At the very close of 2007,  ex-Games Workshoppers Gav Thorpe, Matt Keefe established a short story group called The Quota. Our goal was to write a short story a month in order to improve our writing. We didn’t manage it, but it was a very useful exercise. I wrote about eight stories specifically for the group before it fizzled out early in 2009.

The idea with The Quota was to incentivise ourselves to write fiction, and to have searingly honest criticism on it Personally, I found the experience enormously helpful. To have a collection of like-minded folk, all of whom had some experience with writing, but who nevertheless wrote very differently, giving feedback boosted both my abilities and my confidence.

The single most important characteristic of a would-be writer who is successful in ditching the “would-be” part of their title is taking criticism. My mantra when learning anything is “Seek out people who know, ask them how to do it, listen, and then do what they say“. I italicise this last part as I think a lot of people get the first three steps right, but disregard the precious advice they sought because it does not fit with their own opinions. WTF? You ask an expert, because they are an expert, and you are not. Obviously, you can add in your own experience and opinion to what they say, but their experience invariably trumps your own. It can be demoralising, and learning when to take advice to heart and not is a difficult, subtle act, but you first have to let it into your head. Listen! And obey. This applies even when it feels like a professional is telling you your wife is ugly and is murdering your babies.

Scratch that, it applies doubly when people are murdering your babies. If they tell you those word-kiddies won’t amount to anything, then man, they won’t.

Some people don’t listen. Some get huffy and upset (I think some pros are deliberately harsh, to see if you can take it. Those that can are easier to work with than Captain Precious-Pants). Misplaced self-belief is the main culprit. Last year I sat on a panel at a convention where the topic was the new digital era, and how it was going to revolutionise publishing. The panel’s consensus was that it undoubtedly is, but not in an” overthrow the state and behead the monarchy, vive la revolution!” type way. This did not go down well with the audience, who seemed impatient for the ancien regime of paper to fall. I got an impression of impatience and disenchantment with the traditional gatekeepers – agents, publishers et al. I suspect that was a room full of people who didn’t think “My book might not be good enough”, but “They can’t see my genius, and digital offers me a way around these elitist know-nothings.”

I had a few angry letters on the same theme, back in my full-time journalising days.

It’s not just writing.  I see it especially in dog training too. Both bad dog-training and self-publishing can result in unwanted piles of shit, although I suppose a badly written book isn’t going to bite anyone’s face off.

The maulings you can get from agents and publishers are worth it, because if they care enough to maul you, they see some promise. If they think your stuff is awful, they’ll not bother. If this happens to you, then go away and write something else. (I speak from experience, you know, I’m not casting paper planes of wisdom from an ivory tower here).

Although not made up of pros, the great benefit of a writing group is that you can get feedback quickly. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to unsolicited submissions the publishing engine operates at three settings: dead stop, glacial, and slightly quicker than paint drying.  It can be blood-boiling to hear your mates tell you your story is a bag of bloodied monkey balls, but at least they’ll tell you this week, not when the Age of Aquarius grinds to a close.

A writing group offers a good halfway point too. They’re people you know and trust. They may not be the bloody-toothed publishers you want to deal with eventually, but they’re also not your family. The feedback you get from your mum and dad or baby sister is worth nothing, really. They love you, hey, they told you the cack-handed daubs you made at primary school were great art. You need someone with a little more objectivity, really, don’t you? Eh? Good.

I subsequently sold a few of the stories I wrote for the group. Some of them became parts of other works. I also trialled bits of novels there, so it honestly was all really useful and helpful. So it’s great that we’ve reopened The Quota, (imaginatively titled “The New Quota”! Are we not wordsmiths?).  It’s a secret group for now, although we may open it to the eyes of the public at some point. Anyway, the great thing about now, as opposed to then, is the progression of tech. We used to have The Quota on Facebook, but we’ve got our new group set up on WordPress, like this blog. A blog site gives you a ton of capability, everything’s in one place, there are fewer emails whizzing around, you can stream the content into categories, there’s space for stories and comments… Need I go on? Top stuff.

Give it a try. Set up your own paddling pool of literary endeavour and build up your wordchops, before you throw your paper babies into the ocean and see which can outswim the sharks.

But above all else, when you do make it to the quayside, if those sharks tell you your efforts taste like sheep doo-doo, listen to them, okay?

  1. Solid advice. Solid.

    The trouble I have is getting those I consider experienced enough to read my writing. I fully appreciate that time spent reading others’ work is time not spent on their/your own.

    • guyhaley says:

      Reading others’ work doesn’t take that long, nor does commenting on it, and if it’s a reciprocal arrangement then it’s cool. However, I do understand your trouble in finding folks with the same skill level. And if you get one Precious Peter in the mix it can detonate rather messily. You have to be careful who you choose, like I say, people you know and trust. But like, not trust just to be nice to you. Are the tyrannous criteria of writing group selection!

  2. Heide Goody says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Joining Birmingham Writers’ Group was the best thing I ever did. It’s worth noting that it takes practice to give AND receive decent criticism. I believe there’s a skill in both of thos ethings. Well worth learning though.

    • guyhaley says:

      Funny you should say that. I’ve a blog post about review writing bubbling in my head. Tangentially connected, but connected nonetheless. For example, that Theft of Swords review the twittersphere was alight to? Perfectly well-argued. Sounds diabolical, that book. What’s the problem? Er, have I just written, “Please flame me”?

  3. Cavan says:

    Great blog Guy. Are the New Quota a bit like the New Avengers?

  4. Neal Asher says:

    Great idea this sort of stuff. I did it before the computer age had really kicked in, spending 10 (or more) years in a postal workshop/ folio. That of course took months before you got comments back on your piece of writing, but it was well worth it.

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