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.
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