Around the time I started submitting things, it occurred to me there had to be a stage or two between my writing the story and an editor reading it. After all, I had no concept as to whether or not what I was writing was any good – I only had the enthusiastic praise of parents and teachers, who were hardly objective.
I have previously mentioned buying FEAR magazine because it looked like a possible market. In the first issue I bought, I noticed an ad in the classifieds section, from someone in Kent looking to form a writing group for horror writers. This was in the days before email (yes, kids, such a time did exist). There was a postal address. The address was not too far away from where I was living, so I sent a letter off to said address, introducing myself and my writing and explaining I was interested in joining a writing group.
A few weeks later, I got a response, naming a date and location for the proposed first meeting. This was, as I recall, some time in 1989. I was 19, and I hadn’t been back in England very long. My boyfriend of the time was really not happy about my traipsing across South London alone to meet a bunch of people who were complete strangers, and insisted on driving me there, even though he had no interest whatsoever in horror and thought it a strange fad I’d eventually lose interest in (that’s a story for another time, but suffice to say he’s very, very, ex).
So, the group met. There were about half a dozen of us, of varying ages. I had never before been in the company of so many horror fans – and most of them were fond of far, far sicker horror than I. For the first time in my life, I thought maybe I wasn’t so weird after all.
In these days before email, the format for the workshops was that people would hand out hard copies of their work, to be workshopped at the next meeting. After a couple of meetings, I felt brave enough to hand out my first offering – “The Top Floor”. I’d already submitted the story to FEAR magazine at the point it was workshopped, and, indeed, the acceptance letter arrived before the workshop date did. So I turned up at that meeting, and listened to everyone going around the circle, pretty much trashing the story, trying to mask my smugness. I have to say I probably failed. At the end, when the last person had had their say, finishing with something along the lines of, “I really can’t imagine anyone wanting to publish this,” I was able to say, “funny you should say that, because it’s just been accepted by FEAR”. There followed a moment of silence, and then some reluctant, envy-laden congratulations. Because everybody wanted to be in FEAR magazine in those days, and nobody in that particular group was.
Eventually this writing group evolved into the T Party, which is another story in itself (and if you really want to read it, there’s an abbreviated version on my website here). Things have changed over the years, but it started as a group to critique sf, fantasy and horror, and that mission statement still holds.
We are a lot bigger these days, and stories go out by email, instead of hardcopy. Over all this time, what has not changed is the group’s ability to dish out honest feedback. It can be pretty harsh, there’s no doubt about that. But what I’ve learned over the years has been invaluable in improving my writing. Sometimes I’ve come away from meetings feeling completely flayed, when something I’ve been working on for ages has been figuratively ripped to shreds. At those times I feel a little wounded, and often very depressed. But I’m normally not able to disagree with those criticisms. It’s usually a case of my thinking, “This is hard to hear, and I don’t want to admit it, but this person is right and there is a problem there.”
Being with the writing group has also helped me immensely in developing the thick skin that one needs to keep on submitting one’s work. I face rejection after rejection, and stuff just keeps going out again. Nothing that any editor or agent can say to me has ever matched the brutal honesty of the T Party.
And I’m actually proud of this. In spite of the fact that sometimes newcomers find this brutal honesty hard to deal with, I’m glad it exists. It’s made us all much better writers.