Writing group members comment on the tough love


The Times asked the aspiring novelist members of John Hough Jr.’s writing groups to comment on their experiences with the group. Below are some of their edited responses.

Paul Levine, West Tisbury

I’m an emeritus university professor having been on the faculties of Amherst College, Harvard, and Stanford where genetics was my field of teaching and research. I live in West Tisbury with my wife, the artist Marie-Louise Rouff.

As to writing experience, other than a couple of hundred articles in scientific journals, I am the author of an elementary genetics text and coauthor of a second, more advanced text.

I took John’s ACE Creative Writing Course in the spring of 2011 and have been a member of his Monday Writer’s Group since that time.

There are several things that I like and have helped me. For one John has taught me to become more rigorous and disciplined in writing. His detailed and insightful editorial comments are an essential part of that learning as is the constructive interaction between members of the group.

Sian Williams, West Tisbury

I was so intimidated by the group at first that I refused to let my first chapter be read aloud, and went home, and rewrote the whole thing.

You must complete a scene or chapter each week and be prepared to have it read aloud and receive constructive criticism. Writing is a lonely art, and the group provides a social outlet. Possibly the most useful thing is John’s editing, which is invaluable.

Rob Hauck, West Tisbury

I moved to West Tisbury in 2011 after retiring as Deputy Director of the American Political Science Association. I also taught in the Washington policy programs of Smith College and Holy Cross College.

Although I continue to edit one of the Association’s journals, “PS: Political Science & Politics,” my plan was to come to the Vineyard to paint, something I have been doing for the past 20 years. It was while I was looking for a house that I returned to an old idea of writing a mystery novel. Being a painter, I wanted it to involve art and decided to take the Gardner Museum heist as my take off point.

I signed up with John’s ACE class. We were extraordinarily lucky that he found the time to start a second writers’ group. I’ve been with the group for one and a half years.

Was I intimidated at first? You bet. I arrived at the first ACE class with 75 pages of what I thought was good writing and the belief that my gift would soon become obvious to my fellow writers. John read a piece by one of the returning class members who knew the routine. He commented on what he read and invited the class to add their thoughts. He read a second and a third piece. With each reading I grew more certain that I had seriously overestimated my native talent and I was about to pay the price for my hubris. There is a God. Time ran out and the readings stopped at the person sitting next to me. I rushed home.

Michael Ditchfield, Edgartown

John’s group for me is about honing the craft of writing. Lots of people have inspiration but inspiration only gets you so far. The craft is something you spend a lifetime working on.

John is an excellent editor, he has a terrific ear for dialogue, and journalistic sense of what can be thrown out to move the story along. When I’ve done my best edit after three, four, five, ten revisions, I pass it along to John. There’s the value. Handing him a first draft is like asking a gourmet chef to open a box of macaroni and cheese. Why bother?

Lara Robinson, Vineyard Haven

John is an impeccable editor and we love him for it. He has made us all better writers. At first came focus, then discipline, he asked for patience (a tough one for me) and perseverance: raw, bashing perseverance.

For me the group works by giving intelligent constructive feedback and aids in keeping your writing goals on target. I go home after every class and edit. It’s a purging and feels great.

Now I’m working on getting my first novel published and completing my second draft of The Secret Dance, a comedy/romance, set on the Vineyard and Ireland.

Elissa Lash, Vineyard Haven

A writer friend suggested John and after speaking with him on the phone I knew his brand of “tough love” was exactly what I needed. He is a ruthless editor with a great eye for flabby writing. Within three months I’d rewritten and cut the first 150 pages of my novel, and thrown out the second half (over 200 pages!).

He encouraged me to let certain characters steer the novel, to focus on action and dialogue, and to trust my instincts that the story I was trying to tell was much darker than what I’d been brave enough to originally write. A year and 200 new pages later I’m almost ready to pitch my novel and I feel like my writing has new direction and vigor.