Friday, March 28, 2014

The Cast and Crew Of The Writers Group

How come there’s no other name for a thesaurus? – Wright Stevens

For the last ten years or so I have been involved in local writers groups, and more involved with other writers who ‘sit in the chair’, trying to rule with a pointy pencil instead of a rod of iron.

No author is a man of genius to his publisher. - Heinrich, German Poet

 Our own writers group has gone from official (funded by the council with a paid writer in residence) to unofficial and homeless. Then rehomed but driven by ‘committee people’ who had to have 'a committee' and 'minutes' and 'rules' and all that nonsense. Might as well herd cats. Obviously that fell apart and now we meet in the pub.


When  I was a little boy, they called me a liar, but now that I am grown up, they call me a writer. – Polish born American writer Isaac Bashevis.

Somebody has a list in front of them.
We go from there and see what happens. 
Anybody can turn up, anybody can read. The only rule we have is no ‘journalism’- travel logs and witty observational stuff we like – but no thanks to the 2000 words on the intricate workings of the Frankel Rotary Engine. We have a fantastic group at the moment – just off the top of my head - three ex teachers, an osteopath, one professor who translates German texts to English, two ex-manual workers, one maxillary facial surgeon, a lawyer, an ex-farmer from South Africa, one housewife, a psychiatric nurse, two retired farmers, a minister, a cookery school owner,  a local politician and an IT person.

I know of only one rule: style cannot be too clear, too simple.  – Stendhal, letter to Balzac, 30 October 1840

Poetry is not the most important thing in life… I’d much rather lie in a hot bath reading Agatha Chritsie and sucking sweets. – Dylan Thomas.

Amongst them are a published crime writer, a published film archivist who has just signed a huge book deal in the USA, a nationally award winning poet (two of these actually) and a published kiddies author.  A great mix at the moment and totally clear of some of the personalities that can bring a writers group to its knees. Although these folk can give you great storylines for all the novels you will ever want to write and a character list for all the victims you will ever want to kill (depends if you are a glass half full or glass half empty type of person).

A writer wastes nothing. – F.Scott Fitzgerald.

About six years ago, at a workshop a few writers were talking about groups they had been associated with. We floated off to the bar and the chat got quite animated. Writers groups suffer from universal troublesome types. We started making a list – from memory it went something like this.

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as our headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. – US writer E.L. Doctorow.

Mr Never ending story.
These are often great writers who for some reason – never finish a thing. They are like children attracted to the new shiny thing, their attention is diverted and they start a new story. Not really sure what that is about. Is it when they hit the soggy bit in the middle of an novel? Is that when the new novel seems the easier option? But it does make you think that much of the talent of writing is perseverance.

A good novel tells us the truth about it’s hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about it’s author. – G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)

Mr Straight to e book.
An ever growing phenomenon I suspect.  They say, correctly, that they are a published author. And stick it on Kindle. And I’ve heard more than once, ‘I don’t see the point of reading it over, I’m just going to publish it now I have written it.’   One co ‘pen holder’ said it really made her head bleed, as if they took a bit more time/advice/ edit time it could really be a good piece of work. I guess it’s that perseverance thing again.

An editor is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff. – Adlai Stevenson, The Stevenson Wit (1966)

The weirdo.
Anoraks, saliva stained jumper,  wild hair, writes porno type stuff. Difficult to listen to. Impossible to read, impossible to publish.  When they read the older ladies always shuffle with discomfort. I recall one where a naked lady with large breasts was frying bacon. He said it was a children’s book.

To write well, express yourself like the common people, but think like a wise man. - Aristotle

Mr My Way or No Way.
(You know the type). I think the best talent a published author can have is to take a telling, to hear that ‘it’ does not work. To Mr ‘My way or no way,’ you can explain until the cows come home, so can the group as a collective but they will not budge. They often say 'yeah but it’s my story.' Then we say but it needs to communicate the story… and it doesn’t. Trying to explain that the story in the head doesn't always make it to the page. One co ‘pencil holder’ said a writer had claimed that if the group wasn’t clever enough to get the story, that was not the fault of the author.

People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise. – W Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (1915)

Mr Activist.
Every word is a cause – every crit, every suggestion that a comma might be better elsewhere? They say well that is the fault of the Tory government. I’ve heard that Costello ( my female cop)  is nothing but a puppet of the state. Costello is just a beacon for the feminist cause. Costello is indicative of how women are abused in the racist, fascist, sexist police force. (!)  I don’t think they can grasp the concept that some books are written to amuse folk at airports. Nothing else.

The last thing one knows in constructing a work is what to put first. – Blaise Pascal, Pensees (1670)

Mr Going Nowhere.
Great writing, read out in five page bursts but there’s no story line. No start. No ending. Nothing happens. To anybody. It just goes on and on and on in lovely little snippets. Like a book of pretty pictures.  

My way is to begin with the beginning. – Lord Byron, Don Juan (1819-24)

Mr I know everything. About Everything
An expert on all things, no matter what others say, they know better – not peculiar to writers groups methinks. I have a friend like that, if she has done all the degrees she says she has, she’s 105 years old. Looking good for it I must say.

To become a great writer, whatever you do – avoid piles.. – T.S. Eliot


Mr Confused Kiddywriter
They often start confused, and get more confused. Writing a story about ponies who go into space.  Are they ponies? Yes. Do they talk? Yes? Do they eat hamburgers? Do they have hands? So are they animals or are they animals in human form? And where do they draw the line, if they can be invisible on page 200 they wouldn’t have got caught by the baddies on page 57! It’s very confusing…
A room without books is a body without a soul. - Cicero

Mr It's warm in here and raining outside
We used to have an old guy who just popped in out the rain while he waited for the bus, he has no interest in anything but liked to listen and commented (often  with great insight) like a wise old sage. No idea who he was. No idea what happened to him.

If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research. – Wilson Mizner, American playwright


Mr Creative Writing Class
Been everywhere, knows everything.…. Again not solely in writers groups…. Often spout the much learned law of writing which makes me glad I’ve never attended a creative writing course in my puff. Usually unpublished. Usually bitter.

Details fascinate me. I love to pile up details. They create an atmosphere. – Muriel Spark, Curriculum Vitae

To be in charge of the pencil, it often helps to quote other writers they might have heard of. Have you noticed ?

I always have a quotation for everything – it saves original thinking. – Detective fiction writer Dorothy L Sayers, in Have His Carcase (1932)

Caro Ramsay GB 28th March 2014


  1. You never fail to amaze me, Caro. Wait, I want to revise that. You never fail to mesmerize me. I'd give anything to just observe your writers crew in action. And don't worry, I'll bring my own bacon.

    PS. Another one of your posts I'm going to snitch for use if I ever teach again. Brilliant.

  2. Are there no female archetypes (or Little Misses) that join a writers' group? Or are you saving them for a follow up article?

  3. Loved the column, Caro! Although most of it is now a haze. I'm still struggling to get the vision of popping bacon grease out of my mind... Lots of great wisdom on writers and writing, not to mention not writing and criticizing and--well--people being people!

  4. Caro, what Jeff said. I love the quotes, especially the Doctorow one. The archetypes appear in all walks of life. I only wish I could join in with you on a regular basis.

  5. I love this. The quotes are fabulous, and I, too, have been in writing groups with many of these people. Spot on. Love it.

  6. Indeed, the cast and crew of the writers group are typical of those we meet in life - but maybe laid a little more bare in their creative mode?
    I still enjoy dream about murdering them though.
    And Figbane, when I say them, I usually mean 'him.'
    I think.

  7. I love these quotes, will print some out for further reference. One never knows where Dorothy Sayers or Cicero or Somerset Maugham could come in handy.