Sunday, April 16, 2006

Writers Groups III

In my earlier posts on writers groups, I’ve given my take on the benefits of participating and described my first group. In this post, I’m going to give some details about my current group and—to make concrete some of the benefits I described only in the abstract—list some of the specific suggestions I received to improve my novel Candy from Strangers, which is due out this fall from Bleak House Books.

My current group formed as a spin-off of a writing class taught by Ellen Sussman. Ellen is a very accomplished writing instructor, and has published numerous short stories and a novel, On a Night Like This. I believe everyone in the group has taken a class from Ellen with the exception of me. I was recruited later when a few of the original members had dropped out or taken a sabbatical.

The current membership of the group also includes Harriotte Aaron, Sheila Scobba Banning, John Billheimer, Bob Brownstein, Anne Cheilek and Ann Hillesland. All of the members are very talented writers, and while I don’t know the publication history for the entire group, I do know that John has published four wonderful Owen Allison mystery novels, and as you’ll find if you follow the links on their names, Harriotte and Ann have published award-winning short fiction.

In addition to being talented writers, the members of the group are also very skilled critiquers. During the course of rewriting a chapter, I pulled the groups’ annotated copies from my file, referenced notes taken during the face-to-face discussion, and made selective use of all the documented suggestions to guide the rewrite. The groups’ feedback included everything from line edits to ideas for improving believability or character development to plot direction.

Here are a few examples of things I changed in Candy from Strangers as a result of group feedback:

  • Plot Pacing – I got feedback from several members that the broader mystery in the book wasn’t engaging enough to pull the reader through the early chapters. During a partial rewrite of the first section before I had even finished the complete book, I added another (more quickly developing) hook near the beginning of the book that ultimately ties into the larger mystery. I believe this problem of a “slow start” comes—at least in my case—from over-reliance on outlining. A plot that seems engaging enough in outline form can often be a little flat when developed in complete chapters.

  • Dialog for Key Female Character – I struggled throughout the book writing dialog for the “love interest” for my private eye August Riordan. Often the things I had her say came out stilted or overly formal. The group, and particularly the women, helped me achieve a more sincere, realistic tone.

  • Plot Point Mechanism – The plot near the end of the book turns on having a gun in a certain situation be difficult to fire. The original solution I came up with seemed contrived and distracted the reader from the developing story. Bob, who is a military history buff and a firearms expert, suggested I replace the original gun with another sort that would intrinsically be more difficult to fire in the circumstances. I also did some work to foreshadow problems with the gun before the key scene, with the result that the plot point worked well without calling attention to itself.
An interesting thing about the preceding list is that no one individual could have provided all the suggestions. This, I think, is one of the key benefits of a writers group. “It takes a village” to write a novel, and a group provides that village.

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