Wednesday, 15 May 2019

On Writing Groups (part 3), by Kevin Burke

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.
First, a confession. Unlike the previous two writers on this subject, I am no longer a member of NSFWG. (I know... I'm as cut up about it as anyone... but sometimes life moves you away from the things you love.) However, no longer being  'on the inside' does give me the chance to look back on my time with the group, and to muse upon the usefulness of writers groups in general, with what I hope will be something akin to objectivity. (Who am I trying to kid? It's going to be as subjective as hell, of course it is, so let's just accept that from the start and move on... ) Here goes.

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

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

On Writing Groups (part 2), by Andy West

Author-Foo from Writing Groups - Woo!

In the second part of our ongoing series series of posts detailing what we get out of being involved in a writing group, we turn to Andy West, science-fiction & fantasy writer.

While there’s no substitute for imagination and some inherent talent, a good Writing Group can supply this Foo, and much more besides. For instance, camaraderie. Most budding writers begin thinking about joining a Writing Group when they’ve already been scribbling (metaphorically – it’s mostly tapping) for a long time, possibly years, closeted in their bedroom or office or riding the bus or wherever. Hence, they are likely already familiar with a big down-side of the writing trade – it’s a lonely occupation! Not only in the sense that one (typically) works long hours in isolation with all this emotively implies, but also in the sense of having no mentors or colleagues with whom one can regularly interact, as would be the case for most jobs from car sales to software to welding to management.
Writing can be a lonely occupation; you sometimes feel
you’re out in the dark, working in complete isolation…
One is out in the dark, so to speak, regarding the desired and necessary skills; distanced from the places and people somewhere else in that dark, beyond your vision, where the magic of authorship must be happening. And online advice seems a thin and anonymous light on the process, less rich and rewarding than actually discussing techniques (not to mention your actual works) face to face with other budding authors plus, critically, those with more experience.

So, find a group in your area and try for membership, then say goodbye to the loneliness of the trade and hello to mutual support from a ring of valued writing buddies and friends. Note, some groups limit to a maximum number of members so cast around for a free slot, and then you might need a test piece too. This is to check appropriateness to the group’s particular focus plus a minimum level of achievement. But don’t panic about perfection, the whole point is to improve everyone, so potential not perfection is the necessary criteria.

A Writing Group covers wide territory, spotting unoriginal approaches and common errors plus more positively, aspects such as market opportunities or genre fusion ideas

Great! Let’s assume you’re in. There turns out not just to be benefits regarding improvement of your writing skills, but much other stuff too. The group covers wide-ranging territory, so for instance can better inform, say, about unoriginal approaches, or say insider knowledge on a genre you want to branch into. And indeed a great deal more about the whole world of writing too; highly useful considering the puzzling and fast changing nature of publishing. You’ll still need the net of course, but without burdening your new colleagues too much, the relating of some personal experience saves time and effort compared to endless Internet trawling (after which, you often still don’t know what the results actually mean…)

So, is this wonder membership the end of all your writing woes? Um, no. Still endless hours of writing, and trying to be heard, but it’s a hell-uv-a help along the way. Oh, and do you get some new challenges as well as solutions? Well, yes…

Once you’ve found your feet, you’ll be expected to contribute as much as receive, of course, and it’s critical to treat the work of other’s as seriously as you’d hope your own will be considered. And, while critique necessarily has to be robust it should range over the positive things to say as well as the things that, for you, were issues. So don’t focus only on the latter. The job is to advise in an encouraging and inspiring environment, not to inadvertently create a sense that nothing worked and so consequent depression!
The complex world of writing takes some navigating!
‘Robust’ essentially means being honest. Albeit with the noble intent of not trampling upon someone’s feelings, avoiding genuine issues as you see them, plus too much uncritical praise in a mutual patting on the back club, eventually becomes no use to anyone. The real world will be merciless. Also, the emotive impact of robustness is greatly mitigated by offering a solution to the raised issue. This is also a useful challenge for you in the role of critic. Spotting an issue doesn’t mean you know the best solution, or even any solution, without seriously thinking about it. It could only be luck that you haven’t yet fallen into the same problem yourself. Or maybe you already did; issues are easier to spot in the work of others because we’re naturally biased regarding our own work, and sometimes snow-blind even when we manage to be more objective. This is why you’re in a Writing Group!

It's worth keeping front of mind too (because our context can often slip while absorbed in reading), that critique should not come from the perspective of ‘what would *I* write’. Although it’s difficult to distance ourselves entirely, this is inappropriate. You must not dampen the author’s voice with your own, plus critique perspective should be firmly rooted in ‘what would the market read’, so comes as much from our reading experience as writing experience. In turn this might mean thinking your way into a less familiar market than the one(s) you tend most to favour. This aspect is not an issue for clearly generic factors (e.g. basic grammar), but for deeper issues, and while suggested solutions necessarily come from a personal perspective, they shouldn’t aim at essentially writing a different story than the critiqued work, i.e. the story you would write. The aim is to improve the author’s own vision or essence of the story, plus bring out the best in their own voice.

As you’re beginning to find out in your first couple of meetings, membership is an improving and rewarding experience, but quite challenging too. And the challenges can be emotive because writers are so invested in their works. However, some challenges aren’t as bad as they seem at first sight.

So, what about getting depressed because there’s lots of critique from folks? Even for positively framed critique this can become an issue, especially as we may produce better or worse output in phases depending upon our levels of inspiration and focus. Writing is not a mechanical exercise, and sometimes too we’re more experimental on purpose. So, ask yourself, is the critique mostly quite different across the group? If so, DON’T be depressed! This is not a bad thing (um… unless there were literally zero good points too, in which case you might well be in the wrong group!) As everyone interprets through the lens of their own writing experience and favoured niche, different perceptions will likely dominate when there’s nothing too fundamentally wrong. If there had been, the group’s critique would most probably have much more in common, i.e. straddling the same major issue(s). This outcome may mean your engagement is not deep enough, or too many minor problems are interrupting (so plot and imagination ok but skills not yet honed enough), or somehow contradictions or a lack of clarity muddy the plot or character portrayal. The critique should contain clues, but wide variance in feedback often implies group acceptance that something underneath is solid, which hopefully won’t go wholly unspoken. So, while much improvement is likely needed to truly grab folks and keep them onboard, this is way better than a conceptual restart along with the implied major rewrite. Focussing on core impact, distilling, cleaning up and losing diversions may be the answer; is there just too much detail?

Also, if you get say 9 significant but quite different opinion points over a group of 12, you can just choose to ignore some. While each might improve in some way there’ll also be contradictory advice, plus improving appeal in one way may reduce it in another. E.g. increasing the pace but losing some depth, or increasing appeal to one sort of reader at the expense of another sort. What to take on board is a value judgement here, and your readers will be the ultimate judges so you need to know their psychomatics. And aiming at max sales is not necessarily the best bet if this risks betraying your target niche and ending up falling flat. Similarly, if you get say 5 passionate opinions supporting largely the same point, yet also 4 passionately the exact opposite (plus some neutrals), it is knowing who you’re targeting that’ll tell you which way to go regarding this fork. And hopefully, more experienced group members may know some likely consequences of each possibility.

So, what about getting depressed because there’s lots of critique from folks, but it isn’t all different? I.e. pretty much everyone has hit on the same 2 or 3 main points (whether or not there’s lesser stuff too). If this is the case, then DON’T be depressed! (um… unless the points amount to ‘throw it away’, in which case you might well be in the wrong group!) Not only did the group just set the scene for you to fix this work up, there’ll usually be a range of suggested paths regarding just how you might do so! Not quite job done, but the hardest part is done. What you don’t know you can’t fix, even if a subconscious part of you had suspected it. This is why you’re in a writing group!

Regarding this outcome, you will need a MUCH stronger reason for not taking group advice when opinions are well-aligned, one you are very sure of should you wish to do so. Although market knowledge or context from elsewhere in the story can be a reason, for generic points relating to readability or impact rather than say plot turns or market niche constraints (e.g. something applicable to children but not adults), mostly you should take the advice. This is why you’re in a writing group!
If you get to be a member for a long time, this will result in a deeper insight on folks, so your advice can be more insightful too. But familiarity can sometimes cause a glaze to set in, especially for secondary issues, another thing to guard against. Fortunately, new members not only bring fresh work and fresh perspective, they tend to rebalance the equation between longer-standing members too. This reminds me to point out that a writing group is not a team. It’s not aiming, like a corporate team (and I’ve been in quite a few), at an integrated single goal. Nor is it a competition, albeit it’s honing folks for the ultimate competition out there, not only our public Voice but the relative longevity of our essence long after we are gone. So what sort of beast is a writing group, as such? Well I think the best description is somewhere between a therapy group, and a fractious family. So be prepared to bare your soul, yet defend your position too! And know the others like your siblings.

A writer who became frozen in his approaches and suffered 
particularly bad writer’s block. Fortunately, he joined the Group 
just before this and so was eventually rescued
One very useful aspect of this family angle is the testing of taboo material. Writers must sometimes go there, it’s part of the job description, and they shouldn’t be afraid to. But balancing sensitivity while not bowing to the weight of over-political correctness (such that points are supressed or avoided enough to seriously weaken the work) is better conducted in an environment with a diverse range of opinions from folks who, in the end, will have the same issues themselves at some point (albeit on a different topic), plus due to familiarity, true knowledge of you, aren’t going to reach straight for the pitchfork if something inadvertently went too far. Face to face is simply far better for this, you get all the nuance and body-language plus multiple interactions at once.

And did I mention ‘many benefits’ over and above learning the basic craft? Too many to list, but here’s a couple more:

* Meetings can often be inspiring regarding both approaches and actual story paths. This is tremendously useful for those times when one has fallen into a slough of despair (seems to be a natural hazard for writers), or unfreezing creative blockages or one’s productive evolvement as a writer. Driving home all excited, one can be eager for the front line again, eager for words.

* If your group is lucky enough to have professional editors taking part, this is incredibly useful too. Their detailed mark-ups not only get one used to what to expect when you get works placed, following their disciplines increases the chance of being placed anyhow. Albeit a humbling experience, this is absolutely invaluable. And likewise regarding feedback from those who’ve already got enough author-Foo to have prominent works out there, be it shorts or novels or whatever. A point here is that everyone can have more Foo; established authors don’t stay in writing groups just to help bring on newer authors, albeit that’s a rewarding activity. Writing evolves, to meet evolving markets and due to personal development; so new stories need new approaches, they need testing, and all writing can go somewhere it hasn’t been before; all of which likely means reaching more readers while keeping existing readers still interested and engaged.

Kung-Foo / Fu means ‘hard work’, ‘skill from long practice’, and it must always be practised, sharpened. My own very modest author Foo has been nurtured off-the-side of a corporate career, limiting available time; I probably need to paint more walls as much as pounce like a tiger. But the Writing Group has been utterly invaluable and far the best investment of time – both from personal development PoV and a fantastic insight into the trade of writing, not to mention great fun and great people – Woo!

Andy West is a long-term inmate of the Northampton Science Fiction Writing Group (which covers Fantasy and Horror too).  He can be found online at We Are Myth.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

On Writing Groups (part 1), by Paul Melhuish

After a prolonged period of silence (sorry about that, we've all been too busy writing and publishing!), we're going to start a series of posts detailing what we get out of being involved in a writing group.

First up is Paul Melhuish, horror writer and Morris Man.
 ‘To be honest Paul, the concept just isn’t believable. A spaceship lands in a field in Bedfordshire in 1952 and no one makes a fuss about it. The thing just sits there for decades.  It’s even given National Trust status in your story and the only thing standing between it and the public is a fence with a KEEP OUT sign. This sign of first contact is largely ignored by the rest of the world. It just doesn’t work.’ 

I was three quarters of the way through my epic novel of small-town alien incursion, Britain’s answer to The Tommyknockers or so I thought. I’d send out the first couple of chapters to the writers group thinking it would wow them with its inventiveness, its oddness.  Its unheimlich.

They weren’t impressed. The concept didn’t work.

This was exactly what I needed to hear, a consensus where all the group could see the flaws.  The members are all experienced writers, all published (some even involved in publishing and editing projects) and they knew what they were talking about.

For me the best course of action was to abandon the novel for now and begin another idea I'd for a horror novel about a cursed Morris dance. A few months down the line I submitted the opening chapters for this book to be workshopped by the group and they agreed that this concept did work. Yeah, there were some changes to be made, easy fixes, but on the whole the consensus was that this idea had legs.

I joined the Northampton Science Fiction Writer’s Group in 2003 and before this wasted months and years working on projects like the National Trust Spaceship idea. I also had a rather inflated opinion of myself as a writer, not questioning ideas for their validity or thinking about the mechanics of writing. In a literary sense I was stuck in a wasteland of unsolicited ideas, floundering alone, no idea of how to break into the publishing world. Thankfully they saved me from this wasteland and beat out the inflated opinion of myself by forcing me to consider concepts like POV, voice, repetition, things I’d never considered before. And they were picky. Here’s an example of how much attention to detail they encourage you to anticipate.

‘Paul. You’ve used the sentence “the sound shook the molecules of the air”. This is how sound travels anyway. You need to change it to, maybe, “the sound shattered the molecules of the air.”’

I’m making it sound like as if every month I’m judged by stony-faced old men in a courtroom. It really wasn’t like that and still isn’t (editors note - he's lying, it's exactly like that...)

We’re all writers and we encourage and support each other. They point out the flaws in work to make it better. Not many of my ideas are as flawed as the National Trust Spaceship idea but there are aspects that need to be improved and you need other people to point them out. They’re honest because they want you to succeed. Think Craig Revell-Horward from Strictly Come Dancing (editors note - please don't...). He might come across as a bit of a bastard but he’ll tell you where you’re going wrong to improve your performance. Okay, they are not quite as scathing as him. Mostly.  Being in a writer’s group isn’t all about learning by increments. As a writer there’s nothing more uplifting than having a room full of fellow writers telling you what you’ve written is good and to keep going with it.

There have been some great times since 2003.  My first convention in 2009; nervously walking into the bar alone only to hear Ian Watson, a member and mentor of the group, call me over, ask me what I wanted to drink and thus kicking off a weekend of writery chat and making lots of friends.  In 2010 the group each had a story published in Shoes, Ships and Cadavers: Tales from North Londonshire, published by Newcon Press with an introduction from Alan Moore, launched at our own convention called NewCon 4.  All of us from the writers group sat along a long table with Alan at the head, each signing copies.

Last year, my novel High Cross was launched at FantasyCon. I was afraid no one would come to the launch but the guys from the writer’s group were (which was very reassuring) and in the end, a lot more people turned up.  I sold about twenty books.  None of this would have happened without the group.
When I submit the first few chapters to a publisher, I can do so with confidence of knowing it’s been workshopped first. The best thing you can do as a writer is join a good writer’s group and prepare to be knocked off your pedestal. I can’t imagine what sort of writer, or person, I’d have turned out as if I’d continued floundering in the literary wasteland, writing about National Trust spaceships and collecting nothing but rejection letters.

Paul Melhuish is a writer with short stories published in various magazines. His latest novel, High Cross, was published last October by Horrific Tales Publishing.