Book Review: ‘A Saint in Swindon’ by Alice Jolly

Read time: 2 mins

How A Saint in Swindon by Alice Jolly, published by Fairlight Books, was written was most unusual and it is an unusual novella. It came from a writing exercise in which the author and the Swindon Artswords Reading Group met, before the book was written, and the book group contributed ideas and suggestions for the story. In this way the readers became the commissioners of new literature, the details are set out in the book’s foreword and afterword.

Dystopian

A dystopian tale set in 2035, were there remains a human need for stories and a strange man, Jack MacKafka, comes to checks into a B&B run by Janey and Phil. Ensconced in his room he reads. He asks for meals in his room and later for books to be fetched from the library, specific books. As his stay extends he becomes a local celebrity and others are influences to increase their own reading with an unusual fervour and urgency.

The times are changed by advances with climate change and by an anarchical breakdown of current norms. There are people camping in the street of the B&B speculating on the reader’s book choices. The list of twenty-nine books requested by Jack included classics and great works such as The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, 1984, Cider with Rosie and Heart of Darkness.

Gentle humour

Some towns people took the event very seriously, particularly Carmen. And, to avoid spoilers, a crime is committed. Written with gentle humour and observing everyday-folk reacting to unusual events leads us to consider reading choices characters make and whether patterns can be determined within the choices.

Read the lines

Having stirred a great deal of intrigue the stranger eventually leaves, having prompted many more questions than he has answered. Janey and her friends now have more books they’d like to read and Janey reflect that, “We were so busy reading between the lines that we forgot to read the lines themselves.” An intriguing ending leaves the suggestion that we cannot live on facts alone and need something beyond the everyday. Near the end the question hangs, ‘… how can you build the future if you do not dream?’

An interesting example of experimental writing and its reach this short read won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but most will find it unusual. For me an intriguing creative collaboration that could have gone in a myriad of different ways.

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Book Review: ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert

Read time: 2 mins

Introduction

In Big Magic Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015) Bloomsbury, Elizabeth Gilbert details what creative living involves and encourages courage, enchantment, persistence and trust in its pursuit.

Courage

Gilbert starts Big Magic, by describing a great poet who wrote poetry with a life-long commitment to search for grace and transcendence but he never much cared about being known. Within the advice he gave to aspiring writers, Gilbert points to what she considers, the central question on which creative living hinges – ‘Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?’ In the first part of Big Magic, that creative living is described as ‘…living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear’ and the need for courage is made clear. Fears are identified and they are seen as being bound with creativity, needing to be accepted within the creative process but not permitted to take control of it.

Enchantment

The second part of the book considers enchantment and how ideas present themselves, with a discussion of making yourself available to ideas. It is necessary is to show up, day after day, and do your work. Sometimes inspiration will be difficult to find and at other times it may come easily. We are urged to ‘let it come and go’. Gilbert describes great mystery in the process of collaborating with the forces of inspiration.

Keeping good physical health is acknowledged as being good for your art. There is no necessity to suffer, as the stereotypical Tormented Artist or a martyr might suffer, but instead, to dedicate yourself to your path. This will lead to ‘… a charmed, interesting, passionate existence’.

The feeling of needing permission is described, with suggestions of how to overcome it. Gilbert recommends striving not for originality so much but for authenticity. To do what you want trumping the motive of helping others. This point is highlighted with the delightful quote from ‘… Katherine Whitehorn: “You can recognize the people who live for others by the haunted look on the faces of the others.”’ On racking up student loans to study within art schools Gilbert warns people to be careful with themselves and to ‘… push yourself deeper into the world, to explore more bravely. Or go more deeply and bravely inward.’

Persistence

The importance of persistence is examined and the recommendation is a sensible approach, keeping pressure for financial success off the creation of art to reduce feeling the need for continuous inspiration. This being the best way to avoid quitting entirely. Being wary of perfectionism is stated as ‘Done is better than good.’

Trust

Trust is the subject of the penultimate section and approaching work from a place of ‘stubborn gladness’ (rather than from suffering) is what Gilbert favours. Taking a persona of a martyr is unhelpful but trying instead to be like the trickster, is suggested, seeing life as interesting: ‘… the trickster trusts the universe.’

When it comes to passion versus curiosity Gilbert is somewhat against passion. Rather than follow your passion she prefers, follow your curiosity. ‘Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living … Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times … But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity. The stakes of curiosity are also far lower than the stakes of passion.’

I’d like to think this review has piqued your curiosity to find a copy and read it, as it has inspiration, compassion and signposts to creative living.

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Interview with Peter Howard

Read time: < 1 min

Acclaimed published thriller writer, Peter Howard, describes his writing, shares where he finds inspiration and compares the challenge of writing novels to that of running a business with around a hundred staff. Peter includes generous tips on his writing process and insights into projects which are in the pipeline. Click the button to start the video (run time 23 mins).

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Interview with Steve Schatz

Read time: < 1 min

Seashell Virgin was nominated in the short list of books published by Indiana authors between 2020 and 2022.

In this interview the author talks (18mins) about his experience of traditional publishing and self publishing and shares what he values as the greatest freedom of a writer.

Seashell Virgin is the third book in the Nacho Mama’s Patio Café series. Set in a small Indiana college town it tells the story of an eclectic group of LGBT friends who gather once a week at the bar to gossip and watch TiaRa del Fuego’s Parade of Gowns drag show.

In Seashell Virgin, crooks, politicos and scoundrels scheme to close the bar, rape a forest and get rich in the process. Break-ins, kidnapping, blackmail and the world’s most spectacular drag show thrill and delight as the friends once more answer the call to set things straight … as it were.

All the Nacho Mama’s books are available through online retailers, on the AnySummerSunday.com website and at favourite local bookshops who can order them through Ingram.

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How Not to Procrastinate When Writing

Read time: 2 mins

OK here goes – I write posts for my website but what is in this post applies across all other forms of writing too.

10 am: I am writing the blog post. It is about time wasting.  I have started this post in my head so often that I have become an expert, an addict even, of procrastination.

10:05 am: Look up the definition in not just one dictionary but three (in case perhaps they differ).

So what is it?

Cambridge Dictionary online defines it as ‘the act of delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring’.

Being a lifelong practitioner, I’d say what really is at the root of the delaying is fear – fear of failure. If you do get it written then it can be criticised and you can be seen to have got it wrong.

Avoiding distraction

10:15 am to 11:20 am: Check for famous folk who’ve said anything about the subject, collect their quotes and select the best. (Why did that take so long?)

Lots of people have written about procrastination. Probably most people have suffered from the problem. No resist! – I shall not spend the next three hours looking up more things to confirm this.

If I let myself, I shall fall into the disappointingly familiar place of making notes on what I shall write one day. I do have to acknowledge that this would be replacing the doing of the writing.

Reading is another activity I often resort to instead of doing the writing. I often exceed my budget for buying books and often traipse off to the library, either in the real world or online, in search of yet one more authority on the subject.

How to stop procrastinating

Some things which do, I think, help to bring the shining searchlight beam of focus necessary to overcome procrastination.

  • Be clear that the standard is not to write anything perfect (write roughly for your first draft – it can be edited later).
  • Tightly reduce any media you engage with until you have done the writing.
  • Turn off the likely distractors (phone, internet).
  • Only allow yourself to make a limited couple of extra notes.
  • Plan how long you think it should take and only give yourself that time plus five minutes.
  • Plan to reward yourself when you complete the writing by the deadline. (Perhaps plan something you know you’d like perhaps a cup of coffee, a turn at the crazily addicting computer game you have on your phone or a check of your email accounts).

In the company of Dickens?

It seems that many famous writers can relate to the problem of time wasting, as Charles Dickens (writer of fifteen novels) mentions in David Copperfield: ‘My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.’

How do you collar him and keep on track when you are writing? And what is your go-to reward when the writing is done? Do get in touch.

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Why Does Editing Cost so Much?

Read time: 2 mins

Writers who have asked for a quote for an editing service sometimes, on reading the fee, responded with either endless silence or disappointment that the cost will be more than they had imagined it would be.

I get that professional editing does cost and is likely to be one of the more expensive elements of publishing a manuscript. But as with evaluating any service it is helpful to understand what is involved and what you are asking for.

What is professional editing doing for a writer?

Getting a manuscript professionally edited helps save the embarrassment of presenting later readers with a story which contains a distracting number of gaffes, inconsistencies or mistakes. By this editing works to improve the impression readers will have of the quality of the writing, which is a direct reflection of what they will think about the author. Professional editing can help a writer improve their writing craft, not just for one manuscript but across subsequent writing too. This can lead to your book reaching more readers and better reach its potential. If you send your book out to agents and publishers without a professional edit this can come across as less than professional and may reduce the offers made for the manuscript.

These things have a value and that is what you are paying for with editing services.

Qualities in Editing

Consider what the editor needs to have set up to offer the service. They run a business which has set-up costs and running costs and they have trained to be able to offer professional standards of work. They are likely to be in a process of continually updating their training and skills with additional courses, being member of professional bodies, conference attendance and experience. Then of course editing is a service which takes time; quite considerable time. Along with thoroughly reading your manuscript the editor will be making thoughtful assessments and suggestions to provide advice and pointers to improvements through the whole process. This takes time and cannot be rushed as it is not possible to focus on this level of concentrated work for much more than five or six hours a day. The longer the manuscript the longer it will take to edit so wordcount will have a bearing on how long the edit will take.

Options in Editing

Decide when your manuscript is going to be helped by being edited professionally; some authors will make many more passes through their writing before requesting professional editing; others will see their time better spent by getting started on their next book idea. There is huge variability within the process but to give your writing the best chance of succeeding smoothly professional editing is something many writers see as an essential and worthwhile investment in their writing process. Feeling that it helps them to produce better books.

To see how I can help with your fiction or creative nonfiction do get in touch.

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Words and a Phrase Editing Is Very Likely to Cut

Read time: 2 mins

Beyond the very first draft of a manuscript (where a writer is getting down the ideas in as flowing a manner as possible) there are certain words which are almost always be better substituted out. When these are swapped for a more precise, descriptive and interesting terms the writing quality improves. Here I point out half a dozen of the ripest for replacement.

Suddenly

This must go because it is standing in for words which will give the reader a context for what is about to be described, whether that be events or feelings. It is not necessary because if something happens suddenly telling us this will be slowing the pace down at just the time the action is happening and the pace has sped up.

Nice

This term is okay in a first draft with the excuse that the writer is in their flow and will replace it later. By the second draft this term should usually be replaced by a more descriptive term, as it is vague to the point of almost meaningless.  Substitute with a more precise term which will make the writing more interesting, more rhythmical and more enjoyable to read.

Obviously

Anything which is really obvious does not need mentioning and even if it is mentioned it does not need signposting. If the term is left in it can come across as unnecessary telling no reader is likely to appreciate. Any sentence which is obvious can be removed and improve the writing, making it more relevant and more punchy.

Actually

There are so many word to choose from to convey what the writer wants the reader to know and including actually is often irrelevant and belittles the rest of the sentence it is put with. In editing a term is one I often cull.

Thought to herself

Thought alone says it there is no need to add the to himself/their self etc. How do you think to anyone else? No is is just thought.

Inevitably

Well sometimes this has something to add but more often than not it would be best left out. It often points out the obvious or the actual so it is, for the same reasons those words get smoothed out in a second draft, best removed.

Trim this lot and editors will prefer yto see these switched for any more interesting and fresher word choice. The second draft will be livelier and tighter. Readers will find your writing more engaging – what’s not to like?

To see how I can help with your fiction or creative nonfiction do get in touch.

How to Write a Great Character

Read time: 4 mins

Writers place characters in stories to have an impression on their readers.

“As I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”

– Lauren DeStefano

Creating characters

When creating main characters in your writing they need to be make an impact on the reader and should be believable and engaging. Main characters are more believable and arguably more interesting if they are multifaceted and show identifiable personality with motivation to pull them through the events of the story.

Memorable main characters

Unlike side characters the main characters in most novels will have memorable names which clearly distinguish them from other people. The main characters will also be developed through the story and undergo some degree of change, this process is often described as the character arc. This arc is most pronounced with the main character, especially the protagonist.

Your main character is so important that they are likely to be introduced within the opening section of the novel where they will be introduced in an active scene making them relatable for the reader who will witness the character making a decision or reacting to something rather than reflecting on events in their backstory.

What makes a character different from everyone else, is characterization. Describing direct characterisation Janet Burroway highlights a character’s qualities as speech, action, appearance and thought and to these Matthew Salesses adds that we should think about our character’s attitude. In this we develop understanding of their actions and decisions. He suggests an exercise a writer can carry out to focus on the character’s attitude by considering as broad as possible ‘They [the character] were the kind of person who … ’  by answering this question repeatedly about the character, the writer focuses on what attitudes the character holds. The significant features will be the basis of what makes that individual different from others and it is that which will make them interesting and engaging.

For the protagonist this attitude is likely to include some of several positive and appealing features.

Orson Scott Card reminds us that some characters are drawn as relatively flat characters which was pointed out by E.M. Forster, who suggests that, in fiction flat characters can be just as important as rounded characters. An example of a flat character would be Mrs Micawber who never deviates from supporting her husband.

Craft complex protagonists

The delight in a complex character can be their unpredictability. It is this ability to surprise which intrigues and engages as Mary Kole points out the best characters are those readers either love dearly or that intensely. For igniting of this passion within the reader comes from the same passion for the character in the writer. The level of care the writer has about their character can be increased by them getting to know that character in detail perhaps by listing answers to questions about the individual to build up a clear picture of what the character looks like, what food they like, what the main events were in their life, who they mix with and where they live and are they in love. From this bank of information some detail will be used in the writing but rather like the tip of an iceberg most will just inform the writer so they can build up a more rounded personality to set in action within their story to carry out the events of the plot and interact with other characters through the story.   

Another technique for developing character is to decide on a character and in a scene then, as an exercise, write what that character would be thinking – their internal monologue. By doing this for several different characters you begin to hone in on the differences between those characters which will help to find those you are most passionate about and most interested in writing about. Awareness of the internal monologue could also be the basis for incorporating some of that thought within the novel. This can increase how the reader relates to that character allowing them to witness internal conflict and personality closely.

Often characters are made to stand out by having a memorable quality or quirk and this can be used to differentiate individuals, to surprise and bring both interest and uniqueness.

Make marvellous antagonists

To bring conflict to a story the protagonist is likely to be up against antagonistic forces and most often this will be in the form of an antagonist. This character will be interesting if they are much more than one dimensional. The stronger or more objectionable your antagonist the more powerfully they can work against your protagonist. This will lead to more extreme measures being required by to overcome the conflict the protagonist will find themselves in.

Antagonists are more satisfying if they possess their own morality which the reader can see playing out this may be part of their backstory or a feature of their personality but it needs to make them seem rounded and believable with their own consistent objectives and motivation.

The same questions could be used to build up a bank of information on this character or you could develop a specific set for these. Such a set could include, what their weakness is, what they secretly enjoy and what are they like most about themselves.

Whatever the conflict and struggle between the two main characters readers do not want the protagonist to succeed easily so the villain must have skills and allies to work to mount a convincing and enduring challenge to sustain the story. The stakes of your story can increase where the two main characters are pitching against each other strong opposing forces lead to higher stakes and greater reader engagement.

Authors seek to make their main characters lifelike but as David Morrell points out there is a paradox here as we have never known any living person in the way we can feel we know a written character. In fiction we can access someone’s innermost thoughts and emotions, an experience which he describes as ‘…totally unrealistic, however magical.’ He also cites Forster saying one of the central appeals of fiction is that novels suggest a more comprehensible and thus more manageable human race.

To see how I can help with your fiction or creative nonfiction do get in touch.

Bibliography

Morrell, D. 2008 The Successful Novelist, Sourcebooks Inc. Naperville, Illinois

Boulter, A. 2007, Writing fiction, Palgrave, Hampshire

Forster, E.M. 1956 Aspects of the Novel, Mariner Books,New York

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CIEP Conference 2021

Read time: 4 mins

The CIEP 2021 online conference is not long over, after a year of planning by the conference team, led by Beth Hamer they pulled off a fantastic event. I attended the SfEP conference in 2017 in person when the event was held in Bedfordshire, at Wyboston Lakes and remember that as an excellent conference.

Many months ago, I’d decided to attend the Glasgow CIEP conference of 2021, but that was moved online so it became my first online conference. It ran from Saturday 11 September to Monday 13 September and it was a triumph.

I attended much of it live and since then have watched Crystal Shelley’s interesting talk on representation and authenticity reading. I look forward to watching other recordings over the next few weeks. Being able to watch sessions later is a great bonus of an online event.

What we got up to

Hugh Jackson, a most capable, self-effacing and amusing chair made entertaining introductions, talks and commentary through the whole event. The business element, with the AGM, was conducted efficiently.

There were some fascinating speakers, including the poet and very amusing presenter of The Verb on BBC Radio 3, Ian McMillan, who’s from Yorkshire. Arguably the most famous copyeditor, Benjamin Dreyer, from New York in conversation with Denise Cowle, from Scotland. This gave us an intriguing insight into how publishing has changed, the ways Random House nurtures their editing talent (including their freelance staff) and we heard what it is like to edit for Elizabeth Strout.

As some of the sessions I have yet to catch up on my listing is not comprehensive but I watched Malini Devadas present a session on the marketing mindset. In this she talked about how to consider marketing and your mindset about it as an important facet of business. She had tips on how to overcome the mentality which may hold freelancers back from actively marketing their business.

Conscious and inclusive

Crystal Shelley gave a second session which was on conscious and inclusive editing – understanding conscious language and the editorial role. With it she shared copious resources to help support us deliver well-informed and enlightened services to our clients.   

Two sessions, fiction line-editing essentials: narrative distance, delivered by the force of nature that is Louise Harnby and guiding principles of developmental editing presented by Sophie Playle, were rightly very popular and with both it will be marvellous to receive the slides to pour over again to absorb more of the excellent learning.

There were lightening talks which brought snippets limited to five minutes from editing superstars of great variety. We were assured that English editors are the most powerful and urged to work compassionately, editing photos was examined, as was the learning of Korean and how football commentary is connected to proofreading.

The session on blogging (making it work for your business) with Liz Jones, Claire Bacon and Kia Thomas was like having a place at the table while these experienced bloggers discussed their approach to blog writing and hearing what they felt worked for them.

Who better than John Espirian to give the presentation on being a LinkedIn leader? Packed with advice and tips the time flew by so it is good that there are chances to revisit his session.

Easy English and what editorial professionals can learn from people with low literacy was spoken about by Cathy Basterfield and career development for freelancers was presented by Suzanne Collier.

A big thank you to Janet MacMillan from Canada who graciously introduced the session I ran from Hampshire, on Styles in Word. Thank you also to the lovely folk who attended the session live and asked follow-up questions, both at the time and later over LinkedIn.

The networking

There were themed networking sessions on different forms of editing, educational publishing, marketing and time management which involved small-group discussions in breakout sessions. These were good places to meet new faces and share experiences.  

Many of us had our first visit to the Wonderoom networking space where, having prized ourselves out of zoom, floating avatars could be dragged into circles, or just bumped into each other in a sort of virtual corridor. Once in the same space we could talk and, although some found there were some bandwidth issues and glitches, it largely worked smoothly enough to feel there was connection and further opportunity for conversation. It was there I met, among others a proofreader originally from the UK and newly setting up their business in Melbourne, and friend of old from Devon and a fiction editor living in Spain.

In Wonder

Small footprint

Delegates and speakers got together from seemingly all over the globe without the unimaginable carbon footprint that the same conference, conducted offline would have left. I’d usually expect a conference post to be accompanied by a photograph of a conference centre filled with delegates but as there wasn’t one, and I did not ask anyone whether I could take their images, I can only show myself at conference – the one at the top of this post is me puzzling over the quiz questions, perhaps we weren’t taking it seriously enough to win but it was fun taking part.

Great feat

The organiser’s choice and use of the technology platforms was certainly effective for putting out learning materials and delivering sessions to a very large group. There was the added bonus of staggering some of the delivery beyond the conference with materials including not just digital handouts but hours of recordings to watch back.

As a mainly introverted soul, used to working alone, I did wonder whether the networking side of an online conference could work at all, but it did. I even found that, as I was sitting in my normal work place (true for most delegates I suspect) this was conducive to relaxed interactions where I really felt at home, wait – I really was at home.

I am left feeling that the CIEP community is great to be involved with and their team create excellent conferences.

Stepping forward

What will the event be like next year I wonder. Certainly the in-person format is an experience we should strive to hold on to but there are some amazing benefits of the online model too. I’d vote for some form of hybrid if that’s doable and with the track record I believe they can do it. One thing is certain there is a kind of magic when we come together and in the words of the chair ‘… something unites us in our delight of the written word.’

To see how I can help with your fiction or creative nonfiction do get in touch.

Accountability Group

Read time: 3 mins

Mmm, I wonder how those started and who had the inspiration to run the first accountability group – no, stop! I must not allow myself to drop into my preferred research mode and out of the sleeves-rolled-up-action state. So still I could not tell you who ran the first one but I did it – I took action!

I asked for advice about why I am stuck with a marketing problem.  I have great respect for those who gave the advice and I felt heard by them which compels me to act. So immediately (without overthinking it and going off the boil) I asked on a forum whether others would wish to join an accountability group.

Someone responded by asking for more information.

Now I need to detail what I mean by it and that’s fair enough.

As I see it the accountability group would be rather small (perhaps no more than four people).

Who?

By putting the question on the special interest group of a forum of a professional body I would hope to reach like-minded people so that our circumstances would be similar and relatable without the need of too much explanation.

Where?

The group would meet online, as it is far too complicated to meet in person.

When?

Probably people in the same time zone or near enough. Not weekly as that seems too frequent so I suggest once every two weeks.

How long?

I envisage a rather short meeting, certainly all done and dusted in under an hour.

What’s involved?

To prepare for this meeting each would have decided which goals or tasks they would like to have completed and may, for whatever reason, be stuck with actually getting done. The nature of the task would need to be:

  • Specific
  • Measureable
  • achievable
  • Relevant, and
  • Time bound

Task examples

Specific – rather than ‘work quicker’ maybe ‘find and use a macro which will speed up deciding whether a manuscript is written in US or UK English’.

Measureable – quantify the achievement so instead of ‘do more on my marketing’ maybe ‘write and post a new blog post’.

Achievable –this will depend very much on your circumstances but if you are studying a course it could be (rather than get a superb grade) complete the latest module and hand the assessed work in.

Relevant – the task should be one which is linked to the bigger-picture direction you want to go in. So rather than ‘learn to cook’ an editorial professional might have a goal to revamp their website and a relevant task could be to find a professional photographer for some headshots.

Time bound – so rather than the airy-fairy ‘take on more work’ a time-bound task could be to ‘update my CV by Friday’.

How would it run?

Once a group was formed across whatever online platform, or by email, the invitations would go out to the group. There would be a first meeting where each member would briefly introduce themselves and state the SMART goal they would work on in the following two weeks. The new meeting would be set up.

After the two weeks the accountability group meeting would have three parts:

  1. In turn each would tell the others, in one sentence, how they are (so allowance for this could be made by the group)
  2. Next, in turn each would restate the goal they had set for themselves and say whether they had done it or not. If others had ideas of how to help with an under-achieved task, they could mention this but only that they have a helpful suggestion (and will get in touch later with more details – outside the accountability group itself).
  3. Then, again in turn, each would tell the others briefly what their SMART task would be for the following two weeks.
  4. The person who would arrange the next meeting would be appointed and the meeting would close.

The timing would be brief so sticking to the outline would be important and this would be maintained by the leader, who could be the person who set up the meeting (and this could rotate through the group).

The intention of keeping the timing bish-bash-bosh is to prevent it becoming arduous and therefore difficult to maintain enthusiasm for. If group members wanted to do more this could be arranged separately, outside the accountability group.

Sounds like a plan.