It’s never too late to learn a new skill, or upgrade an old one, and the University of the Third Age (U3A) encourages people to do just that! Bessie Jennings teaches a course called ‘Improve your Writing’, and she’s very excited that one of her students, Maggie Jones, is now a published author! Maggie’s book, The Lost Child, will be launched on October 20. Bessie and Maggie both have some excellent advice to offer other budding writers …
Hi Bessie. Last time we spoke, it was about your poetry and published works. Now you’re teaching at U3A – how did this come about?
Jo, I love the idea of U3A. It’s not like a real university, where you have to pass exams and write assignments. It’s a learning exchange program for retired and semi-retired adults − a place to learn or teach anything of interest, from line-dancing to psychology.
I’ve always enjoyed learning, and in my young adult life I enjoyed teaching children. So when U3A first started in Port Macquarie about eight years ago, I was one of the first to join. I was actively involved in the Bush Poetry scene, both writing and performing, so I was keen to share my pet hobby.
What exactly are you teaching?
I run a course called ‘Improve your Writing’. At the beginning, I called my course ‘Poetry for Fun’. Then I met a lady in her fifties who had just learned to read and write and who was keen to record her life story for her grandchildren.
So I changed from focusing on poetry and ran a group called ‘Beginning Writers’.
Gradually, the members became more skilled, and they’re no longer just beginners. Some are writing their memoirs; some are entering writing competitions. Some are writing great fiction stories − including Maggie Jones, who has now had her first novel accepted by a commercial publisher.
What skills do you hope your students will take away from your classes?
First, I encourage people to begin by writing just whatever comes into their heads and not worry about grammar or spelling − realising that they can go back later and fix up the rough bits.
Next, I ask them to aim for clarity and to leave out unnecessary words. Reduce, reduce, reduce! It’s usually the short sentence with a strong verb that ‘packs a punch’ − not the long sentence with flowery phrases, padded out with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.
Also, beginnings are important. Let your story (or article or poem) begin with something that excites the reader’s curiosity. If people find your heading and first line fascinating or intriguing, they’ll read on.
And, just as beginnings are important, ‘middles’ and endings need attention too. When we read or hear each other’s work, we learn by experience what ‘works’ and maintains interest to the end.
Finally, be prepared to rewrite, revise and rewrite. In our group, we assist each other to improve our work by giving each other positive and critical feedback. We acknowledge and praise the strengths of someone’s work, before challenging its weaknesses.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers who’d like to see their work published?
Definitely join a writers’ group − either the Fellowship of Australian Writers or some other group, where fellow writers share their experience and skills. Next, be prepared to send your work to more than one publisher and to send it many times. Expect lots of rejections.
If your ‘baby’ is returned with a polite rejection comment like, “We don’t require this kind of work at the moment”, believe it. The editor is not trying to squirm out of saying, “Your work is rubbish”.
Some excellent and award-winning books have been rejected many times, before being accepted for publication. Your first dozen rejections may happen simply because the timing wasn’t right for that particular book or play or article.
Where can people find out more information about the classes you teach?
Contact U3A through the website www.pmhu3a.org.au/, or contact me personally by email on email@example.com
Hi Maggie. Why did you decide to study at U3A?
Why did I decide to study at U3A … I think the organisation is a wonderful way to keep my mind active and also a way to meet intelligent people of my own generation. I was particularly interested in the writing group, because I have been writing for thirty years – it is one of my favourite hobbies. I love putting words together and expressing myself and sharing my work with our group.
What’s something you’ve learned through your studies that has proven to be particularly valuable?
What I’ve found most valuable from being part of Bessie’s class is that I have learned to give all of my attention to what I am hearing and to communicate my opinions on the other participants’ work in an encouraging and helpful way. How many of us really know how to listen to other people? Having to participate in the group and give feedback to our fellow writers is a skill I wish I had learned when I was much younger!
The encouraging feedback I got from the group gave me the confidence to take my writing to the next level, by putting it ‘out there’. I was lucky to have my work accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. I was successful partly because I chose the right publisher for my type of work.
My book is about an issue that has had a lot of publicity through the years, but particularly recently through the film Oranges and Sunshine.
I began writing my story twenty years ago, as a result of watching a documentary called The Leaving of Liverpool and felt the issue needed more exposure. My writing skills were not good enough back then to try to get my work published. I am happy to say, because of my experience with the U3A Writing group, it is now in print.
Yes, you’ve received some exciting news, with a book you’ve written being accepted by a publisher. What’s the book called – and what’s the story about?
Yes, I am very pleased to have had my story accepted for publication. As I mentioned, I began writing it twenty years ago. I wrote the first draft in a hurry, then put it away for many years. The trouble is, my character wouldn’t let me forget about her … she kept nagging at me to do something with her. So, I took my story to the U3A writing group and got encouraging feedback from my peers.
The book is called The Lost Child. It is both a heart-rending and a heart-warming story of a Scottish woman whose child was taken from her and shipped to Australia as a child migrant. It is a look at the psychological consequences of her loss – and the maturing of a young Australian girl who decides to help Rosie find her lost child.
You plan to launch the book later this month. When and where will the launch be held?
The Lost Child, author Margaret A Jones book launch is on: Saturday 20 October, from 2pm – 4pm. The launch is by invitation only, but interested people can contact me on my mobile (number below) if they’d like to attend. Books will be sold for a discounted price at the launch.
Where will be people be able to source a copy of your book if they can’t make it to the launch?
Ginninderra Press has details of my book on its website. Google them and go into the fiction section, then scroll down to Margaret A Jones and follow the ordering procedure.
Or, you can call me, and I can arrange to sell anyone interested a signed copy: 0434 081 924.
Interviews by Jo Atkins.