In which I go on a writing retreat and it is all rather lovely

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I got home last night from a two night writing retreat in deepest Devon. I’m rather proud of that sentence. While my publisher was busily winning Publisher of the Year, at the 2013 Festival of Romance (just had to get that in – yay Choc Lit!), I was on a retreat. Going on a ‘writing retreat’ really does sound like something that other, better, more grown-up writers would do. Proper writers with lots of writerly jewellery and a penchant for scarves and overusing the word ‘Darling,’ darling.

However, somehow I managed to slip under the radar and got allowed into to Retreats For You, on a tutored retreat with most excellent writer and Queen of the writing tutors, Julie Cohen. Retreats For You is an utterly brilliant place, run by Deborah Dooley and her partner, Bob. It provides a perfect little bubble in which to just do writing, with no distractions beyond the possibility of going out for a little stomp around the Devon countryside or wandering into the kitchen and snaffling another piece of flapjack. So my weekend was all open fires and literary thoughts…lounge-150x150

while, Engineer Boy stayed home and built these:

Now I need to buy more books

Apparently, these are just to store the insane number of books, I already own, rather than an excuse to buy tonnes more. We shall see…

Anyway, back to the retreat – Julie provided a counterpoint to all the lovely, comforting, warmth that Deborah offers, with her usual tough love approach to writing critique. Julie is not the right writing tutor for you, if you want to be patted on the head and told that everything you’ve written is brilliant. If you want to make the sodding book actually work and get written, she’s bloody marvellous though.

I’m in the early stages (about 25k in) of novel 2 at the moment, with novel 1 scheduled to launch into the world in the next few weeks. And I won’t lie. I’ve been struggling. Writing your second novel is an odd process. You know so much more than you did when you started novel 1, but that additional knowledge can be paralysing. It means that you see all of the problems as you’re writing them, so, rather than just bashing out a shoddy first draft which you can revise later, you get caught up trying to fix the problems as you go along and end up not really progressing at all.

Sometimes what you need at that point is a fresh pair of eyes to look at you sternly, and remind you to keep it simple and try not to actively turn your protagonist into an entirely unsympathetic psychopath. With novel 1, I can pinpoint the moment when it shifted from being an idea, into being a potential book. It was a conversation in a tutorial with my university tutor, Deb Catesby, where we talked about characterisation ideas. It sounds like a very minor point, but that was the point at which I decided that Ben, the hero, would be a mathematician. That decision defines how Ben sees the world, which defines how he interacts with the heroine, Trix, and how she then responds to him. It also gives the book it’s theme: Nothing & Everything (or for the maths-minded amongst you Zero & Infinity).

I think (although it’s too soon to be sure) that I had the equivalent of that conversation this weekend. Julie helped me to work out what my protagonist’s fundamental character needs are. Before that conversation I knew what the plot required her to do, but I hadn’t got clear why she behaves in the way that she does. Without that why, it’s almost impossible to give her the emotional depth she needs to make the reader empathise with her situation and behaviour.

Writing is a generally very solitary endeavour. That is part of the reason that we value organisations like the Romantic Novelists’ Association, that give us chances to change out of our pyjamas and interact with real people, so highly. It’s also part of the reason that we get so addicted to twitter and facebook. It makes a nice change from only talking with made up people. Sometimes though, you need to step away from your laptop and find a fresh brain to bounce ideas off, and you need that to be a person who’ll tell you honestly if they think you’re going the wrong way.

So, in summary, hurrah for Deborah Dooley and Retreats For You. Hurrah for really good writing tutors – Julie and Deb. And now, hurrah for getting one’s head down, stopping procrastinating, and just writing the bloody book.

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10 thoughts on “In which I go on a writing retreat and it is all rather lovely

    lizharriswriter said:
    November 11, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, Alison.

    Yes, writing book two is a scary thing, but it sounds as if you’ve cracked it, helped by what must have been a great weekend.

    Liz X

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      November 11, 2013 at 10:15 am

      I’m not sure if I’ve cracked it yet, but definitely made some progress 😉

      Like

    Laura James said:
    November 12, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    I’ve just understood why book 2 took me so long. Thank you 🙂
    Hope to make the next JC course. xx

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      November 12, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      She’s doing a Guardian masterclass with Rowan Coleman next year, which looks brilliant. I can’t make it, but am sure it would be well worth it the time and cost.

      Like

    Janet Gover said:
    November 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm

    The retreat sounds great. Julie is a fabulous tutor – and writes pretty fine books too! Book two for me was hard because it was contracted – suddenly it was real work not just a dream. I had a deadline and an editor to please and all that stuff. It’s called the second book blues – we all get it. In some ways book two felt even better than book one when I held it in my hands. Book one might be a fluke – but TWO books means a real writer. At least, that was how I felt. Mind you – am on book 6 now – and still get terrified that this time I might blow it!

    Like

      Alison May responded:
      November 12, 2013 at 4:49 pm

      Julie is great. I think that transition from writing being a fantasy to being real-life is weird (good weird, but still weird), and I definitely have the fear at the moment that book 1 might have been a fluke! Good to know it’s not just me!

      Like

    Angela Britnell said:
    November 12, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    You obviously had a great weekend and I’m sure Book 2 will be a huge success! Plus you got new bookshelves so a win all around I’d say 🙂

    Like

    lindashortstoriesLinda Mitchelmore said:
    November 12, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    I totally agree about the second book….a massive learning curve for me and now book three beckons…:)

    Like

    susanjanejones said:
    November 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing your great weekend, sounds idyllic.

    Like

    Jean Bull said:
    November 18, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Thanks, Alison, your writing retreat sounded wonderful. I too am floundering a bit with book 2, as you say, such a lot rides on it, especially if you have been through the experience before. Sounds as if you may have turned the corner though, good luck!

    Like

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