Serendipity! When looking for a babysitter on the Community Noticeboard, a different notice caught my eye.
“The Asquith Writers’ Group seeks a new member. All genres welcome. Free to join. First Saturday of every month, 2-4pm. St Barnabas’ Church meeting room.”
No contact name or address, and no indication of when it had been posted, but I was euphoric. I’d been trying to find a writers’ circle for months. The groups at local libraries were already at full capacity, and the ones online were jealously guarded by tyrannical gate-keepers.
I scrawled down the details on the back of a receipt. All genres - good. Saturday afternoons – better. Around the corner from home – perfect.
Two weeks later, I arrived at the church with a folder full of stories, my trusty notebook and a pencil-case full of pens in an assortment of colours. I walked down threadbare carpet and stood in the doorway of the meeting room. There they were… A circle of writers! I was about to join a passionate group of like-minded storytellers, honing their craft, encouraging each other to create a masterpiece. I had arrived. I felt tears well up.
“You alright, dear?” A woman in her seventies was struggling with the lid of a Tupperware container when she noticed me.
“Never been better, thanks. I’m here to join the Writers’ Circle.” I gave my best, confident smile, and strode across the room, ready to shake hands and introduce myself to all.
“Oh, thanks, dear,” said the woman, thrusting the container into my outstretched hand. “It’s the arthritis, you see. The lids are near-impossible to shift. Ah. You did it. Would you like a rock cake? I’m Joyce.” She gave me a kind, old-lady smile.
Momentarily caught off guard, I politely declined, noticing the blackened contents within. The container was passed around the group, and arrived back at Joyce still full of rock cakes.
A very deep voice from a very tall, skinny boy-man said, “Welcome. I didn’t know we were looking for new members.”
Confused chatter erupted. Joyce suddenly had a revelation. “Oh, I remember! Yes. I put that notice up there a couple of years ago after Maxwell dropped dead.”
“Oh, you’re right, Joyce. I’d almost forgotten about him.” Looking at me, she said, “Actually, he died right where you’re standing now. I’m Dianne, by the way. Come and take a seat.”
I was glad to move from that spot, and sat down. Dianne was as leathery as a lizard, with a hacking cough and a raspy voice. She reeked of smoke, and possibly liquor, but I couldn’t be sure.
“How about we introduce ourselves… I’m Dianne. I write Romance.”
I almost fell off my chair. Adventure fiction, perhaps, but romance?
“I’m Joyce, as you know. I call myself the grandmother of the group.” Her laugh sounded like an arpeggio, but she laughed alone. “This year, I will have been writing and illustrating my own books for fifty years! I wrote my first children’s book when my first child, Geoff, was a boy.”
I was gobsmacked. I felt honoured to be in the presence of such an established author/illustrator, writing in the same genre as me. “That’s incredible! How many books have you written?”
“Oh, far too many to count, my dear.” Again, the musical laugh. Again, silence from everyone else.
I wracked my brain to think of a children’s book she may have written, but drew a blank. “I’ve probably read a few… I’m Erin, and I want to be a children’s writer too.”
Dianne sighed loudly beside me, and Joyce gave me a kind smile before glaring at Dianne.
“I’m Seb,” said the skinny boy-man. “I write sci-fi. My latest book is about gamma rays that collide, and create a living creature that is capable of destroying Earth. The only hope for the world is if…
“Yes, yes, Seb. I’m sure our new friend here isn’t really interested in all that sciencey stuff. She wants to write for children, like me.” Joyce shot me another one of her grandmotherly smiles. I felt like I was receiving the unwanted attention of a teacher’s pet. I was about to defend Seb, when I realized there was someone else in the group. Black jeans, black shirt, short-cropped black hair and a sullen expression.
“Oh, that’s JJ. Doesn’t talk much,” said Dianne, as though that was that.
“What genre do you write?” I was genuinely curious.
“Horror,” said Joyce disapprovingly.
“What a diverse group of writers.” Although my heart was sinking, I was determined to remain positive about the experience. “I’m really looking forward to getting to know you more and learning from you and hopefully, one day, be published.” I smiled at them all, but only Joyce smiled back.
“Sorry I’m late?” A pink blur rushed past. “Hey, where’s my seat? Oh? Hi? Who are you? I think you’re in my spot?”
“Grab another chair. We have a newbie – Erin. Erin- this is Tiff.” Dianne was clearly not Tiff’s greatest fan.
“Well? Ummmm? I have news?” I was to learn that Tiff never spoke in statements, only questions. Tiff sounded 12, dressed as though she was 6, but was probably pushing 40.
She danced a chair across to the circle and waited until the shuffling stopped, stood up and cleared her throat.
“Well? Everyone? Last week I had a meeting? With Terry from DreamOn Publishing? And? Guess what? I’m going to be a published author?!?”
“Wow! Congratulations! That’s fantastic! Congratulations!!” I was gushing like a crazed fangirl, although I’d only known Tiff for less than a minute. I realized that no one else was saying a thing. “What is the book about?”
“Well? It’s a memoir written from the perspective of my poodle? And the publisher said, ‘this is the most eclectic piece of writing I’ve ever seen’?” Her voice was getting higher. She looked like she was about to burst.
“DreamOn isn’t a real publisher.” Everyone spun around. No-one knew who spoke, but it cut the air like a knife.
“Yeah. Alright. Let’s start the circle time. We’re running really late. Who wants to start?” Dianne seemed to be the self-appointed time-keeper.
“Well, I’d love to hear more from Tiff.” An audible groan was heard. I was doing the wrong thing again. “It’s just that, I’m here to learn, and this sounds like really exciting news. Who are DreamOn Publishers?”
“Geez you ask a lot of questions.” Dianne was losing her patience. “DreamOn is a self-publishing group.”
“Also known as a vanity publisher, for vain writers with a lot of cash to splash,” said Joyce, attacking Tiff while looking at me.
I’d walked into a land-mine.
“At least I will be published? Unlike others here?” Tiff was looking directly at Joyce. I didn’t understand.
“Seb, let’s start with you.” Dianne was getting cranky. She kept looking at her watch and sighing loudly. She probably was hanging for a cigarette.
“I have been at the Observatory speaking to astronomers, and my research…”
“Oh, my dear boy. Do you actually want to write, or are you just using the book as an excuse to spend all your time with that cute astronomer with the long blonde hair…”
“Joyce. Enough. Let the boy finish.” (Dianne was actually quite scary.)
“Yes, well, ummmmm…” Poor Seb was scarlet with embarrassment. “I do want to write, and I’m up to Chapter 4. I just want it to be authentic.”
“But, my dear, it’s science fiction! It’s the most unrealistic form of writing, apart from fantasy which is beyond ridiculous. No-one will really mind if you invent a planet or two. They’re not going to believe any of it anyway.” Joyce smiled with her mouth, but not with her eyes. I was growing increasingly wary of her.
Seb composed himself, and continued, “Actually, world-building is a very challenging skill to develop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. It’s meant to be believable. I was thinking of writing a fantasy novel next.”
Joyce scoffed. “Well, hurry up and finish this one then so you can fly on your unicorn to research the next one.”
“Well I think it sounds wonderful, Seb. I’m sure the research will be a big help to you when you’re crafting your story.” I was desperate to get the group back on track. “So, Dianne, what are you currently working on?”
“Passion in the Principal’s Office.”
Oh, good grief.
“It’s loosely based on a true story. The Principal, she’s married with 3 children, falls for the janitor, and they’re forever locking the Principal’s door for privacy.”
“Oh, wow. That sounds … ummm … risque.” I was flailing.
“I think it sounds pornographic?”
I tried a different tack. “Have you been writing romance novels for long?”
“About 5 years now, after I lost my job at the high school. Seb used to go there, didn’t you Seb?”
Seb didn’t reply. His hands were over his ears and he looked quite ill.
This writers’ circle was going off the rails. I turned desperately to Joyce. A fellow children’s writer. A woman with experience. Perhaps she could be my mentor.
“Joyce? Any stories you’re working on?”
“Why thank you, Erin. It’s so good to finally have someone in the group who appreciates my work. In fact, I’m writing another volume in my Johnny and Mary series.”
Thinly veiled groans erupted from the group.
I mentally pictured my local library, but the Johnny and Mary series wasn’t ringing any bells. “How many are in the series, Joyce?”
“Too many?” Tiff looked appreciatively at Dianne who appreciated the dig.
Joyce continued, undeterred. “This will be my 47th. I’m trying to get to 50 and then I’ll retire the series.”
“Retire it? But it hasn’t been published? Like, ever?”
I stared at Joyce, confused.
“Oh, I’ve had offers. Many offers. Tremendous offers, but I’ve been very protective of Johnny and Mary. I’d hate for them to end up in the wrong hands.”
“But nothing happens in any of the books? Like, ever? And even though you don’t believe me, Johnny looks kind of gay?” Tiff was quite the smiling assassin.
Joyce leant over and whispered to me, “Last year, a friend put me in touch with a publisher who wanted to publish my books in their PRIDE collection. Johnny is most certainly not gay. He looks very sweet in his floral shirt, brown shorts and long socks.” To the rest of the group she said, “My books celebrate girls being girls, and boys being boys, just like God intended. Sometimes, these days, it’s hard to know the difference, or even which pronoun to use!” She looked directly at JJ, who looked at Joyce so intently that she had to look away. It was a real ‘yikes’ moment.
“So, about my publishing contract? I thought you might like to ask me questions?”
“Absolutely. You said it was about your poodle?”
“Fifi? Yes? It traces her life from when she was first entered the world, her unseeing eyes suckling her mother’s teat, right through to the moment she ran in the path of the school bus?” A tear trickled down her cheek. “Cut down in her prime?”
“It was pretty ugly,” said Seb, remembering.
Tiff was pulling herself together. “I just want to thank you all for being on this writing journey with me, and I feel honoured, although not surprised, that I will be the first one of our group to be published?”
Who said that? Everyone was looking at each other. Everyone, except JJ.
“JJ. You sly dog!” It was hard to know if Dianne was actually impressed by JJ, or if she was just delighted that Tiff had been pipped at the post. “Are you actually a published author?”
There an almost imperceptible nod.
Tiff was crying. Seb was wide-eyed. Joyce had zoned out and was eating carcinogenic rock cakes. Dianne was roaring with laughter.
“OK. Out with it. What have you written?” Dianne’s laugh progressed to a coughing fit.
“The ‘Die Again’ series.”
Silence. Even Joyce stopped chewing.
“But,” said Seb bravely, “the ‘Die Again’ series is written by Jacoby Jones.”
The penny dropped.
JJ was Jacoby Jones, author of the largest horror series in recent times, a series streaming on Netflix, and more branded merchandise than the Marvel franchise.
And I was here. In the same writers’ circle as Jacoby Jones.
On cue, everyone started talking at once. “Why didn’t you tell us?” “Can you put in a good word for me?” “Would you like me to review your latest work?” “Would you like a rock cake?”
JJ stood up, collected his ‘Die Again’ backpack, and began to walk out.
“Wait!” I called. “Why do you come? How has the writers’ circle helped your writing? Your career? What words of wisdom can you share with a newbie like me?”
He turned and looked at me right in the eye. “When I’m running low on ideas, I come here.”
“For support? Encouragement? Critical feedback?”
“Inspiration. I can’t think of a more horrifying way to spend an hour.”
reedsy writing prompts
Here are some of my entries in the Reedsy Writing Prompts Contest.