Sunday, 18 March 2012

On Writing Groups

For an unpublished writer, writing groups can be an essential process whereby you learn or hone your craft, gaining critical feedback that corrects common mistakes, as well as getting new ideas on how to make your words lift off the page and leave indelible footprints in a reader’s imagination. But they can also be brutal, unfair, and even catastrophic for an inexperienced writer, resulting in a poor or emasculated style, loss of motivation, and giving up that dream of getting published. I’ve been in various groups over the past ten years, and thought I’d share some perceptions (aka opinions) on what is good and bad about them.

I’m going to cover the following:

  1. Why writers need them
  2. How they work
  3. Why and how they go wrong
  4. Different ‘levels’ of writing groups
  5. Alternatives to writing groups

I’m only going to focus on physical (face-to-face) groups, not virtual (online) ones, since I’ve never been involved in the latter, and some or all of what I say below may not apply.

Why writers need them
Not every successful writer has been through the ‘writing group’ process. A few may be talented enough to write brilliant, captivating prose in perfect contemporary English, the first time we set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. But, let’s face it, most of us aren’t that good! It used to be the case that agents and publishing houses would search for raw talent, and then the agent or more likely a publishing house editor would hack it into shape, sometimes remodelling it completely, killing off redundant characters, shifting tense and point of view, deleting certain chapters and demanding new ones. Such a process can radically change the original manuscript. But a lot of publishing houses have lost editors in today’s financially lean, streamlined business processes. They are more than ever looking for a better standard of writing, also because more and more people are writing. So they look for ways to reject work, and what better way than to look for common mistakes, indicative of poor writing?

Writing groups contain writers. There is a key difference between a reader and a writer (or critic or book doctor). A reader will generally tell you whether they liked what you wrote or not. It’s that simple. They might say they loved a particular character, a scene, something witty the heroine said. Alternatively, they might tell you (usually way too politely) it didn’t quite work for them. But they won’t say why they liked it or failed to. The average reader is not going to point out that there were too many point-of-view shifts, that sentence structures were too invariant, language too complex, pace was jagged, characters were ciphers, and similes were clichéd: because they don’t know this meta-language that sits underneath the writing, they haven’t learned the craft. Readers can give you general feedback, and it is important, but only other writers can give you constructive feedback. As a beginning writer, you need to know what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong. Otherwise you are at sea without a compass…

Here’s an abbreviated, composite example from one of my early writing groups, a particularly seminal one etched into my memory, after the other writers present had all read my very first science fiction short story:

            “The plot is too clichéd, it will never sell. You may not have read it before, but trust me, this story has been done to death.” [My grip on my sheets of paper tightens.] “You need to read more science fiction if you’re going to publish in this genre. Also, all the sentences start ‘He’. It’s repetitive – read it aloud and see if you can try not to slip into a trance.” [Group laughs, I brave a smile.] “Your dialogue tags are a mess, it’s hard to work out who is speaking, and they sound like comic strip heroes – why are there no women in your story, by the way, and why are they all caucasian with English names, and all heterosexual?” [Other members nod assiduously. I stare at the offending piece in my hand. Was it really that bad? Aren’t I supposed to write what I know?] “However…” [I hold my breath.] “The characters are interesting.” [I dare to look up: a few nods. I sense a lifeline in the offing.] Someone else chips in. “Yes, I agree. I normally hate science fiction, but I found this Blake character interesting; something broken inside him.” [My grip on my pride-and-joy loosens, so I can pick up my pen, write down the possible salvation of three months work.] “So, my advice, take these characters, and change the story. There’s something there.”

The person speaking, by the way, a guest at a week-long writers’ workshop in Paris, was the editor Michael C Curtis of Atlantic Fiction, hence I took every word seriously. Five years later it got published, not as a short story, but as a novel, and writing groups helped me navigate every step of the way.

How they work
Usually they are led by one person and the group as a whole has less than ten people. The more people there are, the less time for each person’s work to be reviewed. Three is an absolute minimum, four to six is a nice number. Each writer sends out a piece of work (usually 2-3000 words in length, 12 point Times New Roman, double-spaced, numbered – getting into such a discipline is important for later, when you start to submit to agents) at least a week before the meeting to give people time to read it and comment on it.

The group leader is usually the most experienced, and ideally is published herself. She (okay, obviously it can be a guy, right?) will say “Let’s start with [insert name]’s piece, and give her overall comments, some good things, some things to work on or change, and then go through it page by page in 5-10 minutes. Others who have read it may chip in if they agree with a point, but generally wait their turn, particularly if they have a different opinion. Here is an important rule, which not all writing groups follow:

The writer says nothing during the feedback process

There are two main reasons for this. First, we are all naturally defensive. We want to say “Ah, that’s not what the character meant/thought.” But the point is, that when it is published, most readers will not pick up the phone and call the author about page 23 where it doesn’t seem to make sense. Rather they will simply put the book down and switch on the television, your book will get poor or no reviews, and your dreams of being a famous writer will get pulped along with the remainders and returns that cannot be sold by the publisher. Second reason is that you have to listen carefully: sometimes feedback is gold, but if we jump into a conversation the feedback may be cut short, and later more important points lost. Most people don’t like giving tough feedback, and will abort if you are defensive, or worse, argumentative about it.

In any case, soon it will be your turn to give feedback, though it often happens that someone whose piece you really liked ‘hated’ yours. It’s good to have alcohol at these groups, to oil the egos, which is why the ones I go to are always in the evenings.

At the end of the review of your work, they will all hand back to you their print-outs with hand-written notes scrawled all over it: ticks, smilies, comments, question marks, words highlighted, entire passages with a line through them, etc.

Now, the hard part: what to do with them. The next morning or whenever you can get back to it, you look through the comments and the notes you made at the meeting. I usually do the small stuff first, the minor edits and typos and grammar, then look at the larger comments, the ones that may mean a lot of work or a total re-write. There are four scenarios:

(a)   One or more people made comments or edits that you straightaway agree with, and you have either that ‘Duh! Why didn’t I think of that?’ reaction, or the ‘Hey that’s a great idea!’ reaction. Do the edits.
(b)  One person had a problem with your writing which the others did not, and you still don’t. So, give yourself a break, and ignore it.
(c)   Two or more people had the same problem with your writing and you don’t agree with it. Tough one. You need to change something, even if you don’t do their proposed correction. Consider taking the changed piece back to the group later on (not straight away, as they will still remember it too well and will need to come at it fresh).
(d)  They all have the same problem with your writing, but you know deep inside you they are all terribly, unjustifiably wrong. You may need to change writing group, because maybe they are wrong. But if people in the new one tell you the same thing, accept where the problem really lies.

Why and how they go wrong
If everyone in the group is inexperienced, including the group leader, then it will be a case of ‘blind leading the blind’, and can be a nice social event, but at best won’t be effective in improving your writing, and at worst, because people in such an environment often try to be nice to each other, will reinforce bad styles and habits.

Even if there is a good group leader, things can go wrong, because people often act differently when in groups, depending who is in the group; it’s called group dynamics. As an example, perhaps the leader decides a particular writer needs a bit of a talking to because she keeps making the same mistake and ignoring feedback week after week (it happens), and attacks her piece. Others, who originally might have thought it was okay, can be drawn into the fray, and make their criticism harsher. You can see when this happens by watching if other writers ‘update’ their comments while listening to your piece being critiqued/torn apart. If you are lucky, it’s in a different ink and you can work out what they originally thought and what they later thought. The reverse can happen (the so-called 'halo effect', whereby all get carried away and think your piece is great and you know it isn't really, though is less common).

Sometimes we haven’t made the time to read all the pieces properly, and our comments are superficial, or for example, stating ‘didn’t get this’ or ‘what happened to the gun mentioned on page 4, why wasn’t it fired by the end?’ Maybe it was fired, but we skim-read the text. In this case the writer of the piece will go back and over-write, emphasising (and ruining) text which was fine to begin with. In a good writers group, other writers will call you out and say ‘you didn’t read it, dummie, it’s on page 7!’ and then pass you some more wine. If you’re in this position (and it can happen to anyone), it’s best to say you haven’t had time to read it properly and sit there quietly (passing the wine around).

Another problem is over-editing. Some people will fancy themselves as great editors, and may say ‘Great piece, really liked it,” and then hand you your work buried under a forest of critical comments and lines where they have suggested you delete text. They may have re-written parts for you. Well, take a look, because if nothing else they spent a good deal of time on it, but feel free to ignore the comments. Look for those which sound right. It is your writing. Often if words are crossed out, especially adverbs, it will sound better, and read more smoothly. But moving paragraphs around, blocks of text re-written, etc. – take it with a pinch of salt. If it works, include it, if not, bin it. Don’t just hone your craft, hone your judgement about who makes good criticism of your work: whose comments make it better?

Different levels of writing groups
By now it should be clear that the benefits and hazards are most acute for the beginning writer, who doesn’t know whose judgement to trust, least of all his or her own. Such a writer should not rely solely on the writing group. There are writers’ courses and conferences, and thousands of books on how to write, how to improve in areas such as plotting, dialogue, voice, etc.

There are also different levels of writing groups. Beginners’ groups are there for people to ‘try it out’, to see if it is ‘for them’. They may do short exercises just to get people into the habit of writing anything at all, and discuss concepts such as point of view, voice, dialogue tags, etc. Often people in such groups end up reviewing contemporary texts (best-sellers), or talking about films. In such groups there is almost no criticism, because the group leaders are trying to usher them into the world of writing, and don’t want to scare them off.

The next level of writing’ group is for unpublished writers, and maybe one or two in the group have gotten their first short story published in some obscure magazine, but they all know most of the basics of writing, and can learn from each other whatever else they need to know. This group contains people who have decided they want to be writers, but are not yet sure of their genre or how to break out of short story into novel, for example. This can actually be a really happy time for a writer, because there is a lot of hope and creative exploration. But a lot of work done at this level will remain unpublished, unless it is dusted off later when the craft has been mastered to a sufficient degree.

The third level is more serious, and probably at least some of the people at this level     
are already published, maybe writing their second or third book. The craft is well-known by all, and critiques are often at a higher level, e.g. how does this chapter relate to the one we read a month ago? The pace seem wrong, the character has shifted.’ Etc. There will still be small edits and big ones too, and occasionally even good writers will turn in a lousy chapter, but the group is mature, people take criticism on the chin, and then get down to fixing any problems raised.

Of course, there is little point in going to the wrong level of group. A beginner surrounded by honed writers won’t be able to follow the discussion or feedback, and a seasoned author attending a beginners’ group, aside from having a social evening and maybe an ego trip, won’t gain much out of it.

My golden rule for writers’ groups is simple:

Find people whose comments improve your work, and stick with them.

I’ve been attending various writers’ groups for ten years now. About three years ago, one of our favourite group leaders (Jen Dick, a poet, incidentally, and a damned good prose editor), left Paris. Within three months, three of us set up a small group, which now has a membership of six. We don’t have a leader, but we meet on a Sunday night roughly every three weeks, have a meal and some wine in a brasserie near Montparnasse in Paris, and then get down to serious criticism.
Alternatives to writing groups
If this is not for you, or you can’t find a group, there are alternatives. Online groups are popular, though I’ve never tried one. Book doctors also exist (either alone or through literary consultancies) whereby someone (usually a published author) will (for a fee) review your work and tell you how to improve it. It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for. I usually take my work to a lit consultancy after it has been through the wringer with my fellow trusted writers several times. Courses exist on self-editing, and on almost any aspect of writing, and as previously mentioned, there are books galore on how to write.

But all in all, I’m in favour of writing groups, despite their potential downsides. Writing is a craft, it’s never learned in one go or one crash course, and the learning never stops. It’s best done over time, with good company, good food, and… did I already mention the wine?  

Barry Kirwan is author of science fiction novels The Eden Paradox and Eden's Trial, both available on Amazon.

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