Sunday, 22 January 2012

Don't Get Me Started on ....Writers' Forums

The other day someone on one of the bazillion writing forums I belong to asked what everyone thought about An Other writing forum.  Although I belong to An Other forum I didn't reply.  Whenever these sorts of questions crop up it can be a cue for a flame war and I didn't fancy getting involved.

Forums are odd entities.  They tend to bring out territoriality in their members, even though they don't even exist in a physical sense.  The idea that you can belong to a forum is really silly when you think about it.  A group of people post comments on a web page; everything about it is mutable: for a start, the members may not even be real people at all.  Unless you have met them in the flesh how can you know for sure?  Sock puppets and fake IDs are more common than you'd expect.  And if they are real, what is it that binds you to them other than some half baked opinions?

I've been trolling around the Internet for - well, too long.  I've been a member of many writers' forums and I've noticed characteristics they all share, although they invariably claim to be unique and special:

  • They all claim to be the best and rubbish the competition.
  • They all have cliques even if they strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
  • They all have trolls and flamers even if the strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
  • They all demand loyalty to the forum and frown on any individualistic behaviour that threatens it, like making negative comments elsewhere online.
  • They all have some sort of pecking order despite claiming to be democratic, which they usually do.
It never fails to amaze me what people will put up with for the dubious benefits of belonging to a forum.  Tin pot dictators abound on these boards, self-appointed experts laying down the law as if they had some say over anything, when the reverse is patently the case.  The world of writing and publishing is not some highly organised conglomerate but a melee of competing individuals.  There are no rules other that What You Can Get Away With.  But it doesn't stop some trying to impose their own regulation and others accepting and parroting it in a self-perpetuating cycle of delusion.  

Not only do we buy this, we lap it up - we go looking for it.  Human beings seem to need the discipline of a set order even if it's only illusory.  Perhaps that's the reason we're only too happy to give up our freedom; anything is better than the chaos of reality.

But the worst aspect of forums is the Groupthink, that zombie trance of blind obedience where people act as one monstrous entity.  Somehow the monster grows, feeding off mutual flattery, steered by a few dominant personalities until the members find themselves collaborating in behaviour they wouldn't dream of doing in real life.  Bullying is the most obvious expression of this, but it can take many forms.

A kind of swaggering one-upmanship can come into play.  I've witnessed Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen-style contests on the most bizarre topics, like who was the most abused by a former boss, or who's written the nastiest Amazon review.  At some point you hope they will wake up and have a "what was I thinking?" moment, but I wouldn't bet on it, especially if they've taken the precaution of hiding their true identity to give themselves carte blanche in the bitchiness stakes.

I was warned off writers' forums some years ago by a published author who noted that she didn't know any successful writers who bothered with them.  And it's true, the people who really could give you useful help and advice don't seem to inhabit these enclaves.  These days I do more lurking than posting - some kind of sentimental attachment stops me deleting my accounts altogether, and they are after all a fascinating study in group behaviour and self-delusion.  But I no longer believe in the Rules, the grand sounding promotional material, the self-aggrandisement.  Writers shouldn't belong anywhere if they truly want to have their own voice.


Lexia said...

So very true.

" a fascinating study in group behaviour and self-delusion."
I couldn't have said it better myself - which is probably why I am commenting on your blog instead of my own.

Keep it up !

Susan Roebuck said...

"...the people who really could give you useful help and advice don't seem to inhabit these enclaves."

You summed it up just fine Sandra! I reached that conclusion a little while ago (ahem). Well done, great post. :-)

Anonymous said...

Writers forums where oyu can post work for reciprocal feedback do have their place. One only has to look at all the deluded writers on authonomy - which is not set up for proper feedback - to see how many writers there are who are not in a position to learn the craft. Instead they are like contestants who turn up on X-Factor thinking they're the next Beyonce, when all they've done is sung in their bedrooms, or in front of family & friends.
But, yes, there are many pitfalls for those who linger too long on writers sites, or on just one site instead of getting a more rounded education by being a member of several sites. There are a few great sites out there with a high percentage of published authors as current & past members, so I wouldn't say they should be avoided completely if you want to be published. But getting feedback on your work, and giving feedback on other writers work which is of the same standard as yours so you can see the mistakes common to unpublished drafts - mistakes that you'll never find in published novels - IS important, and the easiest way to get that is by joining a few writers communities. Just remember to move on when the pack mentality starts to take hold.

- Naomi

Sandra Patterson said...

Thanks, guys!

@Naomi Yes, peer review - that's a whole other rant in itself! You're right of course, in the early days you do learn a lot of basic things and it's helpful to get the lie of the land. I've never got the hang of Authonomy but whenever I drop in for a lurk there are more messages from complete strangers begging me to back their books. It's flattering, but seems a bit demeaning to them to have to resort to that tactic just for a chance at getting noticed.

TL Conway said...

Interesting post, Sandra. I'm not sure if it's good or bad that I only hang out over at Nathan Bransford's. I feel like *maybe* I should see what else is out there, but I learn a lot from NB's already, and really, I should be working more on my ms, so for now, I wait.

But the groupthink mentality? Yeah, that does suck.

Sandra Patterson said...

Thanks TL. Yes, Nathan's forum is one of the more respectable ones.

Kate said...

Good post, Sandra. Try getting into epublishing and you'll learn a whole new side to groupthink. Indie authors band together and woe betide anyone who doesn't play by the unwritten rules. Not all the groups are the same, but a lot are very inward looking.

Sandra Patterson said...

Kate, that sounds scary!

PKgesic said...

ishiHi Sandra, hmmm...writing forums...Yeah, been burned by them.

A lot crits are good and useful, even the bad ones tell you something. Usually that your story is working :)

I do like to post to forums and just bat the crap around, but're not wrong. And the cult mentality on some is off-putting (particularly when you realise that somehow you became a vocal member of the cult without noticing. That is a very good "I don't think I should do that again" moment)

And I have met some good people via forums, people who are friends (even though we've never met in the flesh)so they do have some benefits. You discover that you are not alone.

Good post.



Sandra Patterson said...

Thanks, PK. You're not alone in getting sucked into the mentality of "cult" forums, it happens to us all. That's what makes the whole process fascinating.