07 February, 2016
I want to give a shout-out to my writer's group, and wax lyrical (or... y'know... waffle) about the virtues of them in general.
Many aspects of being a writer are hidden, often times deliberately, behind a thick fog of pretentious mystery. It seems more glamorous if there isn't a craft. We don't sound so brilliant when we describe all those hours of re-reading our favourite books, trying to figure out what the writers we admire did to make the story spring to life, or how we read and re-read books on writing, finding most of them completely useless and wondering whether it's because the book's stupid, or because we're stupid. And most writers don't like to admit just how much a good editor can alter a project prior to publication.
You know how in movies about writers you so often have that three week, coffee fueled stint to get a story off to the publisher? That appalling, sloppy, overly caffeinated sprawl of desperation will have the living shizzat edited out of it long prior to its visit to the printing press. It seems first time writers, who have to have something publication-ready prior to an editor coming anywhere near it, are in a bit of a pickle by comparison to the established pros.
But here's a handy secret. Few established writers like to talk about this, for all the reasons outlined above and, probably, because thousands of budding novelists would pester them about joining if they knew. I have met precious few successful novelists who don't have a mutual critique group, made up of other successful novelists.
The truth is, writing a book isn't a glamorous, coffee-fueled blast of inspiration. It's a struggle. Every single thing you write is a struggle, and if it isn't a struggle, it probably sucks. The reason is, the writer's job is to amplify and animate what the story is really TRYING to be. We have to be a good listener, an honest critic, and we need focus. If you're not wrestling with your story, you're not hearing it, and if you're too hung up on self-expression, the story isn't getting a life of its own.
I can't say I ever "realised" this per se, because I always believed this, even as a child when I first decided to make art. (Though I hadn't decided what type yet. I was doing many different kinds, and I still do. Literature, where the canvas is the imagination itself, is the one I fell in love with the deepest, so here I am.)
But RE-realising this, I decided to search for local writers' groups. I found several. There's one in Coventry run by Jo... Roberts? Something like that. Anyway she's awesome. That was a good group, but a little too softcore for me. Then I found BardsTownWriters, who work out the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford Upon Avon. Pretty swanky. As you might imagine the group has been around a long time, always with a strong membership base. At least, he said wiggling his eyebrows, until I arrived...
They were an okay lot. The head of the group (totally forget her name) was a class act, as were several others. The problem came when I gave somebody feedback. I'd been to an MFA where I'd been taught by an excellent craftsman, who took no prisoners when it came to critique. I was there to have my work reviewed as thoroughly as possible, and I assumed we were all after the same thing. So I took no prisoners. I gave a thorough review, and I made a group of people extremely upset.
About half the group were flabbergasted that anyone would dare do such a thing as use a red pen when looking over a manuscript, and offering thoughts and criticisms. The other half were flabbergasted that anyone would have a problem with this. And therein lay the problem of casual writers' groups. Some people there are purely casual. For them writing is about self expression and pure enjoyment. Great. Just don't crowd my table. For me, and many others, it's about getting my work out there into the world. If I didn't want honest criticism on my work, I wouldn't waste my damn time traveling to Stratford.
In the space of three weeks I split BardsTownWriters down the middle, making almost everyone walk away dejected with the whole thing. I hear they're back in business, but I shall forever be proud to have decimated a writers group that had been carrying on strong for centuries.
That week, I was in a pub with a friend and unpublished-yet-talented writer, Rory Somers, telling him the hilarious yet disappointing story. I was too drunk to remember the exact conversation, but it went something like,
"If I had enough friends I'd start my own damn group. If only I could Google, 'Writers' Group Minus Losers' or something."
"Why don't you?"
"What... have more friends?"
"Um, no. The other thing."
"Because I don't have enough friends."
All my writer friends lived in London. There was only Rory, Ruth (my lady friend) and myself. But three's a crowd, and we decided just to do it anyway. We'd call it Write Club, because it's more hardcore than those sissies over at BardsTown. We'd make up rules. First, always talk about it. Second... I mean, third, is... uh... something about having to shut up when you're getting critiqued, and if you can't take it like a grownup, piss off until you can. Finally, if it's your first night at Write Club, you have to write. We found that last one hilarious at the time. Ah, beer... is there anything you can't do?
So the plan was to contact the several people from BardsTown who'd written to me to say they appreciated my critiques and thought the other person was hypersensitive and out of line. Of those people, two said they'd be delighted to join Write Club. We were up to five, and the best part was, all five of us were the sort of people who didn't fit in at places like BardsTown. We were serious about success, honest with feedback and appreciative of all criticism.
Since then, one person left to pursue an MFA, and I haven't heard from them since, and we acquired two new people, each of whom are awesome in their own right. The group is large enough for varied feedback, and small enough for us all to develop strong rapport. Now we're all good friends, helping each other achieve our dreams, and I believe all of us will make it in the end. Yes, sometimes one of us brings something along that they've poured their heart into, and it hurts when it's torn to shreds. Yes, sometimes the feedback keeps you up at night. But that's all part of the artistic process. That's falling in and out of love with our ideas, becoming enraptured by our plots, and always striving to achieve empathy with our imaginary reader. It's the balance between inspiration and objectivity, and the value of communication and the sounding board of like-minded people. In truth, the only "Rule of Write Club" that's stuck is that advice is always taken in the spirit in which it's offered. I can promise such advice is always, and I mean ALWAYS, useful in the end.
This post is inspired by the severe pounding the first 10,000 words of my next novel took last Wednesday. Special thanks to Rosalind Beeson and Ruth Akien.