There are two great advantages to belonging to a writing group. One is you get to meet other writers and commiserate or congratulate. And, you get to talk about writing with people who understand the joys and frustrations.
The other advantage is that most groups have either a guest lecturer or a hands-on workshop at their meetings so that you get to learn more about your craft.
I belong to the Carolinas Romance Writers, a chapter of Romance Writers of America. I went to a meeting Saturday and the guest speaker was A.J. Hartley. Dr. Hartley is Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. That sounds as impressive as it is, but Dr. Hartley was both informative and down-to-earth. He writes in several genres (see Books to find out what he's written) and generously shared with us both the advantages and pitfalls.
I was interested because I have written an historical romance (unpublished, but finished -- if I can ever stop tinkering with it), two contemporary women's fiction (one published, one awaiting word on my submission), a contemporary romance (also awaiting word) and a book that is a paranormal romance in an alternate history.
Dr. Hartley said that agents don't much like their authors to genre-hop because a "brand" leads to longevity. In other words, readers associate an author with a particular genre and might be disappointed to pick up a book under the author's name and find out it is something quite different from what they previously read. Also, he warned, it is more difficult to completely know one genre and to know its market.
On the plus side, he said, "Do it because you want to."
That's what I wanted to hear, besides learning that he has done it successfully. More than that, he used his own name on each book. No putting a different name on his young adult books than his adult mysteries, it's the same name on ALL his books.
Some other points he made during his lecture were:
Push the limits of your genre to create something else; write in more than one genre so if one genre should collapse (paranormals, believe it or not, are getting harder to sell); and meld two genres together to create a new genre or a niche market. I thought, on hearing this, there is hope for my paranormal, A Question of Boundaries, after all.
Model your work on what other people are doing. This does not mean plagarize, but if you do not know what is selling today, your out-of-date pace and structure may not catch an agent's eye. If you want to write romance, you should be reading other romance writers every chance you get.
Lastly, after you read enough to know what is popular in a genre, figure out the rules so you can break them.
Of course, none of this matters if you are writing for fun, but if you are serious about breaking into the industry, you have to know what is selling now and why.
I pay my dues to belong to CRW, and I drive over an hour each way to the meetings. If I didn't think it was worth it, I wouldn't go. I'd stay home and write. But it isn't likely I'd ever get published without the help I find there.