Definitely NOT Ballynahinch Book Club…*

I began writing in 2014, sat at my farm kitchen table and tapping away on a stolen iPad (stolen from my husband, but stolen nonetheless). I was filled with inspiration, determined to put down in glorious technicolour the story that had been battering away at the inside of my skull for more than 30 years.

I did it, too. Finished the novel. It was the bee’s knees, a best-seller for sure. The publishers would be queuing up to offer six-figure advances. How could they not? It was brilliant, unique, well-written…

Yes, well. You’ve no doubt heard this before, many times.

I was writing in a vacuum, with no one to tell me what was wrong with my writing. My POVs leapt about like cats on a hot tin roof, my tenses were all over the place — and my dialogue punctuation? I shudder at the memory.

When the number of publishers racing each other to make me offers dwindled from zero to a negative number, even I realised there might be work to do, so I joined a writing group. Belfast Writers’ Group was a great place to start, with friendly, welcoming people who knew so much more about writing than I did. It was wonderful to chat with fellow writing addicts, sharing experiences and horror stories.

I joined forums (SkyPen, now defunct, and SFFChronicles) and was adopted by the wonderful, generous Jo Zebedee. She hoisted me up by the ankles and shook me until all the b******t had dripped out then sent me, chastened, on my way to self-improvement.

But what I did learn, on top of the craft of writing, was what a social and generous crowd writers are. They don’t ‘steal your ideas’, or put you down; instead they share their knowledge freely, help you to find your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.

But I lived in Ballynahinch, the back-end of nowhere. If Ballynahinch was in America, it would be called a one-horse-town. It’s best known for its traffic jams heading South towards the beach at Newcastle on a Saturday morning and then again heading North to Belfast on a Sunday evening. Holidaymakers and day-trippers curse Ballynahinch. Driving into Belfast for the wonderful writers’ groups there was a bind, especially on a dark winter night.

I promised myself that if I was ever in the position of being able to help other struggling writers, then that is what I would do.

By winter 2018 I had become a fairly well-known local writer, published all over the place and invited to perform my work regularly. Time to pass it forward.

I wondered into Ballynahinch Library and accosted the Manager, a wonderful lady called Pamela Dickson who has a kind face and a mischievous glint in her eye. I asked her if the library would be interested in hosting a writing group, and she leapt at the idea.

So in February 2019 we started Ballynahinch Library Writers’ Group. Pamela provides tea or coffee and yummies as well as bookmarks with the dates on and publicity on social media. We meet once a month on a Monday from noon to 1.30 pm (although we often stay chatting long after that!). We have a lovely constant group of writers who have become friends with each other over the months.

For each meeting I prepare a handout and some writing exercises/prompts and we critique each other’s writing, sharing ideas and experiences. At the end of a meeting, we decide what topics we’d like to cover next time and I scurry off home to prepare the handouts, which Pamela prints for the group.

I used to email them out to everyone before the meeting, but some people couldn’t resist doing all the exercises in advance, so I had to stop!

In October 2019, I was invited by Libraries NI to speak at Comber Library for Book Week NI in conjunction with BBC NI. I met some wonderful, keen readers there, and the library’s manager, Vivien, who welcomed me with warmth and a mug of tea. She suggested that what’s good enough for Ballynahinch would probably be good enough for Comber and invited me to run a second group there.

Our first meeting will be on Friday 28th February from 2.30 pm to 4 pm. I can’t wait to meet the new writers and hear their stories.

We focus on nurturing the creative spark, encouraging writers to be fearless in their writing, to try out new techniques, stretch their wings and soar. And they do. I’ve had writers who have lost all confidence in themselves after a mauling in a different writing group (not one I’ve mentioned here) who have rediscovered their love of words and the infinite number of facets that make up a story or a poem.

As I tell my writers: There’s no wrong way to do this. Just write, listen to your muse, and then you can edit it into a smoother form later. You can’t edit a blank page.

Then we learn together how to edit, how to plot, how to write dialogue and how to sculpt characters who stand out from the page and make you want to weep or laugh with them.

Both groups are open to new members, so if you live out in this particular bit of the back-end of nowhere and fancy trying out some creative writing, we’d love to see you!

*Ballynahinch Book Club is actually a Swingers’ Club which changes its name frequently to avoid detection by the authorities, or by stern church-going pillars of the community. As far as I know, Comber is too civilised to have an equivalent, but perhaps it’s just better at hiding…