I have a number of books on my shelf about the art of writing. Some of them are great reads, usually because they’re funny and enable me to laugh at negative writing traits I see in myself. ‘How not to write a novel’ was particularly entertaining in that regard.
Some of the best aren’t intended as writing guides at all. I often turn to Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces when I have forgotten how to plot a story. And, years ago, my most helpful writing tool was any early-nineties horror novel by Shaun Hutson, in that whenever I got down about writing and thought my work was no good, I could pick up a Shaun Hutson novel (doesn’t matter which one, although Slugs is an awe-inspiring work) and within minutes I would find myself convinced that I was a bloody literary genius (comparatively speaking).
However, most books about writing are useless. I’m not going to say anything about writing being an indefinable and unteachable artistic process. I don’t think that’s true. I think the problem is there are as many approaches to writing as there are writers and the chances of you picking up a book that caters to your writing style is incredibly slim. One such useless book is The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and its uselessness is compounded by the fact it hands out the single worst piece of advice I have ever read, to whit:
30 – Don’t Take It to the [Writing] Club Meeting…
…when you can avoid the sting of unnecessary, incorrect and irrelevant advice.
I’m guessing that the author, Jack M. Bickham had a bad experience at a writing group.
Maybe there are bad, wicked and evil writing groups out there, groups where people snipe at one another, steal ideas and bitch about people who aren’t there. Well, I suppose there’s bound to be one or two. But from my experiences and the experiences of people I know, writing groups are helpful, supportive, guiding and, well, fun.
I belong to the Birmingham Writers’ Group and have been a member for something like six years. We meet twice a month in the city centre. We used to meet in Birmingham Central Library until we got kicked out so they could begin demolishing the place and are now in a delightful volunteer-run vegetarian restaurant.
We meet for a couple of hours at a time (before heading off to the pub) and in those two hours we share and discuss our writing. Sometimes we read out loud. Sometimes we read each other’s work in advance. Sometimes we do ‘instant writing’ exercises in the meeting or organise workshops on aspects of writing.
Actually, it doesn’t really matter to me what we do at any one meeting. What Birmingham Writers’ Group does for me is brings me into contact with other writers. And that’s important, because writing is essentially a solitary business. If I don’t go to the writers’ group then my hobby is just me sat in a room (or a cafe or a pub…) typing away at my netbook. And writing isn’t one of those hobbies which is easily shared or discussed with non-writers. If someone asks you what your hobbies are and you reply, “I’m a writer,” then they’ll probably say something like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but be secretly thinking, “Pretentious tosser.”
And, astonishing as it may seem, other writers are bloody interesting people (making no claims about myself here, you understand). Because we all have different approaches to writing and between us straddle a range of genres and writing forms then I can’t help but be surprised and interested by the perspectives of these people.
Without their support my last two (still unpublished!) novels would be very different and not half as good. Without their support, I wouldn’t have had the chance to read and hear my words read at this year’s ArtsFest. Without their support – SHAMLESS PLUG ALERT!! – I wouldn’t have been included in Tindal Street Press’ Roads Ahead Anthology and got a mention in the Guardian newspaper.
Bradt Prize-winning travel writer, a short-listed Grist prize writer, playwrights, film-makers, poets and short story writers whose published subject matter stretches from anti-fascist weird fiction through to gardening-based erotica (I kid you not!). Oh, and a whole host of other writers, some of whom have no intention of seeking publication but just love writing.
So is the Birmingham Writers’ Group the best writing group in the world? In Birmingham? Possibly not – there’s a whole host of brilliant writers’ groups in the West Midlands area, but I love it.
And of course, without Birmingham Writers’ Group, Heide and I would never have met, or attended a workshop on collaborative writing, or decided to write a comedy novel about Satan or had dozens of people on hand to offer hilarious suggestions for what should happen in that novel, a novel now featuring hell’s angels, real angels, sex dolls, dwarves, hidden corpses, the pope, Bono and an evil terrier called Twinkle…
Actually, maybe Jack M Bickham has a point.