Although I have two English degrees from Eastern Illinois University, I’ve never been one to navel gaze about writing. Maybe I’m too impatient or think that whatever I’ve written has to be awesome because naturally it is. I wrote it. So, when my friend and fellow writer/runner Letitia Moffitt suggested we start up a local writing group, I was initially skeptical.
Mostly, I was afraid my writing sucked too much, despite what I might believe about it. It’s one thing to sit in your home office, at the library, or at a coffee shop and say, “I’m writing,” and tap away at a keyboard while listening to tunes, people watching, or surfing the web. You might ask a loved one to read something you’ve written, and he or she either does and says it’s great or doesn’t and you’re devastated. You don’t have any real sense of whether you’re doing true, quality work or not.
That’s where the “Quality” Writing Group comes in. Letitia had read a draft of The Fifth Kraut, the novel I recently published about four high schoolers in their senior year, and she knew I was serious about what I was trying to do. She’d never written a novel before, but she wanted to start, so she suggested that we form a writing group.
It helps that Letitia is a professor of creative writing at EIU, and she’s had several short stories published. She has focused on shorter works, and the novel offered her an as yet unconquered challenge:
I’ve been in four different writing groups over the last 15 years. I’ve been lucky that wherever I go I find good writers who are dedicated to craft and can provide great critiques. Writing is not just about creation; it’s about revision, and a writing group can be a huge help in the revision process. A lot of times when I finish a draft of a story I have no idea if it even makes any sense, so feedback at this stage can be very useful.”
Letitia recruited one of her former students, Dan Davis, to join the group too. He’s had several short stories published as well, but this, too, was his first real foray into a novel-length work (if you discount an approximately 125-page, single-spaced manuscript he wrote when he was 13 or 14). Dan said that, “Writing groups keep you focused and goal-oriented”:
I’m terrible at setting my own goals. I would have probably given this novel up as lost if it weren’t for the rest of the group expecting another installment. In a very real sense, it’s like writing for a class. It keeps me pressured to do more, even when I don’t necessarily want to.
About his time with a previous writing group, Dan said, “I was in a writing group that met exactly two times. We dealt with short fiction, though the second time, one of the guys (there were only three of us) didn’t contribute anything, so it was really more of a writing duo.”
In all honesty, without Letitia’s motivation, “Q”WG probably wouldn’t have happened.
We first met in September of last year at Quality Beer in Champaign with the charge of writing the first chapter of a new novel. We’ve been meeting roughly every other week since. Some weeks we bring new material. For others, we bring revisions of work we’ve already seen. At some point, the week before we meet, we send each other sections we’re working on. Each member reads, makes comments, and prepares feedback for when we meet. Each writer’s work gets about 20 to 25 minutes, and we’re done usually in about an hour or so.
Letitia’s work is titled Redwood. It’s a noirish, genetic thriller told in a serial style. The premise is that scientists have discovered an immortality gene and created about 100 “Lao Babies,” girls who live to three times our current life expectancy. The story is told from Jane’s POV, and she’s one of the Lao Babies.
Dan is working on San Muerto, an early twentieth-century western about a man whose checkered past gets him pulled into trying to save a kidnapped girl in New Mexico. When that fails, Riley, the main character, finds that circumstance is everything. Dan’s website is here.
Mine is a young adult story titled Comet Becky about Jacob, a suburban 16-year-old boy who discovers a comet and names it after a girl in school. Of course, when the girl’s boyfriend also claims the comet’s discovery, things get complicated for our hero.
What do we plan to do with these stories? “My novel is kind of an odd length — too short for a novel, too long for a novella — so I always knew it would be tough to get a commercial publisher,” Letitia said. “Luckily, a small press wants to take it on, so with any luck it will be available for purchase in 2013 (shameless plug).”
Dan also has publishing in mind:
I plan, someday, to try and publish this novel. That’s way down the road. I’m usually more or less a one-drafter. This project is very different for me, as I can easily see two more drafts of this thing being written, almost from the ground up. In fact, I have a couple of other novel ideas that I will try to write in the meantime, while I mull this one over some more.
I’d love to get Comet Becky published sometime down the road, but until I finish it (I currently have nine of thirty chapters done), it’s going to be a long time coming. That, and the publishing industry is cutthroat. You’re either a vampire writer or a wizards writer or a dystopia writer nowadays in young adult, so who the hell knows if anyone will find Comet Becky of interest?
Despite the pitfalls of the publishing process, “Q”WG is great, and I’ve been fortunate enough to find a group of people who are willing to read writing that begs the question, is this quality writing?