Anatomy of a Writing Group

Author Jane Wenham-Jones in her brilliant book  ‘Wannabe A Writer?’ lists the various characters which populate an average writers’ group. There will be: a deaf old lady; a man called Brian or Stan who has written a History of the Town; a woman of a certain age and girth who wears a sensible skirt; a pimply young man who is writing a fantasy novel; and a shy young girl who’s joined because her mum thinks she should get out more.  A quick straw poll among writing friends and from my own writing group experience suggests this is a very accurate representation!

I really enjoyed the diversity of my old writing group, of which I was a founder member.  People from varying walks of life and very different personalities — and, it has to be said, writing ability — came together once a fortnight with a shared interest: writing, that great leveller.  The retired, the curious, full-time homemakers, professional people, students, the unemployed, serious writers, published novelists, tentative scribblers and the terrified made up a varied and dynamic group.

Just five of us attended the inaugural meeting in a local pub one autumn evening and now, although work commitments and a house move mean I no longer attend, the group boasts over thirty members, has published three anthologies, runs a weekly newspaper column and hosts regular events such as Open Mic nights, parties and stalls at the local carnival and history day.   Lifelong friendships have been formed and many writers have gone on to have their work published.

It’s not always so convivial.  A friend’s writing group has massive infighting due to politics, huge personality clashes and a lot of bickering over the tea and biscuit rota.  As the piece de resistance, one memorable evening two members, both elderly gentlemen, rolled up sleeves and squared up to each other over the ‘constructive feedback’  that one had made over the other’s piece.  Just as with church flower rotas which, I am led to believe, are fraught with power trips, favouritism and jealousy, I have heard of several writing groups imploding under the sheer weight of artistic differences and involving break-away factions setting up rival groups.  My friend claimed that her group provided some priceless social observation which went on to fuel her own writing.

My experience was mainly positive.  I was hugely impressed with the raw talent, support and encouragement emanating from my group. Everyone was so passionate about their writing.   In fact, so keen was everyone that a strict ten-minute clock had to be observed to allow everyone a turn to read out their work.  Criticism was nearly always constructive and praise was always given where due.

I think I largely have my writers’ group to thank for gaining the confidence I needed which set me on the road to becoming a published writer.   I loved being with people who just ‘got’ my burning desire to write.  Before then, I used to look at writing as my guilty little secret.  In fact, when I met my husband, I told him I was at an AA meeting on alternate Wednesday nights rather than ‘fess up that I was at a writers’ group.  Now I’m out of the closet and able to indulge my passion in public.   Writing can be a lonely business, just you and the blank page, and building a support network of like-minded people is hugely nurturing and a vital lifeline.

So if you have a local writers’ group, do join in.  It will be an enriching experience.

Mr Riley’s G-String (or: should I write my memoirs?)

Two recent events have once again made me consider writing confessional style memoirs of my time as a holiday rep in the hedonistic 1990s.  (These days that big spoilsport health and safety looms large in most of the very tame holiday rep stories I hear.)  For me, the first trigger was stumbling across Cy Flood’s book, Confessions of a Holiday Rep, written in the very same period when I was wearing that hideous nylon uniform and single-handedly throwing whole drunken teams of rugby players off my coach.  The second was this summer’s story doing the rounds of the tabloids about the 19 year old woman who allegedly performed sex acts on several men in a Magaluf bar to win a cocktail.  Whilst everyone professed to be shocked and horrified, I didn’t blink: when I was repping for the youth market in Tenerife, this kind of drunken debauchery was so commonplace it stopped becoming noteworthy.  In fact, some of the things I was required to do myself were pretty flabbergasting, but I’m saving the best, a game called Blind Man’s Muff, for an upcoming article. 

Today’s Rebecca is a completely different person from that freshly graduated twentysomething who (almost) lasted three summer seasons and emerged with a rhino-hide skin. Twenty years on I work in the very staid legal profession, rarely drink and like to be in bed by 10.30 pm.  I have never worked such long hours in my life as during my holiday rep years, nor gained such an insight into human nature, often at its very lowest ebb. I would say my time as a rep was the best education I received. In Tenerife, I spent a lot of time breaking up fights (now not allowed due to health and safety) and interpreting for guests at the police station and the hospital.  In Turkey, Menorca and Lanzarote I had to entertain the guests by singing and dancing at the rep’s cabaret in addition to all the usual duties.   However tough my current job gets, I’m not required by the court to sing Big Spender or do a can-can.  I once had to accompany a male guest who was wearing nothing but a g-string to the police station after his camera was stolen. He refused to put on any clothes. The police refused to let him into the building in such an indecent state. I also had to ask a couple if they could please stop having wild exhibitionist sex on their hotel balcony every afternoon.  

But are these stories actually interesting or funny or, like many confessional memoirs, are they just simply self-indulgent? Did you have to be there at the time?  I’ve read quite a few true stories where the writer is obviously writing for their own amusement.  Yes, it may have been hilarious at the time when the author was drunkenly scrambling over rocks at 2 am on a Thai beach, but for the reader it is as thrilling as looking at all 1,000 of your colleague’s holiday snaps.  Or is it all down to good writing and the way you tell your tales? The jury is still out for me, although what Blind Man’s Muff entailed is so toe-curlingly horrifying that everyone I tell is fascinated. 

Since 2009 I have been working on my magnum opus, a fly-on-the-wall novel about what really goes on behind the scenes in the legal profession.  So I guess my answer is yes!  

The Novelist – a tale of procrastination

I wrote this several years ago as a short story.  Enjoy!


I’m going to write a bestselling novel.  I have a fantastic plot in my head with amazing characters and it will blow everyone away. Since childhood, everyone has told me I should be a writer –  and now finally I am.

I’ll just have some toast first.  You can’t write a blockbuster on an empty stomach.  I’ll start straight after that.

Right.  My new notebook is gorgeous, soft leather, embossed with my initials.  Adam bought it when I announced I was writing my novel.  He’s so proud of me. Where’s my lucky pen?  I must clear my handbag out: clutter will interfere with my zen and block my creativity.

That’s done.  Better reply to Anna about Saturday.

Now, firstly I need to do research.  While I think of it, I’ll put the washing on.  Us women are brilliant multi-taskers!

Okay, laptop on. 15 new emails!  Better check there’s nothing urgent.  Must order that ‘How to Write a Blockbuster’ book: expert advice is so important.

Finally ready.  Here goes.

Look at the state of the floor!  I can’t work in this mess.  I’ll just vacuum and quickly hang out the washing.  Its lunchtime, so I’ll have a quick snack.

Ping!  Anna’s online. I’ll tell her I’m too busy writing to chat. Oh, she’s heard from Beth!

There are far too many distractions at home.  I’ll go to the coffee shop with my laptop, like Carrie Bradshaw.  Better change into something inspiring.  Vintage, perhaps?

Traffic’s awful.  Must just go to the bank first.

I’ve ordered my coffee. How shall I start the novel?  Perhaps if I type in ‘Chapter One’, I’ll feel inspired.

You know, I’d write much better with lovely manicured nails.  I’m a very visual person. Everyone knows glamorous, groomed women sell more books.  I’m sure the nail bar could fit me in.  It’s too crowded in here and someone’s baby is screaming.

My nails look amazing!  They’re not dry yet so I can’t type.  Anyway, it’s important to take regular screen breaks.

Back home.  Okay.  I’ll write an incredible opening line and it will just flow from there.

The phone’s ringing.

“Hello? Oh, Mum, I’ve told you not to call while I’m writing.  You saw who? Really?”

It’s six o’clock!  Better start dinner.  Adam is very sweet about my novel but he doesn’t understand that writing is a full time job.

I’m going to write a bestselling novel. Tomorrow, I will definitely make a start.

How to Write A Bestselling Novel

A few months ago I read a truly rubbish book promising easy money from your writing.  Apparently you don’t have to be any good at all or even want to write:  just follow the set formula and ker-ching!  Writing fame and fortune are yours, practically overnight.   Agents will be knocking on your door! Publishers will be writing cheques!  The public will be going mad for your musings!  And all for half an hour’s work every other day.  I suspect the only person making any money from such methods was the author who charges £2.99 for his book.

But what is the secret formula that will guarantee us writers a bestselling novel?   Is there even one? After all, everyone has a book in them (however, this cynical writer can’t help feeling that in many people, that’s right where it should stay!)  On Twitter, I follow several very well-known and celebrated novelists with books consistently in the top 10 fiction chart and I can reveal the biggest, simplest and most important formula they all apply to achieve their success:

Sit down and write.  All day, every day.  Repeat as necessary.  That’s every single working day, every single week, with a bit of time off for holidays.  Year after year after year.  No excuses, no procrastination.

Yes, there is huge talent involved and research and persistence and knowing your marketplace and getting a good agent.  But without the sheer hard graft of writing, re-writing and editing, your magnum opus will remain in your head or, like mine, scribbled on post-it notes.

Bestselling novelists are grafters.   The handful that I have met in real life as well as on Twitter (and they’re really lovely ladies too – most bestselling writers are the nicest people, never too busy to chat to their readers and encourage new talent) get up early in the morning, sort out the kids and dog and then sit down and write and write and write all day.  They certainly don’t appear to lead lives of luxury, reclining on a velvet chaise or lounging on the deck of a yacht.  They treat their writing like the serious and full-time job it is.   Then there is also the networking, publicity, tours, guest appearance, book signings.   It is certainly not glamorous, can be lonely and there are much, much easier ways to earn a living.  It is sheer hard work and requires steely motivation.

I am queen of the displacement activity.  I have read hundreds of ‘how to’ books and online articles, done writing courses, joined a writers’ group and faffed endlessly on social networking sites.  Yes, I am a qualified journalist and proofreader and I write a newspaper column and a blog and I have articles, fillers and short stories published and contribute as a guest writer to several websites.  I have my first book on Amazon.  But as for The Big One,  I have spent weeks planning character and doing plot diagrams and research and then spent years thinking about every aspect of the novel —  and occasionally wasted time daydreaming about collecting my Man Booker prize or seeing my book displayed in the number one fiction slot in the supermarket. (This probably won’t happen but we can all dream, right?)  I have files and files of rough notes for my book.  I have even written the first three chapters in draft in 2009.  I just need to put my backside on a chair in front of a laptop every single day, and write the bloody thing.   But in the meantime there is rubbish daytime TV to watch, nails to be painted, friends to catch up with and Facebook.  Oh, look, it’s 9pm already.  There’s also the matter of a full-on, full-time day job and a punishing  four plus hours a day commute – although this is golden writing time.

I also lack confidence, and I’m not alone.  Several years ago when in the departure lounge of a remote Central European airport, I was reading a chick lit novel which was hovering at around number two in the fiction charts.  The family sitting opposite, after whispering to each other for a while, struck up a conversation with me.  The mum was the author’s best friend and was thrilled to see me reading the novel and wanted to know what I thought of it.  Her friend, she said, of whom she was obviously very proud, worked like a Trojan: in fact, she still produces a chart-topping book a year. I said I was enjoying the novel, in fact, the author was a favourite of mine.   Her next words really struck me, “She’ll be delighted to hear that.  She still has no confidence at all in her writing.”  And that’s a household name author who has sold millions of books worldwide, ladies and gentlemen!  Is it fear of failure which drives her to write at such a pace?  Either way, she pushes through it and writes every day.

Who was it who said overnight success takes many years to achieve?  Like losing weight, there is no quick and easy fix for writing a bestseller.  But putting your bum on a seat and typing is a good start.


Five Books That Changed My Life

We all have books that have shaped our thinking and stayed with us long after we finish reading.

Here are five books that have changed my life:

1.  We Need To Talk About Kevin – Lionel Shriver:

This brilliant book put the final nail in the coffin of motherhood for me.  Opinion is fiercely divided on the nature versus nurture debate it raises.  I think Kevin was born evil and it terrified me.

2.  Lace – Shirley Conran:

Every bit as shocking as Fifty Shades at the time of publication, I read this under the duvet aged 13 – along with Cosmopolitan,  it’s where I learned about sex. As teenagers, we were comparatively unsophisticated back in the 1980s.  Aged 42, I still find the goldfish scene repulsive!

3.  Chavs – Owen Jones:

I have always thought I was working class but after reading this I’m not sure any more.  This book turned all I thought about class on its head and left me reeling.

4.  My Mother, My Self – Nancy Friday:

The mother-daughter relationship is so powerful. We remain invisibly and silently connected by the umbilical cord for the rest of our lives.

5.  One People – Guy Kennaway:

A wonderful, happy and unique book which is brilliantly observed.  It’s like being transported to Jamaica. A huge drop of sunshine that still makes me laugh out loud.

Perennial Favorites: Should You Connect Your Blog to Your LinkedIn Account?


As a writer, is there is a line to be drawn separating our writing from our day job? Should you post your blog on your LinkedIn page? Interesting article.

Originally posted on The Daily Post:

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate our personal and professional lives — in real life and online. In this post from last year, Ben points out some of the potential benefits — and drawbacks — of linking your blog to your LinkedIn profile.

Many bloggers are already enjoying the benefits of connecting their sites to their social networks via Publicize. Sharing your posts on Facebook and Twitter might be a no-brainer — clearly, all your friends and followers want to read your latest piece of staggering wit. But what about professional social network LinkedIn?

Here are some points to consider before you decide to push your blog’s content to your professional profile, too.

Making the link

LinkedIn is the biggest and most vibrant business-oriented social network. It has hundreds of millions of members, who use it…

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Is There A Doctor On Board?

These are the words we all dread hearing boomed airplane530over a plane tannoy.  It happened to me only last week on a charter flight.  Yes, I wanted to be that person striding confidently to the front like a conquering heroine, reassuring everyone that it was all going to be okay and saving a few lives in the process.  Being able to punctuate well and write 400 words on whether you can be a feminist and still wear mascara is all well and good (the answer is yes, by the way) but we are unlikely to ever hear “Is there a writer on board?  If so, please come immediately to the front of the cabin”.  Quick, someone is in danger of death from an extraneous semicolon.  As far as I know, painful as it is, a misplaced apostrophe never killed anyone.

I sometimes wish I’d trained in something more worthy– and better paid — like pioneering heart surgery. Proofreading and delivering a perfect verbatim transcript in my day job, although we often receive praise and heartfelt thanks, will never shape a young life nor will it make a grown man cry with gratitude and name their child after me, as happens to doctors or midwives.  (I do actually have a child named after me in West Africa in recognition for charity work, but that’s nothing to do with my writing).  But writing chose me, not the other way round.  It is my calling and like many writers, I write because I have to.

It doesn’t help that my cousin is a very highly regarded orthopaedic surgeon.  I’ve seen him mentioned in the press by grateful patients: to them, he is a god who helped them walk again.

So why didn’t I go for a career in medicine?  Well, firstly, I’m squeamish and have emetophobia, which also ruled out a fledgling career as an air hostess. Secondly, I wanted to join the Army before I was told, aged 22, that I could only sign up as a secretary, not the Intelligence Officer I was hoping to be. My next choice of career was journalism. I skirted around the medical profession as a St John Ambulance cadet for years, a medical secretary and then a transcriber on The Shipman Inquiry.  I even dated a doctor once.  I never really got my hands dirty though unless you count three seasons as a holiday rep mopping up countless accidents and fights, usually alcohol related, which I think is what triggered the emetophobia …

So until the day when my writing can dramatically save a life, I’ll be plodding on unnoticed and unglorified.  But on the flip side it’s not likely to kill anyone either …