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

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.

In which I think about the difference between real-life and makey-uppy

‘Fiction makes sense and real life doesn’t.’ The very clever and lovely Julie Cohen has just announced that to me out of my computer (via Writers’ Web TV – she doesn’t actually live in my computer, I don’t think). And that thought set off a little ping inside my brain because I’ve been thinking about that very question of the distinction between real life and makey-uppy a lot of late.

I’m currently working with my delightful new editor on the final tweaks to Sweet Nothing, which, barring last minute delays, will be out in the world next month. And I’m starting to think seriously, for the first time, about the fact that people might read it. Realistically, as it’s a debut novel by a total unknown a high percentage of the people who read it will be friends or acquaintances. And at least some of those people are going to read my story of a bickery and weirdly dysfunctional relationship between a nerdy thirty-something year old man and an artsy-literary woman, and they’re are going to look at myself and EngineerBoy and they’re going to make a fairly obvious assumption about where the inspiration for those two characters came from.

And when they do that I will huff and puff, and get offended and bang on about how it’s obviously fiction and it’s not based on real life, and I shall probably say that it’s shows a lack of imagination to assume such a lack of imagination on the part of the writer. And when I react like that I shall be at least half right.

But actually it’s a little bit more complicated than that. Those two characters absolutely aren’t based on EngineerBoy and me. I can’t, personally, think of anything more skin crawling than consciously and intentionally typing out the details of your most intimate relationships and then sending them to a beta reader and an editor and then out into the world. I feel faintly exposed just typing the notion onto this blog. Developing and writing those characters, I didn’t start by thinking about any real people. They, and all the characters, are absolutely the product of my imagination.

However, my imagination is absolutely the product of my environment. What I imagine about how relationships work is entirely borne out of my own relationships. All the characters I write are products of my overcrowded, butterfly brain. It’s all completely made up, but I can only make-up what I can make up and that is bounded by the life I’ve lived and the people I know. So it’s kind of a circular problem. The characters I write and the stories I tell are definitely made up and definitely aren’t based on real life, but they’re made up out of my imagination, which is sculpted and defined by my real life, and round and round and round we go.

So, if you are so kind as to read Sweet Nothing when it comes out and you think you recognise a person or a place or an incident, don’t be scared – I promise that it isn’t you, or at least, if it is, I don’t know that it is, so there’s no need to feel weird. And here end my random writerly musings. I shall return soon, when hopefully Michael Gove will have annoyed me in a new and interesting way and I’ll be able to get a proper rant going. I’ve not had one of them for a while…


In which a dead twelfth century monarch inexplicably goes street

A funny thing happened to me this afternoon. I was drafting a short story for 42-Worcester, a local spoken word event focusing on the ghoulish and the speculative end of fiction. It’s an event I go along to quite often but very rarely perform at, because I tend to write novel length frothy romance, which wouldn’t quite be ideal to read aloud in a ten minute slot at a sci-fi and horror night.

Anyhoo, next month I’m down to perform and I was whipping together a little ghostly delight to share with the group; I alighted on the idea of writing about the ghosts of Worcester Cathedral focusing on Prince Arthur, the elder brother of Henry VIII, who is buried in Worcester. All was going swimmingly until the ghostly Arthur struck up a conversation with the even more longevitously deceased King John, and the dead twelfth century monarch starting talking like a 1990s rap wannabe.

“Wassup bro?” he said. This startled me somewhat, not simply because that’s a teeny bit anachronistic for a man of regal birth who died in 1216, but also because I had no idea he was going to say it, and still have absolutely no clue why he did. That is very very wrong. Ghost King John is fictional. He exists only inside my head. He should not say things if I don’t know why he’s saying them.

There is with writing, as with pretty much all creative endeavours, a sweet spot, where you get into a groove and the words just flow without very much conscious thought. It’s a beautiful and liberating thing. It happens, for me at least, for about five thousand words of an eighty thousand word book. The rest is sheer effort, but you stick with it in hope of alighting upon another few hundred words of magic carefree writing bliss.

King John going all street was beyond that though. This was a line that I typed with my own typing fingers which are attached to my typing arms which are attached to my shoulders which are attached to my neck which is attached to my head, which puports to contain my brain, and as soon as I’d typed them my brain yelled, “What?”

Ghost King John had properly gone rogue, beyond the control of his author. There are reasons history remembers him as Bad King John, and I’m increasingly convinced that an unwillingness to conform to his designated character arc is probably one of them. Bad Bad Fictional Ghost King John.

So that was weird. I mean, it’s totally fine. I can just go back and delete him. That’ll show him who’s in charge around here, but it leads me to a question for the writers out there – what do you do when a character goes rogue? Go along with it for the ride, or briskly reign them back onto the plan?