Writers’ Group Trolls

By John Gilstrap

In the mid-1990s, about the time when Nathan’s Run was first being published, AOL was pretty much synonymous with the internet for me.  Those were the days of squealing telephone modems and pay-by-the-hour access.  I remember jumping out of my skin the first time that AOL voice said, “Welcome” through the speakers that I didn’t even know my computer had.

There seemed to be no end to the rabbit holes of information diving. As a trivia junkie and a procrastinator, I’d stumbled upon the ultimate time suck.  It was fabulous!  But it wasn’t until I discovered the wonders of the chat room that I truly understood the addiction of internet rabbit holes.  AOL chat rooms provided opportunities to “speak” real-time with real people all over the world.

My favorite of those chat rooms was the AOL Writers Club.  Run by a husband-and-wife team out of their apartment in Arlington, Virginia, the Writers Club provided my first opportunity to interact with writers of all stripes.  Since the chats were real-time, the topics we discussed were the kinds of things you’d discuss in a coffee shop with friends.  We got to know each other as we talked not just about craft, but about our families and whatever came to mind.  Tom Clancy was probably the most famous person to pop in from time to time, but other regulars included Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Dennis Lehane and others who were just starting their careers.  More than a few of those Writers Club denizens became face-to-face friends and remain so to this day.

Then the trolls arrived.

I don’t know that we knew them as trolls at the time, but they charged into the otherwise friendly group and started swinging bats and throwing hand grenades.  They were uncooperative, and just plain mean to people.  One in particular went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, but he was one of the most sour individuals I have ever run across.  The Writers Club did not survive.  (I don’t know if the trolls were the cause of the collapse, but they are certainly the reason why I capped off that particular rabbit hole in my life.)

At conferences, I run into some the old members, and when the topic comes up, everyone agrees that no group has ever come close to the sense of community we shared in the early days of the AOL Writers Club.  TKZ comes close on some levels, but the interaction here happens in slow motion, while the Writers Club was real time.

Fast forward to 2020.  I have joined–but rarely participate in–several writer-oriented Facebook groups, and I’m dismayed by how many of them are pre-loaded with trolls, and how the trolls are the dominant presence.  Even more frustrating is the fact that these moderated, members-only group leaders tolerate the internal festering that will ultimately kill the thing they’re trying to build.

Some of these groups have tens of thousands of members.  If only 1% carry the troll gene, that’s still a lot of negativity.  So, why do people who are obviously early in their writer-journey post their work into these ant hills and ask for comments?  Do they not read other entries first?  Are they masochists and merely want to reinforce the negative narrative that plagues so many artists?  I cannot imagine doing such a thing.

Let’s add into this mix some egregiously awful advice, mostly doled out by people who clearly are parroting what they’ve heard from somebody who knows someone who attended a conference somewhere.  A recent goodie was the echo chamber conclusion that prologues are essential in order to give the backstory necessary to understand why the main character does what he does in Chapter One.

Let’s pause for a moment to give Brother Bell a chance to settle his blood pressure.

I join these groups with the intent of helping but then I realize that by pushing against the group-think, I run the risk of playing the role of the perceived troll.  So I sit silently, lurking through the bad advice about structure and the industry, waiting for that occasional opportunity to help out.  And after I do, I weather the push-back from the people who heard differently from their cousin’s girlfriend’s brother.

Here’s what I want to scream in those groups: If you’re serious about selling your writing–whether by traditional or indie routes–move away from the easy echo-chamber research.  Attend conferences.  Read books by people who know what they’re talking about.  Quit complaining about how stupid the world is to reject your 180,000-word dystopian romantic vampire political thriller and accept the reality that as a rookie, there are wise moves and unwise moves, and that your actions have consequences.

Understand that your zeal to self-publish that book that you know is under-cooked, merely for the bragging rights, can fundamentally damage your ability to sell future books as your skills improve.

Ah, the heck with it.  I’ll write a blog post instead.

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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

25 thoughts on “Writers’ Group Trolls

  1. ” I remember jumping out of my skin the first time that AOL voice said, “Welcome” through the speakers that I didn’t even know my computer had.”
    I love that.
    I’ve tried describing the world before the internet, and the world of the early internet (AOL, phone modems, floppy disks, etc…) to my kids. All such fatherly wisdom and recollection has to fight for attention with the super-computers my boys are holding in their hands as they finger scroll through sites, conquering the universe or visiting museums on the other side of the world.
    I feel like a fossil.
    When I discovered Facebook, I signed on with as many writers’ groups as I could find. My own experience in most of these groups wasn’t necessarily negative, but it is as you suggest. Everybody in the room has the best advice to give and this wisdom is always something I’ve read previously in a book on the craft. In a few of these groups, connections are impossibly drawn from, say, writing a good hook to open your novel to immigration, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Things get very nasty, very fast.
    I’ve since quit the lot of them.

  2. Wow–that AOL group sounds wonderful. So sad about trolls, and not just in writing groups. The internet is like a modern-day Ring of Gyges, the magic ring mentioned at the beginning of Plato’s Republic, that lets people anonymously do whatever they want by rendering them invisible.

    And sad about the know-it-all who doesn’t really know it all. This group overlaps but isn’t identical with the trolls group. A pet peeve of mine is the “expert” who complains about passive voice every time they see a participle form of a verb. “He was beating his victim viciously”–very much active voice, as the victim would attest.

    Distinct from both groups are the true contrarian and the true Socratic gadfly. We do need them, including Gilstrap.

  3. I remember CompuServe as my gateway to the internet. I found a writing group via a site called iVillage. I was fortunate that there were no trolls, but there was some bad advice. When the leaders said, “Don’t let anything else bad happen to Sarah” I figured (thanks to having started to attend conferences and finding a local critique group), it was time to leave that group behind.

  4. I, too, started my writing journey in an AOL chat room, and those people are still my friends 30 years later. The place I was most trolled was in a professional organization chat room, an organization that imploded this year. These days I try to balance the knowledge everybody thinks they have with common sense. I’ve learned a lot over the years, but not all of it applies to my writing. And some of the advice is just folks trying to sound smart or earn a buck by trying to sound smart.

  5. Wow! Talk about saying what we all wish we’d said…

    In my limited writerly experience (only 3 books so far), I’ve found that writer SM groups must be taken with a large measure of discrimination. I belong to only 2 or 3 (I think), and they are peopled with high-minded members. There’s another one I belong to-not so much. I might have to leave that building.

    I think, as with all things technology, social media “groups” can be, and often are, brought down by small-minded members. I’ve seen it. Sorry to say, I’ve been sucked in on worthless “conversations” from time to time. Those interchanges are hardly worthy of the title “conversations”.

    Human beings are a strange mix of noble and vile. Social media is the perfect stew which will cause one or the other to rise to the top. I believe it’s one of the underpinnings of our uncivil society today. Too easy to snatch, grab, and run. Snatch and grab one iota of an idea, spout off without considering context or personality, then run like a coward.

    How glad I am that my “children”, all seven of them, are over 40. If I had to deal with underage kids and cell phones, tablets, computers, SM, and the sometimes trashy society in which we live, I fear I’d be languishing in a jail cell somewhere.

    Thank you, sir, for bringing this up and allowing me to say my piece.

      • Blended family. But we claim all of them together, along with the 23 grandchildren. And until March 2019, I worked full time. The hours between 4am and 7am were holy writing ground back then.

        Yeah, I was busy, but it seems like I got more accomplished then…the old adage “if you want something done, ask a busy person”. Now, I have to actually make my own schedule and get something done. 🙂

  6. I remember The Writers Group. I popped in regularly, usually lurking and learning. I miss that interaction. It was like being part of a giant party line. (Boys, does THAT show my age.) Thanks for the memories.

  7. As one of the visiting contrarians here, I’m all for differing opinions, particularly from those who have the background to back it up, but trolls are about toxic emotion and power, and they need to be shoved out. Groups need rules, and leaders with the balls to follow through with those rules. Online or offline, it makes no difference.

    I’ve been online a bit longer than you as an AOL member, but I never joined the chat rooms except as a visiting author/writing teacher. I was lucky to have RWA online writing groups, mainly via listservs like Yahoogroups, and reader/writer Yahoogroups, as well as an author group that started as a support/information group for a small publisher who turned out to be a crook. We’ve had attrition, deaths, and most of us are no longer writing. Some are extremely successful traditonal publishing writers, others digital pioneers, but we’ve remained together for real life and career support for over thirty years. That is rare and extremely lucky.

  8. Did you ever hear of a way to block trolls? I write a travel blog. For the past six months, I have been trolled (or are these bots?) every day. It begins at midnight with bizarre messages sent every 4 minutes. Then spreads out to every ten. By the time I wake up, I have to delete about 50 messages. I removed the one blog being attacked, but they still attack my e-mail.

    Who can rid me of these meddlesome trolls?

    • Spam filters and contacting the system admin for your blog. There should be tools to block IP addresses and senders. Block the sending domain if possible.

      Consider that around 50% of all emails are spam, it is an ongoing fight.

  9. Sadly I see trolls a growing not receding issue. I belong to a number of Facebook groups that have had to adopt a strict “No Politics” rule. They ban people every day. I have a political opinion as do, I am sure everyone here. But the answer to “How do you change a master cylinder in a 1975-78 Mustang?” Isn’t trump2020.

    • I stay active in the GoComics comments sections for some of the cartoons, and, when someone starts barfing politics for sweet cartoons like “Peanuts,” “Ten Cats,” or “Breaking Cat News,” regulars will remind them that this is a politics free zone. I’m less polite. I suggest that anyone who thinks politics has something to do with a Snoopy adventure or a kitten with a lost red ball needs to evaluate their mental health. The site also has a pretty fast reaction to reader red flags of messages.

  10. I have found that LinkedIn is the worst at having monitoring tools. I have left most of the LinkedIn groups I belonged to after a long time of daily fake ray bans, X is garbage, and fake viagra ads.

  11. Though I was writing, and on AOL back in the mid-1990s, I was unaware of that Writer’s Room. It sounded like a great place to meet like-minded writers and discuss the craft of fiction writing and publishing. Alas, for the trolls.

    I’ve seen similar things happen to Facebook author groups. The Kindleboards Writer’s Cafe has become infested with trolls, too in the past couple of years.

    It’s beyond unfortunate when that happens. When fellow writers and authors are offering up insights, I listen, and am grateful for the sharing. Alas, a few “bad apples” can ruin it for everyone, as my old Junior High Vice Principal, “Big Jake” Jacobson used to tell us. Still true today as it was in 1975.

  12. I remember AOL, but (alas), I was a bit young to be writing and hanging out with adults in the chat rooms. Learnt that lesson quickly. There are some strange and sick people out there.

    I’ve joined writers groups on SM, hung around for a few days to see what it’s all about, and promptly left. They’re filled with trolls, echo chambers, and toxic debates on prologues, passive voice, and pretty much everything else you can think of.

    I have my local group that I admin for which doesn’t get many posts because the members are (shall we say) not social media savvy. I also belong to a writing organisation here in New Zealand, where most of the members are posting articles, and asking the group general questions. They don’t post craft questions often, and when they do, it’s too much to keep up with, with everyone having an opinion (good, bad, or otherwise).

    I don’t reckon SM is a good place for a writing group, but it’s great for fans and author pages. Give me a good blog that I can occasionally comment on, has quality information from a raft of amazing writers, and something practical that I can take away. A bit like TKZ, maybe. I hear they’re really good. 🙂

  13. “180,000-word dystopian romantic vampire political thriller”? Wait just a minute. Who is trying that one? Sounds like someone is changing things just enough to make it hard for me to sue them for ripping off my 182,974-word dystopian romantic werewolf cozy political thriller. I’m just finishing that sucker off now, and lemme tell ya, it’s gonna be a New York Times number one bestseller, and turned into a blockbuster movie. I’ll sell the movie rights only if I can write the screenplay. I’m working on my Oscars speech already.

    I don’t get trolls. It’s like there are a lot of people sitting around with nothing to do but troll. I belong to what was, until recently, an active professional discussion group. A troll joined. Some people thought he was funny, or like him for who knows what reason. Others didn’t. He got banned. This upset the people who liked him, so he was allowed back. He told me in a PM that he considers the forum entertainment. Aaargh. I have him on ignore, but the quantity and quality of useful postings has plummeted since his return.

    I also belong to a very helpful hip resurfacing forum, members only. Maybe it’s because it is about an uncommon specific medical procedure, but there are no trolls on that forum. I don’t see them being tolerated there, either. Perhaps the larger the group, the harder it is to monitor.

  14. I ended up as last moderator standing in one of these groups and finally put a stake through its heart.

    I told one woman to quit spamming the threads every day with her self-aggrandizing self-pubbed book posts and she told me that her public demanded it and then sent her mother to harass me on my regular profile and actually told me that it would be a shame if my Amazon books got a bunch of negative reviews.

    That’s when I just hit the “delete” button and sent the whole mess into the screaming void.

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