Breakthrough at the Writers Group

It is easy to write about writing when the writing is going well. Words are flowing and there is often the desire to share the joy I experience as a writer when that is happening. When the writing is not going well, it’s not as easy to write about. When the writing is not going well, I become the way I do when I am sick with the cold or flu. I want to be alone, I don’t want to talk about it, and I want the world to fade away until I’m all better. Talking about it just makes it worse. Writing about it is even harder because I am aware that I am deliberately avoiding what I should be writing by tackling something else.

I have been in this position, unable to write stories well, for a long time now. Late last year, I decided to start attending my writers group again. I joined the group back in 2010 just as I was starting to sell stories to some of the bigger science fiction magazines. I stopped going sometime before my youngest daughter (now almost 2-1/2) was born. There just wasn’t time. But time has freed up a bit and I could return if I wanted. I told myself I’d go into it as if I was a newbie to writing, and just absorb as much as I could. Maybe it would jar something loose, and I’d have a breakthrough.

Let me take just a moment to say what a great group I belong to. The group doesn’t focus on any one kind of writing. Last night we critiqued a chapter of a mainstream fiction novel, as well as a personal essay. But the group has a core of attendees that I have known for a long time now, and whose opinions about writing I’ve come to trust.

The group has produced quite a few exceptional writers. Back when I started, Michael J. Sullivan was a member, and has since gone on to superstardom in the fantasy genre. The first piece I ever read by Joanna Castle Miller was absolutely incredible. Joanna went on to Hollywood, and a that first play of hers that I read way back when, “Ash,” has recently completed production as a film. There are talented children’s writers, established journalists and novelists like Thierry Sagnier, screenplay writers. Those are just a few. It is a talented group.

I sat there last night for the first time in years, listening to writers give thoughtful critiques of their peers’ work. It stirred something in me. I’d been struggling for so long that I almost felt as if I forgot how to tell a story. At one point in a discussion of the personal essay we were critiquing, someone suggested expanding on a particular section because it was interesting. Expanding was tough in the group because we usually limit submissions to ten pages. That was when it hit me! I pulled out my Field Notes notebook and scribbled the following:

For the story “[Redacted]” — can I do the whole thing in 10 pages?

I’ve had this idea for a story and for well over two years, I’ve struggled just to get it started. It seemed like a big story to me and I wasn’t sure how to tell it. All at once, however, I decided that maybe it didn’t need to be a big story. Maybe I could do it in 10 pages?

At home, after the group, I headed into the shower. For some reason, it’s in the shower when my story ideas usually crystalize. I’ll stand there under the spray, hair white with shampoo, and I don’t even have to try–I hear the words I need to type. That’s exactly what happened last night. At first, I was sort of stunned. I just stood there listening to them. Then I realized that I needed to write them down. I dashed out of the shower, still damp, and into my office. I opened a new document, closed my eyes and, somewhat nervously, listened.

The words were still there, and I began to write. Before I stopped, I had half the story written. I knew how the other half would go, and how the story would end. What’s more, I liked what I was writing. Attempting to keep it short made it move quickly, and built up tension just as fast. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was on the verge of finishing a story, and a pretty good one at that.

I expect I’ll finish the story tonight. Then I’ll give it a few days before I read it and start the second draft. Once that second draft is done, I’ll submit it to the writer’s group for critique, the first story I’ve submitted to that group in probably four years.

I love the feeling I get when I write the last words of a story. Usually, I type those words, and then jump of from my chair and pace a circle around my office. I’m too excited to sit. I’m looking forward to that feeling once again.

The lesson here, for me if for no one else, is that when the writing isn’t going well, introduce a constraint. In this case, I told myself that I had to write the story in 10 pages or less. That seems to shake things loose. I’ve always written better under some kind of constraint and yet I rarely remember that. In college, I often waiting until a few hours before a paper was due to write it. Imperial data showed that the closer to the deadline, the better the grade I received on average. I was once again working with constraints. I’m hopeful this breakthrough will prove useful on other stories I’d like to write. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right now, I just want to enjoy that feeling I had last night getting the story down on the page, and bring it home tonight.