Writing Groups Are Vital

For the aspiring authors among you – and those interested in hearing about the process of creating a novel – I wanted to talk about the importance of a supportive writing group. For me it’s been invaluable.

I started writing short stories in my twenties, showed them to nobody and never knew what to do with them. After that I felt compelled to start a novel, repeatedly coming up with plot ideas but lacking anyone to discuss them with. Once or twice I submitted opening chapters to publishers but had no positive response apart from one generous chap who told me I had a gift for storytelling.

That comment aside, I had no idea if I was doing anything right. Did my writing flow, and were my characters believable? Did my stories hang together in the right sort of way? I wrote a few poems but, again, didn’t know where to send them or if they were good enough for public consumption.

I attended a couple of creative writing courses which I enjoyed but the standard varied wildly – from people who wrote amazingly well to others whose work was barely comprehensible. It wasn’t until I moved to France that I joined a writing group, and everything changed.

Like many great discoveries, it happened through serendipity. When I was introduced to my neighbour’s (English) friend who was writing a book set in Corsica I was full of admiration, if a little envious too. Having that amount of focus and dedication seemed way beyond my wildest dreams. I shyly told her I used to write and had recently wondered about starting again.

A few weeks later I received an email saying that the writing group of which she was a member – yes, in our tiny French village! – had a space as somebody had left. Would I like to join? Nervously I accepted, wondering whether the people would be friendly and accepting of me as a newcomer, if my work was up to scratch – the obvious type of concerns when you join a writing group.

As it turned out I struck super lucky. The members of the group were welcoming and soon became close, supportive friends. Without exception they were talented, committed writers – who just happened to live in the middle of the French countryside – and several of us decided to embark on a novel at the same moment.

Landsliding was born out of my wish to write something pacy and gripping, the kind of book I was reading a lot of at that time. Some of those stories started well but faded towards the end, others didn’t live up to the exciting blurb on the back, while a few were patently unbelievable. I thought maybe, just maybe I could do better.

With two writing group colleagues, Catherine and Anita, we formed a mini group which met once a week to review each other’s work. Because I had that incentive, I found myself knuckling down and sometimes completing several thousand words in a day. It was a euphoric feeling to have like-minded fellow writers who were on their own journey and yet supporting me all the way on mine.

I looked on as my friend had her Corsica book published. Every time I read a glowing review of it, I thought ‘That could be me next time’. She helped and advised me with the development of my own novel while I was able to use some of my marketing expertise to advise her on promoting her excellent book.

Once I’d finished Landsliding – that was always my title, right from the moment I started writing it – I submitted the first chapters to literary agents in the hope that they’d be sufficiently impressed to want to see the rest.

That’s when my real crisis of confidence began, when the much hoped for positive response didn’t materialise. Other authors I’d heard of had received an instant ‘yes‘ from the first agent they’d approached – and, as unlikely as I knew that would be, I couldn’t stop myself hoping for a similar outcome. It didn’t happen.

After approaching ten or so agents, I gave up. The rejections were too predictable: they liked my writing, the story was current and interesting, but the book wasn’t quite what they were looking for at that time. And, I couldn’t help thinking, I didn’t have the kudos of being a TV presenter or a dancer or another celebrity who got their books published so effortlessly.

That’s when the writing group came into its own again. Dispirited, I was tempted to give up on Landsliding and start something else – but my fellow members encouraged me to keep going. It was good enough, they assured me. People would love the book – it was just a case of getting it into the public domain.

One of my colleagues in the group had been looking into self-publication via Kindle and assured me that it was no longer considered ‘vanity publishing’; rather, it was the new way of getting work out there. So with her support I decided to go down the self-publication route – and that was the next phase of the Landsliding journey. 

Piffle – the Cinderella Cat

For ten years I lived in rural France, in an old farmhouse with a barn and huge garden – and during our second summer there, we discovered a widespread mouse problem. Every time we walked into a room a little head would pop up, closely followed by the sound of tiny scurrying feet. There was only thing for it – we needed some feline deterrents.

First there was PomPom who lasted a couple of weeks before he was run over. Next was Peche – I can’t remember what happened to her, but she didn’t last long either. Then we decided to get some kittens in the hope they’d have more longevity. 

Arabella, a beautiful half-Siamese fluffball joined our family before we heard about two stray kittens living in a nearby barn with their mum. They were all completely feral – nobody could get near them – but we agreed to adopt the kittens, happy that they’d complete our new feline family. 

The night before we were due to collect them we received a call to say if we didn’t agree to take the kittens’ mother, she would be put down by the French barn owner. Feebly we protested: we didn’t want an adult cat, we just wanted the kittens but – you’ve guessed it – she too became part of the adoption package

Piffle, as she’d been named, was the most feral, suspicious cat you can imagine. If any of us went near her she ran a mile, often picking up her kittens (whom we named Cinnamon and Gully) and disappearing from sight. Hardly a rewarding pet – as opposed to Arabella who loved cuddles, was wildly sociable and admired by all who saw her.

Piffle, on the other hand, remained largely out of sight and untouchable for the first couple of years. The nearest I got was managing to entice her into a cage so I could take her to the vet to be spayed. She and I literally had no relationship apart from the fact that I left food out for her every day.

Arabella (front) and Piffle (back)

Everything changed when Arabella and Cinnamon had their virtue taken by a night time intruder despite the fact we had two dogs who slept outside. An ugly bandy legged tom seemed to be the culprit, to our dismay (and probably Arabella and Cinnamon’s too). Sure enough, a few weeks later both cats became very plump and our fears were confirmed.

One sunny day we’d been out and, on returning, were surprised to see the two dogs sitting quite still at the foot of an outdoor staircase that led to a balcony. Piffle was perched on the steps and the atmosphere was tense. Going up the stairs I was amazed to find Arabella and Cinnamon lying facing each other, stretched out and paws touching, with a newly born kitten between them.

Four more kittens were born over the next hour: in total two snowy white ones to Arabella and three multi coloured to Cinnamon. They remained on the balcony for days, the two cats nursing all the kittens in a communal arrangement. Piffle, meanwhile, relished her position as security guard and would leap ferociously at the dogs, yowling, claws out, if they got too close. 

Arabella surrounded by her and Cinnamon’s kittens

From that point she seemed more willing to engage with us humans. Occasionally she’d let us touch her – fleetingly – though, unlike Arabella, she never tried to come into the house. She slept in the hay loft, remaining aloof, but her fear of us had gone. Sadly Cinnamon’s kittens died of cat flu, Arabella’s were adopted by a friend, while Cinnamon and her brother Gully simply disappeared.

That left Piffle – the Cinderella cat sleeping in the barn – and Arabella (full name Princess Arabella Tallulah) who lived up to her title, always trying to creep into the house and sleep on beds or armchairs. She treated Piffle like a second class citizen, chasing her away if Piffle came too close to any of us. Even though they were adoptive sisters, they didn’t get on at all.

Our kind French neighbour fed the two cats each time we visited family in England and he’d email us photos to show they were OK. This worked brilliantly until one summer when only pictures of Piffle arrived. Arabella, he told us in a worried email, was nowhere to be seen. Arriving home, our anxiety increased when Arabella failed to greet us; when we searched for her, we found her body in the garden.

Princess Arabella Tallulah

Ironically, from that time on, Piffle flourished and – much as I missed Arabella – my relationship with Piffle went from strength to strength. She started coming into the house, desperate to sleep on a lap or on a chair, and would inevitably resist being put outside at the end of the evening. Back to the barn for the night!

She became exceptionally cuddly, purring loudly when she was stroked, and loved being brushed or combed. From being such a feral cat who was terrified of all humans and would go to any lengths to avoid them, she’d evolved into a truly loving, soppy moggy. 

Her life changed, as mine did, in December 2017 when I left France and moved back to the UK. Unable to take Piffle with me, I asked a great friend from my writing group if he would adopt her as he already had four cats and was a renowned animal lover. To my great relief, he gladly agreed – and so now Piffle lives with her beloved Uncle Bob.

In true Cinderella fashion, her life has completely transformed. I receive regular letters from her (amazing handwriting!) in which I hear how she eats fresh meat every day, lies across Bob’s keyboard to prevent him from writing and – best of all – sleeps on his bed every night. She gets on well with the four other cats and suns herself by the swimming pool in summer. 

Knowing how contented she is makes up for how much I miss her – and I’ll be eternally grateful to Bob for giving her the life of luxury she must have been craving! So, as a tribute to my very special cat, Piffle Pages is named in her honour.

A photo of happy Piffle sent by Uncle Bob