Article first published in the New Zealand Author Magazine ISSUE 323 Summer 2020
I love writing because it is a personal and creative time. I love sitting propped in bed with a cup of coffee, with a dog or two at the end of my bed, and writing. I'm writing for a sense of fulfilment, personal challenge, and mostly for the sake of creative immersion. That feeling of happiness. I am also aware of ultimately being hopeful for a readership, so not all to do with the process of writing, and redrafting is creatively fulfilling. It can also be gruelling. For any creative person, I do believe persistence is most often at the heart of success.
So, I'm a member of a writing critique group called After Hours Power. Our group, one of several, formed originally in 2017 as part of the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) Master of Creative Writing (MCW) alumni critique group programme - facilitated by creative writing lecturer James George. These groups, who meet on a regular basis, are made up of a hotchpotch of alumni, graduated from different cohorts and working on a variety of projects. The groups are designed to allow participants periodic re-immersion in a writerly view of the world that we experienced during this course of study.
We cornily named our group After Hours Power because we needed to meet during evening hours to accommodate our sessions to fit in with full-time jobs. This is the second group that I've been involved with since completing the MCW programme in 2015.
Our critique group comprises five members: Anne Kayes, Helen McNeil, Dave Moore, Nina Tapu and myself. Since our group began, we've ceased meeting at AUT and have tried out a range of venues. The Q Theatre restaurant is often our preferred choice because of the wide tables. During the Covid-19 lockdowns we met via Zoom. I happened to be pregnant at the time, segueing into adapting to becoming a new mum. Our group met baby Darby during these unusual times online.
Recently we've been circulating around each other's homes - sharing pizza and then getting to the task. It's more than fair to say that our writing group has become a group of close friends. We trust each other. We share the ups and downs inherent in our lives, as well as trying to help one another progress our writing projects. One key thing that I have learnt, firstly by working with a mentor during the MCW programme, and then by being a member of a writing critique group is that, though writing is such a personal thing, you need other people to read your work.
Ideally, people that you can trust and that can look at your writing neutrally to offer suggestions in terms of what is already working well, and just as importantly, though not moreso, what isn't.
I asked our group to provide some suggestions as to how they benefit by being a member of After Hours Power. We all agreed that our writing is "enriched" because we trust each other to give feedback that is positive as well as constructive, and by the collective exchange of having readers who will show commitment to our work.
We benefit from this feedback on all levels of writing - including grammar, structure, use of metaphor, repetitive sentence structure, character development, plausibility of plot, pace, tension, and so on.
We each have different strengths that we can offer.
Dave commented that he values tough love: "To know if I'm getting unhinged and writing total bollocks." But that also it is "a privilege to see new work take shape and be able to ask questions of author. That's a reader's dream!"
Anne Kayes agrees. "Suggestions made by people who know the work well are useful and enrich the work. Some we implement, some we don't. It's up to us. The group respects this too." There's that word "enrich" again - I borrowed that from Anne - a word that encapsulates how we feel about being part of our critique group, both personally, but also by way of the progression of our writing.
Though I'm wary of saying that being in a critique group is always a flawless scenario. It's not. There is a lot of give and take. Not all dynamics work. It takes practice to critique respectfully, meaningfully, and with due thought when you have limited time in and around life commitments and your own writing. However, there is also a lot to learn by critiquing other people's writing and your sense of how an engaging narrative fits together.
I sometimes feel sensitive when others critique my writing, but this is part of the growth. It isn't about me. It's about what's on the page.
In 2017, my first novel Beneath Pale Water was published by Cloud Ink Press. Part of the reason this project came to life is with thanks to the many people who offered their advice. One mistake that I made though, was that I showed the initial drafts to too many people. I became overwhelmed by the advice. Writing is subjective. Some advice correlated. Some didn't.
In a writing group, you're limited to sharing your work with a small number of people, so you have less advice to sift through to figure out how best to progress your draft.
I am currently working on my second full-length manuscript. When it comes time to broaden the net and send my manuscript for an assessment, with the help of my writing group, the draft will hopefully be stronger than it otherwise would have been. There's not hurry to get it right, after all. There's a lot to think about; much to discuss; spreadsheets ticked off; Post It notes stuck to the ceiling like stars.
If you're considering joining a writing group, do. Find a group who will value your writing. It's a commitment of practice towards improvement not perfection.
A nationwide list of writing groups is available on the New Zealand Society of Authors website.