As you may recall, at the start of 2013 I set myself the challenge of re-writing my oft-rejected-but-apparently-not-that-bad novel after calling in the professionals. I spent weeks messing around with coloured pens, stickers and Post-It notes re-structuring the story and when (I thought) I had it right, I pinned them on a board so they couldn’t fly away. I could possibly have got the same result by throwing the pieces of paper up in the air and seeing where they landed: the front half of chapter 13 had joined forces with a flashback from ten chapters later; a big scene previously withheld until near the end was now the opening chapter, and so on.
This phase was so intense that I completely ran out of steam. I still needed to write important new flashbacks, new joins to make it flow again where everything had shifted, and not least, to improve and polish the writing in general (as it’s often said, there are advantages to revisiting the text a year later, even if it sometimes makes you cringe). But other things kept getting in the way: I was entering a lot of competitions and writing new short fiction; things were frantically busy on the Literary Sofa, not to mention the demands of family life…
…so I hatched an escape plan. My younger son, 11, was due to go on a residential activity week with his school so I decided to go away then, alone, and force myself to power ahead with the rewrite, because the longer I left it the more daunting it felt. A good friend owns a beautiful holiday home in the New Forest where I installed myself very comfortably for the week (well, Monday to Friday). I’d been there twice before with my book group, and its associations were of loud chatter, laughter, lots of eating and drinking. Good times, not hard graft.
No sooner had I put the retreat on my calendar and started to think That’s when I’ll get on top of it than my my son broke his toe badly (he practically broke it off). For a week or two both his and my trip were in jeopardy – if he couldn’t go, I couldn’t go. We were both very despondent. But the next doctor we saw was much more upbeat. I resisted the urge to jump for joy in case I broke anything of my own.
Writing retreats are so popular that almost every writer I know has been on one. Most involve other people, socialising and sometimes workshops. But if you know me, you’ll know why that wouldn’t work. If drinking and talking to interesting characters about writing and books was an option, I’d be tempted. Too tempted, hence the lockdown approach. No Wi-Fi, no TV…
I was excited until the week before I left. What if I got down there and found out it wasn’t the distractions but lack of commitment or ability stopping me? What if I couldn’t get into it and achieved nothing at all? I’m very grateful to all the Twitter friends who gave me pep talks and survival tips.
My friend’s flat is part of Annesley House, home of the prolific Victorian novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and I’m happy to report that her literary spirit lives on within its walls. (Not that I’m aiming to emulate her florid prose style). I put in days of 8 hours plus at the kitchen table, and concentrated for hours at a time when my normal span is about ten minutes. The time went very quickly, but progress was rapid. Of course I missed my family, but it was a real treat being able to do what I wanted when I wanted without having to take three other people’s needs and wishes into consideration. I could go to sleep at midnight and wake up at eight, not two hours earlier to the sound of my sons marauding around.
After the longest winter, spring finally arrived last week and I went for a mind-clearing walk in the New Forest each day. This is the kind of thing that sounds like lunacy to anyone who doesn’t write, but with all this unaccustomed mental space, I found myself right inside the characters’ heads and able to gain some fresh insight into their emotions – something the manuscript needed. I’d been advised to give myself some down time at night so I finished and started two great books (all I’ll say is watch out for Top 10 Summer Reads), drank wine in front of the fire and luxuriated in a fabulous huge bathtub.
It’s been pointed out that I didn’t strictly observe lockdown conditions (I didn’t realise there were rules) but it was lovely to receive a visit from my friend and fellow writer Isabel Rogers. We strictly adhered to literary topics over coffee in the cosy living room. I was on a high because it was all going so well. Suspiciously well…
My other reward for good behaviour was watching an episode of Mad Men Season 5 on my laptop each evening. I’d been bingeing on it ever since the DVD arrived, and it was only when I reached the final disc too quickly that I discovered I’d missed out two episodes from the first disc without realising. I watched them and was surprised that it made no difference what order they came in.
If only the same could be said of my chapters! On Thursday afternoon I discovered a horrendous – and what’s worse, blindingly obvious – error in my restructuring. Two chapters which absolutely had to be consecutive had ended up four apart. Sounds such an innocent little thing to remedy, doesn’t it? In reality it threw about ten chapters and linked flashbacks out of synch, took me a day and a half to begin to get my head round a solution and has left me with lots of extra re-writing to do, but that doesn’t matter. I’m far closer to nailing the re-write than I thought I’d be in such a short time.
They say you have to love your book and I do. I’ve never worked this hard on anything. Of course I sometimes wonder if it’s ‘worth it’, but the last week has changed the way I think about that. If you believe in what you’re doing, it’s worth it for its own sake. Giving it everything you’ve got is very satisfying. It’s also the only bit you can control.
Life is full of challenges. Whatever it is you’re tussling with at the moment, stop and give yourself a pat on the back for persevering. It’s good to do that sometimes.
Have you been on a writing (or other) retreat? Would the solo option appeal to you or not?
Next week on the Literary Sofa: the long-postponed Short Fiction Special, in which I chart my journey from sceptic to afficionado and feature some of the best new collections. Not that long to wait for Top 10 Summer Reads either – 16 May.