Just about the time I finished the second chapter of my cozy mystery, the opportunity arose to join a writer's group facilitated by Pauline Hahn, an amazing writer, actress and teacher. Members of the group included a poet, a novelist, a playwright, a rabbi, and a man working on a memoir. The meetings were on Zoom due to Covid concerns. I wasn't sure what to expect. Did it matter that no one else in the group was writing a cozy mystery, or any kind of mystery for that matter? Would a poet or a playwright be interested in commenting on a novel? I really wanted some feedback on what I had written so far, so I decided to join the group.
In a blog on technicalcommunicationscenter.com, Ugar Akinci lists the seven benefits of joining a writer's group as "knowledge, community, accountability, feedback, motivation, exposure and creativity". Initially, all I was looking for was feedback. I took the position that I would take every comment, question, suggestion, and criticism seriously, not personally, and use what was given to improve my writing.
I didn't always feel that way about constructive criticism.
I consider myself a songwriter - a legitimate claim, I think - because I receive royalty checks and payment for downloads and streams of songs I've written. When I first started writing songs intended for public consumption, I was absolutely closed to any feedback of a negative nature, constructive or not. Whether the issue was too many words in a line, too many beats in a measure, an unexpected change of key, or a wandering tempo, that was how I wrote it and that was how it was going to stay. It was part and parcel of my creative process. It seems an arrogant and foolish stance now, but at the time, I was oblivious.
I eventually came to understand the great gift that constructive feedback can be, especially when it comes from someone more knowledgeable about the craft at hand. I learned to surround myself with people more talented than I, and to listen when they had something to say about what I had created. It was pretty sure it had made me a better songwriter. I hoped it could make me a better writer.
I presented my chapters and there was a LOT of feedback. I felt a little of the old defensiveness creep in, but I pushed it away. I considered each question, comment, and criticism carefully and found most to be valid concerns or complaints. Some were issues I might have identified myself if I had done more research. some were things I just had not seen, even after reading over my manuscript dozens of times. I took all of them to heart, considered carefully, and made changes where I thought they were warranted. All in all, the group had a positive impact on my manuscript.
Here's my take on 6 ways the members of your writer's group can help with your writing project:
- Bringing up things you might not have considered. I wanted my cozy to be steeped in music. My first draft included lyrics from several of my favorite songs. Rabbi Rudin reminded me that including those lyrics would require permissions and royalty payments, which could make it harder to sell the book.
- Inspiring creative solutions. After the rabbi's comments (see #1 above), several members reminded me that I am perfectly capable of writing a song. I decided to write some in the voices of my characters. The manuscript now includes five original songs.
- Noticing something small that deserves a larger focus. My sleuth wears a locket when she performs. I included it as a necessary element in the scheme of how she happens to find her first dead body. The poet in my writer's group was intrigued by the locket and wanted to know its background. She inspired me to create a full story for the locket, which is now a thread that winds through the story from beginning to end. It adds texture and depth and helps readers know my character better.
- Giving practical, no nonsense, advice. The original draft of my book had too many characters. The writers in my group had trouble keeping track of who was who. I took some characters out completely and gave any important plot responsibilities to someone else. Others I stripped of their names but left them in place to do or say their part to move the story along. Some character names were also confusing. I took the group's advice and revamped all the names for less confusion.
- Editing. One member of my writers group routinely spends the time to go over every line of whatever I have submitted and send me corrections to spelling, grammar and syntax. This is immensely helpful. I find my eyes skip over some errors when I am reading the same pages over and over.
- Cheering you on. When I sell this book, I know I won't be the only one celebrating!
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