The pros and cons of Writing Retreats … and how to catch irritating flies once and for all

It’s a buzz like no other, the overfed bluebottle lazy mode.  It flies a tad too fast to actually swat with any success but not energised enough to leave the damn room it seems.   For those final days in the third week of November – or more importantly NaNoWriMo – I typed at home, upstairs in my writing room (JK would be so proud that I’ve given a title to the box bedroom) to the soundtracks of Alexander Desplat* while the word count to my WIP grew at a steady rate.   I occasionally opened the window if the wind was in the correct direction in the hope those huge flies, I think there were three, would depart.  They never did. 

This year I used the annually recognised adventure to thrash out terrible unplanned words in order to raise the measly manuscript which all summer had sat around laughing at me, defiantly remaining the length of around a third of an average novel.   

This First Draft, let’s called it FD, sat under the cherry tree with me as I photographed corners of my laptop, dappled sunlight on the pint of orange squash for the benefit of my Instagram followers, and chortled about my attempts to build backstory.

FD hovered at the edge of the fleece blanket on the grass in full midday sun when I tried to use pen and paper to plot.   I’d often doodle instead and watch ants make their way towards my scorched red thighs.

FD has plagued me and taunted me with kisses of promised scenes so evocative that I believed I simply could not let it go.  It’s like I’ve been having an affair all year with something delectable.  Yet something always a few centimetres out of my grasp.   I can see it quite clearly, in all its Italian glory; the sunsets, vines, the chemistry between Martha and Antonio, the dark chapters and fear.   But have the actions of my fingers on the keyboard over the months done that vision justice?  In one word, NO.

How do I know that?  Because the half hour one-to-one I had on the first full day of my writing retreat in Devon with the talented Julie Cohen was spent chatting about what the first three chapters and my early attempt at a synopsis had ‘given’ her insofar of vibe.   Now, while we all know that newbie writers have to learn their trade so can be forgiven a weak synopsis, it is precisely that document an agent or publisher will go on to read if they enjoyed the first three chapters, and it would be on the back of that synopsis that they would decide whether your efforts in front of them are worthy of more of their time, or are destined for the ‘No, thank you.’ pile.    (Some may read the chapters first to see if they like the ‘voice’ and then the synopsis to see if the storyline is up to scratch, but either way the combination of these two things are rather key.)

Hence, a synopsis is important to get right, not simply ‘acceptable for a first attempt.’   We are no longer in school dear friends.  We are out in the big wide world of fiction writing (I’m picturing a Lord of the Rings battle scene with black skies and slashing rain against old linen clothing if you will) wishing to get noticed amongst the massing throng of equally eager newbie writers all guarding their debut manuscripts tightly in that wind and rain should a precious page flutter down to the mud while all of us – that’s thousands – stand around for our chance at the one wooden door with the metal spikes ahead.

So, did I learn how to write a synopsis and was I told how to write my first three chapters so they were more compelling than I’d assumed they already were?  No I didn’t.   What was the point in me attending? I hear you ask.    Well, there are writing courses and writing courses.   There are probably courses on grammar, courses on editing, uses of the English language, how not to use cliches, cover designs – and more I’ve yet to read about – because the tutors for each of those subjects have knowledge to share and an income to earn.   So we, the desperate sponge-newbies wishing to soak up tips and information, have to choose courses wisely.    

I couldn’t be more delighted that my first writing retreat was spent under the watchful eye of Julie who has published over twenty books and at this present time may be best known for her Richard & Judy Bookclub read Together.  She asked us on day one if we wanted her to be gentle or tough, because tutors realise we have spent a lot of money to be there and a ‘had a nice time thank you’ might be the top priority of some attendees when they return to their homesteads and their family members ask them how it was.   

‘Be tough, I need to hear the truth.’  I told her, taking a deep breath.  And she was.  

The previous evening, our first, we had sat around the beautiful woodburner (after I’d re-started it and subsequently became know as the fire lady) and each took turns to tell the group what our book was about.   This sounds easier to do than it was.  Julie had a pad and a pen and we all sat with our socked feet tucked under ourselves hoping not to have to go first.  In fact, I think I did go first as one mantra I hold in life is get-it-over-and-done-with then you can relax (I taught my kids to do that with homework at weekends, so Sunday nights never held that sickening feeling of playing catch-up).   Anyway, off I went into the world of Blanche, Antonio, Martha, vineyards, interspersed with lots of nervous giggling and “I’m not selling this very well, am I”  to which Julie said with a smile – and had to repeat to others later,  “Just tell me what it’s about, it’s not a test.” 

Some time later, we’d all taken a turn and discovered the wonderful variety of ideas for possible future fiction existing in one room, including Julie’s own present WIP, which we were privy to – it was worth going just to hear that alone!   We had also had to write down on a piece of paper, for no-one else’s perusal other than our own, a couple of answers to a couple of questions.    

1) What message, if any, do you want your novel to convey to the reader – does it even have a message?   (Some scribbled furiously at this point and some stared into space.   I stared at the various stunning candles dotted around the room).

2)  Can you think of any other novels which might be similar to yours? (This is embarrassing as we all have our favourite famous authors, but surely we can’t possibly even hope to get anywhere near them in terms of quality, so I’ll just write JoJo’s name in very small letters at the bottom of this page and draw a square around it and wait for the next question.  Luckily we haven’t got to say these out loud).

3) How are you picturing your readers of the future will feel when they have finished the book – can you, in ONE word, explain the result of this feeling? (Shit, I should have taken those A levels).

Then suddenly it was nearly midnight and we all dispersed.   That wasn’t so bad, was it, I told myself as I climbed the steps to my little private room above a barn.   Debbie, our host and owner of Retreats for You in Sheepwash, Devon – and yes it is as cute as it sounds – had put hot water bottles in each of our beds while we had been laying our entrails out on the coffee table and I could have hugged her.   

The next morning after a hearty breakfast, where I did hug her, we group of jolly writers awaited the first morning’s session with a mix of excitement and trepidation.  We each had a half hour appointment on the sofa with Julie to listen to what she had to say – she’d had our first three chapters and wonderful synopsis emailed a few weeks before don’t forget.   Guess who went first?

“Ok, so I’m going to be tough.”  Julie lent forward to pour us both a tea and I elected not to reach for my mug in case my shaking hands threw it all over her A4 pad.   I smiled encouragingly.  “I’ve made a few notes from last night and I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t get any of that from your synopsis.   Now, is this a love story, or a crime story with a sprinkling of a relationship woven into it?”

“Er…”

“You see what you’ve got is a huge amount of Blanche in the first few chapters and while I understand you needed to know about why she went to Italy and her past, the reader doesn’t, and she dies, right?”

“Yeh … about chapter 5 I think.   And I do want it to be a love story about Martha and Antonio.  Yes I do.”  my heart is hammering in my chest now while I scrabble for something which sounds more confident.  I’m feeling about five.

“Well make it about those two then.   Blanche is dead right, so put her in the box far earlier!”  my heart actually stopped at that point … but you don’t know about all those chapters with Blanche and Martha looking through photographs from when Antonio and his brother were little and they’re so important.  I can’t tell her that now, she’ll think I’m nuts.   Shit I’m thirsty; that tea looks so good.   Oooh look, a labrador, come here and let me tickle your neck, I’m going to have to delete 15000 words of Blanche. Hell.  That’s my NaNo total fucked right there.  

Ok?”   Don’t say pardon.  

“Got it.  So Blanche is in the box.”

“Yes!  Good.  I’ve a saying and I want you to keep it in mind at all times.  DON’T GO WIDE, GO DEEP.”

I’m watching her hand movements and I know precisely what she means.   I’m thinking ‘Time Travellers Wife’ during which I didn’t give a monkey’s what the side characters got up to, I wanted only to know/read about Clare and whatshisface.  

“Tell us about Antonio, what he’s feeling, what he wants, then the same with Martha.   Dig deep into their pasts, what makes them tick.   Why do they do the things they do and make the choices they make?”  Shit, I don’t know, they’re fictional characters!  I nod and actually have to risk a sip of tea before I pass out.  Julie goes on, “Have you done character sheets?”  

Bollocks, I’d been avoiding those .   Nooo.  I’ve seen people doing them on IG and stuff.’ Well done, now you sound REALLY crap.

“They are really important.  I’m going to email you a questionnaire and you can make a copy and this afternoon I want you to spend time answering all the questions for each of Martha and Antonio.   There’s a lot of work there and don’t worry if you don’t write much of the book today.”   She smiled again then and it hit me that this genius of the literary world, who writes not just brilliant stories but has a sharp mind and incredible plot ideas was sat next to me, ME, sharing her views on my little tale.  Julie is not afraid of the publishing world and can think outside the box.  Her decision a year or so ago to leave one publisher who wanted her to change the ending of Together and find a new path proves she has guts too.   

I gathered up my papers, thanking her profusely, although what exactly for at that moment I wasn’t sure I could pinpoint and stepped over the two brown labradors snuffling in their sleep.  I passed the next attendee in the corridor.

‘Go ok?’

‘I think so.’  Back in my room, when I opened up the promised 4-page questionnaire Julie had already emailed across and read through the questions, I realised I’d not bothered to get to know my characters.  AT ALL.   Pants. 

So the week went on in much the same fashion.  We took the dogs for wind-swept walks in the rain and chatted about ideas which could fill our plot holes.   We talked, inspired each other, laughed and ate together.  A little knitting went on too.  There were four of us I’d class as aspiring authors, writers in our own right already and hopeful yet-to-be published and a fifth gem who I know from the Romantic Novelists Association.   Alison May was there more to develop her present WIP and what will become her eighth published novel I believe.  Alison runs writing courses also, so is much more experienced than the rest of us yet had this knack of including us all in discussions, scooping us up with her encouragement and hilarious wit.   My face ached with the humour she regularly injected into whatever room we found ourselves in.  She gave us a piece of serious advice which I promptly forgot, which was that when we returned home after this week, not to worry if we had a couple of days of low vibes about our work – it was quite normal to feel this way.   I met Alison through the RNA nearly a year ago and liked her bubbly personality immediately.   She is their Vice-Chairman and a New Writer’s Scheme advocate.    I am presently reading her latest published novel ALL THAT WAS LOST and it’s an intriguing story on dual time-lines with multiple POVs.   It shall have a post all to itself next week when I finish the book.  Back to Sheepwash.

Man of the Woods drove down to the tiny village on the river Torridge on the Friday afternoon which meant I was the one attendee who didn’t have to rush off after breakfast on the Friday to catch trains from Exeter, or drive their cars back along the M4 towards London to rejoin family.   Instead, I had a few hours to myself.  I sat with my adopted labradors and stared out across to the pub at which we’d be spending the next two nights.       

I was shattered. 

I was inspired beyond belief.   

I was in love; with my story, Antonio particularly, (must work on Martha) and what had just been.   

For me, the retreat was a roaring success.  I can say that with confidence now, nine days after coming home.   However, six days ago I did not feel like this.  I’d come to a grinding halt.   My story simply wasn’t good enough; without the backstory, what story was there?  

If I cut the fight scenes and lessen the crime element what was I left with?   

I simply wasn’t good enough.  Who on earth did I think I was?  

Perhaps I should just concentrate on hoovering the spiders around the bedroom ceiling and attempt to be a more efficient housewife and enjoy my already successful sole trader business of the last eleven years – forget the writing, and enjoy reading others’ work of fiction. 

Then something happened.  The little WhatsApp group we’d set up had been burbling along in the background.   I admitted I had stalled.   Someone reminded me of Alison’s warning and BINGO!  I was being perfectly ‘normal’!  Thank God.  

Somewhere along the line of months of writing, justifying myself and my words to the social media platforms, I’d forgotten another thing.   To be spontaneous and instinctive.    There are so many advisers out there; so many books and blogs and well-meaning people all delivering fabulous Dos and Don’ts that we can be left poised with hands above keyboards reciting all the rules and getting caught up in all the barbed wire of worries about typesetting issues as we go.  Or grammar.

So after the WhatsApp revelation, I got my notes out I’d taken on the final full day of the retreat and put into practice what I’d learnt regarding the use of Post-It notes.   Julie has a fabulous section on this on her website, so I won’t go in to detail here.  Suffice to say an hour after I started, I had both MC’s story arcs up on my wall, including new scenes (in other words new wordcount) which go deeper, not wider.     Blanche is in the box but I hope cleverly sprinkled throughout the manuscript in another form (not a ghost, I don’t do supernatural yet!).

Yesterday I went to bed with Stephen King.   He’s another affair I’m having and my regular blog readers will forgive me that.    I now open ON WRITING randomly whenever I want to be near him and never fail to be satisfied.   Chapter fourteen came to light last night and oh, how I read that with new eyes – it’s all about writing courses!

Julie’s GUIDED WRITING RETREAT was precisely that.   I was guided to this new version of myself.  I’m still an aspiring author.   I still hope and need to complete the FD but now I have a plan.  Not one I’ve copied from a book, but one I’ve seen in action.   Julie had us Post-It noting all over the walls of the cottage in Sheepwash, the story line from Cinderella.   We studied it, deleted bits from it and talked of the highs and lows of the story.   

I’ve always dumped myself firmly in the ‘pantser’ category of writers but I created a whole host of problems doing so.  I’m ironing them out now, using the tips I learnt on that final Post-It note day.   It was truly fascinating, and I can tell you one thing for sure.  Next year when I do NaNo – and I plan to – I shall spend October plotting and planning.    

No longer a pantser shall I be, 

as it simply doesn’t work for me.

PS  Leave a small amount of milk in a jug in a corner of the fly-bothered room.   For a week.  There were seven.