I had a very interesting conversation with one of my writing group members the other day. I go to a writing group, because I think it’s like a writing gym; it keeps your writing muscles in shape. When I’m writing a story I find I tend to focus intensely on everything concerning that story. At the moment I’m writing a historic novel, so I’m researching the period, thinking about the characters, and so on. But when I go to the writing group and do writing exercises, and chat to people, it allows me to get away for a moment from what I’m writing. For me it’s like looking too long at the same puzzle, and then taking a break to go away and look at something else for a little while. When you come back to the puzzle everything seems fresher, and things you were missing now jump out at you.
The other thing that writing group exercises have been known to do for me is to acquaint me better with the characters in my story; who they really are, what they are thinking, their motives for doing things, and how they change throughout the novel. There were a couple of exercises that got me thinking. Who is this person? Not just the basic character traits, but what kind of clothes and shoes would they wear? Do they get along with their family? What would they keep in a shoebox under their bed? Which photo would be framed in their living room? What’s in their handbag or their coat pocket? What would make them laugh? Cry? What is the secret from their past that they would never tell anybody? It doesn’t have to be a big, life-changing, earth-shattering thing. It could be that they wet their bed or that when they were eight they stole an apple from the neighbour’s tree. It might sound trivial when you’re in a hurry to get your story down, but I think it’s worth it in the long run, especially if you’re writing a novel length story. For a short story maybe you can give it a miss, but it’s always good to know your characters. I feel that having insights into their actions, why they do things, why they are how they are, gives an extra layer to the story.
Writing groups have other advantages too. It helps with meeting people, having nice conversations, being sociable in general and to not go cabin fever crazy in your little office. Writing is a lonely pursuit. In other professions you interact with other people, go to the office, see colleagues and clients, have a change of scenery. But the writer is destined to work alone. Even if you are a person who writes in coffee shops or your local library, you’re still effectively alone when you’re writing. I have been known to go to coffee shops to write, but I do the bulk of my writing at home. Not only because I like my little office. I have my rituals when writing. I like to drink from my super-sized mug of tea or coffee and listen to music. It helps me go into the “zone”. I’m more like a truck than a sports car. I take a while to go up all the gears to get to writing speed but I do get there. I’m sure other people have other things they like to do. I’d love to hear about it. What do you think helps you write? Do you have any little rituals before, during, or after writing? Do you prefer writing at home or somewhere else?