripts will not make you a better writer.
- Submitting your script to the Black List or other organizations for evaluation will not make you a better writer.
- Attending seminars and workshops will not make you a better writer.
- Going to the movies a lot will not make you a better writer.
- Drinking will not make you a better writer. (It just seems like it.)
NOTE – The list above contains extremely useful activities and YOU SHOULD DO ALL OF THOSE THINGS, (except the drinking, your call) because those activities will make you a more informed, more connected, engaged, interesting, aware person who will have a story or two to tell. You need to network, find opportunity and be involved in the community of writers. That’s your homework. It’s a given that you will do all of these things.
But the one thing you MUST do, above all else, is write — a lot. No way around it. No shortcuts.
So, how will a writers group help me there?
Most writers work better with a deadline looming. Whether you start out writing early with a three-week deadline for the paper, or it is due tomorrow morning and you figure to just pull an all-nighter and bang it out mainlining coffee, there is nothing like knowing you have to meet a deadline to create a real sense of urgency for yourself. If it’s your job, miss the deadline and you might not get paid. If it’s for school, miss the deadline and you may fail the class. Consequences frequently keep one focused on meeting deadlines, no matter what path you may take to get there.
In a writers group you are going to have regular deadlines that you need to meet. That means you need to generate material on a regular basis in order to meet those deadlines. In the Coronet, writers know they must have 25 – 30 new or significantly rewritten pages every four weeks. You have a deadline to meet. You need to write to meet it. You don’t consider not meeting it without a major emergency as cause, because not only do you let down the rest of the writers in the group, you are letting down yourself. And if you are unable to meet the deadlines that are in place to help you generate material, then you need to ask yourself just how seriously do you want to be a writer. A good group creates conditions that will inspire and support. But no one is doing the job for you. You know when the material is due. If you want to be a writer, write.
Goes hand in hand with deadlines. One helps with and serves to reinforce the other. The group gives you a deadline. It’s up to you to decide how you will meet it. This is an on-going process and one must develop it on his or her own. And it is imperative that you do. If you cannot find the time to write because you have so much going on and something has to give, then you better plan on being something else instead of a writer. Because a writer MUST write.
Hopefully you soon get to the point where you want to write, you crave the time sitting before your computer and banging out material. It is part of the process of getting to know yourself. When do you like to write? Are you a morning person, getting up early and getting some pages down first thing as the sun is coming up? Are you a night person, pushing all the baggage of the day aside and focusing on your characters and channeling their voices long into the night. Know what works for you. But also know it may not be feasible to only write at that time. So you should get used to the idea that you need to write at less that optimum times. Because that is what writers do.
A writers group will give you a deadline. And the members will expect you to honor your commitment by bringing pages in. You are honoring your word and not wasting their time. If you are scheduled to present pages, make sure you have those pages to present.
Receiving clear, unvarnished, grounded and useful feedback on your material is invaluable. Perhaps the greatest asset to be found in a writers group is getting sound, relevant notes on your pages. Criticism that is positively-oriented and doesn’t try to rip you a new one. Feedback that opens your eyes to flaws on the pages, but also points out the strengths in the material as well.
There is an art to giving criticism – to receiving it as well. It is on this point that many voices that dislike writers group find fault. And I won’t argue the point. Finding a group that can deliver objective criticism from an informed place, calling out the problems and flaws in your writing, yet not getting personal; staying focused on the material, the bad and the good, is a challenge. Being completely comfortable in a room and enjoying the humor throughout the session are characteristics that are desirable. And to find a group with all that takes some searching.
As a writer, one needs to get in the mindset to receive criticism, because throughout your career you will be receiving lots of it. More than you really want sometimes. But you take it. Listen to everything, write down everything that is said because you don’t know what may resonate, and what just might open up a new, more profound way of thinking about your story and your characters. If the feedback is not useful, then thank you very much, you don’t use it. But develop a thick skin about getting criticism. You will come to realize when it is well-meant and when there is an agenda behind it. And you will be able to accept each gracefully.
As you listen to the widely different genre of material and levels of writing, you will begin to think more critically about the words. Instead of a broad, I liked that, or I didn’t like that, you will begin to focus in on the specifics, the details of what engaged you or caused you to check out. You will refine your critical and analytical thinking. You will get laser-like on problem spots and truly begin to zero-in on where and why the material presents an issue for you. This will only help you in your own writing.
As you sit down, you will find the bar has been raised. Material that you may have been fine with earlier now needs to be better, even on the first draft. Things you would have written and accepted blindly before don’t make it on page, as now you know they simply don’t work. Being open to hearing scripts read and thinking critically about them can turn into a huge time and labor saving activity for you.
Sometimes the writing just doesn’t turn out the way you intended it too, despite all the planning, outlining, listening to notes and rewriting you do. Can be rather frustrating. Sometimes it helps to be reminded that you are not alone in this. Everyone has scripts where the characters just seem to have minds of their own. Everyone has had that script they couldn’t quite get a handle on. It can be helpful to hear that others have fought that same fight. It’s nice to be able to hear a, “you’ll get ’em tomorrow!”, when things really suck in general. It’s also nice to be able to share some good news with those who have been rooting for you all along.
There is an album by Firesign Theatre called, “We’re All Bozos On This Bus.” I never thought it would have evolved into personal philosophy but life is full of surprises. All the writers in the Coronet are striving to make a living by writing. So when you bring in a script with second act problems or can’t get a character as funny as he should be, you’re singing to the choir. They understand your problems and not only can sympathize, but also they can empathize. Everyone is truly in the same boat, (or bus).
Writing is such a solitary business that it’s spirit-lifting to go somewhere where everyone knows your name; where you can get support when you need it and you can share good news when things are looking up. Also what better place to network and hear about writing opportunities and projects that are staffing up.
Over time you will eventually see that your work gets better and better. This will happen because YOU are getting to be a better writer. Your discipline will no longer allow you to procrastinate and avoid the pages that need to be written. (You should look forward to them!) Your first drafts on scripts will be way beyond what your early attempts were. And your ATTITUDE will be much clearer, stronger and focused. You will become more confident with yourself and your skills. The idea of writing 25 pages is no longer a concept drawing anguish and fear. You can knock them out without breaking a sweat now. What, 30 pages before breakfast, easy.
In addition, you will start to recognize your VOICE. There are a lot of writers out there, but no one else, not one, has your voice. Own it, develop it and ever continue to enhance it.
The point of anything for you the writer, is how can this thing be used to improve you and make you a better writer. A writers group is simply a tool, a creative arrow in your writing quiver. Can you succeed without it, yes. But there are benefits from being around your tribe – like-minded people who want to become better writers as well. You all talk the talk and walk the walk. Why not hang with those who write the talk?
- YOUR TV GUIDE to Writers Goups: The Vicious Circle
- Writers Groups: The Coronet Writers Lab
- Getting Feedback: The Amazing Power of the Live Read
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