Image Credits: Many thanks to Jenny Sanders for author and book cover pics. Other images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos. Some images directly from Pixabay.
It was a joy to welcome Jenny Sanders to Chandler’s Ford Today last week. She and I have crossed paths many times thanks to our connections via the Association of Christian Writers, online magazine Mom’s Favorite Reads, and flash fiction.
This week, Jenny tells us more about her writing journey, including how she discovered flash fiction, and shares her thoughts on the most challenging aspects of creating a story or an article. Plenty to learn from here so, once more, over to Jenny.
Jenny, can you tell us about your life after television?
Once I saw graduation approaching, I panicked. I realised if I went back to my family home I would probably become demotivated. Fortunately, I saw an advertisement in The Hampshire Chronicle for a peripatetic or extra-curricular Speech and Drama teacher at St Swithin’s Girls School in Winchester. There was a lovely light attic space which was used as a drama studio. Rumour had it I got the job because the other applicant couldn’t get up the stairs…!
A team of us prepared girls for Speech and Drama exams and public speaking. It was gratifying to see some shy girls become increasingly confident. I was teaching there while still pursuing a fledgling TV career and was fortunate to be signed up by a good agent in London.
However, life took a different turn and I fell in love and got married to a local minister. We had children swiftly, so other aspirations were put on hold. After daughter number two, we moved a few miles down the road to Andover to lead a church, where I wrote drama sketches, carried out speaking and training work, and had two more children. My creative juices were struggling until I landed a monthly column on the local newspaper, which I wrote for twelve years, plus a couple of manuscripts that await a revisit.
For the past nine years (except during Covid) we’ve been back and forth between the UK (Bath) and South Africa (Cape Town). The kids had grown and flown and it was time to give writing focused attention. I wrote a consecutive series of themed devotionals: the sea, the city, the countryside, and the mountains, which we printed and sold at various events.
Jenny, which newspaper? Andover one or The Echo? Also, what did you write about? What did you like most about writing for the paper? How have you found having to meet a deadline, as you would for newspaper writing, help with your own writing overall?
It was The Andover Advertiser, with a Thought for the Month format. I would take a news story, or topical idea which I termed my ‘hook’ and then unpack it, explore it, and end with a twist in the form of a challenge or question about a value or principle which it had illustrated.
Writing for a deadline was a great discipline for me. I now know that I can do it. I suppose school and university taught me that too. I’m very much a do-it-on-the-night-it’s-set kind of girl, not a last-minute-blitz-it operator. One of my daughters works that way and it’s always frightened me to death.
The newspaper column gave me just enough of a challenge for my creative juices in a season that was jam-packed with responsibilities and activities.
Allison: Writing to a deadline is a fantastic discipline for any writer. I do it for CFT of course but also for other blogs and story competitions and the like. You get into the habit of writing to what an editor/competition judge is likely to require. You also can’t procrastinate here. You do have to send your work in. I’ve found it has made me write more (and with more writing, you get more submissions and, with time and learning your craft, more chances to get acceptances).
Jenny, can you tell us something about the challenges and joys of writing devotionals? Also about the joys and challenges of writing humour, especially for children? Please feel free to add to what you’ve already said here. Hints and tips for other writers would be particularly welcome.
My fourth child, my son, had one more year of school to complete when we began to spend more time in South Africa, where we’d been given a sabbatical back in 1998-99, when he had only been two. The girls were busy with new paths and it was increasingly clear that this was a new season for both my husband and myself, and that finally, I would have the time and space to write.
I was quite nervous about that, so I do what I often do in those situations, and prayed. What on earth was I going to write about? Would anyone want to read it anyway? Those kind of questions. I actually got quite stressed about it until I felt a prompt to simply, ‘Look out of the window.’
We were staying on the coast and I had a view of the sea, including Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned all those years ago. The experts always say, ‘Write about what you know’, so, the idea of writing some themed devotionals around the sea motif was birthed. Obvious, really.
I brain stormed and soon had ideas for six weeks of material plus both an introduction and conclusion. I found secular quotes which I twinned with Bible references and dived in using a very similar format to the newspaper articles, but with a lower word count.
It was incredibly hard work but also very satisfying to get into the writing space where you lose track of time as I was thoroughly absorbed in the process.
I added photographs I took myself, thus avoiding any thorny copyright issues, and simply had them printed after a group of trusty guinea-pigs back in England road-tested it for me and some editing sorted out the glitches.
It was such a success everywhere we went, that I realised I could enjoy it all over again using another theme. I chose the countryside because it’s where I flourish and where I give time and space to process my thoughts and hear God. Green spaces have that effect on a lot of people, don’t they?
Writing about finding God in the city was a bigger challenge for this country mouse, but all the more pleasing when I really dug into it. The series on the mountains completes the set.
After all that, I blew the dust off an idea I’d carried for twenty years, and Spiritual Feasting finally got written. Based on Psalm 23:5, it asks how it’s possible to ‘feast’ when life serves sour and bitter dishes. Instant Apostle published it in May 2020.
As a bit of light relief, I began to write humorous children’s stories. A huge contrast to the manuscript I’d just completed. The first was for my eldest who was having a tough time in her job and I was 6,000 miles away feeling useless. Of course, with four children it meant I had to write more!
Not quite enough for a collection, so I wrote some more and The Magnificent Moustache and Other Stories was published by The Conrad Press in June this year. I now take this into primary schools and do creative writing sessions with the Key Stage 2 children (7-11), which I love.
I think humour is massively important and there’s simply not enough of it around. That’s not to say there aren’t some great books out there, but there was a season when my girls were reading more when the stories were pretty dark.
They did provide opportunities for us to talk about difficult topics: social and demographic situations which were very different. That evokes empathy, allows big feelings to be processed etc, but at the end of the day a jolly good laugh is enormously good for us: physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually – in every way.
Children who laugh well, who are secure enough to laugh at themselves, are children who grow into clearer thinkers, better leaders and are simply more fun to be around.
For children in Key Stage 2 now – that is children aged approximately 7-11 – they have had quite a traumatic childhood in so far as they came into a place when Brexit was on everyone’s lips for a while. Then came Covid, with two years on and off of learning online, separated from their friends at a crucial time of development.
This year they’ve had the background buzz of war in Europe with Russia and Ukraine filling newsfeeds, column inches and adult conversation, and now political and economic instability on a scale we haven’t seen in years. There’s not much to laugh about so humorous stories provide a healthy escapism.
Writing humour has been interesting. A lot of it, I simply hear in my head (please don’t lock me up). I remember some of the funny books I read as a child, the engaging style, the tell-the-reader-something-the-character-doesn’t-know-yet trick, and some of those things are timeless.
Names of people and places can be funny. Dickens proved that years ago. I think I’ve learned a lot about taking a situation which is just about plausible and then exaggerating something or taking it just a step further towards the absurd so that it still holds together but would actually be ridiculous in real life.
The Magnificent Moustache titular story is about a national moustache competition which takes place in Perrimead-on-the-Wold. The protagonist is Lord Clanville-Smythe, 7th Viscount of Perrimead-on-the-Wold whose impressive face furniture drives his wife to distraction until she seeks refuge in the spare room. An unfortunate accident involving a pair secateurs sends the story scurrying off into laughter.
Likewise, the third story, What’s In A Name?, begins with the unlikely-named hero: Algernon Montgomery Lysander Ignatius Quentin Horatio Harold Ambrose Fitzwilliam Grantley-Ponsobny. Clearly, it’s bonkers, but the story claims that it takes so long to write his name, introduce himself or fill in an application form that he fails at everything and is finally sent to sea where a happy accident sees him finding his place and excelling.
I really enjoyed writing Tea’s the Thing, and anyone who remembers The King’s Breakfast poem in an A.A. Milne collection may enjoy it too. Rather than being served marmalade instead of butter, here, Her Majesty is given coffee instead of tea which is a disaster. Events unravel until below stairs there’s a frantic and chaotic attempt to reproduce the Queen’s exclusive tea blend which needs to be done before delegates from the Commonwealth arrive.
I sent a copy to Buckingham Palace over the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee weekend. I hope she had a chance to read it; we all know she had a great sense of humour. When I saw the animated tea party she had with Paddington Bear, I felt as though someone had pulled a load of ideas from that story which I had written at least a year prior to those celebrations. Amazing!
Allison: Sometimes you can get times when similar ideas seem to be floating around for many writers across different disciplines. There is just something in the air triggering this but I’m not going to miss the chance to share that wonderful YouTube clip with our much missed Queen and the lovely Paddington once again.
I’m working on a new collection now and found myself chortling the other day when my imagination came up with the name Mr McCavity for a dentist. Some days, it’s the little things!
Jenny, can you let me have a link to The Conrad Press, especially a link to where people can buy your book, should they wish to do so?
Of course. You can find the link here.
The creative writing sessions sound fun, Jenny. I know I would’ve loved that in school. What kind of exercises do you set the children to do and can other writers use these?
Kids love games, puzzles and activities, so I include lots of those. I start off by telling them how terrible I was at maths in school where the answers are always either right or wrong; very binary! English, however, is a whole other world where we have more words than any other language, and multiple words to describe the same thing so that our writing can always be consistently interesting.
I play some imagination games, reminding them that when we read, we all see film/movie inner (talking) heads. That’s your imagination and it can’t be wrong. I’ll lay out a scenario while they have their eyes closed and ask them what they ‘see’. I’ll add a detail or action and ask again; that kind of thing.
We all know our children spend loads of times on screens these days, where they’re spoon-fed images. I want them to wake up their own imaginations so they can ‘see’ their own images and explore those through reading and writing.
Now one other thing we have in common is our love of flash fiction. How did you discover this? I found it by accident thanks to CafeLit issuing a 100 word challenge which I responded to – that has proved to be a good move!
I had honestly never heard of it until I saw the section you oversee in Mom’s Favourite Reads, which I also stumbled across by accident when a friend had a short story in there. So, pretty much everything I know about it, I know because of you!
Allison: If you ever wanted proof there is truth in the saying what comes around goes around, this I think is it!
Do you have a favourite form of flash fiction? Mine is the 100-word drabble.
Gosh, that’s a challenge. You really have to trim all the fat off for flash, don’t you? I’ve just submitted my piece for the December/Christmas edition of the magazine which you set at just fifty words, including the title. When I saw that, I thought there was no way I could pull it off, but in fact, it was much easier than I thought.
Allison: I often say in workshops it is worth practicing writing to 50 and 100 words in particular. Competitions come up for these and they are useful for sharing in social media posts as a way to show people what you do. (Some places will consider you’ve published your work here so what I do here is share what I know won’t go anywhere else).
Jenny: I love writing descriptions, but I came up short when I realised I might just be writing what you termed ‘truncated prose’. Now I am much more careful about ensuring there’s a real story unfolding regardless of the outcome.
What do you love about short form writing? I would like to see short stories and flash celebrated much more than they are.
It’s been very stimulating for me to explore a completely different way of story-telling. I like the fact that shorter pieces don’t do all the work for you. The reader has to engage and fill in the gaps themselves.
Where do you see your writing journey taking you? Where would you like it to take you?
Well, we writers would all like a bigger profile, wouldn’t we? We spend hours and hours alone with a laptop and emerge blinking into the sunlight only to realise our book needs marketing it bring it to people’s attention. That’s a very different skill set and unless you’re a sports or TV personality, it’s a tough world. Not so much my thing. I’d love to have someone who did that for me.
However, I’ve been so happy with the response I’ve had at schools, so would like to expand that. I’d love to have another collection out in a year or so. I have some non-fiction manuscripts clamouring for attention too which are meaty to write but (whisper it quietly), not quite so much fun.
I have no desire to garner the kind of attention that means you can’t leave your house for a pint of milk without dressing up. I’d like to bring laughter to a wider readership and have a bottomless well of quality creative ideas leaping into life in my imagination so I can trap them onto a page while still paying the bills. I can dream.
I see myself doing more writing when in South Africa and fitting the school visits into the in between times, when staff and pupils benefit from a new face and some fresh energy.
Now you contribute regularly to Mom’s Favorite Reads and, as well as responding to my flash challenges, have written articles for them. Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
That’s a really difficult one. Fiction comes more easily, but sometimes that makes non-fiction more satisfying once I’ve gone through the stages of:-
(a) trapping it on the page;
(b) slash-and-burning in a first edit;
(c) going away for a while and coming back to it;
(e) plucking up courage to be vulnerable enough to let some people read it;
(f) tweaking it;
(g) submitting it and holding my breath;
(h) collapsing in a relieved heap with a cup of invigorating tea and
(i) celebrating when it gets published.
Allison: Sometimes the hardest thing is letting work go (I say that having just submitted my third flash fiction collection!).
What do you find is the most challenging aspect to creating a story?
Making sure it all hangs together. There are six stories in The Magnificent Moustache and Other Stories; I only knew the ending to one of them when I started writing. That’s not what they teach in either school or on writing courses. They want a complete story arc. I had no ‘map’ for five of them, which was rather disconcerting but proved to also be a journey of discovery with a lot of fun on the way.
Likewise, the most challenging aspect to creating an article?
I’ve just completed a commissioned article for an American-based magazine. I submitted a pitch for an article they wanted written, and was surprised when I won it. Great start; but then it doesn’t write itself. The commissioning editor picked out parts of the pitch she wanted me to focus on which cut out a fair bit of what had been in my mind. The first edit back had a line through the entire first page. Ouch!
Again, good discipline though, and I like the way I’ve wrestled it into a shape she wanted without compromising on the content. Sometimes the biggest challenge is simply starting.
Can you let me have your website and social media links?
Of course. You can find these here.
I write a blog twice a month called Dancing Through Chaos. My life looks chaotic to some people. It’s not neat and tidy as we travel but I can choose how I react to it. You can find it here
I have a writer’s page on Facebook and on Instagram: jennysanderswriter
I am on Twitter but it’s bit shouty for me, so I don’t use it much.
Can you also share what you are currently working on/what your next project is likely to be?
I mentioned, I’m working on another collection of children’s stories for which I’ll engage the same illustrator. She’s a friend who lives in Cornwall and is currently studying for an MA in illustration. I’m so glad I could help her along with the last one and I want to get her name on the cover for the next one; she deserves it. Her style is perfect for the stories.
I have two non-fiction manuscripts which need my attention before I take those to a publisher and an adult fiction book for which I have a skeleton but needs some healthy flesh. That will reveal a few glimpses of my life in Winchester as the wife of a minister so may raise a smile as well.
Jenny, many thanks for joining me on Chandler’s Ford Today. The writing journey is fun. It can also be tough at times.
This is where knowing other writers and supporting one another is so important. It is also lovely chatting with another flash fiction writer too! Flash, I think, has taken off as a form due to changes in reading habit (most of us read on screen as well as with “proper” books now) and it is a great way of drawing people into reading fiction at all.
I love the sound of the writing exercises you run with school children and just know I would’ve loved these at that age. I am glad the need to show youngsters reading and writing is fun and they can join in is something more people are aware of – creative writing lessons should be fun.
Jenny: Thanks so much for having me, Allison. It’s lovely to connect through Hampshire as well as through writing!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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