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Thursday, March 11, 2004 11:29 pm

The action Faction

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David and Siobhan Pitchford, co-hosts of the Springfield Fiction Faction
PHOTO BY NICK STEINKAMP

"They eat, they drink, they read, they talk."

Siobhan Pitchford's description of the group she and her husband, David, co-host, if a bit concise, sums up what takes place when it meets. The Fiction Faction is a small group of writers -- currently five -- who meet twice monthly to share examples of their work, not only reading it but discussing and analyzing it as well.

The Faction's members aren't dabblers but serious fiction writers. John Stahlman has published nonfiction short stories. Amy Sayre-Roberts is working on a novel, as is Siobhan. The group's purpose, as David Pitchford explains, is "not turning raw material into something usable but taking something good and making it better." He and his wife are active in the Poets and Writers Literary Forum: David is president, Siobhan a board member. Both are prolific writers of short stories and poems.

Stephanie Dickson has been attending the Faction since its inception about three years ago. It was just what she'd been looking for. "[David] didn't know of any active fiction groups, but he was interested in the idea," Dickson says. "Soon after that, David and Siobhan got a few people together, and we've been meeting ever since." She attributes the group's success, in part, to the mutual-critique process: "Everyone offering up a critique is also putting their own writing out there to be edited and improved. It helps make being edited -- sometimes strongly edited -- a positive experience. It also helps create a sincere interest in each other's success and in making each other better writers."

David believes the act of several writers' getting together also helps. "Writing itself is done in solitude, but outside, we need the social context sometimes," he says. "Writing is all about giving -- producing it and giving it to the audience." The group is deliberately kept small to ensure maximal attention. As David puts it, "If you get nine to 12 people, you get four conversations. If you get three or four, you get one conversation."

The Faction in action shows that process clearly at work. On one recent evening, the group goes over a story of Dickson's, "Mangos for Stalin," a tale set in the mid-1930s, during that dictator's reign of terror. Its author introduces it by saying, "My dad read me many adventure stories. This is for him."

Siobhan reads aloud most of the narration, with her husband doing some of the voices. During and after, the other members offer a steady stream of comments, ranging from corrections of a few misspellings and punctuation errors to a more detailed dissection of the story's fine points.

The ensuing discussion covers everything from the difference between "boat" and "ship" to what Pitchford calls a "highly effective" use of the words "processing whales" as a euphemism for slaughtering them to Stahlman's comments on the information presented: "I can't be sure if your facts are facts or part of the fiction.... Part of me doesn't care, it's so good."

The process is repeated a few weeks later, when the subject of discussion is a David Pitchford story, "Afternoon at Yellow Sky," about a showdown in a Western town. Siobhan wants to know: "How else does a door burst open, other than 'suddenly'?" The group also debates whether the story's two central characters -- a desperado who comes to town looking for revenge and a visitor who confronts him -- are really two sides of the same person.

All of the Faction's regulars have other occupations, but the act of writing and the analysis of their fellow members' efforts are clearly labors of love. The membership must comprise some talented writers, at least judging from a comment offered by one outside critic.

After reading "Mangos for Stalin," Stahlman says that his reaction was much like one his niece received in another writing group. After reading one of her stories, one of that group's members quipped, "Wow, this reads like a real book!"

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