I’ve never been a member of a proper writing group, so it was a bit of a shock to be asked to judge this year’s Hilda McKenzie award – the annual short story contest run by the Cardiff Writers’ Circle.
I was tangentially aware of the group, largely thanks to a friend who had judged the contest a few years earlier, but I really had no idea what to expect when the bundle of nine stories arrived on my doorstep. They covered a whole swathe of genres, from romance to comedy, fantasy, historical drama and globe trotting thriller. They were great fun to read – a marvellous pot pourri of fiction that would never be gathered together under normal circumstances – but I couldn’t avoid feeling anxious. One of these had to win. Worse still, I’d been asked to prepare a critique of each story to discuss with the Circle on the night of the award ceremony.
Offering feedback on another person’s writing is a sensitive process at the best of times – every sentence is fermenting in their hopes, fears and painstaking efforts. It’s a little like remodelling a nitro glycerine factory; the work might well be necessary but you live in constant fear of calamitous consequences.
But feedback is worthless unless it’s honest. It’s often said that the worst people to share your work with are friends and family as they’re the most likely to tell you what you want to hear. I suppose that’s broadly true, although it does depend on the family and friends in question. My wife is my first and best editor, for example – after reading the first draft of my short story The Trinket, she suggested that, while I might have got the story right, I’d got the structure all wrong. And she was absolutely right. (The fact that I refused to speak to her for the next 24 hours is neither here nor there).
Similarly, I’ve been blessed with a small group of writer friends who aren’t afraid to pull their punches. We’re more an informal association than a proper writers’ group but we usually share our work with each other when it’s in need of a once over. The notes I’ve received on my own stuff have ranged from the uplifting to the downright bracing but they’ve never been less than useful and I’ve had the privilege of beta reading work that is now working its way into print. We may not be Pixar’s braintrust but we get the job done.
But that doesn’t mean I’m used to sharing my work. On the contrary, I guard it jealously until I’m certain it’s as bomb-proof as I can make it. The idea of a writing circle, where people are expected to share their progress week in, week out, terrifies me. These people risk a lot.
So imagine my dread as I prepared to pass final judgement on their work, face to face. I had hoped to be on some sort of stage or behind a lectern but, as we all piled into a small, sweltering room in the Mackintosh Institute, I was mortified to realise we would all be sharing the same table. I wasn’t going to have the luxury of somewhere to hide.
The group’s chair gave me a very warm introduction but did little to help my nerves when he told me that competition judges in the past had usually filled a whole two hours with their analysis. Something of my panic must have been visible as he quickly assured me that one hour would be sufficient. ‘You can spend the second hour giving us your expert view of the state of the publishing market.’ I gave a rictus smile and took my seat.
And you know what? I think it went okay. Everyone was very welcoming and did their best to look interested. Nobody punched me. Nobody stormed out. We had some really interesting conversations about creating authenticity (or at least the illusion of it) when writing beyond the bounds of personal experience. People thanked me at the end. And more than that, I was struck by just how happy everyone was to be there, collaborating together.
So I’d like to thank the good folk of the Cardiff Writers’ Circle for taking a chance on me to judge their work. I hope I was of some use to you. Collaborative feedback still isn’t the sort of thing I’d ever rush into. But I can definitely see the appeal now.