Friday, March 25, 2016

Writing Groups

I joined my first writing group when I was learning to write mysteries. The experience left me with a clear sense of why I was not an ideal writing group member. I revise as I write. I revise every day before beginning to write. What this meant for my friends in the writing group was that I would give them a chapter and before they could respond, I would have revised that chapter. Sometimes I would have revised the chapter by changing the plot. This meant that when we met once a month in the Barnes and Noble Cafe, they were providing feedback that might no longer be relevant.

Actually, our writing group was not deeply devoted to critiques. We were composed of unpublished writers and mystery readers who had met at our local mystery bookstore, Haven't Got a Clue. When the bookstore closed, we ended up as "the Wolf Road Irregulars" (the name referring to the location of the Barnes and Noble). The cafe worked well because we were a small group and who could be there for the regular Sunday evening meeting varied. Those of who were, caught up, talked mysteries, and occasionally exchanged sections of our manuscript to be read before the next monthly meeting.

I worked my way through multiple drafts of my first Lizzie Stuart novel. With nothing remaining the same except my protagonist and why she had come to a small town in Virginia. In the end, even that changed. The book that I had intended to be the first in the series became the second. I was invited by a friend to join her and her young son for a week's vacation in England. As a writing exercise, I decided to try my hand at an updated classic detective novel set in a private hotel in Cornwall (much like the hotel my friend and I were staying in). That was the book that I researched, outlined, and wrote in transit. That was the book that I ended up selling because it was actually finished when I had an opportunity to submit a manuscript. The vacation I'd taken Lizzie Stuart, crime historian, and John Quinn, American police detective, on required that I rewrite the book I had been working on with my writing group to take that meeting into account.

But being part of a writing group had been crucial to my goal of becoming a published mystery writer. The members of the writing group were the first people I had told that I intended to write a mystery. This was what had been missing years earlier when I wrote two romantic suspense novels and tucked them away in a drawer. No one except me knew that I was writing. The members of the writing group also had been able to see aspects of my book that I could not -- that I was too close to see. For example, I had not intended John Quinn to be a continuing character. But even as I was writing the first book (that became the second), one of my writing group friends observed that there seemed to be a bit of chemistry going on there. (This observation came from one of the male members of our group, who did not read romance novels but had a keen ear for dialogue). I denied that I intended to put the two characters together. But, by the time, they arrived in Cornwall, even I had noticed what was happening. Still, I resisted. Until the friend I had been on the vacation with read the finished manuscript and objected to the fact that there was no "payoff" at the end. Lizzie and Quinn said good-bye and went their separate ways. So I added a kiss. And proved my writing group friends right.

The Wolf Road Irregulars disbanded after several years because we were losing members to life changes and moves out of the area. One of our members became the founder of the upstate New York chapter of Sisters in Crime (SinC) Most of the remaining members of the writing group joined the chapter. And I found that it worked much better to wait until the first draft of my manuscript was done and send it to two or three trusted readers for feedback. In that interval between first draft and beginning revisions, I could take a break and give them time to respond. That worked well. Even if they responded after I had started to revise, they were responding to a manuscript that was not going to undergo major changes. They could comment on characters and continuity and where the plot bogged down or wandered off.

But here I am in another writing group. One of the members of our SinC chapter suggested we add an after-meeting writing group. The group would be open to anyone who wanted to stay. I went into the group knowing my flaws as a writing group member. But the first meeting was fun. We helped a group member brainstorm possible titles for the debut book in her new series. I decided to ask for time in the second meeting to brainstorm the structure of my historical thriller. I have the plot, but the challenge of moving three groups of characters over eight months to a climatic encounter was giving me serious heartburn. Whose perspective? How many voices? The hero and the villain? Six possible perspectives. Good grief.

That was what I took to my new writing group in our second meeting. I had cheated. I had sent them two versions of the synopsis and changed character names and events. I had added an important character. I had given them too much backstory (that would never appear in the book). But even though I was not making their task easy, the ideas about structure flowed. They looked at my choices, asked questions until they understood what I wanted to do. And after more than an hour, one group member threw out an idea. Others picked it up. And suddenly I had the solution to my problem. It was an idea that might have occurred to me but that I would have discarded -- even expressed doubts about when they were discussing. I pointed out that it wasn't usually done in crime fiction. They asked what difference that made. It worked for my book.

They were right. It does. I finally have structure. I also have a way of telling the story that I love and that my writing group friends assured me readers would enjoy as well. I think they're right about that, too. I would read the book they are urging me to write.

So I come to this post today to speak in praise of writing groups. Sometimes nothing beats a good brainstorming session with a group of people who are focused on your problem.

Anyone else belong to a writing group?

1 comment:

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