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Writing can be very lonely, and you can get great attacks of self- doubt. So, in a way, it makes sense to bond with a group of like- minded people who have also set out on the same kind of journey. For one thing, it will stop you from thinking that you are the only person in the world mad enough to believe that there’s a book in you, and for another, it means you will meet sympathetic people instead of dealing with those who think you are crazy and should be learning belly dancing or car maintenance, instead. Let me give you some of my own personal views on the advantages and dangers of a writers’ group.
There’s a danger that it could become a talking shop. A place where everyone endures everyone else’s work as a kind of payment for having them listen to yours—like golfers waiting patiently through the tales of other people’s chipping and putting until they can tell their own story.
Then there’s the advantage that you can hear the mistakes others make and learn from them. It’s much easier to see the flaws in someone else’s work than in your own. The man who drones on and on giving endless descriptions of the sunset might bring you back sharp to your own writing and make you examine it more carefully. Or the woman who has a cast of thousands of characters, confusing everybody . . . this could make you rethink a bit, too.
Another danger I see in writers’ groups is that of overpoliteness. I know that I would be guilty of it, because if a fellow member were reading out the greatest load of rubbish with an eager, delighted face I just could not be sufficiently cruel as to say how bad it was. And then I’d be afraid that others were being similarly overpolite to me. Perhaps your group should have a policy on honesty.
A writers’ group would have the great advantage of keeping you up to scratch, like Weight Watchers does, or Alcoholics Anonymous. If you have to turn up with something written every Wednesday, then it’s easier to keep to your schedule than if you had to only deal with yourself. It’s dead easy to make a convincing argument to yourself. We have all done it. “You’re tired, Maeve; don’t be so doctrinaire; you don’t need to write every week,” and so the slippery slope begins. It’s harder to explain to a group that you were tired. They were all tired, but they did their writing.
Another danger of a writers’ group is that it might make you feel inadequate. Suppose there are one or two confident writers in the group who are very good; it could send you back into your shell. Or worse, you might want to denigrate your own work and imitate them instead. This would be a pity, but I have heard of cases where it has happened. Anxious people compare themselves unfavorably with leading lights. They feel confirmed in their belief that they are no good and quit before it’s really begun. Maybe they were always going to do so, but it’s sad when the very vehicle of mutual support and encouragement that was supposed to help them actually just makes them too scared to really give it a go, and is somehow proof that they are right to opt out.
Despite these few dire warnings, I do believe that writers’ groups can be a great power for good. I have a friend in England who went to a group, and they all hated one another’s novels-in-progress but liked each other. They all gave up on the fiction writing and wrote a cook book instead. They got it published, and four more in a series after it, and still meet every week and are firm friends. I suppose, like everything, it’s up to you what you bring to and take from a writers’ group. I hope that a lot of you may go that route and that you will be able to exchange information and constructive criticism. You probably have much more courage about being honest than cowards like myself. I think my problem was that for years I had a neighbor who used to say proudly, “I speak as I find.” The thing was that she invariably found something unpleasant to speak of.
May it be very different for all of you!
Telling a Story
They say that when beginning a story you should always try to catch people at some interesting juncture of their lives, like when they have to make a choice or a decision, or when someone has betrayed them, or at the start of love or the end of love. It’s better to come across them at some kind of crisis than in the middle of a long, lazy summer where nothing happens.
The notion of change is important in a story. It would be a dull tale indeed if the hero took no notice of the disintegration of his family, if he were the same unaltered dullard after four hundred pages. The reader would feel fairly shortchanged.
I can’t tell you what story to write. Nobody can do that except you. But I can share with you some of the advice I got along the way from wise editors, men and women whose job it is to know what people like and to keep us writers somehow on the rails.
They told me that we must be interested in the hero or heroine—that doesn’t mean making the person into a walking saint or goody-goody, but it does mean giving him or her a strong and memorable personality. There is no point whatsoever in spending pages and pages describing someone who is a dithering, dull kind of person without purpose, views, or motivation. Nobody will finish such a story. We have to care enough about the people to follow them through to the last page. When I first heard this, I began to panic a bit and asked humbly what kind of people might be interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention. I wouldn’t be able to create Captain Ahab, the man who pursued Moby-Dick, or Rhett Butler, who didn’t give a damn. But I was told that writing wasn’t a matter of painting by numbers. They couldn’t just create some formula, leaving me to join up the dots. I had to think, and work out the kind of people whose lives and adventures I would be interested in myself. This way I might be on the way to making others interested in them, too.
In my case, I was interested in people who were told that if they were good they would be happy, and were therefore disappointed when it didn’t always turn out for them. So I worked out that, in a way, people create their own happiness not just by being good, whatever that is, but by seeking opportunities, taking chances, taking charge of their own destinies. It interested me as a start and then kept me going. It could work for you, too, if you found a theory around which to base a story, but there’s no point in anyone else telling you what to write about. You’ll end up writing their ideas, not your own.
Another good piece of advice I got was to think of the story as a journey. Something happens to the main character at the start, and we follow him or her dealing with it, or not dealing with it, or ignoring it, or making it worse. Whatever. Now, I don’t mean a literal journey; they don’t even have to leave home. But they have to progress, be different people for better or worse at the end. The man who thinks his wife is unfaithful, his son on hard drugs, his colleagues in the office on the take, or his own gambling is out of control has to do something to change the situation. You can’t leave him static in the same plight at the end of chapter fourteen as he was at the outset. The woman who has a bad medical diagnosis, a faithless friend, an unjust accusation of shoplifting, or proof that her brother is a murderer must take steps of some sort over whatever it is. She can’t sit there like a dumbo for page after page letting it all wash over her.
An editor will also stress that pace is important when you are telling a story. Again, nobody can hold your hand over this, but I have found that at the beginning it helps to make a kind of chart of the book chapter by chapter, giving myself orders like, “By the end of chapter two we must know that she cannot afford to pay the rent and will be evicted,” and then, “By the end of chapter three we must know that her rent will be paid for her, but at a price.” If you do this in advance it stops you from dawdling about till you’re ready and generally dragging the thing out and making it endless. There’s no right pace or wrong pace; it’s up to you. But there’s no harm in being aware of it. A gentle, lyrical story will call for one kind of speed, a fast-moving action thriller another.
I hope it’s all going well for you and that you are getting your ten pages a week done, as I am myself despite a broken arm and a general wish to do anything rather than write.
But I told you it was easy, so I have to believe it, too.
Anyway, there’s a sort of solidarity in numbers.
Writing Short Stories
This week I had to write a short story for an anthology, and I thought the best help I could be to you is to share all the questions I asked myself and how I attempted to answer them. At the end of this book you will find a few new stories I have written.
Where to set it?
In my case this was easy. It has to be about Dublin, so I placed it in a small house in a Dublin street that used to be working-class but was moving upward in parts. This would mean I could have all sorts of neighbors if I needed them—but I remembered it’s only a short story, so no time for a pile of neighbors.
When is it set?
I think this anthology is more for a younger readership, but then again almost everyone is younger than I am, so I decided to make it present-day and see it from the point of view of a restless fourteen- year-old who is dissatisfied with her parents and overimpressed by her stylish aunt who comes to visit.
What are the main dangers in a short story?
For me the biggest danger is overcrowding the story with too many people. No time, I kept telling myself, to bring in her schoolmates, her teachers. No time for all the neighbors and their problems, no space to talk about her two awful younger brothers. Instead, just mention the two insufferable boys as a horrible presence in the background.
Before you begin, what must you do?
You must know the end. Otherwise you are lost. I have begun far too many short stories that died the death because I didn’t know where they were going. You don’t have the luxury in a short story of not knowing how it will turn out and waiting until you see how the characters are getting on. I had to force myself to write down the resolution. What was going to happen to the girl’s relationship with her aunt? Would the aunt guide her through the drama or be useless? Would the girl know the difference between wise and crazy advice? I was tempted to start writing it and see how it went, but do this and you are sure to end up waffling.
Okay, so you know the end; how do you begin?
I think you open with the action, introduce the two main characters. I began with the girl waiting for the aunt’s annual visit. I don’t do much descriptive stuff at the start. If I were to tell you all about the house and the garden with bicycles in it, and the wallpaper and the shabby stair carpet, it might fill in the texture but I’d still be writing it a month later. Get them up and running and start moving them toward the end.
A lot of dialogue or not?
Enough to move the story on. The girl’s mother could say something that shows us what a hard life she leads; the girl should say something that lets us know how vulnerable she is, and something else later showing us how she has moved on.
What kind of a time frame?
In this case, for my plot it had to take place over a period of two years. So if I am moving them on at that pace there’s no time for long descriptions of what they had for breakfast, nor too much “he said” and “she said.” I was tempted to follow the aunt as she went from one cultural event to the next, but if I did follow her the plot would never have taken place, and the aunt and the reader and I would still be stuck at some exhibition.
How long is a short story?
It’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. In this case they didn’t specify a length (it is actually easier when they do). Anyway, it was about 3,500 words. That’s eight pages of my typing. It took one day to plan it out and four days to write, at about four hours each day.
Is it any good?
I have absolutely no idea. I vary in my thinking. Sometimes I look at it and believe that it’s tender and sensitive; then I move on and the next day I truly think it’s a load of rubbish and that editors of the anthology will return it in disgust.
But I’ll tell you what it is . . . it’s finished!