In 2015, I was well and truly sick of my book. The History of Mischief had been lingering with me since 2006, and progress was slow. It was often left for months, only for me to return to it, tinker a bit, and then abandon it for another lengthy period of time. I needed something to keep me on track. I needed to be accountable to someone other than myself.
A writing group was the obvious answer, but I was living in London, away from friends and family, and I was shy about sharing my work. What I needed wasn’t feedback anyway. I needed someone to give me a boot anytime I tried to abandon the book again. I reached out to four friends: writers Eva Bujalka, Erin Pearce and Elizabeth Tan, and illustrator Mel Pearce. My proposal: a private Facebook group where we would create events to track our deadlines. They all jumped on board, with Erin cleverly naming us the Tugboats. Instead of being lone ships passing in the night, we'd be tugboats pulling each other along.
The genesis of the Tugboat Deadline Club was simple: create Facebook events for deadlines, report progress, be accountable, encourage others. Yet it grew into something much bigger. At first, we had our deadlines and posted encouragement and polite queries to one another (‘Hey Bec, how’s the third history going?’; ‘Eh, I’m moving this deadline back a bit! Need more time!’). Soon, though, the events themselves became relatively minor. They were still there, but we started posting questions to one another, asking if a particular POV worked or whether the wording of an email to a publisher sounded off. The ‘shredit’ – an edit that involves shredding a lot of words – became a focus for many of us and word limits were often posted.
The Tugboats became more than your average writing group. We posted when we were overwhelmed, we shared first drafts, proofs and cover art, we posted screenshots of emails containing acceptance and rejection. Mel shared illustrations for portfolios and commissioned work. Erin, who coined ‘shredit’, became queen of the shredit posts, her reports always accompanied by a photo at her workspace, which could be a desk, a train or a bus. We offered feedback on Liz’s many stories that now find themselves in print. Eva doesn’t spend much time on social media, but she somehow always knew when a major deadline was complete and popped up to offer feedback, despite being very time-poor as she juggled teaching, research, writing and her band Hi. Ok, Sorry.
While we all created different things, we always had somewhere to go when we needed support. When The History of Mischief was finished, the Tugboats read the lengthy, unwieldy thing and offered feedback. As the Fogarty Award deadline approached, I needed to shave off 20,000 words. I posted my deadline and daily shredit reports. When I submitted it, they cheered. When I got longlisted and then shortlisted, they were some of the first people I told. When I won, I snapped a blurry pic of the certificate on the way home and posted it to the group. My caption: ‘So … this happened!’ Despite the group only containing five people, I received 65 comments, many in celebratory capitals.
Today, the Tugboats are still posting, still setting deadlines. We’ve had many successes. Liz’s first book Rubik (Brio Books) was released in 2017. It was sold to UK and US publishers, and has been optioned for film by Photoplay. Her second book, Smart Ovens for Lonely People (Brio Books), is out in June. Mel’s talent with illustration saw her snapped up for the new book by famous children’s book writer Libby Hathorn and her daughter Lisa Hathorn-Jarman. No! Never! (Lothian Children’s Books) was released at the end of April. Erin’s novel has been edited into a polished gem. After the Tugboats take one final read, it’ll be off to a publisher who has expressed a lot of interest. We all hope to see it out in the world soon. Eva is a brilliant academic, writer and musician who creates everything with depth. Hi. Okay, Sorry. hopes to have an album out later this year, and Eva’s most recent publication is a book chapter on The Simpsons and laziness!
Me? The History of Mischief is out in September. Questions over promotion, preparing for the launch, or just posting happy photos of the cover: it all goes up on our group. I know when the time comes to start Book #2, the first thing I’ll do is create a Tugboat deadline.
Tugboat top tips
- Find an online space where you can create deadlines and post queries, comments and photos. A Facebook group works brilliantly for this.
- Keep it small. A small membership means you can fully support one another.
- Be generous with your encouragement, and kindly constructive with your feedback.
- Touch base. If someone’s deadline pops into your notifications, check how they’re doing. Always comment when you see updates, even just to say, ‘Woot! Keep going!’
- Set deadlines for the little and big things. You can set a deadline for a chapter as well as a novel.
- Give as much as you’re given, but be honest and tell someone if you won’t have time to give feedback on their work.
- It’s not just about feedback. Give support when it comes to publishing opportunities, feelings of vulnerability or uncertainty about work being out in the world, or just feelings of dejection when writing isn’t working.
- Don’t have any writerly or arty friends? Set your deadlines and find a supportive loved one who can keep you accountable. I reported my daily word counts to my husband, and his enthusiastic celebration of even a few hundred words was really motivating.