Many thanks to Jennifer C Wilson for author/book/writing circle pictures. Other images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos. Screenshots and images from The Writers’ Summer School, Swanwick taken by me, Allison Symes.
It is with great pleasure I welcome back Jennifer C Wilson to Chandler’s Ford Today. Jennifer is the writer of the Kindred Spirits series which crosses history with ghost stories. She also writes historical and romantic fiction (The Warrior’s Prize, The Last Plantagenet amongst others) and has written non-fiction book too (A Novel Approach). She has also contributed to many anthologies.
Jennifer also runs a writing group – the North Tyneside Writers’ Circle (NTWC) – so for this post, we will look at the joys and hard work behind doing that and why groups can be so beneficial to writers, regardless of where they are “at” in their writing journey. There is also a National Association of Writers’ Groups – individuals as well as groups can join. I share the link further down.
Welcome back to Chandler’s Ford Today, Jennifer.
1. What have been the benefits of writing groups for you? What made you decide to join in the first place? What would you say the benefits are for writers considering joining one? Please also share any thoughts on what a writer should look for when considering joining a group.
Firstly, thank you so much for inviting me back – it’s always a joy to visit you and your blog.
The North Tyneside Writers’ Circle has brought about so many benefits for me. The Circle started sort of by accident, with a friend and I having been asked to run a brief half-day session for “Age Takes Centre Stage” at North Shields Library, giving a taster of a writing workshop. It proved so popular, we were given the room free of charge to keep going. Given we’re about to enter our seventh year, I don’t think that’s bad going.
Writing groups can be great, but it’s fair to say you should do some homework, or at least try a few different ones before picking one for a long term commitment. NTWC is quite casual and informal. We set prompts, do some writing, have discussions etc., all flexible. Others can be more critique-focused, or encourage writers to keep bringing new sections of ongoing work, for example.
These are all completely valid ways of doing things, but a critique group might not be what you want if you’re starting out, and likewise, if you’re looking for technical feedback, something more easy-going like Circle might frustrate you. Take your time, visit if you can (if they aren’t free sessions), and talk to current members to see what they think. Having a recommendation from a friend is perhaps the best way to find the best fit for you.
2. How long have you been leading it? What do you find are the joys and challenges of preparing fresh material for each workshop?
As I say, we’re about to enter our seventh year of Circle, and I’ve been hosting or co-hosting throughout that period (including the online year or so, which we shall not discuss in detail!). I genuinely do enjoy it, and I like the challenge of finding at least two, sometimes three, prompts for each monthly session.
It isn’t always easy keeping things fresh, but happily, we have a few favourites when it comes to prompts, which I can re-run with slight changes, and the group still enjoy them. Other than that, I delve into my old notebooks, or writing guides, for ideas I can adapt for the group.
I know you run workshops, and I don’t know about you, but there’s always that dreaded moment after I’ve finished explaining the prompt when I just watch, and hope people start writing. Once I see people pick up pens, or start typing, I feel a lot better…
Allison: Oh yes!
3. Many writing groups bring out anthologies of their work. I can’t think of better advertising! Black Coals, White Sands is the debut anthology (released on 7th October 2023) from NTWC comprising a mixture of stories and poetry. What is the inspiration behind the title? How easy (or otherwise!) has it been in putting the book together and getting it published? Have you any tips to share for those in a group who might be considering doing similarly?
For our theme, we were democratic, and held a vote of the various proposals we’d had put forward, and “Black Coals, White Sands” was the stand-out winner. My personal favourite might be coming back in 2024, we’ll see…
It’s been a lot of fun putting it together. I’ve been so lucky in having a great team of volunteers who helped with editing everyone’s work, proofreading, helping pull the cover image into a proper cover, and generally helping me through “gargh” moments. Having that group is, I think, an important key to success. One person can’t do everything, and whilst one person needs to take on a management role, of sorts, delegation is key, otherwise it simply won’t happen, or it will, but you won’t want to do it again.
Having self-published a few of my own titles, that’s been relatively straightforward, so yes, my one big tip would be to elect/or make yourself, if you’re the group leader, a ‘project manager’ but then delegate tasks sensibly.
4. Many writing groups have a mixture of writers in terms of where they are at in their writing journey and what they write in terms of genre. This is the case with NTWC. How do you find balancing the needs of, say, the poets in your group with the needs of the novelists? How easy or otherwise do you find putting together writing exercises which suit all?
This range can be the best thing about a writing group, but you’re absolutely right it can be a challenge too. In terms of writing exercises, I do think about how exercises can fit everyone. Sometimes we do daft things like the ‘random word’ game, which is definitely more prose-driven, but most of the time, I like to give prompts that are more driven by scenario, character situation, or themes, so they can be picked up and taken in any direction.
For example, if you come up with a prompt about creating a character, then that character can be placed into a poem or story, and likewise, we recently did a prompt about finding the ‘newness’ in a place you already know well, essentially becoming a tourist in your own home town. Again, that was interpreted by both poets and prose-writers, with some really interesting takes.
Whilst I don’t get along to as many writing workshops as I’d like to these days, thankfully, I’ve got enough material left to keep me going for a while yet…
5. Which are your own favourite writing exercises and why? I have a soft spot for the opening line kind.
In terms of responding to writing exercises myself, it all depends on my mood. Sometimes, however good a prompt is, I just cannot get into the right head-space to be creative. At times like that, I like prescriptive prompts, which I can follow easily, get ‘something’ written, and feel I’ve achieved something before trying a more complex/free-style exercise.
6. Which writing exercises do you find the toughest to do and why? I’ve had the odd go at a set middle line prompt. That’s tough given you have to work out what comes before and after it. I much prefer the opening line one!
I love the idea of a middle line! That one might be going into the pile…
I don’t think I have a particular type of prompt I find most challenging – I enjoy trying different things, and if it doesn’t work, then that’s fine. I’ll just see what the next prompt brings to mind. Sometimes doing another prompt can kick-start an idea that brings the first prompt back into focus too, which is handy.
7. How much preparation do you do for each workshop? I run a flash fiction group for the Association of Christian Writers once a month and usually prepare a Powerpoint on different aspects of flash fiction writing. (Honestly, it’s not just about cutting a story down to the right word count!). Good fun to do and the lovely thing with material like this is it can be reused elsewhere! Have you found that to be the case? I think you also learn a lot as you put material together for groups. Have you found that to be the case?
I definitely learn from the writing group, especially in terms of new ideas to explore in my own writing. I love how a group can all take a prompt in different ways, and come up with their own fresh approach to it. I know this is something we’ve discussed a fair few times at Swanwick.
In terms of preparation, it usually takes me a couple of hours to check back over recent prompts, make sure we aren’t going over old ground, and if we’re having a discussion, then I’ll check those who I want to be involved know what’s happening. Thankfully, because we’re an informal group, there’s flexibility, if a certain prompt doesn’t go down well, to switch it up and try something else.
8. You also run workshops at The Writers’ Summer School, Swanwick, on social media plus lead some of the early morning Lift Up Your Pens sessions. How did you get into these? The social media one – things change all the time (just look at Twitter, for example – I loathe the new title X, it looks wrong in every sense). How do you keep on top of things like that?
I love hosting sessions at Swanwick! I initially volunteered to do Lift Up Your Pens to challenge myself, and see if I could deliver a workshop for a group of relative strangers (obviously, some friends always turn up, but there are usually new faces at the early-morning sessions too). I felt I could do with a ‘push’, and LUYP is such a lovely introduction to everything. And, since the sessions are only 30 minutes, I feel if I don’t gel with somebody in terms of my prompt working for them, they haven’t lost much of their day on it.
For the other workshops, I’ve done a lot of social media training over the years, and I enjoy it more than I thought I would. Again, I liked the idea of pushing myself outside my comfort zone. Thank goodness, I enjoyed it so much I’ve volunteered for more over the years!
I do get it though – keeping up with social media can be a nightmare, and I’m first to admit I’m not always as consistent as I’d like to be. It’s hard work, and takes discipline, but it can be worth it if you crack that code…
9. I remember being terrified at being set my first writing exercise at an event. Now I can’t imagine my writing life without writing exercises in it. Writing groups have great opportunities to try different kinds. What have you found works best in a group setting? What would your tips be for setting exercises? What would your tips be to writers for responding to exercises. (I always tell people never to worry, this is only a first draft, just get something down).
I think, a bit like when you were back at school taking exams, I’d take a moment to ‘re-read the question’, or think about the prompt. There’s nothing wrong if you don’t get pages of writing done in the permitted time, so just give it a moment, think about what’s been set, and see what comes to mind. If there’s really nothing coming to mind, then try free-writing on the topic/theme/ prompt. Even if you don’t think you’re writing anything of quality, there’s bound to be something in there you can use later.
The most important thing is to realise not everyone will have written something wonderful. Yes, we all know ‘that writer’ who can deliver immediately to prompts, and write brilliant first drafts in ten minutes, but we’re not all at that point, and that’s fine. Even if you get a few lines you like enough to go back to, that’s fine. If you’re at a group where the leader is putting pressure on you to read out what you’ve done, even if you’re not happy with it, then that perhaps says more about the leader than you and your writing…
Allison: Indeed. I always ask for volunteers to read. I sometimes start off here as well as that encourages others to join in. Writing groups should always be about encouragement.
Jennifer: Weirdly too, once you take the pressure off yourself, you might find that you can write more than you expected.
Allison: Another fabulous reason to focus on being encouraging!
10. Last but not least, how would you like NTWC to develop? How has the library service helped NTWC?
Oh, North Tyneside Libraries have been wonderful. Not only do they give us the room without charge (we are a free-to-join group, and don’t make any money from any of our sessions, so we’re completely non-commercial), but they have also supported us in hosting evening readings (including the launch of our anthology, on 26th October). We’re always glad to support them in return where we can, advertising and attending their events. It’s very much win-win.
Looking forward, I would just love NTWC to keep growing. Our numbers since January 2023 have been steadily above 20, whereas in our early years sometimes we were lucky to break ten writers, which was always lovely, but the more the merrier!
I’m so proud some of our members have been winning writing competitions, having headline slots at various events, and generally building a successful and happy writing community. There’s a wonderful feeling, being sat at a local writing event, hearing a writing friend perform a piece and realising “that’s from the prompt I set last month” – a real ‘writing mother hen’ moment!
Allison: This is a lovely feeling. I felt the same way when some of the ACW Flash group had stories broadcast on a festive flash radio show last year.
Jennifer: We’ve done a few sessions at Circle with guest prompt-setters, and I think that’s something I’ll explore more in the future, now and then, but honestly, it’s no lie Circle is my favourite weekend of the month, and I hope we keep building our writing and friendship community, and can keep generating great writing.
Many thanks, Jennifer, for a wonderful interview. Writing groups can be such a support to writers and it is great that NTWC is doing so well. Best of luck to all with the anthology!
Social Media Links
NTWC on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NorthTynesideWritersCircle
Find Jennifer on X: https://twitter.com/inkjunkie1984
Jennifer on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jennifer-C-Wilson/e/B018UBP1ZO
National Association of Writers’ Groups – https://www.nawg.co.uk/
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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