Some months back I was invited to join a writer's group in which all the writers were working on pieces of fiction and/or poetry and were actively writing. I was flattered and pleased to be invited and I looked forward to our meetings. The form the group takes is that at each meeting (we met ever other week) we would bring something we were working on with enough copies for everyone to have one and then we would read our pieces to the group while they followed along on the copies handed out to them. Then they would give feedback and suggestions.
This is a reasonable way to get feedback from people who know a few things about writing and a very good way to discover whether you are getting your ideas across. I went to a few meetings and loved listening to the others read their work and tried to give good feedback but I was struggling with the pieces I was presenting. I finally figured out why.
In my experience with writing fiction – both short stories and novels – there are two stages to the process. The first is getting the story, the second is refining, polishing, structuring, creating dialog, making everything beautiful and logical and cohesive. I think of these as the Story Stage and the Refining Stage. What I have learned through my experience with the writing group is that, while the help of others is crucial to the Refining Stage, you are really on your own during the Story Stage. Back when I taught writing I used to have one guiding principle: First get it down, then make it pretty. The last few months of writers group have made me realize how true that is.
When I began the group I had been working for a few months on an idea I had for a story. Actually this story and part of its cast of characters have been buzzing around in the back of brain for years. But I wasn't working seriously - I had too many writing irons in the fire. Each Angel Burns had only been out for a few months, I had just completed Fry Bacon. Add Onions and I was toying with ideas for a young adult novel, a second knitting book, and a sewing book on using unique fabrics creatively. The idea of beginning the arduous process of another novel was not appealing but my characters were getting pushy, they wanted to be born. Characters can be like that. Consequently the third novel, tentatively titled Depraved Heart, was not happening.
So, I joined the writers group and it gave me the push I needed to start writing. Within a few weeks I had completed the first writing of six chapters and for each meeting I took a chapter, read it, and made notes on the feedback. Sounds good, right? But it turns out it wasn't. well, that's not fair – the feedback was good, I just wasn't ready for it. I was coming home and re-working those first few chapters over and over instead of continuing on with the story. I wasn't entirely sure where the story was going and I was making refinements without knowing exactly the direction I was headed in.
You might be wondering how this could be so. Don't novelists know where there story is going before they begin it? Yes and no. We may have the bare bones of the story but surprising things always happen along the way. You may know your main characters but interesting secondary characters can show up. Secondary plots emerge. The plot may take some unexpected turns before developing into what you intended to write about. Frankly, it's an adventure and you have to be willing to take it and let it unfold without inhibiting it by worrying about what the character wore that day or what they had for breakfast.
I'm a firm believer in obsessive character development. Like J.K. Rawling, I've written entire biographies for each of my characters outside of the story and I know everything about them from what their sign is to what kind of underwear they buy even if none of that appears in the story. But first I have to know the story and that's a solo trip. I can rely on the feedback of others to know whether a character is working or not, whether the settings are interesting, whether the dialog is working, whether the ambiance is right, whether the suspense is building and the clues are where they should be. But I have to be the one who knows what's going to happen and why. With Depraved Heart I'm still working on that.
So I made the hard decision. I told the members of my group I have to drop out until I get the story down. I can't keep reworking chapters one through five until I know what is going to happen in the rest of the chapters. And I have to stay home and sit here in front of the page and write until I know these things. Only then can the Refining Stage begin. It's a long tough process, this writing business, but if I'm going to do it, I have to do it right.
Thanks for reading.