Monday, January 22, 2007

Writing Groups, Revisited

Stewart over at the House of Sternberg has asked some questions about writing groups, so I thought I’d revisit the topic.

I think writers groups work best when their members’ needs are either the same or at least complementary. For instance, RWA (Romance Writers of America) is a huge national organization with fairly large local chapters. Its members range from utter novices to multi-published writers. It works because all members get something out of the meetings. Beginners learn about writing and the publishing industry, as do newly published authors. Established authors are provided with a base from which to publicize their books as well as an opportunity to “feel good” by helping aspiring writers. Everyone is provided with a situation in which to meet like-minded friends.

Members of RWA often get together and form smaller critique groups, usually of no more than four or six, although I’ve heard of larger ones. I have never belonged to a formal critique group, although when I was in Australia I did sometimes exchange manuscripts with friends. I think critiquing is good for beginning writers. Seeing other writers’ mistakes taught me some of my most valuable lessons.

Critiquing was never a big part of our Monday night Wordsmiths group, and we gave it up largely because those of us who were actively writing were, frankly, beyond it (in the sense of needing a line edit), while those who were not actively writing anything at the moment felt under pressure to bring a piece in. Some of us will still occasionally bring something in—before I sent out the proposal for THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT, for example, I brought in the synopsis for suggestions. But that’s rare. We realized that it was the discussions we enjoyed most, so that’s what we now focus on. For example, in discussing my “Downstairs Thriller” last week, we became intrigued by several questions: Do men and women react to—and like—different things in a character? How can a writer appeal to both sexes? That’s what we’ll be talking about this week.


Anonymous said...

How to appeal to both sexes?

Stay emotionally true.

It's at the heart of what we do as writers. We get into the emotional lives of our characters. Remember that unnamed author with the 'real' (unsympathetic) protagonist and the cast of cardboard cut-outs? She didn't do that, and she lost you.

But a good story, one that pulls you in, doesn't just show you your own reflection in a glass. It shows you what it might be like to be someone else. Walter Mosley gives me a window into being a black man in the 40's through the 60's, and Marain Keyes makes it just as easy to believe I'm a modern Irish woman.

And the key, I think, is to make the character, male or female, emotionally valid. All but the most narcissistic personalities spend some time wondering what it's like in other people's shoes. As readers we accept certain conditions for a character (e.g. that Rachel always sees a fat girl in the mirror, even when she's wasted down to nothing), as long what flows from them seems natural.

And in both Mosely's and Keyes's work, it's their ability to empathize with all their characters (the racist white cop, the tormented boyfriend) that keeps their work from the Cardboard Cast Syndrome.

Donna Tart (A Secret History), Willa Cather (My Antonia) and most everything by George Pelecanos are all great examples of powerfully drawn protagonists *very* different from the writers themselves.

Its doable.

cs harris said...

Good post, Steve. I think you're right--emotional validity is a big part of the key, as is finding the common humanity we share with figures who wouldn't otherwise be sympathetic--such as a racist cop.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed our meeting on this topic last night. Sounds like we could go a couple more meetings on the same topic