We are approaching one year of the Writers in Training. We’ve made adjustments as we found out what worked for us, like developing guidelines about when to cancel group (our answer: Never!), how many words authors submit for review, deadlines, changing the mutual vetting process for potential new members, and so forth.
Recently, we ran into a problem I never expected to encounter. I searched the web for advice and couldn’t find any. I searched more generally on rules for writer’s groups and still didn’t find what I was hoping for, so I want to share our experience here so that next time this happens in someone’s writing group, they’ll get some thoughts on ways to deal with it, or avoid it in the first place.
So here’s the situation: We had a new writer to our group with some publications under his belt. The WIT authors submitting that week emailed the chapter for review out a week in advance so that everyone could have a chance to read it, and make comments before the next group meeting. When we meet, the reviewers share major points, agree or disagree with the other reviewers at times, offer congratulations and constructive suggestions, questions and so forth. During this feedback, the new writer said that he’d shared Ian’s work with some of his publisher friends to get their opinion on it.
I was horrified that this happened without Ian’s knowledge and permission. WIT is an alpha reader group, where we are often still in the process of writing our novels, and use the feedback to help shape them. They are usually far from fully polished and edited pretty products that we want to show around. Not when the professional world can reject an author’s submission and every subsequent submission they receive from that author if there are spelling or formatting errors, or have too many words ending with –ly in the first two pages. I thought it was common sense that no one would show these early drafts to anyone outside the group, but we hadn’t explicitly warned new members about it because it never occurred to us that anyone would do that.
I had previously been part of a screenwriter’s group before that wouldn’t let anyone share even a page of their script with other writers without signing non-disclosure agreements. We regularly had professional scriptwriter guest speakers that would tell us the tales of the times they had their work ripped off by unscrupulous people in Hollywood, and how to protect ourselves against it. I thought some of it was because our screenwriter’s group was run by a lawyer who was very keen on intellectual property law, and I was relieved for the more relaxed atmosphere of Writers in Training, where we didn’t treat every other writer as a potential criminal out to rip off our intellectual property.
The new writer didn’t share it for the purpose of trying to sell it. He just wanted to get confirmation from his professional publisher friends that the genre of Ian’s novel would be difficult to sell in the current publishing industry. Ian already knew that, and it certainly didn’t required reading an excerpt from an unpublished novel for a publisher to know about genre sales. The whole situation didn’t strike me as very professional, not from the published author that shared Ian’s work who should have some respect for the intellectual property of other writers, a not from professional publishing houses which often refuse unsolicited manuscripts because of fear that someone will slap them with an intellectual property lawsuit if anything similar to a submitted work later gets published. But what did I know about being a professional? So I took a survey of some published authors I knew, and got a variety of answers.
Some of the harshest ones contained words like “abusive,” “blackball,” “untrustworthy” and my personal favorite, “Holy boundary issues, Batman!” Most strongly recommended booting the new member out. There was wide range, however, and these are the ones I received permission to share here:
No writer should ever, ever, ever share another writer’s unpublished work without their permission. Full stop, end of story, the end. It doesn’t matter how high and mighty he feels. It was rude and disrespectful and almost seems like it was done out of malice.
This is one of the reasons unpublished writer should avoid asking published writers to review their work – liability issues up the glory hole. You could remind the writer that there are precedents for how this has backfired for other published writers; unpublished writers have sued published writers in the past because they accused them (rightly or wrongly) of having stolen their ideas from the unpublished drafts they reviewed. It was ugly behavior and it sounds like he’s becoming toxic to the group.
Write what you feel passionate about and don’t give up. Even if it is hard to sell, that’s different from “impossible to sell.” Don’t let this guy bully your circle. He does not necessarily know best and if he’s not going to be constructive and encouraging, who needs him? There are tons of writers with tons more books in print than he’s got going, and they’d almost universally call this out as bullshit.
If this guy is unhealthy for your group, if he’s damaging and not helping, be done with him. Just because he gets a book in print in NO way means it’s going to sell big. Or at all.
I’d go with your gut and be careful about sharing any work with this new author. Always vet someone new and ask to see their work first before sharing yours. As for the ethics of sharing a Work In Progress, I know of a few people who have shared a crit partners work with their agent that resulted in the agent wanting a look at the work. The difference is intent. If the sharing is done because the work is either superb or because it meets the agent’s wish list (say I could use a zombie shapeshifter right now) then it’s probably ok. But sharing to belittle someone or show market trends? No way.
But also don’t totally discredit his experience. His first book comes out soon right? Watch his path with open eyes. A lot can change in those first weeks.
When you’re trusted with another writer’s unfinished work in a writers’ group, you should respect that boundary. It’s not appropriate to share it with any other party without asking first. It has been hard to sell literary fiction for years. The publishing industry has gotten harder and harder to break into for the past several years. What purpose did it serve to show a chapter of someone else’s work? To discourage someone who’s attempting something he already knows is difficult?
Eric Cherry, fiction writer, copyeditor, former editor for Twilight tales,
It’s bad form in the extreme for anyone to share somebody else’s creation without permission. You can declare that without fear of being wrong. (It may, in fact, be illegal, though I’d be hard pressed to see how you’d prosecute it.)
It’s not uncommon for success to go to one’s head, so this problematic person isn’t to be hated. It’s not likely to be misbehavior born of evil intent, merely a bout of ego poisoning. So, tell the problem author that sharing work outside of the group without permission of the author is bad. It’s wrong, unethical, impolite, insulting, etc. If the overbearing advice isn’t curtailed by this sort of pushback, you can always suggest that the writer’s group is maybe meant for beginners, and obviously a professional should move on to find more professional groups to continue their growth.
If being polite like that doesn’t work, tell the author that being overbearing is only tolerable for so long, and to cut the shit out. Good luck 🙂
We thought that maybe we could make the whole situation work if we came up with a list of rules, so that new authors to the group would have expectations clearly laid out. We even making explicit rules for what we had previously thought was common sense. It ended up a long and boring read. What it all really comes down to is this:
Writers in Training’s goal is to provide a safe place to strengthen its members writing, provide additional motivation, and help its members grow as authors. We expect all authors to write what they are passionate about, and offer constructive feedback on both strengths and weaknesses to improve the final product. We respect each other as people, as authors, and respect each other’s literary property.
In the end, we politely told the new author (for a number of reasons) that we didn’t think we could give him the kind of help a professional author needed, and that he should look for a writer’s group more suited to his level of expertise. He was surprised we felt that way, but it all ended pretty amicably.