If asked to quickly define a writers' group, in the past I might have said it is a group of writers who serve as critical readers for each other. Sound the buzzer, wrong answer.
Lynne and I went to Grub Street’s lunchtime revision seminar with Hallie Ephron last week. (Highly recommended, as is Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel for all writers.) Halfway through, Hallie dropped an offhand comment: readers are only good for one or two readings, even a writers' group. Once a story is stuck in a reader's head, it is extremely hard to look at it with the fresh eyes needed for good critique.
Logical, yes; however, my planned revision process shattered. I am the revision queen, and it was like discovering the high wire on which I slid would vanish halfway across the chasm. In fact, I was hours away from delivering my Real First Draft (as opposed to progressive chunks that fashioned a beginning, middle and end). Given that my group was one read down, did I only have one read to go? More important, was Real Draft One the version that would most require their feedback?
Panicked internal debate produced a new truth: it's not about a writers group. With or without one, a writer must choose and use readers sparingly and strategically, based on the stage of the project and what level of feedback is most useful to push it to the next level.
The Formative Draft, aka, who-knows-how-many chunks that close with The End. Some people don't want anyone reading then; me, I tend to wander, explore, even with an outline. Amy, Lisa and Lynne nudge me on track, and toward better tracks.
The Real First Draft. This I want read by them again. I want writers' critique of plot, stakes, characterization, spots with a lack or deluge of details. Broad strokes as well as an eye for detail, start to finish. I already have ideas on how to refine, adjust; will they confirm those impulses?
Close to Done Draft(s). These, I hope, will be a smoothing, small shifts, line edits, those kinds of changes. At this stage, I am comfortable recruiting other friends, one a writer, one or two who don't write but worship books.
Final Draft. I don't want to overdo the reading and not get the thing off to an agent. While I hope the above rounds take a couple of weeks each, who knows? (Maybe I could slip this to the Group in between selections from my new Formative Draft?)
My new definition of a writers group: a synergistic group of writers who help each other develop discipline and become better students of the craft, who encourage each other to stretch to new heights at all stages of the process.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007