In my first author interview (links here), my publisher asked me what advice I’d give to aspiring authors. I said that I have found joining writing groups and doing writing courses invaluable, not so much for the teaching content (although that’s helpful too, of course) but more for the opportunity to give and receive feedback on each other’s writing. I’m fortunate in belonging to a couple of active writing groups, although I’ve got a bit busy lately and don’t participate as much as I should. Why I am busy? Because aside from checking the editor’s edits for Dear Isobel, preparing A Diet of Death for sending to the editor, writing the current novel-in-progress, throwing together a couple of short stories to submit for a new anthology, teaching increasingly long hours (yeah, yeah, I was trying to cut back, but when you’ve a daughter heading to uni, every £ counts) and finding time to eat, breathe and sleep, I am also doing a Masters Degree.
I kept this quiet for a while as I was nervous it might be a ‘more than I can chew’ decision. I haven’t yet confessed to many people that I’ve piled on more pressure, and the reasons for that non-confessing is that if it turned out to be too much, I wouldn’t have to confess to that either.
However. We are entering Week 8 and I love it! I have a whole new cohort of critique readers, ideas-bouncers, new techiniques to hone, and tutor and peer feedback on my writing. I’m writing more than I have in ages, and trying things I hadn’t tried before. As an unexpected bonus I’m also finding many things that I can say ‘Oh, I already do that’ about, which is reassuring.
Of course, in this Covid world, it’s all online, which suits me well as I get to fit it around my other commitments. Every week, I get to do some fun activities with my new classmates. We write spur-of-the-moment mad pieces, and engage in collaborative silliness with evermore hilarious writing prompt ideas. We also submit some serious pieces, showcasing the techniques we have discussed to date. My writing is already better for it. I am using the MA to work on my novel-in-progress, and I already see it improving, developing, and growing. My peers give me great ideas and responses, which combine to encourage what is already in place and push the edges of it both inwards and outwards. The writing becomes simultaneously tighter and more expansive. The dialogue works harder, the actions show more, the mistakes get highlighted. They may say things like this:
‘Have you thought of this?’
‘Do you need this?’
‘This works well.’
‘You’ve said this already.’
‘I like how you linked x to y’
Wait! I linked x to y? Oh, yes, so I did, but I didn’t do it deliberately or realise I’d done it. Yay! Thanks for pointing it out; now I can develp that further.
And so it goes on. It’s like having a critic, proof-reader, beta reader, ideas generator, cheerleader and editor all rolled into one. And it’s fun.
We had an exercise this week where we were asked to write really bad dialogue. It’s always easier to write wrong writing than to write right writing, but doing things deliberately wrong is a great way to see WHY it’s wrong, or HOW it’s wrong, and once you know what ‘wrong’ is, ‘right’ becomes a whole lot clearer. And when you’ve a bunch of people reading your rawest work, unpeeling your deepest emotions, and critiquing your innermost thoughts, you get a whole lot tougher. It’s the best preparation for thickening your skin and being ready for receiving feedback from real, paying readers. But more importantly, it means that the paying readers are getting a more refined product. Hopefully by the time the paying readers get to your work, it’s already been dissected, analysed, re-done, cried over and made better.
Another benefit of doing a course is that writers can be a lonely breed. We live amongst our own thoughts; many of closest friends are only the characters we conjure, and our workspace is usually solitary confinement. Perhaps with a cat for company. Getting involved in a course or a writers group lessens the solitude. And that can be nice too.
So, if you are an inspiring writer, I say go find a group, a course, or some bunch of like-minded people who want to produce the best they can and will tell it like it is to force you to up your own game, improve your own writing and teach you to take critique. And praise. But above all else, a group allows you to have some fun, write some crazy stuff, do some mad collaborative exercises, see how badly you can write, because those are the exercises that show you how much better you can be, or how far you’ve already come. If you KNOW how to write badly, you must also know what’s kind of good.
Here, for your cringe-worthy entertainment is my Really Bad Dialogue from this week’s exercise:
“Nice to see you again Eric White,” said Jim Benson to his neighbour, Eric, “Even though you live next door to me with your wife, Greta, I haven’t spoken to you since the tragic murder on Saturday afternoon when your other neighbour, Irene, was talking to our mutual postman about that weird guy at number 24 who has a squint and is probably going to be the main suspect.”
“Goodness me,” replied Eric, looking at his expensive anologue watch, “It’s already ten o’clock on Tuesday morning and your wife, Ethel, will be calling in for coffee with Greta in a minute. Does she still take two sugars in her tea?”
I invite your most critical comments to rip this apart and determine exactly what’s wrong with it. If you can also find any good points, add a comment about that too. Can you come up with worse dialogue? Submit your best worst efforts in the comments below.