Sunday, May 25, 2008

Writers' groups and anxiety dreams.

I have been away quite a bit from my computer the last couple of weeks due to travelling both to Auckland (see below) and Wellington, and coming down with a horrendous cold in between. That hasn't stopped me from thinking about writing - quite the opposite in fact. The Auckland Writers' Festival fed both my brain* and my desire to write the best possible novel, and being sick of body doesn't stop my mind from ticking over as I'm lying in bed. Last Wednesday I visited the Hagley Writers' Institute and, along with fellow writer Carl Nixon, chatted to the class in my usual disorganised manner about my career thus far. Then, in Auckland, I got to have a session with my trusty writers' group.

But first the Hagley chat. I was able to pass on the secret I have been jealously guarding for 8 years - that the writers' site Zoetrope has been as much a help to my development as a writer as anything else I can think of. After being one of the only New Zealanders on the site for so long, it might now be flooded by kiwis, judging by how many people wrote down the address. I spent an energetic portion of the year 2000 doing nothing but writing, posting my short stories and critiquing others. I can't recommend enough the process of looking at others' work, thinking about what works and doesn't, and most importantly, why it doesn't work. It is much easier in the first instance to see the flaws in other people's work than in your own. Coupled with that is the networking aspect of the site, with message boards and private 'rooms' that you can set up and invite only people you want to join in. I have long since stopped posting short stories, but I have made some great friends and allies, many of whom I have met in person on various overseas jaunts. Zoetrope writers generally know how to party.

So after sharing that secret Carl and I tossed about ideas on our work habits, writing shorts vs novels, winning competitions (Carl must be the only writer in New Zealand who writes short stories for financial gain - he always does spectacularly well in competitions. Me, not so much). I also talked a little bit about my new novel. I have a policy on discussing new work. I don't mind doing it in a closed forum, but I do not talk about specifics of my novel anywhere that will get recorded for posterity, eg this blog. Call it superstition, call it coyness. But I have to say, it was great to articulate a little of my creative process for this one, which has been so different from The Sound of Butterflies. I think some of the things I talked about will make some good future blog posts so I'll stop here.

As for my writing group visit, I just have one word: fantastic. I have two highly intelligent and trusted novelist friends whose work I love. They read the first two chapters of what I have written on my new book and while gving me lots of encouragement, promptly tore them to shreds. I can now officially make a guinea pig's nest from those chapters. And I couldn't be happier. They got me thinking so hard about what I'm trying to acheive and why, and I can pick up where I left off with a renewed vigour and confidence in where I'm going (and not a small amount of humbleness about how much work I have ahead of me).

Writers' groups aren't for everyone. Many writers won't show their work to anyone until they have finished, but I find a few trusted people (and when I say trusted I don't mean that I can trust them not to hurt me, I mean I can trust them to be honest and intelligent) can help you find the core of what you are trying to acheive so you can move forward with that much more confidence, which saves a lot of time and energy in the long run. After crowing about the shitty first draft, then abandoning the method, I can safely say that if I were to write a whole first draft before showing it to anyone or revising, the lazy part of me would take over and say "oh, it'll do" and I would skimp on the effort I applied to revisions and end up with work all the poorer.

I'd be interested to hear anyone else's experiences of writing groups. Feel free to comment.

*The downside of my brain being fed at a festival is that last night I dreamed that I was pulled in at the last minute to chair a session with Simon Montefiore, not knowing anything about him or his work. It was an extreme example of an anxiety dream that I can find no discernible reason for. To make things worse, and this is absolutely true, in the dream all my clothes fell off just before I went on stage and I couldn't find my dressing gown so I had to make do with an A4 piece of paper to do the job.

11 comments:

whitihereaka said...

I can't imagine writing without the support of other writers. I have been going to the same group for seven years and it is the place I test pretty much everything - from the initial idea to completed scripts. It is where I learned how to give and receive feedback. It is also where I learned that I can't fool an audience - if there is a hole in the story someone will find it!
A good writing group is a beautiful and rare thing - I have had the occasional fling with a new group and it is never as stimulating, or to be quite frank, fun! We have, over the years become like whanau.

Mary McCallum said...

Re. the Simon Montefiore dream interview: what was written on the A4 piece of paper, Rachael? Did you call him Sebag as all his mates in Auckland seemed to? Was this in fact a JM Coetzee anxiety dream (ie. a premonition that you would be stripped bare in the interview process and made to reveal details of your next novel)?

Rachael King said...

Ha ha, yes quite possibly, Mary. I was going to invite analysis of the dream - seems I didn't have to!

It could have been all the talk about good vs not so good chairing at the AWF that sparked it: that and the fact that I may be doing some things at the Christchurch festival. But I don't think I'm anxious about that...

The paper was blank. Which is unsurprising considering I didn't have naything to say.

Any other ideas anyone?

Vanda Symon said...

I've never had the pleasure (or pain) of a writing group. I know many writers who do, and benefit greatly from the support and critiquing. There are a number of well established ones down here, but being a newbie to town and the writing scene in general, I'm not part of them. What's the writing group etiquite? Do you approach someone, or do you wait to be invited? Do groups tend to be so comforable and trusting with each other, they wouldn't welcome new members who may alter the balance?

I ask these questions, but also realise I do not know how comfortable I'd be in opening myself up for the critiquing - feelings of inadequacy and all. I'd probably start having dreams about being up on a stage, starkers except for a piece of blank A4 paper, feeling I had nothing to say...

Rachael King said...

It's a bit tricky isn't it? I know I am wary of letting 'newbies' in, just because of shyness more than anything probably, but also because I'm so happy with the dynamic of what we've got I'm scared of changing it. I guess the thing to do would be to find others who don't yet have a group, or someone who'd a bit of tramp and doesn't mind having a writers group on the side.

Frida said...

I'm still a fan of the shitty first draft - but then I spend my days writing non-fiction reports for Parliament or the UN general assembly (neither of which are known for literary criticism) so I should probably keep my opinions to myself on a blog about fabulous fiction.

Lots of good stuff in this post but I can't stop giggling at the image of you with only an A4 sheet to protect your modesty so I'll leave it at that.

Seras said...

Hi, sorry to be a pain but are you sure that www.zoetrope.com is the right URL? Because it seems to lead to a page about filmmaking, with no reference to online critique groups. :(

Rachael King said...

Seras, if you look at the top right hand corner of the home page you will see a picture of some buildings and 'Virtual Studio'. You can get more information, take a tour and join. It is free to join. The site IS primarily a film site, but once you join you'll find writing areas for short stories, novellas, poetry and flash fiction as well as screen writing. The short story section is easily as busy as the screenplay section.

I hope that clarifies things.

Rachael King said...

Frida - I still like the SFD - just not from start to finish on something that will be 100,000+ words.

Glad to see your blog is up and running again!

Gondal-girl said...

Hi Rachael - I have done the solo method ( on one's own, not low on fizz slamming it down fast) and more recently the Writers Group method - I am with you, if you can find some similar mind set, then the work only gets better - though not for the faint hearted.

The group I am in has dwindled until it almost spluttered out, as some members were not really on the same road, and others wanted only encouragement at word count, or correct punctuation, but as we have gone on, the remaining members have become the best of ears.

Rachael King said...

You're right about them not being for the faint-hearted. For them to really be valuable, that is. Our group are frequently apologising to eachother - unnecessarily I might add - in case we've offended. But as far as I know nobody has taken offence. We're a sensible bunch and we're also good at giving the positive with the negative, which is also very important. We owe it to each other to give the work an intelligent read as well as looking for its flaws.