09 March 2020

Five things I’ve learnt from my writing groups

Eleni Kyriacou, author of She Came to Stay
by Eleni Kyriacou From Our Students, Writing Tips

Eleni Kyriacou worked on her debut novel She Came To Stay on one of our three-month novel-writing courses in London. Set among the glittering, grimy streets of Soho during the Great Smog of 1952, it’s a compelling tale of friendship, rivalry and lies.

During the ten years she’s been writing fiction, Eleni’s been a member of three different writing groups. Here’s what she’s learnt …

1) The right people are crucial

On my CBC course, there were fifteen of us all working towards debut novels. Each week, we took turns in having our work critiqued (in a positive, friendly spirit, of course!) before our tutor, Erin Kelly, added her comments. It’s vital you have people in your group who are as invested as you are in writing and are going to bother to read your work and be constructive.

Writing group feedback is an invaluable, fast way of discovering what does and doesn’t work. I think those who read and write the most tend to offer the most insightful, useful feedback, so think about that if you’re setting up a group. And while your writing buddies might not tell you how to fix something (that’s your job, after all), it’s amazing how often the same things jar with people.

2) Be specific to get results

Questions like: ‘Are the turn of events in this scene convincing?’, ‘Do you think this character would act this way?’ or, ‘I’m not sure about the dialogue – what are your thoughts?’, will always produce better feedback than simply asking, say, ‘So what do you think?’ Specific requests also give others an idea of how far you want them to go with their feedback.

It’s so tempting to offer up something for scrutiny that you know is polished and sparkles. But what’s the point? Submit something you genuinely need help with.

In my smaller writing group (after the CBC course ended), I often used sessions to brainstorm plot or character motivation in She Came To Stay. And we had endless discussions about setting and, specifically, the fog of ’52 and how I could use it in my story. Think about where you are with your work in progress and what you need help with right now.

3) Listen, but don’t ignore your gut

This is your book. It’s just as important to know what to ignore as what to take on board. Only you can make that call. Sometimes you’ll agree with the comments, or you might think only some of them are right, and other times you won’t agree at all. Beware of always agreeing wholeheartedly, as you’ll be chopping and changing your story every time there’s a new opinion. And if you do end up deciding to ignore someone’s feedback outright (later, obviously – not to their face!), make sure it’s because your gut knows better. Don’t let it be because your ego is attached to a few lines of particularly lovely writing that aren’t serving your story. You’ll only have to cut them later.

4) Be realistic with your time

Giving considered feedback can be time-consuming. Don’t commit to someone if you can’t see it through. If a member reads an extra couple of scenes for you or a whole first draft, it’s only fair to offer to reciprocate when they’re ready. But don’t say yes to someone and then keep them hanging on for your feedback because you don’t have the time. They’ll assume you hate it and can’t find the words to tell them (fact: all writers are paranoid).

5) A writing group doesn’t mean less work

It’s you writing your book, not your group. While support from other writers is wonderful, essentially writing is a solitary, hard graft. Put your finished scene or draft to one side, then when you’re ready look at it again. What do you think about your writing? Have you really done your best? Does the plot stand scrutiny? Are you convinced by your characters? It’s really up to you to work it all out. A writing group can give you guidance and offer suggestions, but you can’t write a novel by committee. This is your story. In the end, the very best person you can get feedback from is always yourself.

She Came To Stay, is published by Hodder and out now.

For more writing advice from Eleni check out her Readers’ & Writers’ Club.

If you want to work on your novel with like-minded writers and publishing professionals take a look at our spring three-month novel-writing courses, which are open now for applications – study online with Suzannah Dunn or in London with Charlotte Mendelson

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