In the third part of our ongoing series series of posts detailing what we get out of being involved in a writing group, we turn to Kevin Burke, science-fiction & fantasy writer.
Although I have always written in one way or another, at the time of joining the group (five years ago now) I had but one short story published, so was most definitely a 'newbie' on the writing scene, and consequently I approached that first meeting with a fair degree of trepidation. I knew that I was to be in the company of people with, in the main, an established history of publication, and I also knew that I was to be asked to pass my verdict on examples of their work. I had rarely felt so far out of my depth. How could my opinion possibly be of interest to such an august assembly?
In reality, of course, I need not have worried. I was warmly welcomed into the group and my faltering critique was listened to and respected. Then, as the months passed and it came round to my turn to have pieces of work commented upon, I found the feedback I received universally helpful. These were people who knew what they were talking about, and who were taking my work seriously. (Quick anecdote: I do recall that my first submitted piece included several veiled autobiographical sequences, which were the very sections that group members picked out as being 'too far-fetched'. 'This would never happen' said one, to much general agreement and nodding of heads. To this day I smile to myself about that, though it did teach me that not only, as the old adage goes, is truth stranger than fiction, but that real life does not necessarily translate successfully onto the written page.)
So what did NSFWG do for me? Well, first and foremost it built my confidence. I felt I could hold my own amongst people who I admired and who were all far more experienced than I. It also taught me an enormous amount about the business of writing, simply by listening to the experiences of those who had literally 'been there and got the T-shirt', and the help and advice that I received was invaluable. I'm not saying that everything was always idyllic... my hindsight is not that rose-tinted. I do remember times when certain individuals got a bit prickly over their feedback, but this was the exception rather than the rule, and I learned that at the end of the day, your work is your work, and you are free to take criticism on board or ignore it, as you see fit. (Personally, I believe that you should always keep an open mind and listen to feedback when it is offered. If you remain wilfully blind to potential faults in your story you can be sure that, further down the line, an editor or, even worse, a reader, will pick them up.) On the whole, however, I found the criticism extremely helpful and constructive, and always came away from meetings buoyed up rather than cast down.
I have also come to appreciate what a rare thing a good writers group is, and when you have found one that suits you, you should cherish it at all costs. One of the best aspects of the NSFWG is that it is a genre group, so it is composed of like-minded individuals who all write in a similar vein. (That's not to say that what they produce is in any way similar, but that the thought processes that inform their work are). I now live in Dorset (too far to commute to Northampton monthly meetings, alas) and have found it impossible to find a group in this area that comes anywhere close. The groups that I have discovered thus far tend to fall into three categories: a) groups that are aimed at beginners ('look at this photo and see what it inspires in you, then scribble something down and we'll discuss it after tea and cake'); b) groups for the slightly more experienced ( 'here's our subject for this month, see if you can write 500 words on the theme and bring it along with you'); or c) groups for those might have had something published, or who are seriously aiming for publication, but with such a breadth of style, subject and genre that there is little they have in common other than the desire to get their work seen by a wider audience. Perhaps we should make a distinction here between writing groups (a & b) and writers groups (c). Though that opens up another debate over 'what is a writer?' and that's certainly not a can of worms I would wish to open at this point in time. Suffice it to say, it can be tough to find a group where you feel you belong.
So for now, I continue to soldier on in the solitude of my 'writing room' (i.e. the room where the computer is kept and the bookshelves are groaning), with a dachshund on my lap and a million story ideas jostling for space in my head. My path occasionally crosses with other writers, but such sporadic contact is no substitute for a good, supportive writers group, and the help and advice of those who have already navigated the paths that I aspire to tread. I still see myself as no more than a fledgling writer, but with a few successes in writing competitions under my belt, another short story published, and a novel doing the rounds of those publishers which will still accept unagented submissions, I feel that at least I'm moving in the right direction. And in a very real sense, I have the NSFWG to thank for giving me the confidence to persevere.
Oh... and I now have a shiny new pen-name. I write as KB Willson. One quick look on Amazon convinced me that there were just too many authors using the name 'Kevin Burke' so a change had to be made; and when I think back, I have NSFWG to thank for that too, having run the idea past the inimitable Ian Whates in those early days.
So would I say that writers groups are a good idea? Yes I would, but I can't emphasise enough the importance of finding one in which you feel at home. I count myself extremely fortunate to have spent the time that I did in the company of the Northampton crowd, even though it was all too brief, and I like to think I am a better writer for the experience. I raise a glass to members past and present, and to all who hammer their keyboards in an attempt to breathe life into their imaginings. May your fingers never fail you.
Kevin/KB has mostly escaped the clutches of the Northampton Science Fiction Writing Group (which covers Fantasy and Horror too) but can be found online at www.kbwillson.com