writing retreat

In which Cora gets shortlisted for an award

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Yesterday the shortlists for the RoNA Awards were announced, and (cue much jumping up and down and squealing) Cora’s Christmas Kiss is shortlisted for the RoNA Rose prize for best short or series romance. Here it is alongside the other four shortlisted titles:

Rona Rose cover images

Being shortlisted for the RoNAs is ridiculously exciting. The RNA, which organises the RoNA awards, is the organisation that made me think that maybe I could be a writer. Doing my degree in creative writing was what made me determined that I wanted to try, but it was the RNA that made me think it might actually be possible.

It was through the RNA that I met fantastic, inspirational working writers like Julie Cohen, Rowan Coleman, and Katie Fforde. It was through an RNA party that I first met my current publisher, and off the back of a really constructive RNA New Writers’ Scheme report that I actually got up the nerve to submit my first manuscript to her. It was through the RNA’s local chapter groups that I made some of my closest writing friends (one of whom – the utterly fab Janice Preston – is also nominated in the same category). So to be shortlisted in the RoNAs is particularly pleasing. It’s like having an especially valued teacher or a mentor tell you that you did ok. In her own post about the RoNAs Liz Fenwick describes the RNA as her tribe, and I can’t think of a better way of putting it. Although writing is, in many ways, a disgustingly solitary endeavour, it takes a village to get a book from idea to publication – especially a first book – and the RNA were my village.

It’s also particularly pleasing to see Cora’s Christmas Kiss shortlisted for this award. Cora has already had one shortlisting for the Love Stories Awards, and I’m ridiculously proud of the positive response to the book. While I was writing Cora the book had the working title of ‘Ridiculously Complicated and Stupidly Over-Plotted Novella’ and the moments of self-doubt as to whether I could pull off the idea that I had were many, deep and lasting. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t need the validation of shortlistings and nice reviews, but I really really do. Ultimately books are for readers, not for writers, so hearing that readers liked a book is both massively gratifying and a huge relief.

So there you go. I’m quite excited, and prone to much giddiness at the moment – I haven’t even started on the list of people who’ve previously won RoNAs (JoJo Moyes, Jenny Colgan, Veronica Henry to name just three – squeeeee!) Anyway, I do hope you’ll excuse the light gushing.

I hope you’ll also excuse me mentioning that there are still places on my June Developing Your Novel Workshop and the May Novel Writing Retreat I’m running with Janet Gover, and that they’re both now taught by a RoNA nominee so are totally better value than they were yesterday…

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In which I think about teaching

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I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.

I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.

However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*

I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.

There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.

 

* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.

In which I wonder whether you can teach someone how to write a novel

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I spent the weekend here:

The Fish Hotel

That’s part of the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds where I had the pleasure of leading a tutored novel writing retreat, with the awesome Janet Gover (my co-tutor and photo taker) and the lovely writers pictured hard at work below. It was a fantastic weekend. I love tutoring novel-writing – increasingly I find that I think of myself as a tutor who writes, rather than a writer who teaches. Either way, I’m stonkingly fortunate that I get to do both.

Farncombe 2015 students

And as a writing tutor, it irks me somewhat when I hear people saying ‘Well you can’t teach someone to be a writer’ or other words to that effect.

So that’s my question for the day? Can you teach novel writing?

Well yes. Of course you can.

Hmm… on reflection, this is turning out to be a really short blog post. I’m going to have to expand my thoughts a little, aren’t I?

Right then. Here we go.

The idea that writing is a special ethereal thing that springs forth from the great spiritual well and can not be taught be tawdry human means irks me, as a teacher, because I think it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching is.

Too often we think of a teacher as somebody who stands at the front of a room and imparts definitive knowledge. There is one right way to wire a plug. There is one right answer to 2+2. Those things can obviously be taught. There isn’t one universal right way to write a novel, so that’s just something people have to work out for themselves. Right? Wrong. Because standing at the front and saying ‘Do this. Do only this and always this,’ is a very tiny slither of what teaching can, and should, be.

Another way of approaching the question ‘Can x be taught?’ is to, instead, ask ‘Can x be learnt?’ Essentially if something involves skill or knowledge then those things have to be be learnt, and a good teacher can help a receptive student learn them more quickly or more effectively, because learning is a process. It’s a process of trying things, recognising successes and failures, revising your approach, and trying again. A large part of teaching is about suggesting what to try, identifying success and failure and helping the student revise their approach. All those things can be done more effectively with somebody, who understands both the process of learning and something about the thing you are trying to learn, holding your metaphorical hand or kicking your metaphorical butt.

What you can’t teach is passion. You can’t make somebody want to write a novel, but if somebody has decided on that path, then a good creative writing tutor can absolutely help them to get there. I was helped massively on my journey to publication by two incredible tutors – Deb Catesby, who is now a visual artist, and Julie Cohen. There are, however, a lot of not so good creative writing tutors out there, so here are my tips for finding a good tutor and the right course for you.

  1. Work out what you want to learn. Are you writing for personal pleasure or for publication? Are you interested in exploring your creativity, or developing a skills to write in a specific form or genre? Different writing courses are different – some focus strongly on writing for publication, some give exercises in lots of different forms and genre to explore different types of writing. If you know what you want, then don’t be afraid to ask whether the course suits your needs.
  2. Ask about the tutor’s writing experience. We’ve all heard stories about tutors running ‘masterclasses’ in genres they’ve never written or published. Find out what the tutor’s experience in the subject they’re teaching is.
  3. Ask about the tutor’s teaching experience. Teaching is a specialist skill. Writing a bestseller or a Booker Prize winner doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher. If you’re handing over money for a course then there’s nothing wrong with asking the tutor what they’ve taught before, or even asking if they have feedback from past students that you can look at.
  4. Be wary of tutors who promise to impart the secret to writing a novel/play/shopping list or who offer definitive rules on what you must and must not do to get published. There is no secret. The only rules are ‘write the sodding book’ and ‘make the sodding thing work’ and I’ve just given you those for nothing.

So there you go. There are my thoughts on tutoring writing and creativity. If you’re interested in hearing about courses I’ve got in the pipeline, including next year’s tutored retreat, then head over to the Contact Me page and drop me a message with your details to join my courses mailing list.

In which I go to ChipLitFest and think about The Fear

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This weekend was the annual ChipLitFest which is the popular name for Chipping Norton Literary Festival, and not a litfest that mainly focuses on chips. Although chips are great. Someone should do that. Books and chips. Mmmm… lovely.

Sorry. What was I saying? Oh yes. ChipLitFest is a really fun festival to go along to – it seems to hit the balance between events for writers and events for readers really nicely, and it always seems to have a very friendly buzzy atmosphere. I went to three events this year – Pitch the Agent with Carole Blake, The Richard & Judy Book Club, unsurprisingly with Richard, and indeed also Judy, and The Art of the Rewrite with Julie Cohen and her many many post it notes.

All three events were interesting and well presented. Julie Cohen did interviewer duty for Richard and Judy and did a really good job of getting a pair of professional interviewers to sit back and answer the questions. Julie’s session on rewriting was also excellent, even though she could clearly have waxed lyrical on the wonders of prettily coloured stationery for much longer than the measly hour she was allowed. And listening to Carole Blake’s considered responses to five very different novels was fascinating. It also demonstrated how subjective books and reading ultimately are. The one novel where Carole Blake questioned the storyline – where a young woman disguises herself as a man to enlist in WW1 – was the one that I thought sounded awesome. Assuming the piece was well-written and structured I’d be championing that book without hesitation if I was a literary agent. Unfortunately for the author I’m not. Sorry.

The other attraction of events like ChipLitFest is the social element. This was the first year that I’ve gone along on my lonesome, but fortunately there were a lot of RNA and local writer chums around to hang out with which was lovely. One topic that came up a lot in the social chat, and during the formal sessions, and which I hear about a lot from writing students, was the issue of who sees your work before you submit or publish it. My answer is generally pretty simple – nobody. Occasionally I’ll put one or two chapters in front of a workshop session or critique group, and occasionally I’ll ask a specific person a specific question about a short passage or story idea, but essentially no one reads my drafts. I don’t use beta readers anymore – although I did have one for my very first book, and I would consider it if I was making a substantial shift in terms of genre or writing style. I don’t have a critique partner. My friends and family don’t read my drafts.

When I tell people that, it’s often mistaken for a sign of Great Confidence, which is definitely isn’t. I don’t think I’ve met a writer who possesses Great Confidence in their work. We have moments of feeling like a piece might be slightly less rubbish than we feared, and moments where a short section flows from our typing fingers with such grace and ease that we momentarily think it might be sort of nearly acceptable, but that’s pretty much as good as it gets. The reason nobody reads my drafts is because my belief in those drafts is delicate and tenuous – one poorly-worded or ill thought out critique comment can break that tenuous belief.

I also think that if you seek too many opinions on a piece you can end up editing out your own voice, your own unique take on the world. You can lose that elusive thing that made the story a story that only you could tell. That doesn’t mean that no one else looks at my books until they’re published. I write for Choc Lit, and everything they publish goes through a Tasting Panel of readers before it’s accepted. My novels and novella are then read by my editor, who pulls together the feedback from the tasting panel (so I don’t see that feedback in its ‘raw’ form) along with her own thoughts, into a revision report that I use to guide me through one, two, three, or more rounds of edits until we get to a book that we’re both happy with. If I was with an agent, then they’d read my work pre-publication, probably pre-submission to publisher, as well and possibly suggest revisions too.

Editors and agents though, I would hope, are reading from the point of view of ‘How can we bring out the best of this author’s voice, or the best of this story/character idea?’ If you’re looking for a critique partner or beta reader, I would suggest that you need to find someone with that same outlook. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be universally positive, but criticisms need to be constructive. And never forget that it’s your book, not theirs. The person who needs to believe in it ultimately is you. Years ago I went to a talk by Miranda Dickinson, who gave out postcards and stickers with motivational sayings for writers on them. At the time I remember rolling my eyes in a cynical Northern girl sort of way, but I still kept the sticker that says ‘Be your novel’s biggest fan.’ It may be cheesey but it’s also absolutely necessary. Don’t put on rose-tinted glasses so you’re unable to see and fix your novel’s flaws, but be wary of anything that makes your belief in your story falter. That belief can be delicate, and is absolutely precious. Hold onto it, and be wary of anyone who makes that belief falter or crack.

And here endeth the lesson.

Don’t forget that if you want an awesome weekend to focus on your own writing – including some positive constructive belief-building critique – then Janet Gover and I are offering just that this October. Details here

In which I muse on London Book Fair

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Last week was London Book Fair, the UK’s annual gathering of the publishing industry where agents, publishers, and booksellers come together and do vast amounts of publishing industry type stuff. Essentially LBF is a massive trade fair, where agents and publishers tout their wares. Rights sales are the main order of business, and it’s a thoroughly busy and buzzy place to be, but the wisdom in times of yore was that LBF was most definitely for business not for actual writers.

Recently, however, the good people behind LBF have been making a concerted effort to lure more authors along, setting up a section of the show headed ‘Author HQ’ with specific events aimed at writers rather than publishers or agents. This year, for the first time, I bought a ticket and headed to the Big City to see what it’s all about.

So was it worth it? Well, yes and no. I had a fun time. I went out for lunch with my publisher and editor, and a fab group of authors who either write for Choc Lit as well or are chums through the Romantic Novelists’ Association. It’s always nice to go out for lunch, and it was particularly nice to meet my editor, who, despite have worked on for four separate books, I’d never actually met in real-not-on-the-internet-life.

I also went to a Dragon’s Den style pitch-the-agent event where ten very brave authors pitched their books to a panel of agents and editors in front of a live audience. It was interesting to see the sort of feedback the agents gave, and also hugely impressive to see the authors involved lay themselves and their book-babies out for criticism so publicly. However, I’ve been to a number of talks by agents and editors, and I follow quite a few industry blogs (Lizzy Kremer’s Publishing for Humans is my current favourite) so there wasn’t a huge amount in the feedback that was unexpected.

Apart from that the Author HQ talks I saw were fine, but at a fairly introductory level. There would probably be some interesting stuff for new writers trying to decide whether to pursue a traditional publishing route or self-publish, but for as an already published author looking for progress my career further still, I didn’t find a huge amount at Author HQ for me. So my personal conclusion on LBF for writers: go if you think the price of the ticket is worth it for the buzz alone, but it’s probably not the best place to pick up information and ideas for developing your writing or writing career. Personally, I think I’d probably only be tempted to go again, as an author, if I had a specific must-see event to go to, or specific people I needed to meet. Of course that’s just my opinion- here’s an alternate view from Liz Fenwick.

So that’s London Book Fair. ‘What other interesting events for writers are coming up?’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s jolly funny you should ask that, because I myself am in the process of plotting an awesome event for developing writers. This October, I’m teaming up with Janet Gover to tutor a weekend writing retreat at the beautiful Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds. There’ll be lots of writing time, one-to-one tutorials, group workshops, and the price also includes your accommodation and plenty of lovely yummy food. The full cost of the retreat is £350, but if you book in before the end of May we’re offering a 10% early booking discount, so you pay just £315. All the details and the retreat booking form are here. It would be lovely to see some of you there.

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.