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.
I love the solo option but having said that I have always had a little dream about owning a writers retreat, sitting watching the sun set over the sea and pulling characters apart with others.
So glad you enjoyed your time away…x
Thanks. That sounds like a lot of fun too. I’d like to try the sociable option some time, just not when I have a big goal in sight.
… and very nice coffee’n’chat it was too! I haven’t stopped being envious of the solitude yet.
Thanks so much for coming, it made the week so much easier to contemplate. Thanks also for your interest in my novel – I’d love to read yours too!
It sounds as though you have done an amazing amount of work on this novel and the outcome of that should be a novel that you love and are proud of beyond belief. I’d love a week away like that. I’m not sure I could be so good if given the time though.
Thanks, what a lovely comment. As you can probably tell, I slightly surprised myself with how industrious I was. I did feel pressure to make the most of it as it’s such a rare thing to get away by myself. That’s probably why!
Hi Isabel, I’m so glad you had the opportunity to do this and doubly glad it was so productive, notwithstanding the little setback. Like Isabel, I’m also envious of the solitude; it makes me more determined to try to find some myself in the next year. Can’t wait to see what your book looks like when you’re done – I’m sure it will be wonderful.
Thanks Kristin. I really look forward to your reaction to the ms in its new – and hopefully, improved – form. You’ve done so much to support me and this novel and I really appreciate it.
It all sounds wonderful, and what a lovely place to spend a week writing. Time to write is my biggest obstacle and I don’t feel I can up and leave for any length of time while my youngest are just 4 and 3. In a few years though… I hope to read your novel one day too, I’m intrigued.
I know how lucky I was to be able to get away like this, especially without spending a fortune I don’t have. Part of me feels liberated that my kids are growing up, and the other part feels sad it goes by so fast. Thanks for your interest in my book. I’d love you to read it regardless of what happens next. All I want is to tell a good story people enjoy – anything else is a bonus!
How brilliant to be able to absorb yourself for an entire week… Writing part-time is challenging – the constant dipping in and out…. I’m on some thorny editing myself, and long to just have a stretch of time to dedicate to it.
You’re right, Voula, that it makes a huge difference being able to totally immerse yourself, especially on a novel when you’re focussing on how to make it hang together as a whole. Good luck with your editing and think how good you’ll feel when it’s finished!
Hi there – I went on an Arvon course once and only socialised after the dinners: was accused of being aloof (!) but I was there for my own reasons: namely to get a lot of writing done, which I did. I wasn’t there to make new friends or compare poetry successes and I did get two good poems out of it, so it was worth it.
Your approach sounds perfectly sensible to me. I think it’s very important to set yourself some goals or it’d be so easy to spend the time faffing around. It’s great to come away as we both did feeling we’d achieved something concrete.
It sounds like you had a very productive week and in lovely surroundings! I’ve been on 2 Arvon courses in the past but never a solo retreat. The social side of Arvon is very stimulating but in your scenario, it was best to have time out on your own. I can see how it would be great to clear your head and let your brain have time to download all the random ideas into something more concrete. Like you, I constantly question whether it’s ‘worth it’ but as you say, if you feel passionately about something then the time and effort should hopefully pay off in the end. There’s no doubt you’re committed to your novel so I hope your perseverance pays off.
P.S. Glad to hear that your son’s toe is back in action.
Thanks Helen. Once I took on board the unpalatable fact that the novel wasn’t the best I was capable of, I felt any effort to remedy that would be a good investment regardless of the official ‘result’. This is already the case as I’ve learnt so much from rewriting the book and there are SO many mistakes I’ll never make again (I hope). I’d really like to do an Arvon course and keep hoping I’ll win one as it’s beyond my budget.
Like previous comments I’ve also been on a number of Arvon courses. What I love about them is that you have the best of both worlds: you completely focus on writing for a week, but if you are stuck there are other writers to talk through the problems with. I find that a week’s retreat is so stimulating, because you can lock yourself away from real-life and think about your book all day, every day. However, reading about your solitary week made me think that maybe this is something that I should try, to get my second book over the finish line. It sounds as if your week was really productive and you got so much done!
Hi Anja, well as you can tell, I totally recommend the solo option as a means of hunkering down and getting the job done (even though I didn’t finish – I never expected miracles!). I don’t think I’ve ever managed that intense level of focus or insight before and it came at the right time. Feeling optimistic about the novel again now. Can’t wait to re-read yours in full -good luck!
What a great post! It sounds like a really productive time. Well done! I would love to do this, albeit in a slightly different way. I like the idea of a writing retreat where you work all day on your own project but meet up with other writers in the evening.
Good luck with your novel … and finding representation for it. I’m at a similar stage.
Hi Vicky! Thanks for your comment. I must say your option sounds like the ideal solution – unless it involved drinking far too much and staying up ridiculously late… Good luck with your own novel and submission too.
I loved reading your post and I’ve enjoyed everyone’s comments, too. One week away isn’t possible for me, at the moment, but I’m going to take inspiration from you and create a mini-retreat for part of each day. Someone said just now on Twitter (where else?!) that 20 minutes focus each day is enough to make great creative work. It’s a start, Thanks for an uplifting post and best wishes with your writing projects!
Thanks Josephine. I’m so delighted that sharing my week has encouraged other writers, even thise who can’t get away (and I know how hard that is!) Your plan for a short intense burst of creativity each day sounds great -hope you reap rewards!
Sounds bliss, Isabel, and well done for getting so much done. I love writing retreats and go on them as often as I can. As you know, I’ve even started my own! I do like the more sociable options though where you can have time alone to write but then speak to others at meals and in the evenings. I spend so much of my time home alone at the desk that I see retreats as a great opportunity to get out in the world and meet other writers. Looking forward to reading the next version of the novel x
Thanks for all your support Amanda, not just to me but to so many other writers. The social side definitely has appeal – in the future I hope to do both kinds of retreat as my kids get older and need me around less. Good luck with your own re-write – it’s exciting, getting our books up to scratch and hopefully good things will follow…
Hi Isabel, great post, and I’m glad to see that you got so much work done. It’s so much easier (not easy, but easier) when you can totally give yourself over to writing and really concentrate. I went on a writer’s retreat myself a couple of years ago and it was fantastic. No commuting, no day-job and peace and quiet.
I’m interested to know – when you discovered the error in your restructuring, do you think you coped with it better by being away from distractions?
Keep up the good work on that novel!
Thanks Lynne. It’s been interesting hearing from so many people who’ve experienced different writing retreats. To answer your question: yes, it was very helpful being able to really concentrate on finding a solution. Nearly a week on, it’s like it never happened, and I’m sure it would have taken longer to get over in my usual environment.
As always Isabel, really interesting post. I’d love to get away for a week to focus on my book though it doesn’t seem likely just yet. Glad it was so productive for you. Like you, my concern would also be ‘what if it’s lack of ability/ commitment that’s stopping me’. Good to know that when faced with several free hours and no distractions it can work very well. It takes a huge amount of energy/ grit to rewrite something you think you have finished.
(I ditched my first novel cos it simply wasn’t good enough – hard to accept but once you get several rejections you realise they can’t all be wrong!) Am much happier writing novel 2 which is a better idea/ story and something I really believe in. Thanks again for a great blog.
Thanks Eleni. It’s a brave and no doubt difficult decision not to push on with a novel but I’m pleased to hear you’re enjoying #2 and above all, believing in it. That was the main reason I couldn’t give up on #1 – I just hadn’t tried hard enough to make it as good as it needs to be.
I’ve only just got around to reading this post, and felt I had to comment because I can relate to this on so many levels. As you say, most writers these days go on retreats, and these are usually both productive and restorative, but you’re quite right that the opportunity to chat with other writers over a glass (or several) of wine is a serious distraction! I have often considered hiring a cottage on my own for a few days, but then I would have to think about shopping and cooking and what I was going to have to eat etc, and for me, the freedom of not having to even think about all that is really important. I recently went on a retreat where I didn’t have to do so much as wash up my own cup! I got a phenomenal amount of work done and managed to complete a first draft of my second novel. It’s now gone off to my agent, and no doubt there will be loads more to do, probably including some re-ordering of events. I did a great deal of restructuring on my first novel, and it took several different restructures to get it right, but it was definitely worth it in the end, so keep the faith, and good luck with your novel!
Hi Susan Thanks for commenting. Really pleased to hear that your second novel is coming along so well following the retreat. I remember you saying you had to restructure your first, and in fact thinking about that has been one of the things motivating me to keep going so I’m very grateful to you for that! I must admit, despite being so lovely, eating wasn’t a highlight of my retreat – lack of transport and decent shops made it very basic, but it was fine for 5 days and there was a dishwasher!