by Kevin O’Brien
Our fearless Fiction Feedback leader Kevin O’Brien (senior editor at Random House) gives us his thoughts on the last round of this intimate critique group, in the lead-up to October’s focus group.
As I am just about to run Fiction Feedback: A Focus Group on Your Writing at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre for the second time this year, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on the great feedback group of June/July.
The eight ‘feedbackers’ of the winter group were quite varied in their ages and backgrounds. We had people from university creative-writing degrees, veterans of writers’ centre courses and authors who were completely new both to writing and to attending courses on writing.
The genres they were writing in were equally diverse, including young adult, literary, fantasy, horror and chick-lit (although the jury remained out on whether the ‘chick-lit’ was in fact ‘women’s fiction’, or neither). In all cases, the authors submitted extracts from novels they were working on, although short-story writers are invited too.
Not so diverse was the gender breakdown: we had one man and seven women. (Without conducting a scientific study, I’m pretty sure this is also the gender ratio within the book-publishing industry.) Any men considering attending the October course shouldn’t be discouraged, as everyone was very friendly.
What Was the Level?
Although this course was (and is) marketed as ‘intermediate/advanced’, the notion of ‘level’ is not particularly helpful here. As long as you are able to submit up to 6000 words of your own fiction every other week for eight weeks, and provide feedback on two pieces of creative writing a week, you are at the right level for this group.
In terms of the actual writing, some of the pieces we critiqued were first drafts, while others had been revised many times. Every writer was there, though, because they wanted to develop their work in some way, so what was important was not the level of the work prior to the course but the level to which the authors could envisage developing their work during or after the course.
Who Got the Most Out of It?
I would like to think that everyone got something out of it, in different ways. Some people resubmitted the same piece several times, revised in response to the group’s feedback. It was great to see how these pieces developed from week to week. Others submitted their first chapter in the first week and consecutive chapters in subsequent weeks. This gave them a great insight into how their readers would actually experience the book if it were final and published. And others submitted parts of their books that they were having particular problems with, sometimes with an explanatory note and questions attached for the feedbackers. This way, they could garner direct responses on their specific concerns.
How Did It Go?
It went brilliantly! And I do hope I speak for everyone here. The group was very lively and engaged; the critiques were admirably well put, well considered and constructive; the atmosphere was friendly and inclusive; and there was lots of laughter and entertainment interspersed with the serious and at times difficult business of creative writing.
One thing I will say is that I think everyone found the workload and pace a bit intense at times. The whole group critiqued four pieces of up to 6000 words every week, which meant a potential weekly reading load of 24,000 words, in conjunction with attendees preparing their own work for fortnightly submission. This resulted either in people not being able to manage the reading, or in us running out of time in the three-hour meetings for everyone to deliver their critiques and discuss them properly with the author. I had to get my stopwatch out and enforce a militaristic discipline on the timings!
What Will Be Different This Time?
This time, to lighten the workload and free up some discussion time in the meetings, we will have only half the class delivering their feedback on each piece (which means everyone will be scheduled to deliver two critiques each week). I will ensure there is variety in the roster, so everyone gets the benefit of everyone else’s feedback throughout the eight weeks.
Also, this time around, I expect the building will be considerably warmer!*
I look forward to seeing you there.
*Yes, we at the Centre can confirm that while our big beautiful old building can get a little chilly in the winter, it is now just lovely and you’ll have to resist running Fiction Feedback in the park!