The writing group: the secret weapon for unlocking your inner novel
One west Cork writing group has had 108 publications. So why is group think so successful when it comes to literature?
“Nasty feedback has no place in a writing group, and neither does saying something is lovely.” Photograph: iStock
At the recent West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, would-be writers filled 11 week-long workshops, from memoir writing to travel, fiction, and poetry. Why do so many people want to write books, and why are those attending workshops, writing groups and talks predominantly women?
Former fiction editor at Faber and Faber
There were 20 slots available at the West Cork Literary Festival at €50 each for writers to submit four pages of work in exchange for a 45-minute critique with Griffiths. They filled swiftly, with 17 of the 20 participants being women.
“Would I pay €50 for this? I really hope they’re getting their money’s worth,” Griffiths frets. It’s something she’s done at other festivals and on MA writing courses. “It’s usually that ratio of women to men. I just don’t see men being as keen to share their work. Maybe it’s a confidence thing. When I talk to writers at this early stage, sometimes I feel like they’re seeking permission to live a creative life, to do something they might not feel entitled to do.”
What is she looking for in four pages, all of which were in the fiction genre in Bantry? “Interestingly, most people didn’t send their first four pages. It’s a key question I thought people would have wanted answered: would an agent want to read on, based on those first four pages? So what I look at is the grain of what they’re writing. You can tell from four pages if someone has a voice, an original or distinctive way of writing. You can tell if someone understands how to write a scene. What you can’t tell is if someone can do structure, so we talk about that. A lot of the conversation is helping people to describe their work.”
Why do so many people want to write books? “I think it’s like being listened to. There is a very human need to be listened to. Everyone has a computer now, and if you have Word, then there is nothing stopping you. I’m hearing that phrase more now, ‘the writing group’. I think writing groups have become another staging post on the journey to be published; it’s a safe place to develop.”
How does she deliver bad news, if the work is genuinely poor? “Everyone can improve. Everyone can get better. That’s what I focus on. One of the biggest mistakes people make is putting in too many adjectives and adverbs and thinking they will do the work for you. The hardest question to answer is when someone asks, do you think I’m good enough to get published? People do self-publish a lot now, and it’s become a new outlet. Some of it can be very good. There’s no shared notion of quality, because I’ve read so much rubbish that’s been published in the traditional way, so I really think we all have very different ideas of what quality is.”
THE WRITING GROUP
Barbara Leahy, Danielle McLaughlin and Marie Gethins
The trio formed their Cork-based group in 2011. (There were originally four). Since then, they have had 108 publications between them, including short stories in the New Yorker and The Irish Times. They meet once a fortnight for dinner and to share their critiques of each other’s work.
“I was resistant to the idea of being in a writing group at the beginning. Can you really learn anything from fellow amateurs? But when I attended writing workshops, I found that I learned as much from the other people in it as I did from the facilitator. We meet once a fortnight. Once a month is too infrequent, and once a week is impractical. We have the occasional guest participant, but we don’t want the group to be any bigger, otherwise we couldn’t go into the detail on feedback that we do. We read everything at least twice, in advance of the meeting, and make notes on the hard copy. We’ll read up to about 3,500 words from each other. We provide support to each other, and keep up the friendly pressure to keep going. We knew each other before we formed the group, and we were all equally serious about our writing.”
“We learned as a group how to give feedback. There’s a lot of damage to be done when you don’t know how to give feedback. Savage and nasty feedback has no place in a writing group, and neither does saying something is lovely. You have to be honest, useful and kind.
“For a group dynamic, everyone needs to participate. When you are receiving feedback, you listen to what is being said: don’t interrupt, don’t argue or get offended. Be polite. Always say what is right as well as what doesn’t work. We are a small group, but in larger groups there can be a danger of a small inner circle undermining the others, and hostility to anything written outside their preferred style. Because we are small, we have the time to go into a lot of detailed feedback. You couldn’t do that in a big group, and some writing groups have 20 people in them: you’d only get your work critiqued once or twice a year.
“Being in a writing group made a huge difference to me. I was trying to make progress but didn’t make any until I joined a writing workshop and then this writing group. I was just repeating the same mistakes, and there is no deadline when you’re not showing your work to anyone.
“There is a sense of possibility in Ireland now that one can be a writer. So much of it can be learned, which is why people go to workshops. One of the things we do is pass on information to each other about competitions, and places where you can get published, like literary journals. Outside the group, it could feel like the literary valley of death when you are rejected. But you have to get into a routine of sending things out. Rejection is just very matter of fact for us now, and we don’t worry about sending stuff out any more.
“It’s mostly women in my fiction workshop. A woman may feel less confident about calling herself a writer than a man, but a workshop is a space where everyone can think of themselves as a writer. Men are much more confident about saying who they are and what they do. I think women find it harder to be selfish, and to be a writer, you need to be very, very selfish of your head space.
“Going to a writing workshop is almost like doing an apprenticeship. It’s one way of finding readers, and those readers are not going to be family and friends who love you and are going to blow smoke up your ass. You can’t go to a workshop because you want praise. If you think it’s going to be all fabulous, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. To get the most out of a writing workshop, you are going to have to have an open mind and a thick skin.”
“There is definitely an industry that has grown up around people wanting to be writers. Businesses built on other people’s dreams. The bit that worries me that people might have parted from their cash on an illusion that they are going to turn into published writers.
“If people come to a workshop with life experience, I can do something with them. If you’re writing drama, you need life experience. It’s hard. Enjoying reading isn’t the same as writing books. Enjoying watching plays isn’t the same as writing plays. Sometimes I see the person who is hoping for magic out of a workshop: that you can arrive at publication without making a journey; that something can happen without doing any work. Those are the people who usually have no interest in anyone else’s contribution except their own.”
THE TRAVEL WRITER
“I’ve facilitated hundreds of workshops. Some people are serial workshop attendees. A man who wants to write will just get on with it, but women want to find out more about the process of writing. In Bantry, it was all women in my workshop. Travel writing is a very friendly genre to women.
“Writing workshops do sometimes attract people with mental health issues. I’ve had some very recently bereaved people, who should have been in therapy instead of a workshop. There are definitely types. There’s the clown, the rebel and the person with an agenda. The clown makes everyone laugh, the rebel tries to split the group, and the person with an agenda has usually gone to a lot of workshops and won’t engage with the exercises.”
THE LITERARY AGENT
Carole Blake’s audience for her talk is entirely female, bar one man at the back whom I suspect is asleep. Is she surprised to see so many women at her talk? “No,” she says. “Women outnumber men at talks and writing workshops, but I don’t think they outnumber men in the people they are writing. Women are more careful in doing their homework.”
Why does she think so many people want to write books? “People think it’s easy. It’s a form of self expression that people find very satisfying. The difference between writing and people who like painting on a Sunday afternoon is that a much higher number of people who write think that publication is the next step. You don’t generally get Sunday painters thinking they’re going to be exhibiting in the Royal Academy of Arts. People who write tend to believe that now I’ve written it, it’s only worthwhile if I get it published.
“Most publishers now will not look at manuscripts unless they come through an agent. Editors these days are not paid to edit, they’re paid to buy. They’ve pushed the traditional slush pile onto agents.”
With so many people wanting to be published, Blake points out that a whole industry now exists around it. “There has grown up to be quite an industry in selling writing courses. Some of them are thousands of pounds. People who want to be published are ever hopeful, and think that taking a course will lead to publication. I take a very dim view of them. Unless you filter by talent who signs up for them, you’re taking money off people for nothing.”