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.

1 comment:

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