Write It Sideways

Confessions of a Writing Group Virgin

Today’s post is written by regular contributor Benison O’Reilly.

While writing my first novel Happily Ever After? I was fiercely protective of my words, like a kid who cups her hand around her schoolwork so no-one can copy her answers.

For a year my husband watched me toil away at the manuscript, but if he so much as dared peer over my shoulder to read a few lines he would be instantly shooed away.

After a year his patience was rewarded—he was offered the first reading. A rather poisoned chalice when you think about it, as the novel could have been dreadful. Fortunately it wasn’t, and our marriage has survived. I sat in the kitchen like an expectant father, listening for guffaws (the book was intended to humorous) while my husband read in the bedroom. The verdict was a resounding (and honest) thumbs up.

But he was my husband, hardly an objective reviewer. The second person to read it was a tougher test—my (non-fiction) publisher. She loved it so much she decided to publish it. It may have been the easiest path to publication ever. Not necessarily a good thing in retrospect.

Apart from a few friends (beta readers) and the editor, no-one saw the book until the review copies were sent out a month or so before publication day. The reviews in the glossy magazines turned out to be good, but I did receive a less glowing one in a major newspaper, where the reviewer commented the novel had structural problems. While I sulked for days (okay, months!), I eventually realized she had a point.

I vowed I would not make the same mistake again and read every book about structure known to man. (For the record my favorites are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Hooked by Les Edgerton.) Then second novel syndrome struck. I abandoned my first attempt half-way in, as my nonfiction career took over.

Finally, three years after Happily Ever After? was published, I’m about 70 000 words in with my second novel, words I’m reasonably happy with. This time around, however, I’m seeking feedback before completing the book. I’ve joined a writing group.

Are writing groups helpful or a hindrance?

I’ve read many criticisms of writing groups,  like here and here and here, especially those compromised of inexperienced writers. In the wrong circumstances they can become de facto self-help groups, offering lots of praise and support but very little constructive criticism. The result: mediocrity. Or, colored by their own beliefs, members waste time opining how your characters should behave, rather than accepting that your characters can behave any way you like, just as long as you’ve created convincing portraits of them.

My group is different. For a start it’s run by my local writers’ center and costs several hundred dollars to attend—enough to deter the dilettantes. Also the group is overseen by a professional editor. To be honest, when I signed up, it was her feedback I was after.

There are five individuals in my group—four women and a man, all writing in different genres. One is a previously published author of children’s historical fiction, another an aspiring erotic fiction author (the lone male). There is also a Chinese-born Australian writing a fictionalized memoir of China’s Cultural Revolution, a young literary short story writer, and me—an author of commercial women’s fiction.

With such disparate interests, I suspect all of us initially wondered how the group would work. Certainly I did.

As it turns out, very well. So much so, I’m as interested in receiving feedback from my group members as I am from the professional editor who’s supervising us all.

I think it’s because we’re all serious about writing and understand the craft, but also—because we’re reading outside our genres—have the ability to be genuinely detached and objective.

Have I enjoyed criticism?  Not always, but I’ve learned some really useful stuff, like that sometimes I overdo the humor and that my leading lady has a few character inconsistencies. These are criticisms that a genuine lover of women’s commercial fiction might forgive or gloss over because they’re wrapped up in the story. I think I will eventually end up with a much better book thanks to my writing group.

Of course, not everyone can afford the investment of a paid writing group, but the idea of using as beta readers (experienced) writers outside your genre, may be one worth considering.

After all, it’s got to be better to hear criticism before you submit to publishers or agents—or self-publish—rather than receiving the rejection letters and/or negative reviews afterward.

Are you in a writing group? If so, do you believe it has helped your writing?