In one of my advanced classes, three of the four students have been in class together for a few years. The fourth student joined more than a year ago. So they are all deeply familiar with one another’s novels (as am I, of course). One of the students, Brian, has been working on a marvelous, complicated novel for several years, and we all have happily read and critiqued and advised and encouraged. At our first fall class in September, Brian brought back in the first two chapters of the book for re-review.
The book takes place in two time periods. The lengthy middle section is set in the 1950s and 1960s, and is bracketed by the 1980s. Since Brian had reached the end of the middle and was ready to return to the 1980s, he wanted to go back to see how those opening chapters were working.
In the first chapter, an essential phone call takes place between his two main characters. I had some problems with logistics that I mentioned; other students (and Brian) also pointed out that some of the conversation did not hit the right notes. A few sentences were flat; the motivation for one character to continue the conversation felt weak. Brian reworked the conversation and brought it back to the next class. He had fixed the logistical problems and improved some of the dialogue, but he was dissatisfied and wondered if he should just get rid of the phone call.
“No, no,” we all said. “It just needs a little more work.”
And so we brainstormed, the four of us throwing out lines to Brian, suggesting alterations to the interruptions provided by a third character, delving deeper into the one character’s reasons for continuing this conversation. Brian wrote down everything. The next day he sent us this e-mail:
All of you were great last night, I mean it. My take on Shakespeare is that, no, it wasn’t William all by himself that created those miracles, but probably the actors, in rehearsal, just improvising or clowning it up that added many of the great lines. William just had the sense to write down a good thing, or a better thing, when he heard it. I used to think that writing was a painfully solitary endeavor, but I see now that what we have contributed to each other’s work is something wonderful, and there is no need to feel any reluctance to use what is so clever and so freely given. Not to mention the encouragement.
“Writing by committee” won’t work for everyone, and it won’t work all of the time. To quote a cliché: Too many cooks spoil the broth. But to quote another familiar line: No man is an island.
Share your work, when you are ready, with other writers or with readers who will treat it with care and seriousness and who will offer meaningful advice. It might take some time to find those people, but when you do, hold on to them. And always offer to do the same for other writers.
(And so my endless thanks to my first readers, my mother, Margaret, and Ginny.)
I also wrote about this subject on my editor’s website, wordsflyup.com. You can read it here: http://wordsflyup.com/create-in-solitude/