Monday, 9 December 2013

Join a Writing Group. Just do it!

By Jennifer Burke

Aspiring writers do not want for instruction. There is no lack of self-help books on technique, style and publication. There are plenty of novel, short story and poetry courses, both around the country and online. The internet, mainstream media and bookshelves are full of ways to improve your writing.

Before I secured a book deal, I found the choice a little daunting. I felt I shouldn’t even be attempting to write my own book until I had absorbed all the information I could from those who had already succeeded in attaining an ISBN.

Luckily, I joined a new writing group that was being set up, and realised that all the courses, talks and books in the world could only go so far. What I needed was to discuss my own book, to apply all those learned techniques to my work with others in an interactive environment.  I think all writers need that.

My group is fantastic. We meet once a month in the Irish Writers Centre. We send around a piece of writing the week before and if we have time provide critique in advance. On the night, we chat through each person’s work and give comments.

The feedback is beneficial on many levels. Often the smallest things like sentence structures or inconsistencies are pointed out. No matter how many times you read and re-read your own work, nothing beats a fresh pair of eyes. But perhaps even more helpful, the group can tell you the one thing you can’t know as a writer – how someone reading your work for the first time is interpreting it. For example, recently there was a general consensus among our group that one of my characters was coming across as unlikeable. It wasn’t a criticism; in fact I was complemented on creating such an unlikeable character! But that was not how I had intended to portray him.  Still, I couldn’t deny he was coming across in that way. It made me more sensitive to the details of what I was writing.

It might sound ironic, but I learn as much from critiquing others’ work as I do from the feedback I get on my own. You start knowing the pitfalls to watch out for, and the types of mistakes writers make. It makes you more in tune with writing generally.

I was once given a piece of advice that if I was to join a writing group, I should make sure it is with writers of the same genre. I couldn’t disagree more. In my writing group, we have crime, general fiction, women’s fiction, a political thriller, a psychological thriller, humour, science fiction and fantasy.  It opens you up to different ways of writing and broadens your mind, which is always healthy for a writer.

Interaction with other writers is so important. It’s one thing to watch author interviews or read tips and hints from those already published, but nothing beats real live contact and encouragement from people doing the same thing as you – holing themselves up on their own to get a story down on paper. They have the same writers block, the same procrastination guilt, the same self-doubt. Plus it makes you realise you’re not on your own! I never knew any other writers until I joined the Irish Writers Centre. It was great to meet others at courses or talks, but it was always temporary. With the writing group, you get invested in others’ work and they get invested in you. It’s not a competition, there’s room on the bookshelves for all of us, so it really is a positive environment.

Having said that, I always say the worst result of a writing group session is to come away with nothing but compliments. Yes, it massages the ego and maybe gives you a bit of motivation, but the real benefit of the group comes from the pointers. It doesn’t have to be negative. No one in my group would say another’s submission is rubbish. But we have commented that some submissions are weaker than others, that characters need fleshing out, that storylines are confusing. But no such comment would be made without a constructive was of “fixing it”. I am eager for such comments because the writing group is my only forum for such critique.

My final comment about writing groups is that no matter how brilliant we think we are, none of us are perfect. Often we will passionately disagree with each other. A few months ago, one of the group suggested another revise the beginning of a chapter, but someone else wholeheartedly disagreed. At the end of the day, I take on board and consider every single comment my writing group makes.  Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. Ultimately it’s my book and I make the final call. But at least I have options. Also, I find other people debating my writing is motivation in itself.

I was worried, when I got published, that my writing group might think I should move on. But thankfully they are happy for me to continue, and their support for my published book has meant so much because we all struggled along together for so long. Whether putting pen to paper for the first time or a seasoned author, the piece of advice I would offer most of all from my experience is join a writing group!

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Jennifer Burke is a Dublin-based author and solicitor. In 2013, she won TV3's "Write a Bestseller" competition in conjunction with Poolbeg Press. Her first novel, The Secret Son, was published by Poolbeg Press in September 2013. Remaining solidly in the Irish top 20 paperback fiction bestsellers list since publication, The Secret Son has received critical acclaim, being described as "emotional" with "twists and turns aplenty" and "a completed unexpected ending". Jennifer is a member of the Irish Writer's Centre and also writes shorter fiction. In 2012, she was shortlisted in the From The Well short story competition and published in the resulting anthology. She was also shortlisted in the Fish Flash Fiction competition in both 2012 and 2013. Her second novel is due out Autumn 2014.

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