Saturday, 13 August 2016

Writing groups - the good, the bad and the career-destroying

(I keep getting asked to write a book about writing, and I think eventually I'll do one - but in the meantime, I'll blog a bit about writing-related themes and topics. Feel free to share experiences and comments and questions below.)

Writing groups: the good, the bad and the career-destroying (*

It's one of those truisms that writers are "solitary creatures", as we're all really quite introverted (exceptions prove the rule). However, many writers though will open up and get quite animated when put into a room with other writers. Sometimes, alcohol is involved, and in the case of some meetings, a healthy dose of airing out dirty linnen, gossip and snark over whoever is currently seen as the "darling of readers" - ie, everybody who sells more copies/has better reviews, etc.

Also, definitely at the beginning of one's career, there are all these groups that promise relief from the alienation we feel when we come out as "writers" in a "non-writer" environment. We're craving validation, companionship, and answer. Oh, so many answers. For example, I went to an adult education institution to "learn" writing, only to be confronted with a pensioner's 700-page autobiography he was desperate to share, a number of entirely hopeless writers (really), and a couple ambitious ones. I hogged the ambitious ones - though none of them were particularly into speculative fiction, and LGBTQ characters wasn't what they were prepared to deal with. So that was a bit of a bust. I didn't learn a single useful thing, either.

Then I went to university and encountered a professor-run "Creative Writing" course. While German literature professors scoffed at the idea of "writing" being a skill you can learn, the US-born professor was actually looking at techniques and running a workshop on it. We'd sometimes meet at her flat, read work, get feedback. It was a lot more friendly towards speculative fiction, and the queerness wasn't a huge issue.

From that grew a private writing group. Four writers, two with ambitions to publish/sell, two who were happy just to write. This eventually went to sleep, and the two writers with ambitions teamed up to write some fiction together. Both of those groups were tremendously helpful - being able to discuss a story in detail with another writer who had been studying fiction with the express goal not to feel clever about literature but to "crack the code" of sellable fiction was very helpful. It made me feel as if it could be done, gave me somebody to talk to, and was very energising.

I also was one of the founding members of a writer's association. From that sprang my own project-based writing group; we all started unpublished, and most of us walked away with respectable deals, agents or at least a very solid background in deconstructing and building novels in essentially a group-based environment. From this grew an attempt to monetise those skills in a creative writing school which eventually broke up - also, at that point, I'd left the country.

Now based in London, I enrolled in a fiction writing course at the Open University, but didn't follow through. Several attempts to start a new project-based group failed - largely because of the demands of the day job and writing projects. Instead of learning, critiquing and feedbacking books, I was making them and sometimes worked on a one-on-one basis with writers - this eventually meant I got involved in the small press scene.

I also joined a face-to-face group in London composed of sci-fi and fantasy and horror authors. At this point, I had 20+ book releases to my name and was making hundreds of pounds a month off those. But there was a gap I couldn't close with that group. They all wanted to be "discovered" by agents and publishers (large ones, with large advances), while I was going to the DIY route and focused on production and sharpening my skills. Due to the queer characters, I was pretty much convinced that the big publishers didn't give a shit about me anyway, so I didn't even try. (They've apparently started to come round only recently.)

So, you could say, I've been around the block in terms of writing groups and what destroys them (or you or your book). So here's what I've learned.

1) A writing group, like any other group, has a kind of "base line" - expected behaviour, goals. Ask: what is the purpose of the group? 

It makes no sense to team up with writers who are not on the same page. If your desire is to get published, teaming up with "oh, maybe the muse kisses me next year" writers won't be helpful. A working writer is somebody who puts prose down and who eliminates sexual contact with higher powers as a reason to write. (Though Muse-kissing is really nice.)

At the very least, ensure that all members accept that it's a working writing group, with the aim to get work ready to publish and published. Avoid the type who shows up with their 2,500-page memoir about escaping Scientology (I wish I was joking.)

Avoid also groups that are "social" unless you look for companionship/gossip/reasons to get drunk. Those are awesome and relaxing - they won't get you closer to getting work published. So I'd say, keep "social" and "feedback" separated. At the very least, set time aside for both, and then enforce the division. I have writing buddies I hang out with, and I love talking to writers, and sometimes that means discussing finer points of writing/plotting/ways to bust through a block, etc. But I wouldn't call those "writing groups", more my "social circle".

2) A writing group as a source of treason, backstabbing, envy and sometimes valuable feedback

Let me question the value of writing groups as sources of feedback right away. I do this in spite of lots of advice out there to "find a writing group", especially at the early stages. Usually, members of a writing group, are NOT representative of your future or present readership. In my experience, especially budding and wannabe writers are still so caught up in getting their own stuff right that they're rarely equipped to give you feedback on yours.

What usually happens is this; they project their stuff onto you. So they end up talking about themselves and their own hang-ups rather than anything that's actually on the page. You end up learning a lot about them as readers, but rarely anything useful about your writing. Ooops. Not exactly the kind of stuff you want to base editing decisions on. Trust me.

This is due to the simple fact that as readers we never read the book the author has written - we project our own stuff, an the process of reading means the reader brings at least 50% of the story to the table. They'll see stuff in the writing that isn't even there. While all readers are prone to this, baby writers (by which I mean the inexperienced and wannabes) tend to project not what they want to read, but the book they would have written onto your book. NOT helpful when talking about what's on the page. 

Yes, you can get beyond this. If you analyse text dispassionately, discuss it, dissect it -- over time, you'll get what I call "red pen reading". I read everything - road signs, Shakespeare, Faulkner, blog posts, Twitter - with a red pen in my mind. How would I edit this? Make it better? Can we cut words? Why not?

This will either totally destroy your enjoyment of fiction ("oh dear, we're at 25%, that means we're now in Act 2") or shift your enjoyment from immersion to analysis ("I love how the author uses the tree metaphor in the opening sequence, transforms the meaning of the metaphor in the middle, and closes on a wood-related image in the last chapter, showing the emotional arch of the main character and the theme of individual versus society.").

These days, I read like an engineer - I see cogs spinning, and I look at a story like an anatomist or even taxidermist - I see muscles and tendons and the skeleton underneath where a normal reader would only see the nubile 18-year old gymnast and her grace. This isn't, however, a common skill in writing groups. But writing groups can help develop that skill.

What's worse, I've personally experienced so much envy and back-stabbing in writing groups (I was "outed" on the internet by a member of the speculative fiction group, for example), that I'd advise anybody to a) not make themselves vulnerable, thinking they're "among friends" (in fact, envious writers are tremendously vicious AND have a way with words) and b) guard their privacy carefully. I made both mistakes and paid the price.

3) What, then, is a good source of feedback? 

Personally, I'd use two. I've already mentioned the one-on-ones - find a fellow writer who shares your goals for your writing, possibly your genre (though I've received tremendously useful feedback from a writing mentor who writes hardcore historicals on my fantasy novels), and above all, knows what they're doing. Ideally, eliminate envy and competitive thoughts - so different genres could work.

Or maybe apprentice yourself to a more experienced, more successful writer who can hold up as a role model in the very thing you want to learn. Ideally, this is somebody you respect, somebody who respects you.

It's important that that writer doesn't do it to "lord it over you". There are some people out there who'll prop up their fragile egos by "taking down the competition", or sabotage a promising newbie's career because they feel threatened.

Do spend some time thinking what you have to offer them. Most writers at the "mentor" stage of development are generous and kind and happy to "pay it forward", mindful of how much help they've themselves received. That said, they might want to be compensated in terms of money. Agree rates, agree what you want. Out there in the real world, people pay mentors all the time, so it's not an outlandish thought. Lastly, focus on people who have experience mentoring.

If a mentor isn't available, then find somebody who shares your values and is roughly at the same stage of writerly development/career. You can learn together, though it's possibly harder. Be prepared to provide feedback for feedback. It'll sharpen your skills, too.

As we're already at the "paying" thing - I've learned a tremendous amount from professional editors. You can either pay them yourself, or submit to a well-respected publisher and see what comes back. Personally, I've had too many hit-and-miss experiences with publishers' editors (including some who were actively destructive and scornful of anything that didn't fit their tiny taste range or today's mood, or who were going through personal crisis and then lashed out at writers instead of helping them), I'd vote for getting an editor and pay them.

I like using freelancers, and I tell them what kind of feedback I'm looking for - story (does the plot work?), characters (do they work?), or copy-editing issues (find my over-used, cliched expressions, and straight-up mistakes, look at pacing on a paragraph level, etc), or just proofing (typos, missing commas). These days, frankly, I go only with copy-editing and proofing. I've studied narrative structure and writing for 20+ years, so chances are that I have my broad skills established. And I pay them.

In short, take care of predators, envy and politics - keep your eyes on the goal. Be kind to yourself, keep your mind open, be prepared to work hard, and you might find you attract the right kind of person at the right moment. Good luck!

(* Note: The damage a bad writing group can do is really manifold. In some writing groups you'll encounter old chestnuts like "write what you know"and the firm belief that it means you can't write about anybody or anything you aren't/haven't been proliferate. You'll encounter all kinds of bullshit rules and dogmas - when really a talented writer can break any rule/dogma with tremendous effects. But some writing groups cling to those rules and are unwilling to see beyond them - worse, enforce them. I've had awful experiences with people trying to enforce "show don't tell" on my writing, for example.

The politics are harmful, too. Gossip and sensationalism can destroy a community very quickly, can lead to massive public embarrassment, the end of friendships and relationships that might have been useful and/or fruitful, and create a climate of mistrust and paranoia. I got to disenchanted with my various communities/groups that I've largely distanced myself.

Bad advice or a public flaying of one's writing can also mean that people quit writing, certainly before they've grown the "famous thick skin", which, some might argue, is diametrically opposite what a writer needs to be to write about emotions. We have to FEEL, to examine the scar tissue in our own souls, and prod anything that twitches. I've encountered writing teachers/editors who were wholly dismissive of my writing - and they were right. BUT they were critiquing/hazing an 18-year old who was desperate to learn. They were scorning a 22-year old who hadn't found his voice yet. They'd attacked a 25-year old who wasn't perfect, who was still clearing the mine shaft of rubble. I persisted. Many don't.