After some modest success with my first published piece of fiction this month, I have largely been working 'offline'. Not, as you may think, proactively writing, but more a case of removing words I've already written. Such a thing has a name - 'editing', not surprisingly - perhaps a more appropriate term could be 'quality control'. Having said that, my own preferred term at this precise moment is 'gigantic pain in the backside'; yet, needs must. It can take significantly longer to successfully edit than it does to write the thing in the first place.
My story which appeared in Writers' Forum this month was the seventh, possibly eighth draft, to exist. Its various revisions were partly down to my own re-reading and re-thinking of its plot and structure, but mostly as a result of constructive feedback from other writers.
I'm a member of three different writers' groups in London, all of which are extraordinarily helpful. The idea, generally, is that a writer reads aloud some of their work to the rest of the group (or, in one specific group I attend, someone else will read aloud your work for you, in order for the writer to take a more passive role). People will listen, notes will be taken, questions will be asked about character, plot, pacing, style and voice; grammatical mistakes and word duplication will be highlighted. Sometimes an active debate will take place regarding the theme or meaning of the story; it's oddly satisfying to witness your own work being disseminated like it would be at a book club. Yet on one recent occasion, when one of my stories was read out to a group, it was figuratively torn to shreds - in the nicest possible way, you understand. They picked holes in every aspect of it.
Which was brilliant. Getting the support and suggestions of fresh pairs of eyes is an essential part of the process. Some aspects of what I often hear at these groups, usually to do with plot or not-quite-fully-developed characters, would never have occured to me. As someone who is so close to the work, receiving the considered opinions of like-minded third parties is not just a luxury, but a necessity.
Frequently, I agree with the feedback I receive; other times, not. Yet whether the writer agrees or disagrees can be a moot point; the underlying premise is that the writer is able to regard their work in a different way, and either makes appropriate changes or sticks to his guns, having diligently considered all points of view.
Such feedback, for me at least, has never been nasty and negative, and nor should it be; it is the writing that is being criticised, not the writer. Every input I have received, and indeed given, has been made in the right spirit, and taken as such. Writers, on the whole, are a mutually supportive bunch, and enjoy being part of a creative process. Unfortunately at some of these groups, people have turned up, read their work aloud, visibly bristled with indignation at the comments and observations that have been made, and never returned. It's a terrible missed opportunity for them. I've even heard of one occasion where a young lady, after one creative suggestion too many, left the room in floods of tears.
I would tactfully suggest that these people are maybe not cut out for it, and certainly in no place to be approaching literary agents or publishers where critical appraisals and demands for edits are not only commonplace but par for the course. (To that effect, writers' groups are good practice). I would propose that a group consisting entirely of sycophants - or, on the other end of the scale, heartless critics - would not be truly productive and effective, and not representative of the literary world out there. If anyone goes along expecting only fulsome praise for their literary masterpiece, I have my suspicions they're not in it for the right reasons. Granted, the first time one does it, it can be hard to take, possibly even a bit nerve-racking - but the results are worth it.
My own task now is to review and amend some of my as-yet unpublished work and make it the best that they can be - and this would have been significantly harder had it not been for my writers' groups. If anyone reading this is into creative writing, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, blogging and anything else which involves laying down the written word, please do seek one out - and good luck.