Digression: In Praise of My Writing Group

A good writing group keeps you honest. Good readers remind you that you can’t fall back on your genius. I guess if I were a genius, I wouldn’t need readers. From my keyboard to the mind of God.

No, a good group reminds you that you have to work at this stuff. It’s like riding my horse. I keep slipping back into old habits (right knee locking into the saddle, heel slipping up; taking back without realizing it in front of fences). My trainer’s “You’re doing it again” is the only way to create new mind/body memories and make them stick. Little by little I think they do.

So I go to my writing group with major revisions of The Drowned Man (the ms. I took to the conference I’ve been writing about—I’ll get back to that shortly). I decided that one tack would be to veer more toward the “literary.” Now, one thing I’ve learned is that I fall just a few pixels short of literary most of the time. But genre clearly doesn’t cut it. The answer to the “But what is it?” question confounds editors and agents every time. (Well, yes, it’s a sort of mystery, but no, it doesn’t have a knitting shop in it. Not that kind of mystery. Well, not that kind either. Darn.)

Anyway, I thought that even if I didn’t slip across the literary line, I could at least bump up the suspense with some piquant foreshadowing if I changed the point-of-view character. The POV character now telling the story knows what happened in the end, so he can drop some titillating portents here and there. I like the way this works. Problem: as my group told me, I liked his voice a little too much.

They said:

Get rid of the floating talking head. Move the action up front. (Remember, writing fiction depends on the ability to write scenes, not exposition, no matter how piquant.

Did I know this? Yes. Did I do it? Now I am.

Don’t dump a lot of names on us all at once. Get your readers invested in one or two main characters right away. Bring the others on stage when you can give them the stage time they need.

Did I know this? Yes. Did I do it? Now, yes.

Locate your opening scenes in place and time. Let your readers walk into a landscape or a room and meet a flesh-and-blood being (even if he does have to be a vampire). There’s a fine line between being mysterious for the sake of suspense (“I’m confident that that question is going to get answered”) and for the sake of being mysterious (“Who the hell is this person I’m having to listen to? Is there a reason I’m here getting vertigo in this mind fog? Help!”)

Did I know this? See above.

Let readers know early whose story it is. Okay, in someone else’s story told by a narrator (Nick Carraway, for example), readers may have to figure this out. But they should figure it out, IMHO, as they interpret the relationship between the narrator and the other characters. Who embarks on the major trajectory may change with events (and it can even be the reader, IMveryHO). And it quite often is the apparently peripheral character whose trajectory is the most interesting. But starting out in a text, you haven’t won the willingness of readers to do that kind of interpretative work. They want to get started on a road, in somebody’s tracks, before the feral pigs start jumping out of the woods at them (I ended up taking the feral pigs out of my book: see “Deleted Scenes”).

Did I know this? Ditto.

Give readers a sense of something at stake. Okay, they may not get to know right away just how much is at stake. But they need to know somebody’s in trouble, and why. I may still need to work on this. Bellweather knows Michael’s in trouble from Page One and why. He’s telling readers so. But readers have to get a sense of this by themselves. I hope when I take my revisions to readers who weren’t there last time that I get a sense of whether I’ve met this mandate.

Did I know this? Well, yes, but it’s the hardest, least concrete of missions. What makes readers care? Well, someone in trouble. Yes. I want to think about that in tomorrow’s revisions. How do readers know Michael’s in trouble?

You really have to work at this stuff.

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Filed under Learning to write, Teaching writing, Writers' groups, Writing and teaching writing

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