Sunday, June 22, 2014

Facing Up To It

This week sees me returning to a topic I’ve raised before in blogs—writing groups.
Are you a member, or have you ever been a member, of one? What did you feel you got out of it? If you stopped going, why?

When I first moved up to the Lakes I looked for a local writing group and one was just forming. Great, I thought, but when I rang to make further enquiries alarm bells sounded from the fact the organiser spent the entire phone call telling me about her own writing background and didn’t ask a single question about what I might be working on. Still, I went to the first meeting and realised that she wanted to use it as a platform for her own ideas on teaching us to write, rather than simply letting us bring our own work for feedback from the rest of the group. I know a certain amount of structure is good—a topic for next time, if people are stuck for what to write about—but it wasn’t what I was looking for, and I regret that I didn’t last long there.

The trouble is, at the moment I’m leading a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle and have never lived in a big city where there are lots of writing groups to choose from. And I’ve never been a member of one where anyone else was writing crime. So, I’m starting to wonder about joining an on-line group.

But I don’t know how that works.

The big problem is the written word. If someone says, to your face, “That piece of dialogue really doesn’t work for me. It’s clunky. It sounds like the writer needing to get information across to the reader, rather than two people talking.” Then you pick up on far more than the words. Body language, tone, emphasis, facial expression, all help to soften down the criticism into something you can process and accept. Dashed off in an email, it sounds like a damning condemnation.

Somebody once said there are six ways people can read a letter. Some people write things that are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, and find themselves being taken much too seriously and causing great upset or offence. I know adding smiley faces to emails is supposed to be a bit naff, but I do it all the time now to show I’m only making a jokey comment that is not supposed to be taken literally. Having had someone ring up and yell at me down the phone for a throwaway remark I once put in an email, I’m now very careful about these things. It doesn’t always work, of course, and I know I often put my foot in it.

So, that in itself makes me wary of joining an on-line writing group. The whole purpose of on-line is that you don’t meet, so how do I know if the general personality of the people whose opinions I’m soliciting will fit in with my own ideas? You make decisions about people within minutes of meeting them, but how long does it take for those same opinions to form when all you have are emails or comments? Do people reveal themselves more fully in their writing than face-to-face, or do they hide behind the words?

And quite often I used to take along to my writing group the bits I wasn’t sure about. If you write something that you instinctively know is good, you’re happy with it. It’s the bits you have sneaky doubts about where you want a second—or even third or fourth—opinion. Do I really want to release unfinished, possibly dodgy bits of work onto the Internet? Who knows where it might end up, and what damage it might do?

Paranoid? Me?

So, I’m looking for advice and information, people. Can you recommend a good on-line crime/thriller writing group? If you’ve had any bad experiences of on-line or face-to-face writing groups, care to share? And just how do the damn things work, exactly?

This week’s Word of the Week is postiche, an adjective meaning superfluously and inappropriately added to a finished work; counterfeit or false. Also a noun meaning an inappropriate hairpiece or wig.


  1. Personally, my love :))), I don't play well with others when it comes to writing groups.

    I enjoy the process as a teacher, including gladly accepting criticism of my own work from my students when I give then the chance to do so as a part of their learning "how to play well with others"--a key element of my course.

    HOWEVER, my past experience with writing groups, both of the in-person and Internet kind, is that there's ALWAYS at least one in the crowd with an agenda that forces the rest to work around the one, and for that I definitely have no patience.

    By the way, I think for a writer of your distinguished reputation you have a legitimate basis for paranoia at joining unfamiliar folk in a writing group, but I think there's a relatively easy solution inspired by your Word of Week: Use a beard. Yes, develop a new email address and persona when you join the group. After all, if the criticism is meant to be of your work, not the writer, why should it matter who you are? After all the concept worked for Robert Galbraith...just don't share your secret identity with anyone, especially attorneys, Charlie.

    1. Hmm, good suggestion on the anonymity, Jeff -- as long as I'm working on standalone and not my series, otherwise that might give the game away a little.

      I went for a trial visit to another writing group years ago, who I discovered very much looked down on 'genre' fiction. I read out my very first scene featuring Charlie Fox (it later found its way into book three, HARD KNOCKS, almost intact) and there was a long slightly offended pause afterwards, then somebody said, "Well, it's not the kind of thing I'd normally read ..." That set the tone, I think. I never went back.

  2. Writers group, I think (not being a professional writer myself, so far anyway :-), are like unicorns: beautiful ideas, but incredibly difficult to track down in the wild. As Jeff said, there's always at least one bad apple in the group.

    As for people revealing themselves more fully in writing than face-to-face, I think it's more a matter of people revealing themselves *differently* in writing than face-to-face. In both situations, everyone puts on a certain mask, no matter how close you are to the other party. It's just a different mask when you're face-to-face than when you're writing. I, for example, am really a disfigured transvestite street-walker from Honduras, and I just use that idiot picture of one of my Johns as my on-line identity...

    1. Love the unicorn analogy, Everett. I found one when I was up in Cumbria, but lost it when I moved last year, sadly.

      Hmm, interesting point that people reveal themselves differently. Some people don't quite take the time to add the niceties in print, because it takes too long to type, so they just put rather bald comments that can be rather cutting.

      And didn't we meet once in a little bar in Tegucigalpa?

  3. Well I inherited my writing group ! And it is fine. I can get imagery inspiration from the nature poets. I give 'editorial suggestions' and make sure that they only do 5 pages.. and not give us their life story beforehand The two teachers mark the punctuation. We pay lip service to some members, we really take on board what some others say. Everybody brings enough copies for one between two. The main rule - offer crit in the way you would wish to receive it.
    The main issue is they keep having affairs and falling out with each other. But I just accept that as plot fodder...

    1. How lovely to have a writing group as a family heirloom! Is it mentioned in your last Will and Testament?

      Sounds like a good mix. Of course, if any of them read this, they're going to start wondering about the ones you only pay lip service to ...

      And the affairs must keep everything entertaining, if nothing else :))

    2. I want to join your group, Caro, but I suspect you've already guessed that. For the poetry of course.

    3. Why does this not surprise me, Jeff ...? :))

  4. Have you considered forming a writing group among yourselves?

    1. Strangely enough, not until you mentioned it ...

      Thanks for putting the idea into our heads!