Although I’ve focused on writing novels for the past two years, I’ve never been in a writers’ group. This is something I have wanted to do for a while. “Join a group” is probably the second most common piece of advice given to newbies by experienced editors and writers. There’s only so far you can take your work, locked into your own brain at your computer, and a good group provides a level of rigor that goes beyond the comments of most individual friend-readers.
Of course, “good group” is the key phrase. I joined a nascent writers’ group with two other people last year that was totally unsatisfactory. The level of writing skill was too broad; I felt that I was providing remedial instruction to one of the others, and this person’s comments on my own work were totally off base. There are all sorts of disaster stories about critique groups that devolve into the literary equivalent of Maoist criticism/self-criticism sessions (off to the writers’ reeducation farm with you!), or catfights, or soliloquies by a member who styles himself the voice of wisdom personified.
But now I’ve by chance managed to stumble into a very good group.
It’s a long-running group of women writers in San Francisco who recently lost several of their members and were looking for some replacements. They all have some life experience under their belts, and all are skillful writers as well as (perhaps more important) skillful readers. The group dynamic seems good, with no single member hogging the limelight and people able to listen to each other.
Last night was the second meeting that I attended, and the first where people read and commented on my work.
It was awful.
I mean, it was good but it was also awful. They had read the first 20 pages of Novel # 2, the one that I’ve started sending out to agents while continuing to tinker/revise. They said many nice things but then they also — the nerve of them! — gave criticisms. All the nice comments just whooshed past me like a kid on a waterslide, while the criticisms landed with a solid, unmoving thud like an Acme safe on Wiley Coyote.
The beginning doesn’t work. My beloved first paragraph doesn’t work. The writing isn’t fresh enough. And so on…
The worst criticisms, of course, were the ones that aligned with some of my own doubts about the book.
I left feeling rather stunned. Not bad enough to come home and sob — there were the nice comments, remember, and everything was said very supportively — but still, rather despondent. Of course what I wanted was for this group of accomplished, talented writers to chime up in chorus and say “Oh, Ilana, this is brilliant! This is amazing! We can’t think of a single thing to change!” And of course that’s not what a writing group is supposed to do, and I knew that and didn’t expect that, but still, wouldn’t that have been nice?
So now it’s the morning after and I feel a little less despondent. Sleep is good for that. I have a block of free time today where I can read through the group’s written notes and comments, and look at my manuscript with these new lenses.
What’s good about joining this group — aside from the actual input — is that it is a commitment to myself. In my 20s and 30s, I wrote first drafts of novels and then abandoned them to focus on work, parenting etc. I’m at a juncture now with having to look for full-time work where it would be easy to abandon fiction again for a number of years. But joining the group represents a commitment to myself that I’m going to keep working on this, even if I can’t sell this novel and even when I get a new full-time job.
Oh… way back at the top of this blog post, I mentioned that “join a group” is probably the second most common piece of advice given by experienced writers and editors.
If you didn’t already guess what the number-one piece of advice is…. it is rewrite.
And rewrite, and rewrite.