Last week, I gave a proof copy of Precocious to one of my fellow Hog’s Back Writers. Having heard most of the manuscript at our twice-monthly meetings, she’s delighted that it’s going to be published and commented:
“You know, this would’ve happened without us.”
I thought about this. It’s true that by the time I brought Precocious to the HBW table, it was already reasonably polished. I’d started writing it a whole 3 years previously (or 14 YEARS, if you count the short story that was its inception. What can I say – I’m a very slow writer) and it had been through 2 drafts and many tweaks before my fellow Hogs heard it.
However, I knew instinctively that my friend was wrong, that I absolutely would not be where I am now without my writing group, and I can think of at least five reasons why. Here they are:
- Being around people who know what it’s like. Writing can be a lonely and isolating business. I went to see an accountant on Friday, and he said to me, full of curiosity, ‘What made you want to write books, than?’ I didn’t know what to say. I’ve written stories since I was 6 years old, so I can’t really remember why I started.
I write because I have to write. Even if no-one were to ever read a single word of it, I would still write.
It’s lovely to be around people who understand this, people who also ‘hear the voices’, people who get the irresistible urge to pick up a pen in the dead of night, because in the company of people who don’t (some accountants, for example), it can just make you look weird.
- The power of a deadline, albeit not necessarily a formal or rigid one. But I’m a habitual procrastinator and I can’t tell you how many short stories I’ve finished and chapters I’ve refined so that I would have something to read on a Monday night.
- Reciprocal Feedback. I can’t stress the importance of this enough for the budding (or any) writer. Giving feedback helps hone your attention to detail and critical skills, which you can then apply to your own writing, but (less selfishly!) might just help someone else improve. Which makes us all feel good, right?
Receiving feedback is a bit more complicated – some people really don’t like it. Even the positive feedback can be, at best, a bit embarrassing (why is that?). I know, I know, if someone says something negative about your work it’s a bit like hearing “I don’t like your kid, I think he/she’s ugly”. But whereas the blind protectiveness of the parent would probably make you respond with “sod you, my kid is the most beautiful in the world”, the essential insecurity of the author is more likely to send you scuttling back into your lonely writer’s shell, unwilling to re-emerge for some time.
The thing is, you can choose to accept the feedback and do something with it, or not. You don’t have to make every change your peers recommend, but some of them might be bloody useful. So (unlike if someone says your child’s ugly), it’s wise to say “thank you” and go home and really think about it.
What’s more, unless you plan to exist as an author in a vacuum (in which case, what are you doing at a writers’ group?), and never hope or plan to be published, people are going to read your work and comment on it. Surely it’s best to experience this for the first time in a cosy village hall and the supportive environment of friends than in the often brutal review sphere of Amazon or Goodreads.
- Support & encouragement and a word on rejection. Of course, often the feedback you get is positive. It’s reassuring to know that others can hear / read your work and understand what you’re trying to say, enjoy the story, admire the writing. The support of your group can give you the confidence to submit your work to agents, publishers and competitions, which I duly did…
…and received many, many rejections. Now, whatever anyone tells you about rejection (it’s character-building, etc.), the bottom line is, it sucks. Most of the time, because agents and publishers are extremely busy people, you don’t even get a proper reason for it. Those compliment slips (oh, the irony) or generic emails are the literary equivalent of being dumped with the line “it’s not you, it’s me”.
A good writing group will figuratively (sometimes literally) pour the wine, open the ice-cream, pat you on the arm and coax you into putting yourself ‘back out there’.
If not for the Hog’s Back Writers, I almost certainly would not have entered the Bath Novel Award (which turned out to be probably the best 20 quid I have ever spent).
- Other people’s writing. This has been really important for me. I’m a voracious reader but admit that I tend to stick to a particular style of novel: modern, contemporary, literary (whatever that means). I don’t particularly read: historical fiction (although I do enjoy the classics – Jane Austen et al – go figure); science fiction / fantasy; thrillers; young adult.
At Hog’s Back Writers, I’ve listened to and read all these genres (and more) and you know what? I’ve enjoyed them, and learned absolutely heaps of techniques that have enriched my own writing.
(Sci-fi / fantasy writers, I’m in awe of you, by the way – you create whole worlds! Just out of your heads! This is amazing to me – I just write about the world we’re in, pretty easy, really).
So if you’re trying to write and you haven’t already, I would really recommend finding a local group to join. There are just too many advantages not to.
And to my fellow Hog’s Back Writers, thank you. I really wouldn’t be here without you.