It all started after I finished my MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill back in 2016. Despondent over the demise of my local SCBWI critique group, a former member told me about her other writer’s group. “These women are serious,” she said. “They’re all multi-published, and they take turns critiquing each other’s work and leading sessions on craft.”
Missing being part of a writing learning community, I inquired about joining. “I’ll talk to them,” she said.
The invitation to the North End Writers followed soon afterward, and I became part of the group. Currently, it includes the award-winning Ellen Birkett Morris, author of the recently released short story collection, Lost Girls, as well as Mary Popham, author of several acclaimed historical novels set in Kentucky, and Mary Lou Northern, essayist, playwright, and novelist whose work has appeared in numerous journals and magazines.
There have been times I’ve wondered what in the world I was doing in this group. It’s not just that I’m the only YA author; it’s that all the other group members are literary writers, a designation I would never claim for myself. I unapologetically write popular fiction. It’s what I enjoy reading, and what I like to write.
But I have to say I’ve loved the North End Writers. Good writing is good writing, and I have grown from reading excellent work that I probably wouldn’t have explored otherwise. And I’ve benefitted tremendously from the feedback of wordsmiths outside my genre who bring fresh perspectives and insights.
In addition, one of the best parts of our group meetings is the craft sessions. We’ve just started working our way through Elizabeth George’s new book, Mastering the Process, From Idea to Novel. We take turns leading discussions, but we don’t just talk about George’s insights. We take time away from working on our novels-in-progress to do craft writing exercises. I’ve found there is something freeing about writing “just for practice.” It gets my creative juices flowing, it’s fun, and I’m not worried about how a prospective publishing gatekeeper might react.
Here, for example, is a recent exercise from George’s chapter on research that we worked on. George presents a picture she took along the British South-West Coast Path showing a steep sea cliff above the moors. She suggests that someone named Nick has died at this spot where there is a makeshift memorial. He may have been a surfer who collided into one of the many area reefs, a cliff climber who fell, or perhaps someone who just got too close to the edge of the cliff and tumbled to his death. Moreover, Nick’s death may or may not have been an accident. Perhaps he was a suicide or homicide victim. Our job was to create a scene explaining what happened to Nick.
Here’s my response:
My brother always did have a flair for the dramatic. He couldn’t possibly off himself in the loo with a packet of pills he’d nicked from Angel, the village drug dealer. Oh no, he had to fling himself off the highest cliff on the coastal path into a morass of jagged rocks and brambles, the ones I tore my stockings on as I picked my way toward his makeshift memorial. Glynda had carefully printed his name in block letters on the weathered rectangular sign and regularly deposited flowers beside it. I figured the fickle and fair-haired Glynda was motivated by a hefty dose of guilt. No sooner had she thrown my brother over for the freckle-faced Harry than Nick threw himself over. Over a cliff, that is.
I plopped down on a softer mossy area near Nick’s sign and inhaled the pungent scent of the sea. Crystal blue water morphed into white waves crashing against the moors. No wonder filmmakers flocked here to shoot dramatic scenes.
Having starred in countless village theater productions, Nick had fancied a career in movies. Sometimes I liked imagining that he’d lived, had become the film star of his fantasies. He’d appointed me his personal assistant, and I reveled vicariously in his fame and fortune.
Instead, he’d left me with Mum and Dad, who refused to believe that their precious son Nick had meant to kill himself. They told everyone who would listen that their boy would never do such a thing. Obviously, he’d stepped too close to the edge of the cliff, they explained.
But I knew. I’d held Nick in my arms as he sobbed over Glynda’s abandonment and insisted his life was no longer worth living without her. I told him again and again that his life was more than worthwhile with or without Glynda, but he wasn’t in a place where he could hear me.
Glynda knew what she’d done. She’d taken my brother from me, thrown him away like a piece of rubbish. Then he threw himself away.
I’d have to do something about her. Soon.
I don’t know whether I’ll ever develop this scene further. But I do know doing these exercises has helped remind me that writing is fun. And practicing my craft pushes me to grow. It never gets old.