JANE: So, Alan, recently I was thinking you’ve been retired for a while now. Soon after you retired, we Tangented about the big event, and your various goals.
As I recall, you were going to move, get a dog, and start writing a novel. I know the move happened and the dog was acquired, but how’s the writing going?
ALAN: Well, I started writing a time-travel novel, but it died. The characters were cardboard thin and they tended to lecture each other instead of having proper conversations. So I started writing a historical novel, which is actually looking a little more promising, but I got stuck three chapters into it.
JANE: That’s interesting. You’ve been writing a review column for many years, and you faithfully manage to produce an interesting and humorous column every month. From collaborating with you these last several years, I know you’re good at meeting deadlines.
So, what’s different about writing fiction?
ALAN: The hardest part is getting inside someone else’s head. The humorous incidents in my review column are all about me, and I’m already inside my own head, of course. But when I try and get inside another person’s head I tend to find lots of empty space there. And that translates into blank screens and blank sheets of paper…
JANE: Have you found any ways to work around this?
ALAN: Yes – I’ve joined a writers group. I’m hoping it will teach me something about character development by forcing me to do homework outside my comfort zone. Practice makes perfect!
I’m very lazy and I can always find reasons not to write. But if I have a deadline to meet, I then have a very good reason to write, and so I do. I really seem to need the stimulus of a deadline to force my fingers to the keyboard.
Have you ever belonged to a writer’s group?
JANE: I haven’t. I did take one writing class in college, which I found valuable in making me actually finish something. Up to that point, I’d tended to write until I got stuck or distracted, and then quit and go on to something else. For that, the class was incredibly valuable.
You said you joined a “writers group,” but then you talk about “homework.” That makes it sound more like a class to me. I’d like to hear more about these assignments.
ALAN: I suppose it is a class, in a way, though it’s a very informal one. We meet on the second and fourth Friday of the month, and we always have to produce a piece of writing for the meeting. Lyn, the convener, sets us a task to work on between meetings. She calls these exercises our homework for the fortnight.
We’ve only had three meetings so far. For our first task, we had to choose an object from a set of things Lyn had dug out of goodness knows what dusty attic and write something about our chosen thing. I chose a bottle.
Our second homework was to choose a picture from a set provided by Lyn and write a character sketch to bring the person in the picture alive. And for our third homework, Lyn wants us to write a story using the character we set up last time. That’s what I’m working on now.
I find it hard to imagine a writer’s group that doesn’t work like that, so I’m a bit puzzled as to how you think such a group would organise itself?
JANE: Most writer’s groups I’m acquainted with – second hand, you must understand – don’t have assignments. Instead, the members bring what they are already working on and have it critiqued by the group.
For this reason, it helps if the members of the group are at least familiar with the conventions of the genre in which the others are writing – even if they are not writing in that genre themselves.
ALAN: By “conventions,” I presume you mean things like faster than light travel in SF stories or locked room mysteries in detective novels?
JANE: Something like that. I suspect the issues are more subtle than that.
However, one thing your group is doing right – at least based on what I’ve heard – is insisting that all members bring a new piece of writing with them, if not every meeting, then every other meeting. Many groups have gone belly-up because only one person brings anything new to share.
ALAN: Lyn was quite insistent about this. At our first meeting she told us that she expected us always to do our homework. She even told us that if we couldn’t bring a piece of writing to the next meeting then we shouldn’t bother coming to the meeting. And of course, nobody could stand the shame of that!
JANE: Respecting the need for a production requirement is the main reason I don’t belong to a group. I don’t want feedback until a piece is completed, because I myself don’t know where a story is going until it gets there, and I don’t care to have anyone try to tell me.
If I only wrote short stories, I could probably write a short story a month to bring to the group, but if I’m working on a novel, I would be unwilling to contribute anything other than a finished draft.
ALAN: There are ten people in our group, and meetings last for two hours. So again, Lyn insists that our pieces must be no longer than 600 words or so, otherwise we’d never get through them all in the time. She also wants each piece to be as complete as possible (i.e. not part of a longer work). I find that working within those constraints really stretches my writing muscles. I’m sure the discipline is good for me.
JANE: Absolutely! Writing is a lot harder than even those close to the business realize. Many years ago, I was chatting with Ace/Roc senior editor Ginjer Buchanan, and she mentioned that it wasn’t until she wrote a novel herself that she realized how hard it was to do.
(The novel was a “Highlander” tie-in, called White Silence, in case you wonder.)
Like you, Ginjer had done a lot of non-fiction writing, and had been highly praised as a fan writer. And, of course, she’d read and edited hundreds of novels. Nonetheless, she found writing a novel of her own a tremendous challenge.
ALAN: And she’s quite right. Fiction and non-fiction work quite differently from each other.
But now, using the newly acquired discipline that Lyn has enforced on me, I notice that we’ve reached our word limit. However I think we still have things to say, so let’s carry on with this again next week.