The rush of adrenaline as you await the publication of your first novel, short story, or poem- there’s nothing quite like it. Your heart flutters, and your stomach squeezes. Yes, that’s how I feel waiting for my breakthrough fantasy, The Aeonians, to come to print, but I’m sure by now you also know I’m affiliated with the international writer’s group named the Just-Us-League. While I have written plenty about myself and boasted the works of The Just-Us-League, I felt I have never really introduced to you who exactly is the “Just-Us-League”. Elusive imaginary kid’s club? NO! Group of professional writers? Absolutely. Band of superheroes in disguise? …Maybe.
Kristen Kooistra, author of Heart of the Winterland, is the founder of this group with the intention to establish a place where every one of its members is benefiting, and being beneficial to one another.
As the Just-Us-League evolved, Heather Hayden, author of Augment, established herself as Queen Bee and led any willing participant into launching a series of successful anthologies.
Part I defines JL and the anthologies it produces, and Part II focuses on a handful of member responses, who were gracious to participate, about their experiences with JL. [Guests, in no particular order: KK: Kristen Kooistra, HH: Heather Hayden, CL: Cassandra Lee, RH: Renee Harvey, MD: Matthew Dewar, EE: Elise Edmonds. *Please note this is not an all-inclusive list of JL members*]
To learn more about JL and their anthologies, you can find them:
The golden question: what is the Just-Us-League?
KK: The JL is a writers group started January 2015 when I couldn’t resist bringing some great people together. I’d been meeting so many amazing writers through my own various networking and I kept thinking, “These people should really meet each other.”
Since then, we’ve grown to a group that averages around 50 members and has daily activity. We’ve done everything from contests, anthologies, brainstorming, book club, monthly activities, to critiquing each other’s work.
We work together, encourage each other, and help each other grow as writers and authors. And more than that, we’ve come to know each other as people. JL is a place for us to practice the art of writing but also for us to build relationships.
More than any other online community I’ve been a part of, the members of JL I feel truly care about each other and they remember what’s going on in each other’s lives.
HH: [Regarding the anthologies] The Just-Us League is a group of friends dedicated to the craft of telling stories. We work with each other toward mutually beneficial goals and help each other brainstorm, learn, and navigate the world of writing and publishing. We all have different backgrounds and different styles of writing. But we all have storytelling in common. We bonded over our writing, and our love of putting words onto a page to entertain is what makes us truly happy. Together, we released our first anthology in December of 2016, and we look forward to sharing many more stories in the years to come.
Approximately how many members participate in the anthologies the Just-Us-League produces?
KK: … I would say it’s safe to comment that the number changes. There are two published anthologies with two more in progress. The first had thirteen members involved and the fourth has twenty-two signed up, though we may have some bow out before the final product.
What publications does the Just-Us-League have?
KK: The JL as a group currently only publishes anthologies. Any other work from the members is done by the individual. Whether that’s self or traditional publishing, the authors are individually taking steps to get to that point. The League serves as a critique group, sprint encourager, and cheer squad for those.
HH: Our first publication was From the Stories of Old: A Collection of Fairy Tale Retellings and features thirteen amazing stories of heroes and heroines and happily ever afters (though not for all!) Our second publication, released in June of this year, was Between Heroes and Villains: A Superpower Anthology. It features twelve original stories about people and the superpowers they wield for good...or evil. Both anthologies feature illustrations by our talented illustrator, Heidi Hayden. You can find them on Amazon in ebook or paperback form.
How do you decide on the anthology themes?
HH: For the first anthology, we voted on a theme. Fairy tales just barely beat out superheroes, so we went with those two themes for the first two anthologies. Our upcoming third anthology will feature horror stories in celebration of a favorite holiday—Halloween… We also have a second fairy tale anthology planned, and there will be more themes in the future, depending on the interests of our members.
It’s amazing how a group of people from all around the world collaborate to celebrate their love of writing. How do you all stay organized?
KK: A little bit of organized chaos! Actually, one of my fears with starting a group was previous experience had taught me I might very well end up chained to it. I really didn’t want a fun idea to go sour because I never had the freedom to take breaks or step away or be busy without it all falling apart. I took a gamble and it really paid off.
JL is full of self-motivated or people-motivated members. Not leader-motivated. The anthologies are headed by Heather Hayden who took initiative. The rest of the group is very much self-sufficient. We have discussion forums with different threads for anything such as writing questions, to critique swapping, book club, events, contests, social media, blogging, reading, and sprinting.
As a member, what do you enjoy most about being a part of this group?
KK: I would say there are three things I appreciate the most about the JL.
I love the freedom. Part of that is the freedom to come and go as I please. The freedom to take a hiatus without it all falling to pieces. And another part is the freedom to work, question, sprint at any time.
The quality standard. Quality over quantity. I learned that for my own personal journey as a writer, I prefer to work with a few people who will be with me through the entire process and who I respect their advice. That’s more important and useful to me than having everyone and their cat give me feedback and only stop by for part of the journey.
Last but not least, the people. What really makes the JL special is the people who are there. The people in the shadows who work quietly and help out behind the scenes. The people who are there on the front lines calling orders. You know what I mean? The people who are there late at night when you need to talk. The people who let you know you are crazy, or aren’t (as the need may be).
HH: The Just-Us League has become like a second family to me. We all work together to improve our writing and we’re always ready to help each other out (with critiques, beta reads, hugs, tea, the occasional threat-of-katana...) We support each other in our successes and failures. I love how friendly and caring everyone is. I also love the enthusiasm everyone brings to projects like our anthologies. Planning and executing multi-author projects is a lot of work, but in the Just-Us League, it’s also a lot of fun.
CL: The support here is amazing. The feedback I receive from other JL members helps me improve my stories, but more than that, we also share our writing and non-writing burdens, and we can always, always, always expect considerate answers.
RH: I enjoy the friendships. I like seeing how everyone's doing, cheering for them when they succeed with something they've been struggling with, and crying/ranting/praying with them when things don't go as planned. They do the same for me all the time, which definitely helps me feel like one of the team.
MD: I enjoy being part of a group that is constructive in their feedback, encouraging with support, and overall a good bunch of people that I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting otherwise.
EE: What I like most is that there are people here who enjoy writing and think its important. I don't have many real life friends who I can talk to on the same level about writing.
Also I like that people here listen and comfort and don't judge and genuinely try to be there for each other. It's a rare atmosphere in an online forum. I feel I have real friends here, not just passing acquaintances.
How have you developed as a writer while working with the Just-Us-League?
KK: I would say I’ve grown more focused. When I first started writing, I kept backtracking and hopping all over because I had SO MUCH random feedback that I thought I had to sift through for any gems that I couldn’t make any forward progress. I kept reworking the same few chapters over and over.
I’ve grown more confident in my strengths and aware of my weaknesses. There’s nothing like having a group of people whose judgments you trust looking through your work. You hit those points where you have people all loving the same spot or pointing out the same errors without seeing what each other said.
I then get to be like, okay, four people pointed out this fact without conferring with each other and I’ve worked with them long enough to know they’ve got sound judgment.
HH: Definitely! Since I joined the Just-Us League, I’ve had two short stories published and my second novel is on its way to completion. I’ve learned a lot from critiques and just chatting and discussing various topics with other members. We all have different areas of expertise, and we’re always willing to answer questions or bounce around ideas if someone has hit a snag (or a wall).
CL: I may be ethnically Chinese, but my first language was English. I wrote stories as a child -- not particularly well-formed ones -- but my parents and teachers know that I loved writing, and my teachers encouraged me to join writing contests. I didn't win, but the one that really launched my "writing career" was the Maths in the City competition, to which I submitted an article on the Hong Kong Space Museum. The competition website is no longer there, but I have a copy of my article on my website. My article at Maths in the City. When I first joined Scribophile in December 2016, I kept editing my work according to what people thought at whim about it, without the assurance that my work was indeed better than before. However, I came to learn the differences between good and bad feedback, so I am now free to reject damaging writing advice.
It's interesting that when you're a newbie in writing critiques, you want to nitpick every technical error people make, as if an academic essay should have been their end goal. However, as you gain more exposure to good stories which don't necessarily follow established rules, you learn that storytelling is much, much more than being grammatically correct or rigidly "showing, not telling." It's about giving an unforgettable and meaningful reader experience, and JLers strive for the latter.
Another thing is that I became more verbose. I wasn't able to express myself very well in the beginning as I had had a mathematical training, in which every idea had to be boiled down to its essentials all the time. If someone asked me how I felt, I would utter "busy", "bored", "tired" and other one-word answers. As I joined more JL activities and discussions, I allowed myself to be in touch with my emotions so that my ideas could unfold themselves more elegantly, no longer sounding too stiff or stilted.
Let me give a few shout-outs: I enjoy Elise's debut novel Where Carpets Fly -- it's even better than some traditionally published stories -- and Matthew's stories, which are downright hilarious. Corinne's tales are quite surprising even in their early stages. At first I didn't like Heather because she snapped at me for being ignorant of the publishing business, but as I got to know her, she's actually friendlier than I expected.
RH: I've jumped into the anthologies, so my biggest leap as a writer has actually been in becoming an author and learning how the publication process works.
I have also learned how much other writers really need supportive friends to lean on. We encourage each other to keep trying and to find ways to succeed in whatever we're doing. It takes me a long time to develop friendships, and I love being able to do everything all by myself anyway, but I can't, and these people are some of the ones who will help me when I ask for it.
MD: I've had the opportunity to work with and learn from some very talented writers. I can definitely see huge improvements in my writing, but also in my idea formation, plot development, language diversity, character growth, and a whole other range of skills that I've worked on over the last few years. I've also relearned some all-important grammar rules!
EE: I've found many awesome crit partners and people who I know I can bounce ideas off. And I've received loads of encouragement and help throughout my publishing journey.