Friday, 24 February 2017

On unsung community heroes


Today, I struggled to come up with a blog topic. It’s not like me, and I would perhaps have been better spent going off and doing some writing instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, but I didn’t. Why not? Well, Friday is kind of the day I pop up blog posts (the additional ones are just when I need a rant.) It’s the day I aim for. And, since more than a few people seem to read the blogs, I vaguely feel it’s something I should keep up. That’s even before I begin to count the hours I’ve spent building the blog in the first place – and when you build something of your own, with your own time and energy, there is a personal onus to keep it going, somehow.

This week, Marc Aplin of Fantasy-Faction put up a heartfelt post about the time he spends on the community and the impact it has on his life-outside-Fantasy-Faction, as well as the stresses it brings. I think it’s a post any of us could relate to. Similarly we have seen Sffsignal close up shop for much the same reason. When you start something that’s a passion or hobby, that’s one thing – once it becomes a huge part of your life, an obligation if you like, that’s a different thing altogether. (It’s why I rarely open my work-in-progresses at the weekend anymore. They’re work now, not the fun hobby they were when I started writing. And it’s important to seek a balance.)

If you’re a sf fan somewhere, somehow, you most likely engage with your community. You might love Comiccons, and attend them dressed as in crazy mash-up cosplay. You might attend a bookclub, or read online. Goodreads communities tend to be popular with some. Still more of you might post, or lurk, on the many, many sites on the internet devoted to sff. We sort of take it for granted that the moment the new Guardians of the Galaxy trailer comes out we’ll be able to go off and chat geek about it.

As with all things sf community, most of these sites get run by one-man bands or, at best, a close-knit string quartet. (Not Comiccons – they make a good profit. If you want to put some money back into the community, why not add a local convention on to your Comiccon visits? It’ll be very different – but I enjoy them more, truth be told.)

I don’t run websites or forums, or facebook groups. I simply don’t have the time to upgrade servers and software, to deal with trolls and spammers, to sort out members’ grievances, to put up articles and links and thoughtful pieces. But other people do and are often on-call pretty much all the time in case internet shenanigans break out and need to be stamped out.

In time, if you hang around long enough, you’ll start to get to know the people who run the communities (and conventions, include the long-suffering convention runners who rarely make a profit and put in incredibly long hours for that privilege). You’ll start to realise that they’re community members, not some great and good, removed from the rest of us. You might follow them on facebook or twitter, or become friends with them (this is a tight-knit community – an awful lot of my Facebook friends are genre-mates). You’ll start to see pictures of their family, read posts about how they’re trying to fit things in, see them struggling to bring an income in when they put hours and hours of work into the activity we all use.

This blog, then, is first and foremost a call-out to some of those people. To the site-runners, the moderators, the volunteers, the helpers, the bloggers, the reviewers. The people who keep our community alive and vibrant.

But it’s also a consideration of how we can help. And by that, I don’t always mean financially (although that can be relevant, too). Believe me, the minute I sell a thousand books I’ll be hiving over to the Wertzone’s Patreon ( as quick as I can, and will be glad to help.

  1. Crowdfunding. Let’s get it out of the way, the money aspect. If you can give, give. I have to be honest, I’m more likely to dump a wayward twenty quid into a kickstarter than sign up to a monthly Patreon (self employed people tend to be wary of assuming what next month’s wage will be). Some sites look for small amounts to keep their servers up and running and maybe allow a little over to give the person running it some time to come up with material.

  1. Skills. So, maybe you don’t have the money. But do you have skills? In the past I’ve ran twitter-panels for the sffchronicles I’m looking into an author programme showcasing the site and the talent its bred – and hopefully bringing more people to it. Maybe you’re a whizz at computer graphics and can help out.

  1. Time. If you have time and there is a call out for content, or moderators, or whatever – give a little of it. (Fantasy-Faction are looking for people to write content on a monthly basis. If you’re into your fantasy and knowledgeable enough (I don’t feel I am, being more of a sf gal and promising the world and then not delivering when it’s expected and needed helps no one.)

  1. Content. Until you start to come up with something clever to say on a regular basis, you have no idea how hard it is to do so. I’m already at the stage, with this tiny blog, of being very glad when someone offers to do a guest post. A week off – or, more accurately, an extra week before I have to find a topic. Offer to do a guest post, or a review, or whatever best suits the site. You’ll get some promotion out of it, and you’ll always help out. Sites like Sffworld are always looking content for their fantastic frontpage.

  1. Think about your interactions. How you interact. Whether you’re going to end up costing a moderator time. Whether you’re helping a community or detracting from it. (Sadly I think the arseholes who seem to take pleasure from stirring things up in communities will smirk at this one and go off and find another way to cause chaos.) Post new threads and keep things fresh. Comment on articles you like. Share posts that are interesting. I know, I know, I know we all only have so much time. Do what you can. (And, really, sharing is so quick. Hit the icon at the bottom of the post, shove a few words in, and it’s done.)

  1. Don’t take the communities for granted. We’ve seen that over the last year – some of the biggest and best communities have vanished. Big doesn’t mean a community will last forever – quite the opposite. Big means someone, somewhere is doing a load of work for no pay, or, at best, a pittance. They’re stealing that time from other parts of their life. There may come a time when it’s not there to steal anymore. Be thankful for the communities you like, or the blogs you waste time on, and do what you can to support them. (Here is where I should insert the buy-my-fabulous books link. But heck. Go throw some money onto your favourite communities Patreon instead, if you can manage it.) 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

On trusting yourself

In my other life, I'm a management consultant with an emphasis on personal skills and the theory to support our personal approach in the workplace. (Still awake, eh?)

Last week, I had the pleasure to get out - out, I kid you not! There is life beyond my desk - to visit a writing group for an author Q and A. I answered in my usual way - a mix of what I do when and lots of practical advice. I don't, really, do writing advice - what works for me works for me, and most likely won't work for anyone else. I don't give definitive answers, but ask more questions and give supporting theory to guide peoples' choices as to what they might want to decide to do themselves.

It occurred to me this morning as I stared at my keyboard there is a key component of personal capability skills that I've never talked about in my blog, and it's so important.

It's about trusting yourself. Trusting yourself to make the right choice. Trusting that if you have alarm bells ringing you should listen to them. Believing that you are the best person to make a decision for yourself and that no one - not your publisher, or your agent, or your writing chums - is guaranteed to make a better one. (I write this knowing that I sometimes see what I consider to be bad advice from professionals in the industry. But it's hard to see that when there are strong voices around us, more knowledgeable voices, who are very sure of their advice.)

An example from my own past: I knew when I was asked to rewrite Inish Carraig for a young adult market that it didn't feel right. I knew that it wasn't, really a young adult book - it had the wrong focus, the wrong type of point of view, and an key adult character, not just as a support to the young voice. I knew it from the jangling in my stomach, but, in a tide of enthusiasm, I went along with all the changes. Why? Because I believed the person giving the advice knew best.

The first real inkling I had that something was amiss was when the book went out to market as a cross-over book. One of my writing group - a good, sensible voice as it happens - asked me why it was being subbed as that when I'd just spent 18 months changing it from a crossover to a Young Adult book. But even then I drowned out the warning bells, told myself it would be fine, and went with it. I didn't ask the critical questions that I should have.

Well, dear reader, it wasn't fine, and lots of editors remarked on the voices being too young for the crossover market and it didn't sell. (And when I brought it back to a true crossover book, it felt so different and so right)

Since then, I've taken a different approach to my writing career. If, in my professional life, something jars with my innate knowledge, I listen. I've been doing my job for the best part of 20 years and I mostly have to rely on my own instincts. I don't second guess myself - instead I try to work out what it is I'm not happy about and then I problem solve from there. That inborn knowledge is called heuristic knowledge and it's very strong. It pays attention to stuff that goes on under the radar, stuff that I disregard or don't know about. It's worth listening to.

And so to writing. Most writers I know have been around a few blocks in their professional life. Few of them are writing for a living and, if they are, few started their professional life as a writer. They, like me, have knowledge of what feels right, and what doesn't. Which means all of us can listen, if we wish, to the built in voice of wisdom.

For those who are looking at this and wondering what sort of questions they should ask when they're not sure, here are a couple I tend to fall back on:

What does the person I'm listening to know? Is their knowledge up to date? (Writing is a changing world - be wary of anyone who dismisses self publishing as inferior to traditional publishing.)

Do they know my genre? (One of the worst thing any writer can do is go with an imprint that knows nothing of the market. Read that for any genre. If you're writing literary fiction, find a publisher who understands that. If you're writing thriller, get an imprint and editor who knows that market etc etc.)

Do they stand to make money from my decision one way or another? (an agent, for instance, makes nothing out of a book that is self published - so it is rarely in their interest to advise you to take that route. Having said that, I do know some who are more savvy and who support a hybrid career, knowing that titles sell other titles by that author AND that a book has to be marketable enough to be worth the agent's time.) 

Do I like what I see from a publisher's other books? What are their sales like? (Note, do not rely on what their authors say. Rarely will an author diss their publisher, in case it goes back. And I would have recommended my agent to anyone when I was with her. An author may be contracted not to disclose anything. Instead look at things like how many authors stay with the imprint beyond the first book, how they're being marketed by the publisher, not just their own efforts, where their books are on sale, what the editing is like etc etc.)

With each question you ask, listen with not just your ears but your internal voice and if it rings ANY alarm bells, listen more carefully. We do it in every other part of our lives - just because writing is our dream, we shouldn't silence that voice of warning. I turned down a publisher offer that was a strong one and that I would, with retrospect, take - except that I took advice, from someone experienced, who suggested not to.  That was, I think now, the wrong advice.

At the end of the day, the only person who will look after you as if they were you, is you. Be confident for yourself. Trust yourself to know what feels right, and what doesn't. As a bonus - if it all goes wrong, you'll know who to blame!

Friday, 10 February 2017

At least it's not boring - where writing can take you

I’ve written before about the realistic chance for a writer to get much money from writing. It’s all very true but it’s also a bit depressing.

This week, I thought I’d turn my thoughts to some of the more rewarding aspects of being a writer. (Introverted writers might want to look away, right now, as some of these are quite bouncy events – but there is plenty in this list that those less inclined to swing from the rafters will still enjoy.)

I’m not bored. Not any more. Writing, it seems, is interesting to people. Other writers interest me, even though I know they’re pretty much exactly the same as anyone else I’ve ever met.

Here are just some of the fun things – or, at least different (some of these were downright terrifying) – writing has enabled me to do.

  1. Meeting other writers, including those I look up to. Shall I admit to who I fan-girl squeed over? Okay – it was Pat Cadigan. I met her at my first convention, along with lots of other writers, and it was fantastic to do so. Finding myself on a panel with her and Joe Abercrombie was pretty immense. Terrifying, but mostly just immense. (I also went totally fangirl over Jacqueline Pearce at a Comiccon I was working. Because, you know… Servalan…)

  1. Coffees. It’s true. Writers have them a lot. I’ve met so many people in the last couple of years. Interesting people. People I have writing in common with. It’s like a whole new extended friends list. Speaking of that….

  1. Communities. Being involved in writing communities is fantastic. I’ve been on the radio (and it looks like I will be again), I have a photoshoot coming up, I’m heading to Dublin for readings and panels with around 50 other women, all on the Enterprise (be feared, anyone travelling on the 11th March). I’ve done readings, mass readings, all sorts. It’s been great fun.

  1. Experiences I never expected to have. I’ve been on the telly (although not live – that might come another time. Who knows?) On the radio. In the Belfast Tele, for heaven’s sake. And a national Sunday newspaper. Photographers came out and shot pictures of me. They took pictures of my kids and husband. It was huge fun (and not to be taken seriously).

  1. Podcasts! In America! And closer to home. Sitting on my sofa and not even having to move! So much fun (podcasts are a real laugh to do.)

  1. Panels and conventions. I can go to a convention and claim it as a legitimate business expense! Sorry, just read that again – I can go and talk sff, tax-free. Excellent fun, all round!

  1. Bookstore events. I’ve had a signing table. I’ve had to read. I’ve had my books in the front window. They events have all been tiny but that doesn’t matter – because they were fun!

  1. Writing retreats – in my case, a week at the John Hewitt Summer School, talking to writers, attending talks and shows and music. Drinking white wine as the light dipped and it got cold. Walking across the beautiful Armagh to do a workshop on writing (although that hill! That hill! I still grimace in advance of it). I mean, how fab is that? Other writers I know have gone on residencies all over the world.

That’s it, in a nutshell – a short and very, very sweet message. You might not get paid much – in fact, bank on that. But you’ll get opportunities you don’t get normally. Take them and enjoy them, even if you shake with nerves through them. They’re part of your gift for being a writer.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Getting hearts racing, an interview with fantasy-romance novelist Suzanne Jackson

Today I'm chatting with Suzanne Jackson, whose debut novel has been picked up by Venus Ascending, a new fantasy/sci-fi romance imprint headed up by Teresa Edgerton. I'm lucky enough to be a critique partner of Sue's, and can confirm that this book is something special with a great, unique world, sumptuous writing, a fantastic female lead, and the so-bad-he's-irresistible Nicholas Jarrett.

So I thought I'd be the first to nab the elusive Suzanne and find out what makes her - and her world - tick.


Firstly, tell us a little about your world, and how you've managed to marry fantasy with romance?

Hi, Jo. Thank you for inviting me onto your blog for my very first interview. I’m thrilled to be able to talk a little bit about my book and characters.

The Beguiler is set in a fantasy world similar in many ways to Georgian England. Many people are superstitious, with good reason: a witch might kill your cow, destroy your house, or stop your heart, whichever takes their fancy - or so the Rangers would have the population believe. Most of the witches are innocent girls. Tracked down. Destroyed.

The Rangers – men with the ability to repel witch magic – travel up and down the country searching out witches to hang. Rebecca Vasteer can create magic: she is a witch. To survive she must flee her home town.

Rebecca crosses the path of Witch Trader Nicholas Jarrett, and expects to be handed to the Rangers for execution. Instead she is taken to Tarmain Estate where she is informed she is a guest and will be treated as such. Nicholas Jarrett intends to train her, altering her magic, making her more powerful and less detectable by the Rangers. Why, she does not know. But one thing Rebecca is certain about is the fact she must not trust her captor, for that is what he is, even as her heart begins to tell her otherwise.

Fantasy and romance work well together. My aim has been to make the fantasy an important part of the internal and external conflicts of the hero and heroine and not just have the fantasy running alongside the romance but to be an important part of the development. Fantasy can add another level to a romance, another wedge driving the characters apart, even though they want to be together.     

Any influences - either fantasy or romance - which you feel helped shape the book?

My interest in stately homes has probably had an influence. Georgian England, particularly the Regency period, has fascinated me for years. The opulence hides a darker side, one where servants work out of sight, dashing up hidden staircases and along corridors to empty chamber pots without being seen. Even whole villages were moved to make way for the latest magnificent building. It is the contrast of these two parts of society that fires my imagination so well. Also, Jane Austen. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Beauty and the Beast.

Your favourite character in the book and why.

Oh, that is a difficult one to answer. Nicholas was quite a challenge to write, and I had to get to know him very well to understand him, so I feel I am closer to him than some of the others. But I admire Rebecca. She deals with a lot, and was the first character I created, so the book developed with her. I definitely have a soft spot for her.

This is your debut book - how are you feeling about becoming published?

It still feels a little bit like a dream. Hard work, but still a dream. I’m excited, but also somewhat nervous to think of people reading my book. I’m learning a lot of new promotional skills, how to use Facebook for instance. I am lucky and very grateful for all the support I’ve received from my online writing group, and my editor Teresa Edgerton.        

Tell us a wee bit about your writing routine.

I try to write a bit each day, preferably when I first wake up, when my mind is not influenced or distracted by events of the day. Sometimes this is not possible, but it’s my favourite time to write. My writing is very character driven, and I begin with very little in the way of an outline. I like to edit at least a page or two before continuing with the story.

You write predominantly in first - what do you think this brings to the book? Any drawbacks to it?

I like both writing and reading in first. I can get right inside the character’s head, see through their eyes, feel their emotions. Close third is similar, but I feel first is more personal. The main drawback is only being able to write what the character knows.

Where did the idea for Rebecca and Nicholas come from?

The eeriness of the area around Pendle Hill on a dark and rainy day. It struck me how terrifying it must be, to be accused of witchcraft. From that first thought my story grew: what if some women were actually able to do magic, how would the laws control them? How would society develop?

Your book covers some dark themes - how did you find writing these?

I found it very difficult at times, and had to take breaks from writing, to step away from the keyboard just to separate myself from the world I’d created. To write in first person I need to keep the character close, so I can bring to life their emotions. A long walk, a period away from the keyboard, is essential.       

Any advice for those looking to be published?

If just beginning to write, I would say hone your writing, and don’t send your work out to agents or publishers too early. I made this mistake. I just wasn’t ready. Learning to write takes time. But if your story has been read by betas and is well edited, then make sure any agents, publishers or editors are thoroughly checked out and follow their submission process carefully. And don’t give up! This journey can be a very long one. 

And where can we find out more about you?

I am very much at home on the SFF Chronicles forum. I’ve recently joined Facebook, and Venus Ascending has its own forum on the Tickety Boo Press website.  

Lots of thanks to Sue for coming along (and honoured to host your first interview). 

If anyone wants to check the book out, it's on: 

Thursday, 2 February 2017

On having a fun project

When we first start writing we normally have a project in mind, one that we've been wanting to write for ages. One we're passionate about, that keeps us awake at night, mind brimming with ideas.

Once we become more professional at writing, things change. Or, at least, they have for me.  I still love the stories I write - or I wouldn't write them; the thought of revisions and edits in something I already hate doesn't bear thinking about. But I write them with more of a focus on the market, on getting the story right and well structured. And that all makes it, whilst very satisfying, a little less fun.

Abendau was the story I first wanted to write - and I was lucky enough to get that story out and for people to tell me they like it (mostly). But it was never written for the market per se but for me. It is my fun project.

And so it is that I trundle along through my New Thing, enjoying it but doing a lot of frustrating not-sure-what-happens-next-or-even-now writing. But in front of me I have a little notebook and in it I'm writing a story that is unfolding naturally and easily. Characters I know and am having fun with. (2 characters are meeting in a couple of scenes and it will be funny).

I'm not writing this for the market. I'm not even typing it yet. I do expect it to become a book at some stage and for me to tone down the cheesiness just a little. But that is secondary - what matters is having a project that I love writing. That I want to get back to. Because I came to writing for that love - and I'd hate for it not to be why I keep writing.

So, for now, vive le fun!

Friday, 27 January 2017

A Tale of Firsts

The fabulous Juliana Spink-Mills has her debut novel, Heart blade, coming out on 14th February this year from Woodbridge Press. I'm partway through it and it's a fantastic YA treat. 

Anyhow, Ju came along to the blog to talk about the challenges of getting your writing - and yourself - out there, and how she's gone about squaring her shoulders and doing so. 


I’m shy. Probably not that many people know this, because I’m great at faking it in public, but there it is. I’m a shy person. There are lots of us shy folks in this world, and writing probably sounds like a dream career for many of us. Work from the comfort of your own home! No need to interact with any co-workers! It’s just you, and the words on the page.

Except, it turns out that writing is less of a blanket-fort comfort zone, and more like jumping off a cliff. Headfirst. With a blindfold. Over and over and over again. Writing means taking risks. On-the-page risks, of course, as you challenge yourself to dig deeper and go further. But also other risks, less obvious to those who are just starting out at this game of words.

This is a tale of firsts.

Just after I started writing, I joined my first online forum. I posted my first tentative thoughts, terrified that someone would call me out, say ‘you’re not a real writer, you have no place expressing opinions.’ No one did. They were kind, and thoughtful, and interested. I made online friends, and began pushing against those self-imposed comfort zone boundaries.

Before long, I found myself sharing work for the first time, receiving critiques and feedback. This was a huge deal, and it was a true leap of faith. Not so much faith in others, but in myself: that I was ready to show my work, and ready to listen – really listen – to honest reactions.

Other firsts followed: first full beta read of a finished novel. First time querying an agent. First time dealing with the harsh black-and-white proof of rejection, and bouncing back, and trying again.

There were networking firsts: first time at a writing conference. That was a big one. I met my local critique group there, as well as other writers who I now call friends. If I hadn’t been willing to jump off that particular cliff and head to NYC all by myself, without knowing anyone, I’d have missed out on so much. “I can do this,” I told myself on the bus ride down, secretly terrified the entire time. “I’ve got this.” And I did.

2017 is going to be a year of Really Big Firsts for me. My first novel comes out on February 14th, and three days later I’ll be at Boskone 54 as a panel guest for the very first time. I pressed send on my Boskone application with shaking fingers: that was a pretty steep cliff to jump off, and I’m proud that I took that chance.

Writing means spending a lot of time in the solitude of your own thoughts. But it also means being willing to take risks and to leap – sometimes without any idea of where you’ll land. It’s scary, and wonderful, and spine tingling, and euphoric, all at the same time. But it’s worth it. It’s worth every second of that free-falling drop. What are you waiting for? Just jump. It’s time to start your own list of firsts.


Ju's book can be found at: 

And her website is at: 

And huge good luck with the launch! 

Friday, 20 January 2017


This week a theme has emerged over my conversations and interactions, almost organically. That theme is about communities and how they can give a voice and strength to the individuals within it. I’m a member of a range of writing communities. Some, such as Women Aloud and the SFFchronicles, I’m pretty central to. Some, less so:

Despite having a reputation for writing some dark scenes, my work isn’t dark enough to be classed as grimdark*. And I don’t read a whole heap of Grimdark books (the odd one slips through my eclectic book-selection part of my brain, but so does the odd macho-man romance.) But I like the Grimdark community grimdark fiction readers & writers – they’re funny and warm (I know, I know, they really need to up their grim credentials) and very welcoming. And moderated as tightly as a group needs to be. So, I hang around and post the odd comment and chat with the odd member – not that they’re all odd, of course – and that’s as far as it needs to go. The group have my support, their writers have my support, and I seem to have theirs, and that’s great. Similarly, the Space Opera community and, by extension, their writing community

In both those communities, my interactions are limited. But there are others that I either post in or check into a couple of times a day. What do I get from them? And, crucially, what do they get from me?

I want to go back almost exactly a year, to when I was contacted by Jane Talbot, a writer I’d met as we’d released debut books around the same time. She was proposing a series of events in Northern Ireland to celebrate International Women’s Day and raise the profile of the women’s writing scene in NI and wondered if I’d be interested in being involved.

Work was light last year (good thing I’m not getting that first call this year!) and I said yes. We had a great day – somehow, Jane got me to run an event, talk on the radio, and read at another event, all on the same day – and I thought that was that, maybe we’ll do it all again next year, and ho-hum.

Women Aloud now has something like 300 members. Women Aloud NI It’s a vibrant community with great energy and focus (driven, I have to say, by Jane who keeps coming up with more and more new things to build on what the group does). This March, the events are bigger, bolder - and we're on our way to Dublin to meet the wider Irish writing community - and, most importantly, carry a cohesive voice: we are writers, we have something to say, and we’re saying it through whatever means we have. Self published, international best seller, scribbling notes on the kitchen table, we're all writers.

Before Women Aloud I had no community in Northern Ireland. Sff was woefully sidetracked in terms of visibility, funding and acceptance by the wider writing community. (This is, of course, not unique to Ireland).

Women Aloud allowed me to meet the other writers. It allowed me, a genre writer, to become central to the community and have a voice. Through it, I accessed the John Hewitt society and found their bursary scheme – and had a great week living the writing dream and meeting loads of other writers (many poets!) as a writer, just as they were. I discovered there might be funding available for my writing – and got some, easing some of the financial hit of squeezing out time to write!

Suddenly, I have a voice and a purpose beyond what I had on my own. And what am I using some of that voice for? To try to give places where sff voices can come together and get support. To challenge the perception of speculative writing as something outside the writing norm, full of weird little stories, not serious writing.

That’s the point of communities. They’re not about trying to gain sales – that will always be a drop in the ocean – but in having visibility. Outlets for quirky voices are challenging at the moment. Amazon want to promote bestsellers (and, hey, I get that – they’re a business, not a community initiative). I’ve talked about bookstores before and their changing dynamics in terms of stock list and local buying power. Communities have become more important than ever for bringing voices together – and for giving much-needed support when none can be found.**

I suppose I might leave this blog on a question. What community supports your voice? And what have you done to strengthen it today?

*for those unfamiliar with the term, grimdark books tend to be unflinching in their portrayal of the darker sides of life – think Game of Thrones-style books.

**When I first started writing, I found my way to the internet and lucked out by joining the sffchronicles community. They remain, still, my integral sff community, not just because of those on the site, but those who have left, those who’ve been introduced to me via members, those who’ve found me from the site. I met my editors there, my first publisher (and my second, indirectly, whose open window was mentioned to me by a member), my writing group, the backbone of who I became a writer with.