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Posted on 06 December 2017 18:41

The plan was all there. I spent a month brainstorming, outlining and cogitating. I felt excited about the story, and confident that I could make it good. I booked a writing retreat in the middle of nowhere for the first weekend in December, ready to crack on with the first draft of the new novel.

 

And then it hit. That awful, sinking, nauseous feeling that flows over me whenever I contemplate actually starting. I imagined being holed up in the cottage, with all the time in the world over three days, to write and write and write. And I couldn’t see myself doing it.

 

So, I got my trusty tablet out of my bag and made myself start writing on the train. I managed a scene, knew where I was going next with it, and felt more confident about making progress over the course of the weekend. But it was hard and it was painful.

 

The weekend unfolded in much the same vein. I made myself write two scenes at a time, then gave myself a bit of time off to read or watch TV and knit. But even though the scenes followed one after the other, and the writing flowed pretty well - I had to make myself do it. At any given moment during the weekend, I would rather have not had to do it.

 

And, when it comes right down to it, I didn’t have to do it. The only one creating this schedule and forcing myself to get words down on the page is me. So why do I do it to myself?

 

Of course, it’s not always as hard as it was this weekend - though I do generally find it tough to do more than a thousand words of new material in a day, even if I have the whole day free to do it. And I was incredibly pleased with my amassed count of 10,164 words overall for the weekend. And I love the story I’m writing. So maybe that’s why I do it. The product is worth the pain of producing it.

 

I did have about half an hour, a couple of months ago, when I contemplated giving the whole thing up. Just not writing any more. Kaput. Nothing. Ever again.

 

It had a certain appeal. I could do whatever I wanted with my free time, without that voice always nagging at me that I ought to be writing. Maybe I wouldn’t resent my day job so much. I’d probably be more relaxed. I might get more sleep.

 

But it didn’t happen. I don’t think I even took a whole week off. Because the ideas were still there, and they weren’t going to go away. And the excitement was still there, bubbling up through the fatigue and the uncertainty to take hold of my brain.

 

For example, today I had a mental health blip. I went back to my desk after lunch, and it felt like I was hauling myself uphill through hip-deep sludge. I really struggled to achieve anything all afternoon, and had to force myself to do the smallest tasks, in a much more aggressive way than I had with the writing at the weekend. All I wanted to do was crawl home, curl up in front of the TV and eat chocolate.

 

Then, just before I left work, my subconscious crew came through like heroes, right on schedule, with the next two scenes of the new novel. I had been thinking most of the day that I had no idea where I was going next with it, and suddenly the path was clear. I can’t say I exactly skipped out of the office to meet my friend for our writing date in the cafe round the corner. But I went. And I sat down and I wrote my two scenes. And I already know what the next two are.

 

So, it doesn’t look like I’ll be quitting any time soon. But, wow, have I picked a tough hobby!

 

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 13 November 2017 14:44

At this year’s NAWG-Fest in September, I met Cressida Downing, who was one of the tutors. She also runs reading retreats with her friend, Sara Noel, and I went on one this weekend just gone.

I’ve been to lots of retreats over the last few years - generally for writing - but this was the most luxurious, indulgent, well-catered weekend I’ve ever spent. They really had thought of everything - goody bags full of wonderful gifts, spare essentials in case you forgot to pack anything, reading lights for borrowing, and an amazing range of food, to suit any dietary requirements. As someone with diabetes, I’m used to organisers just assuming I won’t have dessert, and that I’ll forego snacking, which is always rather depressing. Here, though, there were cheese plates to round off each delicious meal, low sugar muesli for breakfast, and both low sugar and savoury snacks, so I felt very well looked-after.

The main purpose of the weekend, of course, was reading. I carve out time in my busy weekly schedule for my writing, but I don’t do the same for reading, so it was glorious to set aside many hours over the course of a weekend to do just that. Cressi called me a few weeks beforehand to talk about my reading, and provided me with a list of recommended books, one of which she lent me over the weekend. I’m not usually very good at concentrating on one thing for long periods of time, so I had packed my usual array of other activities (knitting, writing, TV episodes) but I found them entirely unnecessary. There was something about the atmosphere at the retreat that made me really want to dedicate all my attention to my reading, and I never felt the need to take a break and do something else.

Obviously, there were welcome interruptions in the form of meals, and Cressi offered optional walks on both days (which I did take and very much enjoyed). Cressi and Sara were always available in the kitchen for conversation and very attentive provision of refreshments. But I was at my happiest, curled up in an armchair in the lounge, with up to three of the other attendees, just reading, reading, reading and reading some more. There’s something very companionable about sharing a space with other people who are all reading, and I loved every minute of it.

I got through 850 pages across 15 hours of reading at the cottage (in stints of 2-4 hours at a time), and then read another 200 pages on the 2.5 hour journey home. I completed three books, and thoroughly enjoyed all of them.

Reading is so important for writers, but it’s also wonderful just to relax and give yourself over to a book. I’ve already booked my place on the next retreat in February, and would highly recommend any other book-lover to do the same.

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 12 February 2017 15:21

Last week, I took a lovely, four-day trip down to Devon, to attend a residential writing retreat at Stickwick Manor, organised by the ever-awesome Charlie from Urban Writers’ Retreat.

It was great to get really away from London, escape the distractions of daily life, and forget all about the stresses and annoyances of the day job.  There were five other writers there, plus Charlie, and she looked after us so well.  All meals were laid on, and amazing meals they were (sea bass, lime chicken, steak and ale pie) and we didn’t have to worry about any of the washing up or tidying.  I was heavenly.

Everyone else seemed to work really hard, but I have to admit I spent quite a lot of time goofing off and watching TV.  However, given how hard work has been for the last few weeks, I think it was just as important for me to take some time to relax and rest, as it was to focus really hard on my writing.

I got some reviews done, I revised a story I wanted to rework for a specific submission, and I finished the first draft of a short story that’s been languishing since before Christmas.  I also did enough critiquing on Scribophile to allow me to post both stories for feedback, and I read a fair chunk of my current writing reference book, Wonderbook.

So, I did far more writing and writing-related stuff than I would have done at home, and I also enjoyed some much-needed me-time.

Bear also enjoyed himself, and took some lovely pictures.

XXXXX

 

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Posted on 11 December 2016 18:16

I spent the whole of last week on a writing course at Moniack Mhor, near Inverness.  It was aimed at science-fiction and fantasy writers, with workshops in the mornings, led by the two tutors, Juliet McKenna and Pippa Goldschmidt, and the afternoons left free for individual writing time.  I always find these kind of events really useful and enjoyable, but this one also provided me with a new focus for my writing as we head into 2017.

I’ve never been very good at revision.  I’ll write a story quite quickly, then leave it a few days and come back to it to revise it before submission.  However, no matter how much time I allow for this stage of the process, and no matter how long I spend rereading the piece, I rarely make very many changes.  I find it very difficult to identify where the problems and areas for improvements might be, and even more difficult to know how to address them.

I have a particular story that I wrote back in January, and that I was quite pleased with at the time.  It didn’t get anywhere in the competition it was written for, and it has since been rejected by four or five other publications throughout the year.  So, I decided it would make a good piece to send in prior to last week’s course, for the tutors to give feedback on.  I discussed it with both of them in depth, and also gave it to one of the other writers on the course to look at.  For a story that was only 750 words long, it generated a huge amount of feedback, which was all very useful.

It gave me a lot to work with and multiple aspects to look at in a different way, and I spent the rest of the week rewriting, expanding and tweaking, as my brain kept seizing upon new turns of phrase and new bits of description I could add.  I can say with some certainty that I’ve never expended so much time and effort on such a short story before, but it was definitely worth it.  I read out the finished result (now 1500 words) on the last evening of the course, and got a very positive response from my audience.  In particular, the three people who had read the original version all said it was much improved, despite some of their feedback being directly contradictory!

So, my plan for writing next year is going to be to attempt less, and spend more time on each individual piece of work.  It has been brought home to me just how valuable an external perspective can be in motivating me to revise and re-work, so I plan to seek feedback much more widely and more consistently.  I’m hoping this will result in a much higher quality in the finished products, and that will then result in more success with my submissions.

The hardest part will be narrowing down my options and not trying to submit to every single competition and anthology going!

XXXXX

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Posted on 18 September 2016 16:37

Writing is a tricky business.  It’s the thing I most want to do with my time, and it’s the thing I least want to do with my time.  This seems to be true of all the writers I know.  We desperately want to create amazing things - and in fact can’t imagine life without writing - but we find it so difficult to actually sit down and get on with it.

This is what makes organisations like Urban Writers’ Retreat so valuable.  Why would I pay £45 to spend the whole day writing when I could just easily do that at home for free, you might ask?  Because I know I won’t do it if I’m at home, and I’m prepared to pay good money for the opportunity for some forced focus.

Charlie, from Urban Writers' Retreat, provides a bright, airy, comfortable space for the day, where up to about 12 writers gather to work on whatever projects they want.  Phones must be switched off, there’s no talking allowed - only the gentle tap of fingers on keyboards punctuates the silence.  And it’s glorious.  Charlie sends out a goal-setting worksheet a couple of days beforehand, where you can plan out your writing day in slots of about an hour, but the day itself is largely unstructured.  Lunch is provided, along with a welcome (albeit brief) break from the intensity of concentrating in an unfamiliar way, and then we all go back to work again.

It’s such a simple concept, but every session I’ve been to has been full, so it’s clear other writers benefit from the external motivation just as much as I do.  Having an appointment in my calendar, which prompts me to plan various writing activities, and involves travelling to a specific location in central London, creates a productive mindset that would never be possible otherwise.  It’s also lovely to feel part of a community, while taking part in such a solitary activity, and it’s even better to have a whole day set aside with the sole purpose of getting on with some writing.

Today, I started a read-through of the first section of my novel.  This is with a view to getting it professionally edited later in the year, and it was really fun to go back to the beginning again and remember how much I love the world and the characters I’ve created.  I’m terrified by the prospect of getting feedback from a professional, but I believe I have something of merit, and I want the push and the guidance to get it into publishable shape.

In between times, I wrote a couple of articles for an online magazine and worked on a theatre review for a print magazine.  The combination of quick wins, interspersed with editing sections of the novel, worked really well to keep me motivated and energised all day.

Hurrah for days like this!