A writing group, at last

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.

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, inkygirl.com

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.

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15 Responses to “A writing group, at last”

  1. Deb Says:

    Good for you, Ilana

  2. Wendy Nelson Tokunaga Says:

    Thanks for a great post that is helpful for all writers. Nothing like a good-awful session with a critique group to give you that kick in the pants. Best of luck — I know you’ll take the advice and run with it! :-)

  3. Paul Says:

    Ilana… you have style. You’re loaded with intellect. And you convey it beautifully. You have it. Don’t second guess a damn thing. We don’t write for acceptance. We write for individuality. Bukowski often said in one word what safes beaning coyotes convey in three. I like nouns and verbs. Adjectives get in the way. Watch the first Star Wars. Then watch it again. Tell me if one word or scene doesn’t lead to the next? Nothing is waisted. Not one word is waisted. We should always write that way. Words are like Amy’s paint brush. Every atom of paint is there for a reason. It’s when you add them up you get art. And damn if it isn’t Amy’s art! Unique. Individual. And you are too.

  4. Harriet Chessman Says:

    Ilana, I love your writing. It’s fresh and wholly engaging. I have to say, I think it’s the sign of a superb writing group when each person goes home feeling recognized and helped, not despondent. I myself can be so thrown off by critiques sometimes. Call me thin-skinned! but I have always had the need to protect myself. If I’m working with an editor, it’s a whole other story. I’ve had good experiences in groups, but also quite distressing ones . . . often with the same groups.

  5. Janice Dean Says:

    Gooooooooooooo, Ilana! *waves “#1 Ilana” foam hand in the air*

  6. Scribbly Jane Says:

    Ilana,

    I think your plot is fabulous. What you experienced was coming out of your bubble to share your work with a small slice of the world and by doing so learned some other ways for you to come at it. Like Paul said above, you have a great intellect. Dig deep and keep going. I can’t wait to see the next installment!

  7. Elaine Says:

    As somebody who’s a long-term member of a pretty iffy writers group, I can say that going home despondent can be mixed — it’s either just a natural reaction to not getting praise, and after a night you may come to agree with what the group said, or it’s a signal that the group isn’t right. The best criticism is the kind that leaves you energized and even excited about the idea of change — that gives you some suggestions along with the criticism, or points you in a good direction.

    If you come away feeling battered and bludgeoned, that could be a signal that the fit of the group isn’t right for you, no matter how good the criticism or other writers might be.

    Be grateful there’s choice — in Tokyo, there is exactly ONE writer’s group, so you either go and take your chances, or you don’t go at all.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks Harriet and Elaine. I hear what you’re saying. I think this is a very good group. The pain is from my thin skin, not the quality or tone of the criticism. I’ve been puttering away this week making some good revisions that indirectly came out of some of the comments.

  8. Harriet Chessman Says:

    I so agree with Elaine.

  9. Liz Hellebuyck Says:

    Hi Ilana,

    I am currently contemplating when I need to join a writers’ group. I found your blog and it has given me some ideas to think about. My first novel is in a mess right now, but maybe once I go through and rewrite it I should start shopping around.

    Liz

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi Liz. I would start looking for a group now rather than wait until you’ve revised your novel. It can take quite a while to find a good group, so even if you start looking immediately, you may not find one until you’re well along with your revisions! Or even if you find one, their input can help you revise.

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