Tough love defines John Hough’s writers’ groups

Novelist John Hough Jr. reads from a writers' group member's work. Group member Paul Levine listens. — Photo by Tony Omer

In a small, comfortable, mid-19th century farmhouse in the woods off Indian Hill Road in West Tisbury, two groups of six fledgling novelists meet year-round to have their work in progress critiqued by veteran novelist John Hough Jr. and fellow group members.

In the chill of an early spring evening there is a quiet fire in the wood stove. The writers line the perimeter of the small living room, ensconced in the comfortable chairs they chose out of habit each week. They listen respectfully as Mr. Hough reads each writer’s work aloud for the first time. Mr. Hough is a serious writer who takes writing seriously. The groups follow his lead.

To some writers’ group veterans, the mere mention of a writers’ group evokes memories of hours drinking wine and socializing. That’s not the case with Mr. Hough’s groups. For one there is no alcohol; not that they are necessarily teetotalers, but they are serious about their work. Sometimes a member will bring snacks but it is almost all business. The groups are kept to a maximum of six writers and there is a waiting list to get in.

One group meets on Mondays and one on Thursdays, both at 6:30 sharp, for two hours. They are friendly groups but there is little socializing. Mr. Hough said, “There is a lot of tough love in that room.” They seem to communicate primarily through their work.

After each piece is read he comments and makes suggestions. The group members chime in with their unfettered but sympathetic criticism. The writer answers questions and sometimes makes a case for what they have written. The comments are almost all directed toward helping the writer achieve his or her expressed goal. Notes are taken.

Mr. Hough keeps the manuscripts until the following week. He re-reads them and adds written notes.

The group members are from many walks of life. Some are retired, embarking on the novel they always wanted to write. There are former professors with impressive resumes and lengthy publishing histories, teachers, a psychologist, a yoga instructor. There is a commonality among them: without exception they say they cannot praise Mr. Hough’s help enough.

Mr. Hough began his first writers’ group about six years ago. It was an offspring of the creative writing workshops he teaches on Wednesdays with the Adult and Community Education (ACE MV) program at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Most of the group members got their start in the ACE MV classes and were interested in continuing their work with Mr. Hough. The ACE MV classes are open to people who have never written before as well as experienced writers, he pointed out. As interest in his home sessions grew he added the second group a couple of years ago.

Mr. Hough looks and acts much younger than his 66 years. He can be spotted almost daily riding his road bike around a prescribed 20-mile loop through West Tisbury and Chilmark often wearing his signature white cotton work gloves.

He grew up in Falmouth and graduated from what was then a small men’s school, Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where he played football. He comes from a family of newspapermen. His father edited the Falmouth Enterprise and his great-uncle, Henry Beetle Hough, was for many years the editor of the Vineyard Gazette. He is the author of six novels and three works of nonfiction. He estimates that he has edited dozens of novels as a freelance editor.

He recently finished an historical novel centered on the battle of the Little Big Horn. His most recent published book is “Seen the Glory,” a novel about two young boys growing up on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1850s who fight at The Battle of Gettysburg. It won the 2010 W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction from the American Library Association.

Mr. Hough said he does his best to simplify the writing process. “I emphasize two basic skills, writing sustained dramatic narrative and writing good dialogue,” he said. “Set things in motion, start the dialogue and get out of the way. Let the narrative carry itself, don’t digress, don’t flashback, don’t start telling me long complicated thoughts the characters are having. Write action and dialogue. That’s the basic skill.” He said that is what he teaches in the ACE M.V. class. He said once in a while he will read from his own work to illustrate a point.

Referring to his method, he said, “I think it works for any novel.” His style came from studying Faulkner, Hemingway, and Proust among others. He said he thinks his favorite novelists, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, and Joan Didion, write this way.

Mr. Hough said his method is like the scene in the classic western “Shane” when Shane takes a boy out to teach him how to shoot using a method that is “as good as any and better than most.

“People either love it or they don’t,” he said, referring to his sessions. “I have had people only last a couple of meetings. There is no point in having everyone sitting around telling each other how great they are. It is hard to write well and people need to know that.

“It isn’t just me being critical, the group members are critical of each other. There’s a lively discussion every meeting. Like George V. Higgins, the crime novelist, said, ‘Writing is for grownups.'”

To read comments from Mr. Hough’s writers to go writing-group-members-comment.

On Saturday, April 6, ACE M.V. and the Bunch of Grapes present ACE M.V. authors’ readings from 4:30 to 6:30 pm at the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven. The readings will be by members of Mr. Hough’s writing workshops.