The other day I went to my very first writer’s group. A few friends and I toyed with thoughts of starting one back in our uni days, but nothing ever came to fruition. To finally make it to a session with an established writer’s group, led by an actual proper published writer felt almost like a rite of passage.
Any nerves I had before the session started soon disappeared. The writer running the group, Kerry McPhail, is the kind of person that radiates a glow of positive energy. Her warmth and encouragement added to the supportive environment she had created for the group. I very much got the feeling that Kerry is the kind of person who actually listens to what you have to say rather than waiting for the next chance she has to speak.
She gave us some interesting exercises that proved to be very useful. We each had to think about a specific project that we were working on at the moment, which for most of us was a novel. We were given a sheet entitled ‘Starting Your Book Project’, which contained three exercises, all with the purpose of summing up what it was we wanted to do.
The first exercise required us to summarise our project in one sentence. Now, as you can imagine, this is no easy thing to do, but if you can manage it, it provides you with such a clear and strong focus for the whole book. My sentence read as follows: ‘The story of a woman trying to prepare herself for death when she’s too afraid to die’. Far from perfect, and indeed rather flawed, but a start. Sometimes a start is all you need to get the juices flowing – it at least vanquishes that unbearably blank page.
A book blurb
The next exercise involved a slightly longer summary, in the form of a ‘book blurb’. We each wrote a short blurb to appear on the back cover of our published book, then read this aloud to the group. It was fascinating to hear everyone’s different storylines and subject matter, and I found there was a real variety of projects in the group. My blurb read like this: ‘Emily has lived a long and wonderful life. She always thought she would have no regrets. But as she wanders alone through her house, she looks back on the loves lost, the decisions made, and wonders whether she did the right thing, as all the while the one thing she fears more than anything draws ever close: death’.
At this point we were asked to imagine the appearance of our book cover – what font was used? What was the illustration like? Or was it a photo? I imagined an old lady sitting in a chair by a window, looking out of the window sadly, or the face of Emily, looking directly at the reader with eyes only half masking the fear within. I can just imagine an illustrator’s response if I asked for that!
Kerry also asked us to write two reviews to go on the back of the book. Some of us thought of specific people who had written our reviews; perhaps a writer we admired, or an outspoken politician. Joan, one of the writers who took part in the Write Invite event at Rosie’s last month (and won a prize!), wrote one of her reviews by Shakespeare. Well, if you’re going to aim big, you can’t get much better than that!
I found this process of imagining the novel as a finished book a refreshingly new approach, and one that really brought alive the possibility that yes, one day this jumble of thoughts and words in my head could actually be a finished and published book. It was a brilliantly motivating thought.
The final exercise was to summarise the project in a synopsis. This naturally required more time and a great deal of scribbling from the group, and at one point I was convinced my friend’s pen would self-combust, but in the end we all got there. These we didn’t read aloud, which I felt a little disappointed at as I thought mine was pretty good! By now we were in full creative flow, so I imagine there were some wonderful synopses being written, but time was of the essence.
With our synopses written, Kerry asked us at which point in our story did we want to start writing. I, like many others I’m sure, had presumed that you had to start writing at the beginning, and work your way through the novel in order. I don’t know why I’d imposed this pre-set rule on myself, and looking back there’s nothing anywhere that had told me this was the way it should be, but it was still a pleasant surprise when Kerry pointed out that you could start at any point you liked. It’s funny that I felt I needed to be granted permission to do this with my writing.
Finally, Kerry imparted another little gem of wisdom: that until we had finished the book, we couldn’t be sure of where the story would end up taking us. We had to be flexible and trust in our writing to guide us, and it would never let us down. In her words exactly:
‘It is a deeply subconscious process that leads to untold riches and creativity.’
I couldn’t have said it better.