In Praise of Writing Buddies

Sharing early drafts with trusted writing buddies has been a game changer for my writing. I never planned to work with writing buddies – hadn’t considered it, didn’t know writing buddies existed. Mine came to me unexpectedly when I enrolled on the Distance Learning M.A. in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

What I hoped to get out of the course was a portfolio of new work and improvement in my writing technique. I thought I’d achieve these aims through the discipline of completing monthly assignments and through tutors’ expert advice.

Well, yes, both of these things played a big part in developing my writing, but it was the third component of the course that changed the game. We were allocated to syndicates of four fellow students and had to submit 5000 words to the syndicate every month for discussion. These students – now my writing buddies – transformed my writing life.

From the start we took our responsibilities seriously and gave each other line-by-line comments and advice. Never shying away from giving criticism, we also remained positive and encouraging. It was a privilege to read their work and see it develop. I was exposed to genres and styles I’d not really encountered before. By editing the work of others, I learnt to take a more critical view of my own work.

It was in the second and final year of the course that we really gelled as a unit. The criticism from our tutors intensified and some of us were challenged to rewrite parts of our portfolios (all of it in my case). In hindsight, this is to be expected from an academically rigorous master’s course, but at the time it was crushing. What kept me going was being able to call on the balanced perspective of my syndicate. These people weren’t tutors, but they were writers and they were readers, and, after a year of giving feedback on each other’s projects, we had a vested interest in helping each other to do well. The support I got from them not only helped me keep going with my M.A. portfolio, it also helped me improve my writing after the course, enabling me to secure an agent and a publisher for The Perfect Neighbours.

It’s time to name names. Let me introduce my writing buddies:

Fergus Smith helps me see the bigger picture with my work. He questions the direction the plot is taking and the motivation of my characters. It’s hardly surprising that he takes this strategic approach given that his day job is organisational development consultancy. I’ve had the privilege of commenting on early drafts of his political/war trilogy. Part two Sunrise in the Valley is out now. It’s a brilliant insight into British military operations during the Kosovo conflict. Taking a British Army press officer as its lead character, it questions what truth means in war. I highly recommend it. I still exchange work with Fergus. He’s currently writing a beautiful novella set against the backdrop of rugged Scottish countryside.

Peter Garrett is a detail man, great at spotting typos, correcting grammar and punctuation, and at pointing out where dialogue needs expanding. His own writing is a riot. I’d never read anything like it until I read his work. A physician by profession, he fuses science fiction with crime and comedy, often in a hospital setting. I’m delighted to say that his novella Final Diagnosis has just been published by Luna Press Publishing. It’s a brilliantly bonkers blend of murder, medicine and mayhem, complete with Irish charm and alien dinosaurs. His current project is a crime novel set in Spain. It’s his best work yet and I’m lucky enough to read the early drafts.

Jenny Sanders writes lyrical short stories with real heart. During the M.A. course, I was impressed by her ability to evoke exotic locations in her writing. I always appreciated the way she “got” my characters and understood what I was trying to say. She had a deft touch for keeping me on track. Jenny still writes but also puts considerable energies into her family mediation service.

Karen Pegg wasn’t in my syndicate but we gravitated towards each other as we were both writing thrillers for our portfolios. I was in awe of her literary style and loved the vibrancy of her lead characters. She was a great person to discuss plot and suspense with. Unsurprisingly, her talent has been recognised and she’s secured a deal with Impress Publishing for memoirs of her life in Paris and Gascony. The first volume comes out next summer. Karen also runs A Chapter Away, residential creative writing courses in South West France.

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