Writing a first novel and trying to get it published is a brutal and perilous journey. It reminds me of that Discovery Channel episode in which hundreds of cute baby turtles hatch from eggs, stretch their webbed flippers to the sky and make their way across the burning sands of the beach toward the life-giving ocean. Then the predators descend and the massacre starts. It’s Darwinian, it’s Hobbesian – it’s Thunderdome, baby.
But what, you might well ask, does this have to do with this week’s topic of writers’ groups? I’m getting there.
When I started the first draft of my book, I was like one those baby turtles, full of optimism and hope (I know I'm anthropomorphizing, but go with it). After receiving scores of rejection letters from agents, the self-doubt began to set in. During this period, I joined a long-standing East Bay writers' group. It was a collection of about 10 writers, one published, one to-be-published and the rest aspiring. During each session, two writers would present up to 20 pages for critique. Joining the group helped me maintain my writing momentum when it was faltering, when I thought I might end up as one of those casualties on the beach.
As with all writers’ groups, you have to decide whose opinion you trust. Particularly with a heavily plotted book like my legal thriller, there’s also a significant benefit to just getting a wide range of reader reactions. If everyone in your group can spot the murderer by Chapter 3, then you better start restructuring.
The second writers’ group that I participated in was the San Francisco Writers Workshop, another group with a long history but, unlike the first, open to all. Instead of submitting pages in advance, you could bring up to six pages and read them aloud to 15-20 writers arrayed in a circle of folding chairs in a gallery space. The advantage of this approach is that there’s no homework involved; you don’t have to read 40 or so pages in advance of the session. The disadvantage to the format is that the critiques are inevitably a bit more cursory.
I eventually dropped out of both of the writing groups due to lack of time, but the burst of energy and ideas that I got from the experience helped propel me into the next massive rewrite of my manuscript. In retrospect, the biggest benefit that I got from my writers’ group days was a little bit of affirmation that I was a writer at a time when I was fairly uncertain about that. After a while, I figured that if I was spending that much of my time drinking with writers (sometimes during the workshop, sometimes afterwards at Lefty O’Doul’s) and bitching about rejections with writers, then there was a decent chance that I was a writer.