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Archive for the category “Writing Groups”

Introducing Writing Circles

/by Erica Brooks/

I don’t want to embarrass anybody, but I’m going to anyway. Recently a new member named Icarus Fell, a.k.a. Stewart Hobby, put out an enterprising request in the forums. He wanted more readers, more feedback on his stories, and he offered to give feedback on others’ stories in return.

It was a simple and effective notion that sparked a good deal of encouragement, mostly veterans encouraging comments in general. Because, as Stewart’s request demonstrates well, comments are at the heart of the ShortbreadStories experience. The encouragement and constructive criticism are what make people want to post here. And it gave me an idea that we’re going to try out.

There is a new Forum Thread dedicated to Writing Circles, un-ironically, titled ‘Untitled’ (the backstory to this is that we can’t, at the moment, change the Forum thread titles, so we’re having to use ‘Untitled’ to denote ‘Writing Circles’).

The idea of Writing Circles is very, very simple – find some other writers and make an agreement to read, and to comment on, each other’s stories. Think of it like a virtual writers’ group.

Here’s how it’ll work. We’ve set up the new ‘Untitled’ Thread along with a few new Forum posts to get you started:

– The Circle Market is a place to post if you are looking for a circle to join. You can specify how many people you’d like to partner with, what kind of feedback you’re looking for, and anything else you consider relevant. This is a self-organising space, so use it as you see fit.

– The Circle Lottery is for people who would like to be randomly assigned writing partners. I’ll periodically pull names out of a hat, aiming for groups of four to eight people.

– The Suggestions Box is for general feedback.

– Group Discussion is for general talk, although you can also feel free to post your own threads and start your own discussions.

– Circle Challenges is for writing prompts and challenges in which each writing circle can participate.

You may want to organise circles around particular needs or interests – genre, writing goals, or experience, for instance. It’s also a chance for people to ask for a specific kind of feedback. Do you just want a bit of accountability and encouragement? Or are you looking for intensive, critical editing with an eye toward publication?

This is, of course, an experiment. It’s very much member-driven, although I’ll be keeping an eye on the place, watching for suggestions and stepping in if needed. Expect tweaks.

Most of all, take care of each other, especially new people. But then, you do that already, which is why you’re here.

Happy writing!


PS-If you’re getting a bit tired of ShortbreadStories ‘work arounds’ like ‘Untitled’ Forum Threads, you can donate to the redevelopment of the website by going to

Re-blogged from: Introducing Writing Circles | Shortbread 




/by Alisa James/

A few years ago I took early retirement following a long, happy and successful period of employment as the Examinations Officer of the University of Bristol. It’s a wonderful institution but let’s be honest, who wants to spend their life in an institution? My husband and I moved to North Devon, where he could pursue his ambition of becoming the ‘surf bum’ to which he had always aspired and I could put pen to paper, figuratively speaking. To this end I enrolled in The Writer’s Bureau and bought myself a copy of that font of all knowledge, The Writers & Artists Yearbook. Thus equipped I started down the long and often lonely road to my dream to become a writer.

The Writer’s Bureau is a home-study course developed by professional writers. The enrolment cost wasn’t cheap but it did offer a guarantee of a full refund if I didn’t recoup my expenses after completing the course. It’s a flexible study programme structured into thirty modules which cater for all aspects of writing – articles, stories, features, novels, journalism, non-fiction books and scripts. It also contains useful information and advice on how to deal with editors and publishers, how to present your work and, more importantly, how to sell your work. You can choose your own study path and once you’ve provided your Personal Profile you’re given your first assignment. The course is structured so that you start with relatively easy writing and then progress to more complex work as your skills develop. There’s no time limit on your studies so you can proceed at your own pace but as a rough guide I took about 2-4 weeks on each assignment before sending it off to my personal tutor.

One of the reasons I signed up with The Writer’s Bureau is my great reluctance to show others my work. My husband was very keen to be my proof reader and give advice but honestly, he’s one of the world’s original pedants and for the sake of continuing marital bliss I wanted to avoid this route at all costs – criticism from him would be too much for my fragile ego to bear. I found it much easier to deal with the anonymous face of my tutor each month, although this didn’t stop my mortification when my work was returned with adverse comments in the sidelines or the cringing embarrassment of having basic grammatical errors pointed out. In some respects it was like going back to school and receiving a report on your homework ‘7/10 could do better’ but on the plus side there was also the glow when a particular paragraph was praised.

It was the perfect introduction to the wonderland of writing with all its shades and textures, emotions and excitements. Yes, you need both flair and discipline to write really well – whether for fun or profit – but it does provide a framework for creating an organised approach to making the most of your talents as you gradually get a feel for words and the search for those descriptive phrases which enable you to communicate your true feelings. And it did help me to acquire and develop certain skills and techniques which in turn gave me the confidence to think that some of my articles might be worthy of publication. Utilising The Writers & Artists Yearbook, I sent a few away to prospective publications.

The publishing world is a hard nut to crack and each rejection of a piece that you’ve worked so hard upon is extremely demoralising (I have a file full of rejection letters and could easily paper my entire lounge with them) but I did start to have some success – a huge boost to any aspiring writer. I wrote a number of travel articles which were published by MMM (Motorhome and Motorcaravan Monthly). I also had a small contribution published in Reader’s Digest and a couple of poems published by United Press Ltd in books entitled Still Life and People and Places. Within the first year I had more than recouped the cost of the course.

The support and encouragement of having your own tutor certainly helped but I never did complete the course. WHY? Well, a few years ago, whilst attending a meeting of our Harley-Davidson club at a country Pub in Frithelstock (you have to be sober to say that!) I found myself talking to a local man propped on a stool at the bar. Our small talk eventually arrived at his question ‘What do you do?’ and I told him that I was now a lady of leisure but was currently undertaking a course with the The Writer’s Bureau. It turned out that he was Richard Joseph, of Richard Joseph Publishers Ltd and he had one piece of advice for me – ‘Courses won’t do it – you have to get down and write, write, write’. He gave me a signed copy of his book ‘BESTSELLERS Top Writers Tell How’ and told me to get cracking.

Call me naive but I reckoned that he just had to know what he was talking about. I took his advice to heart and knuckled down. I have now written two children’s books; Reggie’s Rambles and The Catash Inn. A romantic novel Blind Justice and I’m currently working on a murder mystery entitled ‘Death Lies Heavy’. None of these have been published – as I said, the publishing world is a hard nut to crack but never-the-less I had great pleasure writing them and hey, you never know, ‘one day’. Last year I won the Trowbridge Short Story Competition with Ellie’s Choice and also had a travel article published in the Harley-Davidson Magazine Hog’s Tales. This year I also had a short travel article published in the Saturday Telegraph, winning two Easy Jet return tickets to Naples.

So, there you have it. The writing course supported me in my infancy and certainly put me on the right road. Richard Joseph’s timely advice set me off in another direction and since then I have tried to follow his advice and write… write…. write.

A couple of years ago a friend in Canada emailed me with details of a website that published short stories. She said how good it was and that she always logged in each morning to grab a story or two whilst enjoying her cup of coffee. That was my introduction to Shortbread Stories – long may it continue.

Who Needs A Mentor?

/by Ginny Swart/

Help! I thought I had a plot but it’s just fizzled out somehow…

Help! I’ve finished my story but I’m just not happy with it.

Help! My characters have taken over and this story isn’t the one I thought I was going to write!

Sound familiar?

If you belong to a writing group, chances are you’ll tell your friends your problem and maybe you’ll receive a whole lot of well- meaning suggestions or comments as they pass your story around. But these can end up being pretty confusing and if you try to take them all on board, you’ll find committee decisions are notoriously bad.

A writing mentor could be just what you need.

A lot of first time novelists find a mentor to help them through the rough patches- and with 80,000-100,000 words – there are a lot of those.

There are plenty of writing mentors out there who are willing to use their writing expertise and experience to guide you.

What can you expect from a mentor?

It depends what you want from them. A good mentor can help you with every aspect of your writing.

If you have already written something but need help with it, he’ll pin point where you’ve gone off-track and make suggestions. He can spot the weaknesses in your plot, tell you what is not working and why it’s not. He can take a long look at your characters and tell you if they come across as you thought they did. He can also identify your writing strengths and show you how to build on those. Above all, a good mentor is encouraging and never negative.

A good mentor will leave the decisions to you. He will NOT take over your writing, change everything you’ve written and try to alter your style. He’ll stand back and not dominate your writing, but he will stay on the sidelines and make suggestions.

Having a mentor is a great motivator.  Discussing your work certainly concentrates the mind, and you’ll find you won’t want to put off finishing that tricky bit you were stuck on, if he is expecting  to see what you have done with it by the next week!

Some mentors will also help you find a suitable market for your story, although this is not generally part of their remit. But they can make suggestions, and often have a useful little black book full of names and addresses of editors and agents, something which would otherwise take you a long time to compile.

How do you decide on the right mentor for you?

Most people have a mentor who lives miles away, sometimes in another country. Hooray for the Internet, an essential tool for finding a mentor.

But it’s important to work with someone with whom you can form a good on-line relationship, so don’t go with the first name you find.

Check out their background, see what they’ve published and if you like what you read.

 If you don’t like their work, you probably won’t like what they tell you either, although they can probably still give you good technical advice. 

Ask them questions – they’ll expect you to. How many other writers they have mentored?  And what success did these writers go on to have? You don’t want to be their guinea pig. If they have glowing reports from other writers- contact them to make sure. (Not a nice thing to have to mention, but there are a lot of phony recommendations out there!)

Will he mentor you for a set period and how much contact will you have while he is doing that? Weekly? Whenever you contact him?

On the other hand you might prefer a mentor who you can meet and talk to face to face. Ask around at other writing groups, or phone people who organise writing conferences in your area. You could be lucky enough to find one who lives near you.

Before you make any decisions, make sure you know what you want from a mentor.

Do you write short stories? Would you like to discuss your basic outline with your mentor before you begin to write or do you want a professional eye cast over your work as you go along? Would you prefer to write the whole thing and then have his comments and critique?

If you’re writing a novel, what genre are you writing, and what sort of help will you need?

If you’re writing sci –fi, find someone who knows the genre and can appreciate what you’re aiming for. The same goes for fantasy or mystical writing of any sort, your mentor needs to be on the same wave-length as you are.

Romance? You mentor needs to understand this genre too, and not secretly have a mental sneer at stories with happy endings because you won’t be happy with his comments and he’ll hate reading your work!

And if you’re writing non-fiction, find a mentor who has experience in writing non-fiction. It doesn’t have to be in the same subject as your own.

A good idea is to send a potential mentor a short piece of your writing and ask him to give you feedback on it. You might have to pay for this, but if you don’t think he’s given you anything useful or insightful, then he’s not for you in the long run and you’ll have saved yourself a lot of money.

How much can you expect to pay a mentor? 

How long is that piece of string? Mentors are usually professional writers or  publishers, and don’t come cheap. Why should they? They’re sharing their years of experience of the writing business  with you, knowledge that it took them a long time to acquire.

There are many different arrangements you can make.  Negotiate!  If you’re writing a book, perhaps you can organise a pay-per-chapter relationship, or sign on just for one month. When you see you are getting good advice and good value for your money, sign on for longer.

How soon should you find a mentor?

It’s not a good idea to decide to hire someone after you’ve written 50,000 words and discovered you’re not happy with them..

Find one early on and he can steer you past a lot of pitfalls that might come your way if you are on your own.

One mentor I know was given a completed novel to look at. This baby had been two years in gestation and the writer loved every word of it. But she’d had four rejections and was losing faith in her own work,  so at a publisher’s suggestion, she hired a mentor. She read it through and said it had a good plot but needed major surgery – was the writer willing to do something drastic?

She suggested a radical change: turn the single female POV into the voices of the three main protagonists, one of them a man. This took a lot of work, almost of a complete re-write in fact. But the writer was delighted with the end result – she had  totally changed the feel  of her book. She’s sent it out to do the rounds of the agents with a much more positive outlook, and now knows that it’s just a matter of time. (Essential requirements for any writer: a keyboard and a lot of optimism)

Another book she mentored was a dark historic novel set in medieval times. The writer had done a lot of excellent research but it floundered in many places. BUT the sex scenes were stunning!

Her mentor pointed out that these were her strengths and encouraged her to go for an erotic novel and consider this first one  a practice run. One year later  and she’s  just signed a contract for three books with an erotic imprint in the UK – the girl was a natural writer of erotica and didn’t  realize it. 

If you are a mentor or have experience being a mentoree and would like to share your experiences with our Shortbreaders email

Advice from a Writing Teacher: ‘Is it good?’

/by Rachel Marsh/

Mostly because I am an eternal student myself and the point of taking a class is to learn, I encourage discussion when I teach. Students by their very definition are unfamiliar with certain concepts, topics and ideas, and the only way to acquire knowledge is to ask questions. This policy leads me to state that there are no ‘bad’ questions, and I encourage all students to please speak-up.

However, there is one question which makes me cringe when I hear it: Will you read this and tell me if it’s good?

The answer is always, always, always ‘No’. If I have time, I might read the piece, but I will never tell you if it’s ‘good’.

First, ‘good’ is a subjective term, and I refuse to use it.

Second, do not rephrase the question to state, ‘Will you read this and tell me if it’s ready for publication’, because the answer is still ‘No’.

If you have to ask, it’s not ready for publication. Also, while this piece might not be ready for publication, a redraft might be, or this piece might be fine but I haven’t read the rest of the novel, or one publisher might have room for it on their schedule, while another may not. Publishing is such a complex business, ‘yes it’s good’ is not an appropriate answer.

Instead, if I have time, I can tell you what aspects of the piece ‘works’, what might need to be rewritten, what doesn’t flow, and a myriad of other critical responses. Then it is up to you to decide what to with the piece. I am a firm believer that a good creative writing teacher should expose a student to good writing practices, useful techniques, tools for writing, and a supportive environment. It is not a teacher’s job to validate your work.

Which leads me to the fact that most people who ask this question are only looking for validation. They need that external praise to keep on writing, and I am a firm believer in ‘If you need my approval to write, then you’re not a writer.’

Shortbreaders Share: The Lemon Tree Writers

Shortbreader Bill Robertson shares with us his inspirations for writing, and his experiences with the famed Lemon Tree Writers.

I can always remember having an urge to write and tell stories. Whenever I have something published my mum likes to remind me of the time I told her I was going to write a book when I was still in primary school. I loved the rare opportunities we had in school to do creative writing – I even remember being given a punishment exercise, which I turned it into turn a World War 2 action adventure yarn. In secondary school I had a sci-fi story and a few record reviews published in the school magazine. I also messed around with a friend writing funny and often crude stories which featured our classmates. By the time I went off to Dundee University to do my degree my creative writing mostly stopped. I was entertaining notions of going off to be a music or film writer working for magazines – thus combining all my passions into a viable career. Sadly despite a few encouraging rejection letters (now there’s an oxymoron for you!) I became discouraged and gave up on the idea. Still, the writing bug refused to leave me. I would find myself hunched over the keyboard late at night, pecking out ideas for stories that would sit gathering digital dust on my hard drive as I didn’t have a clue what to do with them. On a visit to the library a came upon a publication called Fife Fringe and sent a couple of poems and stories off to them. Much to my surprise they were accepted. I even won a prize for one of my poems. However, fate intervened again when I went off to Aberdeen to become a student teacher. My writing slid further and further down my priority list – I had a career to concentrate on and being a new teacher kept me very busy for a few years.

But the writer inside me wouldn’t go away.

In 2007, I decided I needed some direction if it was ever going to go anywhere. I needed to get feedback on my writing, maybe even find someone who knew how to get published!

I searched on the internet for writing groups in my local area and found the website of a group called the Lemon Tree Writers. The group was established in 1992 by an American writer called Todd McEwen. The website said that they met every two weeks to discuss new writing and to organise readings, workshops and retreats. Not really knowing what to expect, I plucked up the courage to go along to a meeting – at that time the group still met in Aberdeen’s famous Lemon Tree venue. I was shown to a cramped little room upstairs filled with people. I squeezed myself into a seat and a nice lady gave me a copy of something she called “the script”. Members, she said, could submit their work and read it out for the group to offer constructive criticism of it. I would later discover that the nice lady was called Gillian Philip a well established writer of young adult fiction. By the end of the meeting I had spoken to a few other people and decided that I would come to the next meeting and have a look through my hard drive for something to put into the script.

In what I hope is just a coincidence, not long after I started going to the meetings the Lemon Tree was closed down due to a funding crisis. Since then the group has met at the Douglas Hotel in Aberdeen’s city centre. Members have come and gone but the core ideals and principles of the group remain the same – to promote writing in all its shapes and forms across the north-east of Scotland and to provide a forum to support and develop the writing of its members. The group regularly holds prose and poetry workshops from guest writers and group members on all aspects of writing. The group also contributes to Word, the University of Aberdeen Writers’ Festival, and at New Words, the festival of new writing for Aberdeen and North-East Scotland as well as putting on performances of work by members. Through funding from various bodies and membership subscriptions the group has published a series of anthologies and chapbooks most of which can be found on

The membership of the group is diverse; we have young and old, prose writers, playwrights and poets and each one brings their own unique personality and genre of writing to the table. Group meetings are open to anyone with the one stipulation that they leave £1 for the coffee and biscuits the hotel provides. Only full members can contribute to the script but the subscription cost is a very reasonable £20 per year. All of the money is put back into the group and helps pay for workshops and publishing books.

The emphasis at meetings is on constructive criticism and advice. As writers it’s often difficult to have perspective on our work but take it from me – listening to twenty or so people read your story and then offer an avalanche of good suggestions on how to make it even better will soon sort that out! Members are all invited to take turns chairing meetings and decisions about publications, performances and workshops are arrived at democratically.

I joined the group looking for a bit of advice on developing my writing and while I’ve certainly done that, I’ve also been able to chair meetings, have my writing published, take part in literary festivals and in shows put on by the group. Most important of all though, I’ve made a lot of new friends who share a love of writing in all its varied forms.

One of my proudest moments as a Lemon Tree Writer to date was reading a story out to a packed room during the 2011 Word Festival and getting to meet Margaret Atwood afterwards in the writer’s green room – maybe there was something to this writer’s lark after all I thought.

If you attend a writing group and would like to share your experiences with other Shortbreaders, please email

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