Help!

The motto of the writers’ group I attend each month is “Writers Helping Writers.” As much as I believe we do help each other, and as much as I would never be without a writers’ group, finding the right kind of help can be a nightmare for a writer.

My group can do a lot of wonderful things. It can tell me when I’ve written an ambiguous sentence. It can tell me when it’s not clear who’s talking. It can tell me that (not when because they usually are) the chapter is really easy to follow and maybe even interesting. It cannot tell me whether my book is working or not.

See, I don’t write short stories. This is not a boast. I wish I could. I keep sort of poking at the possibility. But my mind doesn’t traffic in elliptical elegance. It likes narrative and jumbles of cause and effect and explosions portended by the long, spitting self-immolation of a lit fuse. Moreover, I realized long ago that in order to write a decent short story, you had to work just as hard, know your characters just as well, understand a whole universe just as completely, as to write a novel, and you did all this for just possibly fifty bucks. Who wants to work that hard for fifty bucks and maybe some free copies? Must be somebody who loves language more than I do. And to love language more than I do, you have to be pretty extreme.

I sometimes write poems.

But back to the point. When you write novels, you take a chapter at a time to monthly meetings. If you have a book with forty-four chapters, you’re talking about forty-four months to get through it all. Nearly four years. During this time, group members come and go; the newer ones can’t even understand what the chapter is about because you don’t have an hour to catch them up on what they’ve missed. Even the mainstays have a tough time remembering what happened in last month’s installment. It’s useful to know that what happens in a given chapter rings true, but it would be nice to know whether the character arc is proceeding apace and whether the themes you thought you were building actually exist. Can’t tell that from writers’ groups.

That said, a writers’ group is essential. You can’t tell that you’re not making sense until someone tells you you’re not, and writers’ groups are wonderful at saying, “I can’t visualize this setting from your description”; “On page 2, you told me these two people didn’t like each other, but on page 4 they seem to be buddy-buddy”; “I don’t know why she said that, seems odd in this context.” Etc. Important feedback. Essential. But I’m pretty good at those kinds of things. I’m not good at plotting. My plots turn byzantine and, in the words of one reviewer, “dilute the suspense.”

So if writers’ groups are limited in what they can offer, what?

For the future: I do know some ways to get that next layer of help.

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