Author, John Scherber, was nice enough to take time off from writing to send us an excerpt from his new book, Writer’s Notebook: Everything I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Was Starting out, a nonfiction book filled with writing tips about character development, plot, point of view, and more.
Writer’s Work Groups
Over the years I’ve belonged to a number of different work groups. I’ve never tried one where the task at every meeting is to spontaneously write for some specified interval on a dictated subject that you’re not prepared for, but I can see the use of that as an exercise if you need to loosen up.
Formats vary for the type of meeting I prefer, but basically I got together with several other writers at scheduled intervals. A group of four people makes for a realistic minimum and any number over eight is too many. Five or six is ideal. Bigger groups result in longer meetings where people start to lose focus. All the members will either have previously read a piece from each writer before they arrive, or everyone will be reading from their work at the meeting. Another option is to have the piece read aloud by a member who didn’t write it. This allows the author to hear how it sounds in another person’s voice, which can be highly instructive. For example, if the reader stumbles repeatedly, that may suggest that the work needs help with the way it flows. If the tone of the writing style doesn’t match the content, this is an easy way to spot that.
Each member then critiques the work of the others, usually in a group discussion. Other formats exist with more structure, but I question the need to have the rules more defined than this. Some, for example, would forbid the writer to respond during the group discussion. I don’t agree with this, even though I understand that the reason is too prevent the writer from defending himself. The cost is that the writer may not draw out a critic to get more deeply into an interesting point. What is also lost under this limitation can often be a lively exchange that may get into the nuance of the passage more than when the writer is held mute. Exploration of a given comment may be required to make it more usable to the writer, which is, after all, the point.
In a general way, I find groups like this to be quite valuable, but not invariably. I’m a strong believer in test marketing my work, in getting it out there to sophisticated readers for their comments. I have done this since my first book. By sophisticated reader I mean someone who reads in volume and has informed opinions on what she’s read. If she feels a passage isn’t working, she can explain why, or suggest what might improve it. I also send my finished manuscripts out to people I know for their input on a one-to-one basis.
Some writers fear that exposing their manuscript in progress to a work group will dissipate their ideas and cause the project to lose momentum. I don’t have an answer for this. If that happens, then you may have to keep your work under wraps until you’ve got it all down on paper. You’re going to miss out on some free constructive help, but it won’t be worth the cost of having your book run aground. In this case, it might be useful to realize that each writer in the group is in the same position of vulnerability. There is a danger to being too thin-skinned in writing. Once your book is published, some people will want to take a shot at you simply from envy. When you’re in the public eye, you cannot hide. Being a published writer will toughen you up.
The potential benefits of a gathering like this are many. You will see people’s reaction to your piece at a stage when it can still be repaired, rather than in a one-star review on Amazon after publication. If a passage or an idea displeases the majority of the group, particularly when several raise the issue independently, then it’s likely to need more work. Naturally, you will always want to measure the comments you receive against your own instincts, which as a rule are truer and more engaged than anyone else’s, but listening to other people can be a great help. I once removed a major character from a book after I was more than fifty pages into it. Here is an indicator to use: if you have harbored an unvoiced suspicion that some feature of your book is not working, but you can’t bring yourself to confront it, you will be forced to face it when others underline the problem for you. This was what happened to me, and as painful as that was, I did what I needed to do. As a result, for a replacement, I came up with the strongest character in the book. It did not escape me, however, that I needed to be prodded in order to do it.
Another forewarning about passages that need work occurs when you are reading through what you’ve written and you come to a part you skip over, or rush through as if you took no pleasure in it. This is a clear warning that you have a problem. Don’t ignore it––rework that passage or take it out entirely.
Most writers see the work group as a place to get valuable feedback. It is that, but this help occurs in varying degrees of usefulness. About seventy percent of it is in the finer detail: errors of fact, skipped words, misspellings or punctuation issues. This is helpful, but not life changing. After that come whole lines that don’t work and paragraphs that read like a billboard, featuring stilted dialog that no one would ever say. Removing or rewriting these is more useful.
At the top, the biggest reason that you came to these meetings at all, is that another member might say something like this: if you had introduced this character at the beginning of the third chapter, instead of in the first, the groundwork would’ve been prepared, and the impact ten times as great. Or this: if the guy’s wife had been killed in the accident instead of his child, then the dynamic of caring for the child and her needs would have both amplified and tempered his response to the crisis he faced as the survivor. It would’ve added that tension to everything he did. As it is, he sits around mourning the dead child and nothing in the story moves. The narrative has disappeared inside his head.
Even when they require a major alteration, comments like this are game changers in your favor. You didn’t see them as you planned and worked on the book, but now you do. Doors open, and the way you look at your story has taken a great leap forward. You realize that it was the hope of getting some feedback of this magnitude that prompted you to join the group to begin with.
One other feature, almost as important, is less obvious, and people coming into a group for the first time rarely realize it. It is that you will be required to produce honest critiques yourself of the work from all the other writers present. Some of them will be involved in genres different from yours and what you’re accustomed to reading. Your goal is to produce comments as meaningful to them as the best ones you’ve received. This will force you to understand the structure and requirements of other forms of writing, which is always useful in understanding your own, if only by reflection or contrast.
The ability to deliver a critique in a style both appropriate and helpful to the other writer is also an exercise in a new kind of expression that will help your work. It provides valuable experience in the task of stepping back from a written piece, one you can usefully apply with your own manuscript.
Another benefit is that the group provides valuable experience in taking criticism. You are not writing for everyone––remember your target reader? Some people will not be moved by your work, no matter how good it is. But the ability to listen carefully to what is being said is critical in learning from it. If you find yourself defending your piece, then you are not hearing the critical comments. It’s like putting up a wall of white noise inside your own head. Your job is only to absorb what is said and see if it is helpful to your purpose. If it isn’t, or you think it is based on a misunderstanding of your work, then smile and nod as you forget it. No other response is required.
In setting up a group, some care in selection will pay off. Can everyone produce enough to contribute to each session? A member’s occasional failure to come up with enough new material for a meeting is not serious, but in general, everyone should have something ready for each gathering, which should be spaced far enough apart to allow for this. People don’t write at the same speed, but the members of your group should be serious about writing and able to make that commitment.
Certain types of personalities will be toxic in a group like this, and can undermine the potential benefits. You are depending on people to behave in an honest and helpful way, so a writer who dumps on everyone else’s work to elevate his own is not going to be useful to anyone, least of all himself. These people exist and will come forward to join because they like to feel superior to other writers, so be on your guard, and don’t hesitate to ask someone to leave if that kind of situation develops. If they have been acting like this it will usually mean they are compensating for the fact that their work is not worth much anyway. You are not there to be kind to fools, only to improve your work and that of your fellow group members who share your degree of seriousness.
Another personality to avoid is one in love with rules. In their deep need for structure, people with that mindset can often demand that the entire group abide by their sense of which presentation and discussion procedures ought to be observed. Writing, however, always needs in some degree to be an experimental process for each of us. We are explorers of ourselves and of our characters as they develop on the page. It is only by probing old boundaries that we break out in new directions, and we ought not to accept the dictates of rigid thinkers, whose greater need for order suggests they are likely to be more fearful than we are, and more than we want or need to be. The best atmosphere for the group is one that encourages creativity and flexibility. It needs to be more exciting than it is careful.
Another hazard to avoid is party or gender politics of any kind, which I regard as an amusement for the light-minded in this kind of setting. First of all, any book that is political is not likely to be relevant for long. Issues of the moment are only that––they change constantly. Second, politics should never be a basis for criticism if the book is not itself political.
Here is a difficult truth: I think that in general the writing world, including fellow writers, coaches and instructors, writer’s conferences, editors and publishers, is not the elevated, mutually supportive environment that I once imagined and hoped it was. Don’t look for Shangri-La in this part of the universe. The tenth of my mysteries, titled The Book Doctor, is the first of that series to deal with the world of writing, and it plays out in a terrain populated by wannabes and false gurus, as well as unscrupulous predators. The population of hopeful writers is a vulnerable group. It resembles a congregation that desperately wants to go to heaven. They can therefore be told anything that sounds promising of that end, and they will accept it with rapture. If you have lingered at the edges of this world for a while, you will easily recognize some of the players.
The most important thing is to see yourself and the others in the group as working craftspeople. You should have no great pretense about the nobility or elegance of what you’re doing. Let the gilded literati stay on the sidelines where they belong. In my experience, they give real working writers little respect. The members of a functional group need to be helpful and supportive of each other. Be relaxed in the face of hearing comments that may not be what you expected. This is good, because it can raise issues you never thought of.
Writer’s work groups thrive best in blue-collar territory. You should expect to sweat and get your hands dirty––after all, you are there to work.
John Scherber, a Minnesota native, settled in Mexico in 2007. He is the author of ten Paul Zacher mysteries (The Murder in Mexico series), set in the old colonial hill town of San Miguel de Allende, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. In addition, two volumes of the Townshend Vampire Trilogy have appeared, as well as his award-winning nonfiction account of the expatriate experience, San Miguel de Allende: A Place in the Heart. For more information go to, www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com or www.blogster.com/johnscherber .