More From The Writing Group

You may remember that a while ago I joined the local writers’ group and spent a couple of entertaining evenings in their company. The long prose group meets once a month and I’d neglected it throughout the back end of winter, simply because I hadn’t written anything that I could read out for critique. But this week I decided to pluck up courage and take the beginnings of a chapter on mothers who give up their children for art. We were meeting out in the wilds of the fens again, and this time – and I have no idea how it happened – I managed to get lost en route. There are just miles and miles of identical looking roads around here, banked in by riotous new hedges and champagne-fizz topped profusions of meadowsweet, so it’s a pleasure to drive along them, enjoying the glimpses of fledgling crops in the fields, even if they are not exactly designed for landmark orientation. But the first village I came to was not the village I was expecting, so I had to take a fairly circuitous route. I thought I would be late, but it turned out that several other people had run into trouble finding the place, which gives me the shivery sense that out here in the fens, the planets do need to be in mystical alignment somehow if the road is going to permit you to reach a destination.

For a change, out of seven attendees there was only one person there I hadn’t met before. The first person to read was the Dutch gentleman I had encountered before, at work on a simply enormous family saga in which a damaged painting is handed down through the family lineage, along with a genetic propensity for child abuse. I’ve only ever heard the painting-related bits, not the child abuse bits, and I wonder whether that’s giving me a false impression. But on this occasion, as before, he read in a rich and sonorous style, for what seemed like half the evening, and the prose flowed over me and left no impact whatsoever. I was ready for him this time, having experienced this before, and thought hard about what it was that made this work so impossible to grasp. His sentences were often lovely, with lots of delicate and charming description. But I realized that the whole of it took place in an emotional monotone. In every scene, his characters were contemplating something, the action was minimal (there’s an awful lot of unscrewing sealed boxes), and the writing never closed the gap between its own elegance and the brute force of a real feeling. When I asked him about this tendency, he said that people do contemplate a lot and contemplation is a mixture of thought and feeling. But this misses the point somewhat. Remember that there are 300,000 words of this thing lying in wait to mug some unsuspecting reader, and if that reader were me, I might want something a little more punchy than relentless contemplation to get me through it. Even Proust put the odd party in, here and there.

Next up was another man I’d met before, with a much more contemporary novel. I suppose I’d term this one Nick Hornby territory, only it’s a bit less glib, a bit more serious. The scene he read was essentially one of marital conflict, although it focused mostly on his hero overhearing a disquieting snippet of conversation between his wife and her friend. I think this novel might be rather good. It moves along at an admirable pace, manages to evoke its characters with concision, the dialogue is pretty credible. So what’s intriguing in this instance is that the author is so notably lacking in self-confidence. ‘This will be something a bit different,’ he said, after the Dutchman, in a tone that indicated we would not appreciate the change. And after the reading, when someone in the group remarked that his main protagonist was a bit of a loser, his response was: ‘Were you getting fed up with him? Were you longing for it to finish?’ I felt a tremendous instinct to buck this man up, combined with a conviction that nothing I said would make much difference. I praised him, and he never acknowledged it for a moment, just stared into the middle distance, anticipating the slings and arrows of critical attack. It’s so funny this business of writing, and how people have to deal with the excruciating vulnerability it entails. The Dutchman wouldn’t accept for a moment that he might need to change a single word. This man couldn’t believe what he wrote was any good. But he still keeps writing, so what motivates his productivity, I wonder?

Then I came third, and I’ll come back to me at the end. Next was the woman I am sure must be South African in origin, given her accent, who is writing a romance set in the world of horse racing. Again, for chick-lit, this was also pretty good. I think romance is incredibly hard to write because it can so easily tip over into saccharine slush. Clichés lurk in every shadow of a sentence, caricatures spring so readily into the landscape of the pretty village, the busy office. That light, frothy, witty tone that seems intrinsic to the business of profound feminine love angst can so easily be manic or unbearably coy. So the fact that this novel is not painful to listen to must mean it’s good. But even so, I liked the horse racing bits much more than the love bits. This woman clearly knows what it’s like to train and compete with racehorses and there’s a stirring authenticity to those descriptions I appreciate. The requisite encounter between hero and heroine who are at the early stage of detesting each other sounded like every trumped up argument I’ve ever read in a romance. I just don’t believe that men can be bothered to be infuriatingly sardonic in that cocked-eyebrow, silky-voiced kind of way. It would require a game plan towards the opposite sex containing the kind of complex strategies only warranted in war and chess. Still, I guess that’s why I don’t write romance.

The following writer was new to me, and he turned out to be in the middle of a conspiracy theory thriller. I must be a terribly perverse person, as I always enjoy the things I shouldn’t. For years I’ve nursed the fond prejudice that people who write about conspiracy theories are fundamentally barking mad, and bless me if this man didn’t go and make my evening by confirming all my worst fears. I had the hardest time keeping a straight face. The passage he read described his protagonist heading off on some big job, except it was only a dry run, to prove to a gang somewhere that he was capable of the subterfuge required. Well, this chap was in and out of disguises as he made the journey from Canada to the south of France, nipping into the toilets every few lines to shave off a beard, add a beard, put on a mask. By the end of four closely typed pages we were all completely lost. We didn’t know who he was any more and frankly we didn’t care. Once he’d finished reading, we were all silent, lulled into a stupor by confusion. Eventually I asked why it was that the protagonist’s female companion was described as wearing a skimpy bikini ‘in order to distract the neighbours’ at their Canadian chalet, when the landscape was described as just emerging from the worst of winter. Aha! said the author, that’s because in Canada the sun is hot even when there’s still snow on the mountains. So this is a classic kind of conspiracy theory madness, and the sort of mistake thriller writers often make. He assumes what he knows is what everyone knows. I didn’t know that so my only thought was to get the poor woman a cardigan. There then followed many more questions in the same vein, as we tried to explain how confusing it all was, whilst the author argued vigorously that his account was factual, plausible and accurate. So maybe it is, but if no one can follow it, then there’s still a problem. ‘This kind of thing happens in my line of work all the time,’ the author declared. ‘I know of several suspicious deaths among my colleagues that were murder if you ask me. One man, shot dead in his garden. In his garden! On a Sunday afternoon! In France they reckon that there are over 40 deaths in my field a year.’ ‘Really?’ I said, an irrepressible grin spreading across my face. ‘Why is that?’ ‘It’s so impossible to do business over there. So much bureaucracy, so much red tape!’ I would love to know from any French readers whether admin rage is really claiming so many lives. But this is the madness of the conspiracy theorist; it’s no good him insisting that he is the only one who knows the truth and the rest of us are deluded, the very absence of doubt is the basis for insanity.

By this point in the evening I was flagging a bit, as indeed I am in writing this overly long account of it. The next man was writing a Jasper Fforde-esque tale of supreme complexity in a style that consisted of brief stage directions and the sort of dialogue where people say ‘You never expected to find me here, did you?’ It was, once again, completely incomprehensible. Note to all authors: even the back end of an action-packed chapter should make some sense in isolation. Then last of all came our group leader, who had just started a family novel, in which the neglected teenage daughter uncovers some old photos and skeletons tumble out of closets. This was again an easy listening passage, written in a competent, flowing style and I rather liked it.  The question period turned surreal, however, when Mr Conspiracy started to insist that the author would need to introduce DNA-testing and internet research into her account or else throw all hope of plausibility to the winds. Our group leader resisted with some diplomacy while the rest of us began talking about the perils of genealogical research and whose family stretched back to the seventeenth century. We’d reached the stage where everyone wanted the meeting to end but couldn’t somehow manage to stop talking. Actually, many of my blog posts are like that. I realize I haven’t described my own reading, but not to worry, I’ll talk about it some other day, for now, enough already. But the group is interesting, if only to prove how incredibly difficult it is to write a good story. You need so many different and often conflicting element in place – originality, dramatic tension, the right kind of explanation, concision, a quirky plot, plausibility and accuracy, characters with motivation, evocative description and that indefinable little something that makes the work unique, that does what only that particular author can do, and accomplishes it with panache. No wonder we’re all still working on our nth draft.

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17 thoughts on “More From The Writing Group

  1. I love your descriptions of writing group. They always make me want to join, but strictly in an observational / sociological role, maybe watching behind a mirror and making notes on who seems the craziest, because everyone always sounds so fascinatingly crazy.

  2. This was so well written, engaging, funny, evocative! I thoroughly enjoyed it and although you might have flagged, I didn’t reading it. As for your conspiracy guy, I can assure you, as a Canadian, that people are not running around in distracting bikinis as winter wanes. His hot sun theory needs revisiting. The drive sounded wonderful. We don’t have villages like that here. But I hope you had good eats & drinks to go along with all that listening!

  3. What a thoroughly delightful account of your evening – it just shows truth is stranger than fiction!
    I think your fellow writer was confused – in Colorado in the mountains one can were summer gear in the snow….
    This was really fun to read, please continue to tell us about these evenings.

  4. Such a charming and entertaining account. What a diverse group and maybe there is something to learn from how not to go about it. On sun and ice, perhaps the conspiracy theorist could move setting to St Petersburg. There you do find lots of people lying along the walls of the riverbank in swimsuits at Easter, with chunks of ice the size articulated lorries floating past them, and me (once upon a time, long ago), watching in astonishment, well wrapped up and scuttling along to keep warm!

  5. Oh, this was marvelous. I loved the bit about wanting the meeting to end, but nobody being able to stop talking. I may have mentioned in the past that I am the moderator of my writers’ group, and I’m absolutely shameless about saying, “OK, I’ve had enough for tonight, so we’re done.” Amazingly, the other members still seem to like me. :-)

  6. ‘this chap was in and out of disguises as he made the journey from Canada to the south of France, nipping into the toilets every few lines to shave off a beard, add a beard, put on a mask. By the end of four closely typed pages we were all completely lost. We didn’t know who he was any more and frankly we didn’t care.’

    I found this hilarious! A former employer of mine has published a detective novel based on his experience in the money markets. When I read the synopsis I sort of groaned at the James Bond wish-fulfillment and self-projection. Thankfully for him, he’s aware of the Flemingisation at play, and though he takes writing seriously enough to do it, he doesn’t seem to take it so seriously as to pretend it’s anything other than tomorrow’s pulp.

  7. I’m curious if you find you’re getting good feedback from such a mixed group – what a variety of writing styles and genre! This has its own merits, but I think it can also be frustrating. Too many people looking to do something completely different in their fiction. I look forward to hear how your reading and critique went!

  8. What a group! For a moment, I wondered what it would be like to throw all their pages up in the air and see what happens — a lsealed box with a bikini in it, a guy on the lam who’s also very interested in his family history and a teenager who tells all the adults to get out of the room because they’re driving her nuts. I’m so glad you go to this. (And tell us all about it!)

  9. Laughing at the ‘distracting bikini’ all over again, thanks to Lilian’s brisk despatch of that particular absurdity. Litlove, you are SO GOOD at these people portraits. They’re just hilarious. I swear that man with the 300,000 word MS was at a Sydney Writers’ Festival workshop last year… I read your account thinking ‘Hey, I know that guy!’ This one also refused to countenance the idea that a single word needed to go or even change. He was a nutter. He was a ranter. It was all pretty alarming, really. Why is it always those people who are so FULL OF THEMSELVES while the good writers in the room all wilt and cringe and apologise? Always, always, always. And I can’t believe you deprived us of the details of your own reading. Spit it out, please.

  10. Oh my, what an interesting group of people! The conspiracy theory guy cracks me up. How fun it would be to wind him up and watch him go! Does he do aliens too? If so, I bet he has a tinfoil hat that he wears at home to keep the aliens from being able to read his thoughts. :)

  11. Of course I enjoy all your posts, but these that describe your writing group are always especially amusing. I admire not only people who can write (since I know what a challenge it must be) but those who are brave enough to share their work in front of others. Somehow, though, I have a feeling that listening can be a painful experience sometimes…

  12. The nutters are so much more enjoyable because we don’t have to sit through their nuttiness. The bikini guy for example. I wonder if they know that you’re secretly recording this all for our amusement? Please keep going – they’re brilliant. But I’m going to take a lenient view on whether you want to share your writing (and the reception thereof) with us. It’s must be doubly nerve-wracking to have to share with them and then share their reaction with us. Your writing bully reminded me of a line from Janet Malcolm that people who don’t listen never learn. I think she managed to make it sound less obvious than that.

  13. I’m curious about the feedback you got — I’m wondering if the value of going to this group lies in the feedback, or in the fun of observing the various personalities! You write about them so well.

  14. Yes, come on Litlove – tell us! My guess would be that they they like but don’t quite get the point of your writing, nor realise that there’s a star in their midst…

  15. Boxofbooks – lurking behind a trick mirror is a genius idea. Oh if only! They are all delightfully crazy – I haven’t met an eccentric yet that I didn’t like. :)

    Lilian – hugs to you! And thank you, thank you, for reassuring me that Canada is not the strangest climactic spot on the planet! There were some biscuits on offer, I think, and tea, but as I arrived late, I was happy just to sit and get my breath back!

    Qugrainne – I do sit there and think ‘you just couldn’t make this up’! They are a delight and I am impressed by the quality of people’s writing. Ah – so Colorado is the place where you can ski in a bikini! Do you think I should tell him? Perhaps I’ll let him find out for himself…. ;)

    Bookboxed – I do so love blogging – I’m learning so much about geography from this post! ;) How utterly bizarre to sunbathe near a frozen river! And it is always instructive listening to other people’s writing and the unconscious errors they make. Goodness only knows, I make enough of them too and hope it helps others to hear them.

    David – we would have loved someone calling a halt and sending us all home – it was just what we needed! That’s eminently sensible behaviour. I get a lot of fun out of the group, but blogging about it is the bit that I enjoy most of all. :)

    D – I think it’s really hard to produce that kind of thriller writing, because it’s really easy to make it cliched or implausible or just plain dull. I would think that a dose of irony, a bit of humour, and a plug into the innate ludicrousness of the spy world would go down a treat!

    verbivore – what I notice is that it takes the group a while to get going. So if you read early, you might not get such interesting critiques as if you read late. But people do have very diverse opinions at the best of times! The group was very encouraging to me, but didn’t have much critical input. Which is good in one way, but I am sure it needed altering in various places!

  16. Bloglily – lol! I never thought of that, but how brilliant! I’m sure everyone would come away with renewed creativity and a completely different perspective on their work! I will confess that blogging about the group is one of the best bits of attending! ;)

    Doctordi – I feel quite sure in my heart that the Dutchman has identical twins scattered across the globe, all toting monster manuscripts – lol! I do like writing portraits of people but they have to be anonymous or I fear they might sue… Yes, building has distracted me from my own critique, but also the sorry fact that the group didn’t have much to say. They liked it, which was very kind of them. And the conspiracy theorist asked what my market was, which is SO conspiracy theorist. Because after all, they know something the whole world NEEDS to know, as a matter of imperative. But that was about it, really. Nice in one way, but I know myself it’s far from perfect!

    Stefanie – lol! Oh yes, I am convinced now you mention it that he has a tinfoil hat. He is just the type! How much do you bet me to bring up the question with him with perfect seriousness next month…?

    Danielle – lol! Just occasionally… maybe a bit, after the first seven or eight minutes…. But the thought that I can write about whatever happens on the blog does nevertheless keep the twinkle in my eye. ;)

    Dorothy – I will not tell a lie – I go for the experience rather than the critique! Writers do fascinate me; they are always eccentric in some way, usually harmless, generally delightful, often entertaining. The critique is a bit of an anti-climax because they were very encouraging but didn’t have much to say beyond that. I stunned them by reading too fast, probably! :)

    Deborah – and hugs to you, too! In a way you’re quite right. I’m the only non-fiction writer in the group, and the bit I read was just the story of Tamara de Lempicke’s life, which reads exactly like a fictional history. So it sort of fell between stools. They were very kind and encouraging, and the only question I really received asked where my market lay. Now in fact this is a good question. But this motherhood and creativity concept seems to be as popular as I can get right now, so I think it’s just never going to turn into a crackingly commercial proposition. Still, I am enjoying the writing of it, which I have to say feels more and more like the whole point. I’m hardly expecting publishers to beat a path to my door just at the moment. :)

  17. “I would love to know from any French readers whether admin rage is really claiming so many lives” … oh, Litlove, you can’t start to guess the body count! ;) Just like Midsomer Murders makes me wonder about the mortality in English countryside…

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