I’ve been reading comics since I can remember. When I was little the comics my Mum bought for us were Dandy, Beano, Mandy and Bunty. Then later, at 16 or 17, I found 2000AD, falling in love with Carlos Ezquerra‘s Durham Red* and later Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl. There were so many great publications in the late 80s and early 90s, including my favourites Judge Dredd Megazine, Crisis and Deadline. Then there were the graphic novels, The Dark Knight was an amazing moment. And now there are so many. I can go to the library and bring home an armful to read. So I kind of know how comics work. I’ve also been writing for quite a while too. I spent hours and hours, in my room at night, whilst my daughter slept. Later doing a Masters and nearly breaking myself with all the pressure, but still it’s something I utterly love. So, being at an art college, I figured I’d bring those two loves together, so I planned and ran a writing class called How to Write Comics. The class covered basic story writing and storyboarding, with the outcome being everyone created their own small comic strip by the end of the day. It was fun and I was impressed by what they’d created, so I ran another class. After that they wanted more and more. So I did a few more classes on writing, swapping up the focus and the theme, but still they wanted more.
The trouble with working full-time and teaching at the weekend is, if you don’t get a break and you go slightly mad. And, in a moment of madness, at the end of a weekend class, to a group of creative and happy students, I announced that I would start a writing group.
As well as being tired and on a buzz from spending time with a roomful of creative people, I started the art college writing group with the intention to letting the students experience what it was like to be in a serious workshopping group and, if I’m honest, because I really needed a group for myself. I was struggling with motivation and focus and being part of a writing groups is a great way to get back on track with yourself. You get to spend time with people who are interested in writing, they will read your work, give you feedback, and you’ll get to read and critique their work too; which all helps you to see your own work in a different way, for better or for worse. And you laugh. Laughter is always good.
So now, every month I send out a challenge: Each month the group has to write a fictional piece of any genre. Sounds easy peasy, huh? The catch is it has to include three random words (which I pick from the internet), it has to keep to a specific word count, and it has to be submitted by the deadline. Anyone who is in my group will know I’m really strict about the rules. After all, in the real world if you miss a publication deadline, go over or are under the word count, or don’t follow the guidelines, they won’t even look at your work. So I thought I would give them a taste of what it’s really like submitting work. Even though sometimes they think I’m a meanie, I’m actually really kind to them (bahahahahaha).
Before we meet up, I also send out guidelines on how to critique. I figure this is really important. I’ve been in groups where it was just assumed people knew how to keep things professional; where some people have responded with opinions about the values and positions expressed in a piece of fiction, or where they’ve rewritten some else’s work to make it ‘more the way they would say it’! That kind of criticism is not useful at all and often leads to tears or punch-ups. Back when I first gave feedback I didn’t even know there were guidelines for such a thing, so there were lots of vague ‘I like this’ or ‘I didn’t like this’ – not very helpful. So I never assume anyone knows there is a way to do these things. I send them out every month and I make sure I facilitate the critiques to keep them useful and as harm-free as possible.
Even though it’s an extra task on my long list of things to do, I make sure I run the challenge every month because for me (and my group) it’s really productive. Writing a piece every month in the supportive context of our group has really helped me to take myself seriously and at the same time have fun and make mistakes too. A number of times I’ve not felt ready to submit a piece, but a group member has told me to hand it in anyway. That’s really helped me to see where and when I get stuck, and what to do about it. It’s helped me to remember that every first draft is just that, a first draft and nothing more, and however long you’ve been writing there’s still so much to learn.
I‘ve been running this group for just over a year now and seen how the other writers are becoming really good writers, which is just lovely. Plus spending time with people who write is warms my soul.
Another amazing outcome is one of the pieces that I wrote a few months ago is going to be published, (see my Publications section: Treading on Needles). This is such a bonus for me and for our group because it shows this has real-life value, and this can be really productive fun. So thank you group, you’re awesome. Keep writing.
*Sadly Carlos Ezquerra died this week. He’ll be missed.