It took a while for my invitation to join Reading Writers to come through. Three years, if we’re going to be all tap-watch-and-glare-at-calender about it. Patience is a virtue, apparantly. That must make me pretty damn near Pope-like.
The thing is, it was absolutely worth the wait. There’s a reason it takes so long to get a place at the big table in Meeting Room 2 at the RISC. Reading Writers is a prime example of what a good writing group should be. A broad spread of people, from every age group and every level from happy amateur to published author, all reading and critiquing each other’s work in a friendly, non-judgemental fashion.
“But Rob,” you say, a hurt and bewildered tone slipping into your voice. “You are a writer of consummate skill. Your mastery of the Oxford Comma leaves me breathless. You do things with hanging participles that make my nipples hard. Why in the name of Headless Nedward Stark do you need a writing group?”
Well, there’s the question. I am, it has to be admitted, pretty kick-ass at this word-slinging thing. But I’m not yet so far up my own fundament that I feel bulletproof. It’s good to get a second pair of eyes on a story. The most important thing that a writer can have is honest feedback. And that, o lovely Readership, is something that a decent writing group will give you. Let me listicle this up.
- It’s dangerous to show your writing to your family and friends. They will be kind to you. They will tell you how gripped, moved or LOLed they were by your purple prose. These people are liars and cannot be trusted. They are trying to spare your feelings. They don’t want to see a grown wordsmith cry. Which is why, my ink-spattered friend, you need an unbiased audience. A writing group provides that. Their focus is on making sure the words that you bring to the group are worth reading. There’s no baggage, none of this foofy “love” or “20 years of friendship” rubbish. It’s about the work. And once you start bringing your precious darlings to group, there’s something else that’s very swiftly brought to your attention.
- Your writing is not perfect. I’m sorry, it’s not. You over-punctuate. You underpunctuate. Your sentences take up more than a paragraph (which is an impressive feat, but hampers readability). But these are flaws to which, my young padawan, you are blind. Writing Group will point those flaws out to you, kindly but insistently. If you have bad writing habits, these guys will winkle them out. That advice sinks in, too. You find yourself self-editing, correcting the egregious flaws in your sentence construction without really thinking about it.
- So, great. You’re out of the ‘twenty-commas-a-sentence’ habit. Your prose is tight, sharp and clean. Job done, right? Nuh-uh. Big lesson coming up here, which I’m going to italicise for extra impact. You can’t please everyone. There’ll be plot points that people don’t get or like, characterisation that sets their teeth on edge, a turn of phrase that engenders a bark of horror rather than the gasp of transcendence at your poetry. Some members of Group will love your plot twist where the dog (a pug called Butler) did it, others… not so much. That broad spread of opinion is good. Accept that your work will not be to everyone’s taste. Write the best work that you can, and if you get a majority thumbs up, then you’re a winner and it’s chicken for dinner.
- There’s a sidebar to that, of course. If there’s a majority vote that something doesn’t work, that’s a pretty clear sign that it either needs work or excision. Writing, a wise person once said, is about killing your babies: getting rid of the stuff that you really like that doesn’t serve the greater good of the story. That’s where writer’s groups are so valuable. They’ll show you where to point the knife.
- The most important thing, though, is that you’re amongst kindred spirits. The members of the group are people like you, who understand what writer’s block can feel like, who know the frustrations in trying to get that perfect phrase, or what to do with that character that you just can’t get out of your head. That sense of community, of knowing that you’re not alone out there, is incredibly valuable and empowering. Writing is a starkly solitary occupation. It’s important to drag yourself away from your desk and be a human being. If you can do that in the company of people who won’t roll their eyes when you start geeking out about sentence construction then so much the better.
Reading Writers is quite a formally-constructed group, with minutes and an agenda and a yearly subscription. But there’s no reason not to start up one if you’re interested and fancy a meet with like-minded types. Meetup.com is a handy resource to find or start a group, and there are plenty of places that’ll get you a room or even just a quiet table at a pub. You could argue that Nanowrimo is the biggest writing group of them all, but sadly that’s onlty around for a bit of the year.
I wish I’d joined a group years ago. It’s already improving my work. I don’t want to disappoint them, you see.
Go, then. Spread your wings, happy writer, and find the people who will help you when you find you’re heading for a crashlanding.