Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mucking Around With Writing Groups

Last Sunday, Charlotte Hinger, a fellow Poisoned Pen Press author, guest-posted on Type M For Murder. Charlotte gave what's probably the minority report on writing groups: she never has belonged to one, likely never will, and doesn't want to muck around with someone else's story.

Her attitude and mine coincide. Some good people have invited me to join writing groups, and although I know excellent writers who credit a great deal of their success to their groups, I've said a firm no, with thanks, to all those invitations. Not only don't I want to muck around with someone else's story-in-progress, I don't want anyone else mucking around with mine.

Outlines work really well for me with nonfiction, but in my fictional work, characters simply will not follow an outline. My finished stories bear little resemblance to what was in my head when I began writing them, and it seems to me that anyone else's input, no matter how intelligent or well-intentioned, might shunt me away from where I was subconsciously headed.

Reading Charlotte's post activated a memory from way back. In his 1984 book, "Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons - Literary Authority in American Fiction," Hershel Parker made repeated references to John Dewey's belief in the "moment-to-moment control over the relationships between what [the author] has already done, what he is about to do, what he actually is doing, and what he knows, at least vaguely, that he must do later on." Dewey further stated that art can not be plotted beforehand, that artists "learn by their work, as they proceed, to see and feel what had not been part of their original plan and purpose." Sounds right to me.

On the other hand, Parker held that there are dangers to the integrity of a literary work in revising it after the author has considered it finished. Did Maxwell Perkins damage Thomas Wolfe's trunkful of pages in the process of helping the author sharpen them into "Look Homeward, Angel?" Apparently, Wolfe thought so. But I always look forward to hearing from Barbara Peters, my editor at Poisoned Pen Press, after I've sent her my supposedly-final manuscript. Barbara has recommended further work on every story of mine, and in every instance, this clearly has improved the book.

I swear, there are as many ways to go about writing a novel as there are novelists. Maybe more.


Bernadette said...

I think writing groups can be useful when just beginning writing, when you're still learning the fundamentals of craft, and completing an entire novel seems like an impossible marathon. It's the emotional support, not the actual input, I believe, that's so helpful.

For me, once I had a few manuscripts under my belt, I found I began to trust my own instincts and voice, and I no longer needed or wanted to share those first drafts. I now have trusted writing friends, reading friends, a supportive agent, and a brilliant editor (Annette Rogers at PPP) who read for me when the manuscript is complete, and I need to know how the story works for a reader (and editor). I stagger their reading, so I always have a fresh eye to read the final edited and polished manuscript.

Larry said...

Thanks, Bernadette. Yep, an individual approach for every writer on the planet. And yep, the precise approach has changed for me with time, and also varies some with the demands of each book.

Hershel Parker said...

Larry, I hope you will get around to Albert Rothenberg's THE EMERGING GODDESS (1979). Chapter 13 is the best I've found on the creative process. English professors have not used it.

It's a tough chapter, but members of a writing group ought to be willing to test their own experiences against Rothenberg's extremely detailed analyses of the phases of the creative process. By the time I read it I had worked with the textual history of a good many American novels so I could slap down confirming examples all along. He is wonderful.

john M. Daniel said...

Larry, I'm grateful to belong to a weekly writing group for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I learn so much about the craft of writing from the work of my five colleagues, each of them different from the others. Second, I'm glad to be corrected on details I know little about, such as women's clothing and rules of etiquette in social strata I don't belong to. There's also companionship and clever, intelligent conversation that lasts all afternoon. But most important, it gives me a goal. Come up with ten pages a week that I'm really proud of. I would write the ten pages for fun anyway, of course, but writing to be read is different.

Larry said...

Professor Parker, thank you. I've just ordered a copy of the Rothenberg reference.

John, when I wrote that some excellent writers I know give a lot of credit to their writing groups, your name was at the top of that list. One man's meat, and all that. It would just drive me batty to have a bunch of people commenting on my work in development.