My good friend J.A. Sullivan is my guest host today. I’m always curious what she has to say and when she accepted my invitation it made my day.
I was part of her beta reading team a few months back and I must say, she caught me off guard.
J.A. Sullivan’s style of writing convinces you all is well. The setting is safe, the comfort is real and her characters remind you of happy memories. There were times when I swore her characters were in the same room with me.
Sometimes I still do.
But as you settle in to this wonderful slice of paradise a tiny chill hits the air. As you search for a jacket you realize it is not a chill that is curling your toes but something dark, forgotten and haunting.
I do not scare too often but I did when I read her work. Yes, she’s that good.
My dear readers, may I introduce you to a talented writer and one of my good friends, J.A. Sullivan.
Facing my biggest fear – meeting writers, in person!
By J.A. Sullivan
I think I’m like a lot of writers. Fearless when it comes to telling stories, where my characters can do and say what I would never dream of doing. But when it comes to real life, I feel more like a timid woodland creature, ready to bolt at the slightest noise or sudden movement. Yes, an introvert through and through. Perhaps you can relate?
Most writers I’ve talked to feel this way, and they can think of nothing scarier than meeting with other people in person. However, let me tell you about a time when I faced this fear head-on and it ended up being one of the best decisions I could have made for my writing.
Back in the summer of 2011, I signed up for a short story workshop at my local library. It was the first time I’d ever shared my work with anyone outside of close friends and family – I was terrified! For years I’d been reading everything I could get my hands on about the craft of writing, had submitted a few short stories (without success), and had even written a few non-fiction articles for real estate newsletters on exciting topics like selecting the perfect paint colour (hey, at least that was a paid gig).
But this was different. It wasn’t a quick rejection note, or a request to rewrite “Picking the Right flooring” so it sounded sexier. This was me sending in two short stories to a group of strangers and then sitting in the same room as my creations were picked apart. On top of that, I’d never critiqued anyone else’s writing before either. How was I supposed to start? What if I really didn’t like their work? Maybe it’d be better to back out of the workshop before I frenzied myself into a full-blown panic?
Instead, I took a deep breath, sent in my stories and went to the first session feeling on the brink of passing out or throwing up. Thankfully, I managed to stay upright and kept the contents of my stomach.
After a few days, I started to notice something. Almost everyone in the room seemed as petrified as I was! We were all wishing we could hide under a rock when it was our turn to give notes to someone else and even more so when our own stories were being discussed. It was like finding my own secret tribe.
When the workshop was nearly over, I realized this feedback was crucial for me to improve my writing, and I started wondering how I could keep this critiquing thing going. I asked a few people if they’d be interested in starting a little writers’ group. Most said yes at the time, but only one person really seemed to mean it – Barb. She was one of those people you happen to come across now and then that you immediately click with. So, after our class had ended, we started meeting on a monthly basis to share our work and give feedback to each other.
We seemed like an unlikely couple. I write mostly horror; Barb writes contemporary fiction and middle grade stories (and she will be the first to admit she does not like violence, gore, or anything horror). But somehow it worked. She found space in my stories where I could develop characters further, and I found areas where she could increase the dramatic tension. We didn’t have a lot of common ground when it came to our reading, movie or musical tastes, but we realized that good writing needs the same elements regardless of genre, so we had lots to discuss.
At the end of 2011, we heard that the same teacher (Larry Brown) from our summer workshop was putting on another workshop in January of 2012. We both signed up, eager to learn more from Larry, and hoping that maybe we could pick up a few more people for our tiny writers’ group.
Again, as the day of our first class approached, I was feeling tense and queasy. What if the summer group was a fluke? What if the other writers didn’t feel like a deer in the headlights when sharing their work? What if the tribe I’d found was all in my mind?
But I had Barb there, and I knew the teacher from before, so I tried to settle myself down. And you know what? The class was terrific! Most of the other writers were first timers to critiquing and just as nervous as I was.
When the class was wrapping up, Barb and I asked around to see if anyone else would like to join our group. A few people were excited, and started meeting with us for a while, but then they all faded away – except for one elderly gentleman. Ron was in his early eighties, had only been writing for a short while, but he didn’t seem to be intimidated by anything. He was eager to learn and since 2012 he has never missed a meeting!
Then there were three.
Shortly afterwards, something I hadn’t expected happened. Larry, the teacher of the classes, reached out and asked to join. He had wanted to stay out of the group for a while, so that when he did join, we would see him as a peer instead of a teacher. And it worked out perfectly.
Now we’re almost seven years in and still going strong. I still write mostly horror, although I switch it up now and then, so my group doesn’t get too disturbed. Barb started writing memoires recently, and it’s been wonderful seeing the world through her pre-teen eyes. Ron (who just turned 88!) writes creative non-fiction about his experiences growing up in rural Ontario, reminiscing about war-time efforts as a child and all the firsts of his life, like the first telephone he had at home. Larry writes contemporary literary fiction, with a wicked sense of humour, which has been published in several magazines across the globe. We’re an unlikely bunch, but I think that’s why it works so well.
In the past couple of years, I’ve been finding other writers to critique with on-line (like the very awesome Bryan Fagan). It’s a fantastic way to learn different ways of telling stories and has helped improved my skills. But, there’s nothing like meeting in person.
If you’re a new writer, finding on-line people to share your work is a great start. Learn how to take criticism, learn how to dish it out in the most honest (but least devastating) way. It will help you grow as a writer. But, when you’re ready, I highly recommend finding local writers to meet with.
Discussions about writing with live people is the next level. For example, when my group meets, we usually each take turns giving our feedback, but hearing someone else’s thoughts can trigger something you hadn’t noticed. That’s when the conversations get deeper and the critique information the writer receives is at its strongest. When you critique on-line, you usually see each comment in isolation and, unless you share the comments with other people, you can only weigh it against your own judgement. In a live discussion, you have the advantage of other people weighing in on the comments as well, and more people to help find a solution in the moment.
These three people have helped strengthen my writing more than they will ever know. It’s scary to put yourself out there, but facing the fear is worth the reward.
If anyone has any reflections, questions or suggestions about finding or starting local writers’ groups, feel free to leave a comment below.
Thanks for inviting me to guest post, Bryan! If you didn’t live on the other side of North America, we’d gladly have you in our strange little pack!
About the author: J.A. Sullivan is a horror writer and paranormal enthusiast, based in Brantford, Ontario (Canada). She likes discussing books, movies, and everything to do with writing. If you’re interested, she’d love to connect with you on the following social media sites: