Writing Fiction: In Praise of Writers’ Groups

I have a friend who was convinced that there was no point in showing his writing to anyone other than an agent/publisher, and that was only in order to get it in print.  A mutual friend was allowed to read a piece he had written and said subsequently, ‘He’s not good at taking feedback is he?’

At this point, given the title of this post, I should be able to say that he never got anywhere.  Instead of which he has had a book published and had at least two plays on the radio.

Some people are naturally introverted.  I don’t think Jane Austen was in a writers’ group – by one account, she used to hide her writing under her embroidery if anyone came into the room.  Charles Dickens, on the other hand, was always reading his stuff out to people (there is a famous sketch of him reading one of his Christmas stories out to his friends).

I spend a lot of time writing on my own, but I really like getting feedback from the two writers’ groups I attend.  Sometimes they just see things I can’t.

My general rule is that if only one person in the group makes a particular observation then it is up to me to decide whether or not to go with it.  If everyone is saying the same thing, it’s probably time to listen.  I showed my synopsis to a couple of writer-friends recently, and both of them had written ‘why?’ in various places in the plot, and both agreed that it was thin.  It led to the breakthrough that I experienced on retreat (see ‘Meditation 2’).

The best sort of feedback for me is, ‘This does work’ or, ‘This doesn’t work’.  In this way I get a general idea of how it is coming across and it is left to me to come up with a solution.  The sort that isn’t so good is the, ‘What you should do is…’  Usually because they are starting to write their own novel out of it.  Having said that, posed as a question, ‘Have you thought of…’ can be helpful.

The first synopsis I ever wrote was roundly rejected by my novel writing class.  Except for one thing, a station attendant based on Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-No-Name.  A Western character in the midst of a modern-day setting.  I took the synopsis to another friend, who agreed with the class, right down to the Western character.  And then she said, ‘Have you ever thought of making the whole thing like that?’  And that’s what it ended up as: a modern-day setting and all the characters unknowingly playing the parts of the usual Western stereotypes.  Perhaps not the best thing I’ve ever written, but great fun to write.

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