Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Revising the Novel - Writing Groups

Often times, people ask whether or not they should be in a writing group.

Believe it or not, the answer isn't quite as straight foward as it may seem. The simple answer is 'yes.' Of course you should be in a writing group. You're a writer and the more people who read your stuff the better. You need the eyes on your material. You need the feedback.

But the simple answer isn't always the best.

In reality, the decision to join a writer's group is quite complex and depends upon a number of factors. Over the next two posts, I'm going to discuss the main issues that come to my mind, having been in a long-running writing group for about ten years. I'm basing this discussion on the premise that you're working your butt off writing with a goal to becoming published, not just wanting tea with some friends.

1) Who's in the group. What I mean by this is: is the group a serious group dedicated to writing and publishing or a casual group of repeat conference attendees who love the idea of being writers? If you yourself, are casual, by all means join the casual group, enjoy your tea. But if you're serious about your writing, you need to surround yourself with serious writers who'll get down to business, read your material and comment. The members don't all have to be writing the same type of fiction, in fact, I think it's better if they're not. While the idea of a "Romance Writers" writing group may sound good, I believe the conversation and critique may become a little self-contained and incestuous. It's good to have many writers from different genre's who'll push you to consider aspects of writing you may not normally consider. Such as a different view on character, conflict, or setting. Different genres use these differently, but we can all learn from each other.

2) The quality of critique. I'm sorry, but serious writers have no room in their life for pandering or hand holding. Critique, to be of any value, must be honest. If that is brutal, then fine. It doesn't do any one any good to hold back for fear of hurting feelings if there is a serious flaw in the writing . The best groups understand this. Rules should be set for how critique is delivered. It shouldn't be personal, teasing or patronizing, but honest. Flaws should be discussed not glossed over. Obviously, the group needs to be made up of people who's opinions you respect and trust, which you may not know at first. Mean spirited members should be asked to leave. But just as importantly, members who won't give negative comments for fear of hurting feelings should leave. We need direct, honest critique. What's good. What's bad. Now move on. This is a professional, not personal, endeavor.

3)The number of members. I think the optimal group size is four to five members. Six at the most. Otherwise, you won't be able to have a serious discussion about each member's writing at each meeting. Big groups are fun, but we're not there to have fun. We're not there to discuss upcoming wedding plans or weekends or car repairs. We're there to discuss writing. If that sounds anal, nonsocial and boring, then you don't need to be in a writing group, you need a social club. A real group knows how to say 'hello,' a few moments of small talk, then gets down to business. If you like each other, you can stay and socialize after the meeting or on weekends. Not when we're supposed to be writing.

4) The format of the group. Formats can take as many shapes as tigers have stripes (I almost wrote 'as lions have stripes.' Well, it is 4 am.) In my group, each member's material is reviewed at each session. Each writer sends out 20-30 pages to each member who then reads it, reviews it and writes comments. When we get together, we rotate who's material gets discussed first, then take turns talking about the submission. Everyone gets a chance to comment. The author is supposed to remain quiet, not defending, occasionally allowed to offer clarification. If that sounds rigid, then good. When you've published your book (or submitted it to an agent) you won't be standing there by the reader offering defense of your writing. Once you've submitted it, it has to stand on its own.

We rotate houses each meeting. The host used to provide some basic sustenence, but we've eliminated this as it started to become bigger and bigger, then we spent as much time eating as talking. Now, a bowl of nuts, some bottles of water and three hours of critique.

Not glamorous, but effective.

If you like this line of posting, let me know. I'll continue this thread in my next post. I'll be out of town on Thursday, so look for the next update on Saturday.

Thanks for reading, now get back to work. There's writing to do!


FrankTMalone said...

Due to the fact that novels can now be written on computers, a novel and the message therin can now be dispersed to almost anyone in the world that has access to a working computer. The novel that I would like to submit is about the vast amount of similarities in the lives of everyday people in the United States and Great Britain and how they could be affected by the rise of the communist party in the governmant of modern day China.

Bill Frankl said...

I like the description of your writers' group.It's the way it ought to be. How often do you meet?