Beat This Retreat

I’ve never retreated anywhere – unless you count retreating to the sideline in PE class in the eternally optimistic view that the teacher wouldn’t notice my absence (really, I was doing them all a favour). So when a wise and encouraging writing friend suggested a writing retreat to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ll admit I was in two minds.

Would I be locked away in a cell-type room with a narrow bed and room only to swing my pants?

Would everyone be earnestly writing away 24/7, too preoccupied to pass the time of day?

Would there be an enforced vow of total abstinence (from the sauce, I mean; I certainly didn’t go on a writing retreat for anything else)?

Answers: yes; no; definitely not.

My accommodation was indeed a cell-type room.img_20180507_181524775_hdr202652813.jpg

And I know it was big enough to swing my pants because I tried, – in lieu, you understand – of an actual cat. Although I doubt I could have swung my jeans. But here’s the thing: despite Moniack Mhor having numerous other writing spaces – communal lounges by wood stoves; a straw-bale hobbit house where a writer can go the full Tolkein and forge works of wonder to throw into the fires of publishing;img_20180507_205347522177698084.jpg

a stone, story-telling circle – I found that I gravitated back to my little room. It was here that I wrote the most words (9310, if you’re counting. I was). It was here that I found inspiration to begin a first draft. It was here I felt energised to keep going. I was content in my confinement. Ideas seemed to expand beyond the constriction of my four looming walls. There might not have been space on my desk for more than a laptop, cup of tea and pack of regulation Tunnocks caramel wafers (these are essential for Scottish-based writers who include them in their retreat riders), but, I reasoned, if Oscar Wilde could turn out great literature from Reading Gaol, then I could turn out a first draft of something that might or might not escape my laptop one day.

And, to be fair, I doubt his view could match this:

And although my room was next to one of the communal bathrooms (actually useful when you’re waiting, towel over arm, ready to pounce when vacated), I’d imagine Oscar was required to ‘powder his nose’ somewhat less comfortably.

Of course, folk were there to write, as was I. But my fears that my fellow inmates retreaters would be locked away all day, every day, were unfounded. There was always someone to chat with over a cup of tea (at least ten sorts of tea – and I love tea inclusivity…or inclusivitea, if you will), or to take a stroll in the forest with, or to stoke one of the log-burners with.  And it was this aspect of the retreat that I most appreciated: the community of writers.

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A tribe of scribes. (Flyingscribbler: top row, right)

We were all there because we love to write, love to share our writing experiences, and love to support and encourage each other in our writing endeavors. It was a joy to meet such a diverse group of writers; between us we had most genres covered: children’s, YA, adult, crime, script, memoir, plays, poetry…Writers don’t always get out much, but when they do, they like to talk.

Which brings me on to point three.

When the cat’s away, as they say…

Moniack has an arrangement that the writers cook dinner for each other in teams. This means, at 4pm, after a quick briefing on what/how/how much to cook, the staff leave the building. We only realised the significance of this on the final evening, when, after an astonishingly delicious Haggis dinner (OK, I was on Team Haggis), washed down by most folk with wine, and a wee dram, and whisky sauce with the haggis, and whisky in the cranachan dessert, we all realised we were home alone. Did we polish off the single malt? No, we did not. Did we dare each other to read aloud from our hard-earned word-smithing? No. Did we turn in for an early night? No, of course not.

We toured the site, room-by-room, on a giddy comparison quest. Whose room was largest; whose desk the widest; whose view the most panoramic. Childish? Yes! Writerly? Who cares! What a laugh. And, dear reader, I won. Not the largest, widest or most panoramic room prize. No. To the delight of a fellow writer who had laboured all week under the impression that she was installed in the least commodious room, I proudly showed off my small, perfectly-formed, and highly productive cell room.  “Lady Bracknell herself,” I didn’t say (but wish I had), “couldn’t have swung her handbag in here.” My new writing friends concurred, and I won the smallest room sweep stake.

And so we returned to the lounge to celebrate our week of writing, community, and celebration.

Moniack Mhor is a glorious place in a wonderful location with amazing staff and an atmosphere that inspires. I’m going back, and if the only room left is what I shall henceforth call “The Oscar Wilde Suite”, then so be it.

Although the double bed with ensuite would be nice too.

 

 

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Turning chaos into order…or pin-board procrastination.

I reached peak pin-board yesterday.

I ran out of cork to pin to ages ago; instead, I’ve been layering ideas. Thought upon thought. Plot upon plot. Names upon names. I’d begun sticking post-its to each other; sellotaping scraps of paper to more scraps of paper. So many ideas – some good, most bad – that the weight of them threatened to bring the pin-board crashing down.

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I know there’s a best selling concept under there…somewhere…

It had never been a big enough board, and of course I’d always intended replacing it with something more suited to the creation of fabulous stories. And yet….

You know how it is: I just never got round to it. But then came yesterday.

Yesterday, I blithely began another attempt to plough on with a first draft (it’s taking so long, my very patient boy protagonist will be sporting a hipster beard before he finally, if ever, wins the day). A few minutes into the writing session I was in need of a name; not a new name, but one I’d given to a character some months ago. I’d scribbled it on a post-it and…er…posted-it on the board. Somewhere. Carefully, almost forensically, I began lifting edges of post-its and scraps of paper, peering hopefully under layer upon layer, month upon month of hastily scrawled moments of inspiration. A kind of foolscap archaeology; leafing through the recent past of my writing. Eventually, I found the name I was looking for. I also found other names. Character names; street names; house names. And plot ideas. And spanners to throw in the works. And motivations. And…loads of really good stuff which I’d forgotten about, and not written in to my draft, because…I COULDN’T SEE THEM RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME WHERE I NEED THEM TO BE!

I made it to the end of that chapter and then downed tools. Time for action. To order my thoughts I needed to bring order to the chaos in front of me. A quick click here, a double-click there, and a double-quick delivery later, my new, super-sized, super-smart, and super-empty pin-board arrives.

Down comes the old. I peel away the layers; slowly revealing months, no years, of thoughts and memories. It’s like stripping wallpaper in a listed house. Who knows what marvels lie beneath that 70s flock? I find: postcards from exhibitions I’d forgotten I’d been to; a list of potential character names; a picture of me jumping for, what appears to be actual joy on my fortieth birthday; my delegate card from my first SCBWI conference.

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Where there once was chaos…

And so to my new pin-board. Is this how great artists feel when presented with a blank canvas? Did Picasso have a moment of hesitation as he contemplated a new masterpiece? Possibly. I know did. How to order my post-its? Where to place my protagonist’s family tree and the town plan? Do I place my ideas horizontally, vertically, or inspirationally in a circle? Should I clear my board of anything that isn’t related to my work-in-progress?

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Order from chaos. At last.

After some deliberation and, ok, yes, some deliberate procrastination (we all do it; don’t pretend you’ve never fallen prey… organising your books, again… nipping down for one last coffee before really, actually, starting work… sorting the washing… grouting the tiles…) I’ve done it! I finally have a well-ordered, easy-on-the-eye (and brain), useful pin-board. Ideas found with a single glance. Place names located with a flick of an eye. Plot twists remembered in seconds, not hours; remembered at all, in fact.

Yes, my pin-board upgrade might have taken all afternoon to complete, and who knows what I might have written in those hours? But the potential for better-structured, chaos-free writing hours tomorrow, was worth the hours lost today.

If your pin-board has become a post-it graveyard and you can’t see the cork for a tree’s worth of paper, it might be time to remove, refresh and re-pin your ideas. I’m hoping it will kick-start my writing and re-gear my first draft; time to move my story into the fast lane with the help of ordered thoughts and easy-to-see ideas.

Until I reach peak pin-board again. And then I’m in trouble: I’ve run out of walls.

Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.

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Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.

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Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.