Retreating to Northmoor

It’s good to get away

I have found getting around to any writing this year to be difficult. I am sure it’s the sort of thing, all writers face: family illness, travelling for work, school stuff, just eating and sleeping. Everything seemed to stand in my way. Even my reviews have dropped off (not because I haven’t been reading); I simply didn’t have time to even contemplate what I was going to say. So, when confronted by my inability to carve out time to do one of the things I love in life (along with sailing, running, cycling, and not forgetting being with my family), I had booked to go on the wonderful Imagine Writers’ Retreat to Northmoor House on Exmoor.

Driving through Dulverton and up to the house itself is quite an adventure. You have to cross a magical troll bridge over the river Barle and round a sharp bend in the road, you see the former gatehouse. Trundling slowly down the gravel drive brings you to the House. It’s intimidating exterior and grand oak doors hide bedrooms galore and some of the largest baths in the world (ok slight exaggeration but I think I tried 4 different baths, all of which you could easily get lost in!). When I arrived, I was greeted by the wonderful and talented Jenny Kane. She and her business partner Alison, ran the retreat. They were relaxed and didn’t expect any of the attendees to fulfil anything other than their own goals. So if you didn’t want to take part in any exercises or events, you simply didn’t!

 

I had chosen my room on a previous visit. It’s not the sort of room you’d expect to me in, after all, I am not exactly girlie! But there I was unpacking my supplies (copious amounts of bubble bath, dodgy flavoured tea bags, and running kit) in the Flower Room. I’d chosen it on the basis of being able to look out over the garden and the room’s calming green colours. I also knew that it was a room where I could work, undisturbed and in a focused manner. By the time I had made it down to the kitchen with my ginger tea bags, most of the writers had arrived ready and prepared to get down to it. 6 of us were there for the first evening meal, along with Jenny and Alison. It was a fantastic meal. Chatting about writing moved from the mundane, to the extraordinary and beyond. In fact, all the evening meals were times where we openly discussed the writing process, progress or lack thereof (!) and were an inspiration to me. I learnt about my characters through these discussions and also realised that sometimes your characters don’t do what you think they should, and that’s fine!

 

The following morning, I was up and in the kitchen for my coffee very early, well earlier than most! I then cleared off for a run. Retreats are about writing I hear you scream. Actually, they’re about freedom. The freedom to give yourself the space to think. Something that I don’t get to do most of the time. Running through the grounds and out onto the footpath, I met a deer and her fawn, down near the water. They were beautiful but my heavy footsteps on the path startled them and they ran up the steep sided bank and watched me lumbering along. The image stuck with me and funnily enough, ended up in my writing that afternoon. It was an beautiful day and I think each of the writers ended up outside at some point, working in the sunshine.

 

In the evenings, we had two visiting writers. The first was Dan Metcalf, children’s author, scriptwriter, and lovely person. The world is small and the moment he mentioned going to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School, once more my past came up behind me and whacked me over the head with a big stick! However, times have moved on and Dan’s writing career was part computer generated, part gritty determination, all fuelled by talent. His revelations about the trials and tribulations of a jobbing author working full time and fitting his writing into every spare moment, struck a chord with most in the room. He was generous with his time, staying for dinner and answering endless questions about getting published. Dan has quite some tales to tell and, if you haven’t seen him speak, I highly recommend you do.

Our second author visit was from the equally wonderful Kate Griffin. Her marvellous stories of the incredible Kitty Peck are all set in the Victorian period around the East End of London. Recounting tales of her family in the East End and her visits to music halls both renovated and crumbling, kept all of us enthralled. One of the areas that she recommended to us was entering competitions, as her own break to publication was through entering a competition.She also mentioned that the latest trend in publishing was around ghost stories and that it worth paying attention to what publishers want. Kate was brilliant at bringing her characters to life and I must admit, if it wasn’t for the fact that I am reading as many children’s books as possible, I would be off to buy her books now! Like Dan, she stayed for dinner and continued to discuss with the assembled group her experiences and encouraged all of us to get our ideas written.

In amongst the residents, there were some day visitors, evening visitors, two day stayers, overnight guests, etc. We were a really eclectic mix, ranging in age and interests, at different stages of our writing ‘journey’ for want of a better word. The different genres and ideas were really inspiring and whilst I produced a massive 15,000 words in 3 days (this is the way I work, I probably won’t write anything for weeks now!), it wasn’t about the amount but that my own story took a dramatic twist over the breakfast table! The support and time given by Jenny and Alison to everyone was unstinting. Not once did Jenny mind me wandering over and asking a question or chatting randomly about character development.

   

I am feeling somewhat bereft now. I am missing the camaraderie, the excellent food, and the time to write. I have already booked my place on the next one and requested the Flower Room again, along with everyone else (it was a huge success!). But Jenny and Alison have another idea for a spring retreat. So keep an eye out. My advice, spend time working with other writers; they’re the best people in the world.

 

Planning

Learning the Craft

I love writing.

I will make up all sorts of silly stories, poems, notes, sentences, words. However, I am not confident in what I do. Like every writer, I wonder if anyone will want to read my stories. After all, I’ve delayed and delayed writing anything that could be considered fully formed. So, in order to understand the writing process, I’m trying to get to as many workshops and meetings with other writers as I can.

Writing like all crafts has some groups that you can access and some you can’t. However, I have so far taken advantage of the Literature Works, How to get Published Conference, which was brilliant and which has really moved me forward. I’ve followed every single person I can find on Twitter to see what they are reading and absorb their advice. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators so I can attend some of their courses and read their magazines. I’ve read two other writing magazines and kept some useful articles and, today, I went to a course run by Imagine Creative Writing in Tiverton.

I know that when I taught creative writing with GCSE students, I’d talk about having some kind of structure to the writing. How was it going to end? Were you going to start ‘In Media Res’? Could you create a story with only one character? How would you get me interested in the first 3 lines? When it came to A-level creative writing, we always talked about suspense and how you could tease your reader. We’d look at more complex story structures than beginning, middle, and end. We’d talk about motifs and themes. So I know a tiny little bit about planning. Do I do it myself? Ummm … nope! I seem to have entire novels fully formed in my head. My latest story of family loss and rebuilding has been lurking around in my head for a while but was influenced by a homemade sign I saw on a lamppost in Shaldon: “Lost: Cat. Ran away from Cattery. Could be  trying to get back to Dawlish.” Now, my story has nothing to do with cats (well not this one anyway) but the poster made me think about how young people cope with loss. Then I had a family, I had a setting, and a ‘voice’. So after that I sat down to write!

Today, after a wonderful 2 hours with the fantastic Jenny Kane, I realised that I probably (having written over 5000 words) ought to have a little think about timelines and how my story hangs together. In the class, we did two exercises which really made me think about story construction and I realise, I am driven by titles and names but I will come back to that in another blog! The first exercise, involved using a random story generator. What a fantastic resource this is for just getting some ideas. So what did we end up with:

  • Main Character
    Man in his late 40s who can be quite eccentric
  • 2nd Character
    A young man in his late teens who can be quite imaginative
  • Setting
    The story begins in an alleyway
  • Situation
    A 30 year old murder case is resurrected
  • Theme
    A story about vengeance
  • Character Action
    A character has to do some quick thinking to keep ahead

Now, I was off … as always, disappearing into my Philip Marlowe type world of police detectives and dead bodies. I did smile though, as the work I had done at my previous workshop on opening lines had an immediate impact. Here is my opening line:

“Boney fingers were visible underneath the black bin bags that lined the alley.”

What fun!

Next exercise was to create a timeline for a story outline which we created from a set of prompts. This was quite a challenge but it also showed me how I really needed to think about this for my own story. I would never have thought to do this had I not been shown. Now it might be obvious to everyone else but I think with longer writing, as I used to say to my students, if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know you are there! The next step for me, is to create the timeline for my own tale of loss, which has quite a complex narrative structure … But I know that 11 and 12 Year olds love stories that move through different times and places. Just look at Harry Potter.

Thank you again to Jenny and to the other lovely students, who created some amazing writing and were so supportive. I am not going to forget the dark gothic tale of dogs and cats that one lady came up with for some time!

In the Beginning

Well … here it is the start of my writing adventure!

So far, two books started and one nearly finished. Hundreds of ideas logged and noted down. When I taught and we would embark on some creative writing, I used all sorts of tools to encourage students to ‘get started’: photos, paintings (particularly Bruegel, some of those pictures were superb for creating a character), music, posters, cartoons. But even with all that stimulation, I’d still hear, ‘I don’t know what to write.’

So where do my ideas come from. I think some of them are stimulated by a title, or a sound or a memory. I worked with teenagers and they are a source of so much inspiration. They are both full of arrogance and self doubt and desperate to be seen as adults. So to all of them that I looked after over 25 years, you have all influenced my writing and whether they are ever published or not, I guess I should say thank you. Some of my ideas though are complete curve balls influenced by some nutty moment that I experience whilst out shopping or doing something that seems completely ordinary. For instance, I was sitting outside my son’s swimming lesson and in the corridor was a mum with her daughter. The daughter was throwing the most unbelievable tantrum and threw a wooden hairbrush down the corridor, narrowly missing a toddler on the floor. This has spawned an idea for a comedy horror book for 5 – 8 year olds! I wonder if that little girl will recognise herself in it.

I think at the moment, I have notes on about 10 different ideas. Some of them will come to nothing. Others … well who knows. When it comes down to it, the only way to write is to sit down and do it. There used to be a poster near the reception of the Brotherton Library at Leeds University that said something along those lines. Can’t remember the actual quote or the person who said it now (it was 25 years or so ago!) so if anyone can enlighten me that would be good. It was an excellent quote! Anyway, I digress, what I am trying to say is that I love writing. Whether it’s this blog or writing PRs for my work, or creating interesting content for websites, I can’t stop writing. So with an over active imagination and wanting to use time wisely rather than wasting it away, I might as well produce some stories.

Now then … back to the beach and my leading lady, Sophie. Let’s see what she does today.