Attended a writers group tonight which was a fill-in for the MA whilst the university is closed for the summer. Was nice to get critiquing again, I had one of my stories under the microscope.
Basically a writing group goes like this:
Someone (or everyone) sends their work by email to the rest of the group a week or more before, there’s usually a set word limit. Then on the day everyone brings in pre-written comments about what worked, what didn’t and possibly what could be changed in a later version. The baton is passed around with everyone except the victim giving their piece, and at the end the writer themselves can offer some defence of the points raised.
The level of brutal honesty is debated – people want to hear how they can improve sure, but that has to be weighed against how much they have already put in. So if you think telling someone their writing style is like a child’s and their grasp of English worse than most household pets will shake them up in future pieces, you also have to think how will they feel about the three novels they’ve already written.
I like brutal critiques; I like people to say this bit here is absolute rubbish. I must admit though I feel bad when lots of different elements of a story get that verdict, the cumulative effect does depress me. The point of the writers group is this, anyone who did their dissertation at the end of their degree will remember how blind you go to your own work by the fifth or sixth draft. Your eyes skim over the work because your brain is familiar with it and doesn’t have to read it intensely. There’s a test you can do to prove this, you draw an equilateral triangle and in the uppermost point you write ‘Paris’ and in the line below ‘in the’ and in the line at the bottom ‘the spring’. Give it people to read and they will miss the second ‘the’ because their brain will assume it knows what the words say, Paris in the spring. Readers then will spot stuff you don’t, it’s good practise to do this with any writing not just fiction.
So what if two people disagree on something? That doesn’t matter, you get a gut feeling about it, it’s the pointing out of a problem-passage which is the main thing. To anyone who hasn’t gone to one of these things it’s an interesting experience. I think if I had been critiqued in this way five years ago i might have given up altogether, but I’m much more resilient now.
I recently took part in my first book club and found it very different. Obviously the writer isn’t there so there’s no element of advice, but more significantly the novel is published if it makes it to a book club so rather than the quality of writing being discussed we talked more about the issues at stake and how the book made us feel.
So if you’ve got that book hidden inside, join a writers group and they’ll probably put you off for life! If they don’t there’s maybe hope. I found www.youwriteon.com a good place to start, you can upload a story or 7000 words of a novel and other writers critique your work as long as you keep critiquing their’s. And practice, practice, practice. I write everyday, but not a set amount, and sometimes it’s redrafting not new writing. I’ve been doing that since I was about 18, and with real intent since April 2009 but really I’m on a steep learning curve now and for a while I was just treading water and doing it for fun. I’ve got my fingers crossed meanwhile.