I spent this weekend at Chez Mandeville having good conversations with good people, playing mediocre pool, drinking moderately and, most importantly, listening to the stories created by those in my writer's group.
This writer's group has become much more important to me than I would ever have imagined. It was 2001 when I was invited to join the then-unnamed group (We're called The Sparkling Hammers now, for the curious out there. And yes, there's a story behind it. And yes, you're going to have to wait for it). I'm not exactly sure why I joined. I wasn't looking for extra inspiration. I had plenty of that. I wasn't craving literary criticism. I suppose I'd always been a snob when it came to what and how I should write. I was a firm believer that the best way to enhance your writing was to read authors you admired, pay attention to them, and incorporate their skills into your craft. And more importantly, to just write. Write write write.
A college friend, Seth, invited me and I said "yes". It was a small group of five: Aaron, Andi, Rebecca, Seth, and me. I'm not sure why I agreed to join in the first place. I think I was new to Denver, and I was looking to do the "settle down" thing, which included joining an obligatory social group here and there, right? I'd been wandering for almost fifteen years, ever since high school, and I wanted to do those things that people who actually stayed in a community did.
After seven years with the Sparkling Hammers writers group, which has changed membership many times (current local roster is Aaron -our only original member-, Chris, Leslie, Morgen, and me), I would encourage all writers to create one or join one. I have derived more pleasure, inspiration, and writing assistance from these people than I would ever have thought possible. As I mentioned before, I don't go for the line-by-line criticism. I don't go for a cheerleading squad to rah-rah me on to the next chapter. What I have come to find so valuable about these get-togethers is the opportunity to see how my stories affect others. And also the opportunity to read aloud.
Yeah, right? (Observe me attempting to use some teenage slang. That one's for you, Tiana)
Who would have thought reading aloud would be important? But it is. Giving voice to my story for an audience is an opportunity to hear my characters speak and move. It allows me to fill them with life and see them from the outside. It lets me hear how the sentences are fitting together.
So what started as a lark, a social opportunity, has grown into a continual, surprising source of writing help. And this past weekend, it was no different. I'm at a very important crossroads on the construction of Wildmane. I've had success with the first 100 pages, all from Mirolah's perspective, and now I must jump into the tangled thoughts of the character for whom the book is named: Wildmane, a pissy demi-god who must find the will to become a hero once again. It's almost like starting the story over, except harder. True, I have the advantage of 100 mostly-finished pages that I love, but 100 pages does not a novel make. This next section must be able to stand alone, and yet has to flow with the last, amp it up, spur the story forward.
Medophae has always been tough to write. He is the original inspiration for the story, but has, ironically, always been its Achilles heel. It's difficult for a reader to identify with a man who has all the power to do what he wants, but little inspiration to do it. Who can feel sorry for a guy like that?
At writer's group this weekend, they helped me find the right path at this crossroads. On Friday and Saturday, I read the first 100 pages. The story sang. I put my passion into the voices of the characters, and the group responded. They sank into my world. The time that I had spent to shape this story and my latest rule of polishing 100-page chunks before letting anyone see them really paid off.
Then I broke that rule. Riding an inspiration based on their positive reactions, I continued reading. I forged into the unpolished territory of the chapters from Wildmane's perspective, the chapters with which I had been struggling.
Almost instantly, the magic disappeared. I spotted the redundancy in the prose. I spotted the bad lines and the inconsistencies, and my writer's group did, too.
For a brief moment, in the first 100 pages, I almost transformed my writer's group into readers. Remember that these are professional or semi-professional writers, and they know what to look for in a story. They thrive off identifying weak spots and offering brilliant ideas on how to fix them. But this weekend, just for a short time, they became readers. They seemed to forget their purpose and let the story sweep them away.
And that should be the goal of any good writer.
But then I let them down. As soon as I started on the rough new chapters, their critical minds kicked into gear. They stepped off the raft and went to work trying to fix the story. While these suggestions were fantastic, many of which I intend to implement, the true gem was something I hadn't been looking for. I got to watch that shift from readers back to editors. I got to see where it happened and why. If a real reader, someone who picks up this book at the store for the first time, ever makes that shift, if they stop following the story to peer at the construction behind it, then I've failed.
So, like the beginning of the story with Mirolah, I have written five chapters with Medophae that will now be cast aside and re-written. And this will be done before anyone gets a chance to see them, before anyone has a chance to be jolted out of the story by poor writing.
And that's because I have people who can spot these pitfalls before they become public. That's why I have a writer's group.