Three years ago I could barely voice out loud my desire to write. I’d carried a small mountain of discarded first chapters in my heart and believed I couldn’t go any further because I’d failed so many times. It therefore made me something of a cliché when, at forty, I decided it was time to stop wanting to write and start doing it. However, it was no mid-life crisis that finally made me knuckle down. Eighteen months earlier my family had made a life-changing move from the UK to Thailand, giving me not just the time to write, but instant material for my first book. With all those hours on my hands, I discovered blogs – I always was a bit slow - and it was an invitation on a blog that crystallised my ‘now or never’ moment.
I had been lurking around Kate Harrison’s blog, peering, fascinated, into her life as a writer, veggie and cat owner. Kate and her friend, the writer Lucy Diamond, challenged each other to a race to complete the first drafts of their new novels. To make it more fun, they invited readers of their blogs to join the race. So there it was: an offer to join a group of writers each writing a novel. I had the time, the material and now I had the support network.
The Novel Racers is an open-access blog, where a community of writers race against each other to finish their draft. For me, the point wasn’t coming first but winning my own race, writing my own novel. To promote camaraderie members take turns hosting a weekly coffee meeting. The subject is up to the host, but is usually writing related. The timing of the coffee is fairly flexible, given that the Racers are all over the world. The majority are in the UK but there are members in Trinidad, US, Dubai, France and I’m still in Thailand. (It took me some time to work out how we’d get together for coffee. Would they be meeting without me? Would a coffee materialise magically through my internet connection? See, I told you I was a bit slow. Eventually, it dawned on me it was a virtual coffee meeting held on a blog!)
I started my own blog and yet another novel, this time with the support of the racers. It was still hard: like feeding concrete blocks through a mangle with my eyes closed. There were times when I wanted to give up, but my novel-racing friends rallied around, and that made a big difference to my sense of isolation. By the time that first race was finished we had a thriving community. The nature of blogging meant that, even in those early days, radiating from the Novel Racers was a wider community of writers. I was barely out of the starting blocks but I was still there, learning and enjoying the company. None of us wanted the group to disintegrate, so we just rolled on to the next race.
Halfway through the second year, within the space of a few weeks, two events occurred that made me realise I was still procrastinating. One was the premature death from cancer of the Novel Racer Hesitant Scribe; the other was a second Racer, Cally Taylor, getting an agent and a two-book deal. Hesitant Scribe’s death made me fear my time was running out. And I’d watched Cally; she’d persevered, studied books, blogs, rewritten, rewritten and then rewritten some more. I recognised that I hadn’t come close to the effort she’d put in and it completely changed my attitude to my own work. I looked at my options. I had a fabulous network of writing friends; if I didn’t do it now, I probably never would.
The Novel Racers aren’t a critique group – though certainly those partnerships have sprung up privately – but nor is it a place where we pat members on the back for their splendid writing. We are a community. There are no entry requirements or voting people in to the group. There needs to be space – our maximum is forty; you need to be writing a novel, of any genre; you need to have a blog and be willing to join in the community by visiting each other’s sites and attending coffees. It’s a group for support, friendship and swapping experiences; a collection of people who will cheer your triumphs and send a virtual hug when you’re wondering why you do this. Just before Christmas, I finished the first draft of my first novel, Polite Lies, and while I don’t want to go all ‘Gwyneth’ on you, I really couldn’t have done it without the Novel Racers.