My second Writing Retreat

(photo credit to The Writing Retreat)

I wasn’t going to attend another writing retreat this year, but Kath Morgan and Jane Moss enticed me by the subject matter. The hook was ‘The Narrative Structure’. I wasn’t disappointed.

In truth, I benefited long before I turned down the rough track to Rosemerryn. Having it in my diary made me focus. I wanted to get the most out of the week, so I chipped away at my WIP, and arrived with what I thought was a fairly fully formed project…

I enjoyed going back to Rosemerryn – the house is inviting, warm and comfortable. Thankfully I avoided the wisteria-climbing cat by being housed in the cottage in the grounds with a fellow-writer. It was a glorious space to spend time in, both with Alan, and alone with my WIP.

There were workshops every morning, working through different elements of narrative structure. We were encouraged to develop our own projects alongside the workshops, and Kath and Jane both provided excellent support when the mists descended over our brains. As with the last retreat, the attendees were free to attend or work on their own projects as they wished to. The content of the workshops was perfect for me, at my stage of my writing career, and my WIP. I attended every one.

Mid-week we had a session with a visiting tutor, novelist Emily Barr. Emily was generous with her own story as a writer, her process, and her experiences in being published. Her workshop was also well-timed. We were asked to leave our own projects to one side and ‘play’ with the craft of writing. Excuse the cliché , but it was a creative breath of fresh air. I think I have another piece of flash fiction in progress to go out for competition as a result. Possibly two. A Brucie bonus.

The afternoons were free to use as we wished. There were one-to-ones available with Kath and Jane (one 50 minute slot with each tutor for each of the eight attendees). I worked harder than I did last time, and only broke for the coast on Wednesday afternoon, when I was desperate to have a decent walk and feel the sea air on my face. I picked a wild day, so was not disappointed.

A wild day at Porthcurno
A wild day at Porthcurno

I’m pleased that Kath and Jane took on the feedback about the food – there was less food, and less cream, and no one went hungry. There were some complex dietary requirements (including mine), which were superbly managed. The menus were enticing, varied and the combination of chefs delivered. There is something wonderful about preparing and sharing food together, and I appreciated this as much as in March.

My highlights from the week:

  • The one-to-ones. Simply golden time.
  • The cumulative question throughout the week – ‘how does your project fit in?’
  • The dedicated studio, separate from the house. It gave a place to ‘go to work’ to.
  • Learning from others, and sharing my work with others, particularly the ‘wallpaper’ exercise on the four-part structure of a novel. Five of us were prepared to offer up our work. The feedback was invaluable.
Sharing our work, making a difference (photo credit to Jane Moss)
Sharing our work, making a difference (photo credit to Jane Moss)

My lowlights from the week:

  • Hardly anything, but it rained so much that I never checked the chains were still on my inner critic in the Fogou. He must be, as he’s not reared his head in a while.

It was an up-and-down experience, as I wrestled with the whole of the project. I know this is part of the work. I felt frustrated at times, lost at others, but always engaged and motivated, and more importantly, supported. I thought my WIP was ‘fairly fully formed’, but I realised that it wasn’t. The story shifted in the week, as I found the motivation of my protagonist (thanks to Jane), and the key events that will shape ‘the whole’ better (thanks to Kath). Since the retreat, I’ve revived a character who I’d killed off, because she’ll serve the story better. I am half-afraid of what else will emerge.

If last time I left walking taller as a writer, this time I have far greater confidence in my work. I think I have a great story, I only hope I can do it justice.

Writing stamina

Working in front of the fire on retreat last week...
Working in front of the fire on retreat last week…

This is more of a musing than a blog post (is there a difference, really?), something that has struck me in the last couple of days. I can only liken it to training for a long distance race.

In 2008 I did the 10 miles of the Great South Run, which I found gruelling. I’ll blame that on the horrendous weather, but at the end of October in Portsmouth, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’d run my first 5k race in 1998 not long after my dad died, and have run ever since. The increase from 5k (3 miles) to 10 miles is a process. You have to increase the distance steadily, incrementally, over time. I think it took me about 6 week to shift from 6 miles to 10 miles.

At the beginning, I thought I would never get to 10 miles. I was comfortable doing 3 miles, 6 even. Actually, I loved running the 10k distance, really finding a rhythm after the first 30 minutes of relative discomfort. It was like that for the novel. I thought I could never get to 100,000 words (I haven’t yet!), and I wasn’t sure that I could sustain the story. 2,000 words of short story was challenge enough. In those early days of churning out the words, it was a stretch to make it to the 1,000 word marker (my per day  minimum), but in the last days, it’s been 1,800, 2,000 and yesterday 2,300 without the pain that it felt earlier in the year.

I can only conclude that my writing stamina is increasing, and I think that’s worth noting.

Heading back to Retreat…

It’s Monday, and as this goes live, I’ll be on my way to the lovely Rosemerryn for another week at The Writing Retreat. I wouldn’t usually allow myself the luxury of two retreats in a year, but I was drawn in by the subject matter – all about novel writing, including novel structure. Signing up for the retreat has also given me focus in writing. I’ve been determined to go with something ‘decent’ to work with (it was 80,000, then 75,000 but after a trying couple of weeks for personal reasons, last week I settled on 70,000.). I am very proud to say that I achieved the 70,000 marker on Friday. It’s amazing what you can achieve by chipping away, and almost funny when I look back at my blogs from the beginning of the year when I marvel at having 10,000 words. I still ‘need’ to get to at least 100,000 words in my mind.

So, the 70,000 in entirety are ‘shit’ (thanks Hemingway), but that’s OK. It will not read well. Bits are rambling, bits leap around, and there’s the whole narrative voice to fix (flitting from first person to third person, from one POV to several is never going to satisfy a reader) before I get to the structure. I’ve spent months in the detail, and I have to say I’m feeling a bit apprehensive about the week ahead. I know I’ve thought about themes, narrative arc, voice (or voices!), characters and plot – but the thought of examining the chaos of my WIP is, quite frankly, terrifying.

One of the things that I can check out next week is how secure that Inner Critic is in the Fogou.  I am so pleased that he hasn’t hounded me during the first draft. Before too long it will be time to let him out. Another mildly terrifying thing!

Next week is all about standing back from the detail and thinking about the whole. A year ago that was all I had, at least in concept. Funny how things come around… and no doubt, around, and around, and around….



Highly commended!

I was delighted to receive the news recently, and the certificate this week, that my short story Maiden Voyage was selected for praise in The Sherbourne Literary Festival. Over 80 entries, with 3 prizes and 3 highly commended. How cool is that?

This was the feedback:

Judge Carole Matthews wrote: “I loved the descriptions and your style of writing. Excellent.”

My story, Maiden Voyage, has been around for a couple of years. It was an experiment in ‘voice’, using the unusual ‘you’ for the first person narrative. I first had comment/correction at TLC because the voice got muddled, but it was during The Writing Retreat that I refined the story again. I realised the story structure was wrong. Having had quite a lot of polishing, this 1,200 word story has earned me a commendation, and I’m thrilled. I have a couple of nuggets in my mind for the next short stories. Those are just percolating away, although I should probably allow them space on paper soon, so that the editing can happen before I want to try again for another competition.

It really does make me think about the process of editing, and how much effort and attention that’s going to take on the novel! I’m still chugging out the words, so we’re some way off that. Probably 2016. More thoughts on that will come, as I prepare for my second Writing Retreat.

Book Review: A Man Called Ove, by Fredrick Backman


The book jacket says that Ove is the grumpiest man you will ever meet. I would agree with that. It also says ‘isn’t it rare to find such old-fashioned clarity of belief and deed?’ In my first attempt to read Ove, I struggled to find that. The book jacket also says, ‘in the end you will see that there is something about Ove that is quite irresistible.’ I eventually got that.

A Man Called Ove took me two attempts to read. Quite frankly, I was so irritated by him on the first reading that I gave up – couldn’t bear to be near him. Then the subject of Ove came up with friends. One gave up on Ove because it was so sad. One loved Ove so much because he identified with Ove. One loved Ove so much because of Ove. I hadn’t experienced any of those feelings, so I decided to give Ove another go. I picked up from the chapter that I’d abandoned him at, three chapters in. If I had stuck out one more chapter, it would have changed the way I felt about the book. Or, if the author had given more compassion earlier in the book, then I would have been more easily/readily hooked.

What is A Man Called Ove about? It is a puzzling book, written with very short chapters that move back and forwards in time. Like pieces of a puzzle, you begin to build up a picture of the man Ove, his wife, Sonia and their marriage, and also their friendships. Ove is set in his ways, his routines, his beliefs, his way of being. I didn’t warm to him initially, but I was moved by him (in ways I cannot explain without spoilers; not my game.). Ove reminded me of the main character in the animation ‘Up’, Carl Fredricksen, perhaps because of some of the themes in both stories. One thing about Ove that did not ring true was Ove’s age. Ove is 59, yet presents twenty years older, closer to Carl Fredricksen.

Reading A Man Called Ove was at times like being in a sit com. There are awful, cringe making moments in it (all Ove’s), but it is also brilliantly comic. It is easy reading, absorbing and moving.

A Man Called Ove has themes running through it. Loss, grief, friendships, the sense of right and wrong, and, ultimately, about ageing. Backman shows the alienation and loneliness of ageing in Ove and his neighbours. These themes weave their way throughout the story, adding a dimension to the book that I was not really expecting from the outset (hence, the agreement with the last claim on the book jacket).

Backman’s writing is at times deeply moving,

“and when she giggled she sounded the way Ove imagined champagne bubbles would have sounded if they were capable of laughter.”

There are many treasures like these scattered throughout the book, if you can get past the initial irritation of the man called Ove. Ultimately, I would recommend this book, thanks more to my friends who persuaded me to give Ove another go. I don’t regret it for a moment.


Book Review: The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, by Rachel Joyce


The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is a companion novel to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (reviewed here). Rachel Joyce wrote Queenie’s story long after Harold Fry’s, but said that they were designed to sit together, rather than as a prequel. Queenie Hennessy could be read before Harold Fry, but I would recommend reading Harold Fry first.

Queenie Hennessy is dying of cancer in St Bernadine’s Hospice, run by an order of nuns. Harold Fry believes he can save Queenie by walking to her. He lives in Kingsbridge (Devon), and Queenie is in Berwick-upon-Tweed (Northumberland). The book gives the account of Queenie, her life as a retrospective interspersed with life in the hospice as she, and her fellow patients, wait for Harold Fry.

Queenie’s cancer affects her jaw, which means that she has trouble speaking. This is crucial to the plot. Queenie is on her death-bed, burdened with a secret, something she needs to reveal to Harold Fry. One of the nuns, Sister Mary Inconnue, persuades Queenie to write a letter to Harold, which becomes the love song, as she unburdens herself.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is a charming and gentle read. It is a quiet read, without huge drama, and yet it is moving and compelling. Queenie Hennessy herself is an intriguing character. She led a largely lonely life, content to love someone else’s husband from the wings. Joyce shows us her passions, dancing and her sea garden, but these are internally held. At one level, Joyce has created a dull and needy heroine in Queenie Hennessy, and she was not always easy to be around. The more vivid personalities were those in the hospice, those that leave one by one. I particularly loved Finty and The Pearly King. I enjoyed the scenes in the hospice more than I did the self-indulgent ‘confession’ of Queenie herself. My favourite character was Sister Mary Inconnue, the nun that sits quietly with Queenie, and encourages her to live out her last days. “You don’t need to leave the room to go on a journey.” Who doesn’t need a Sister Mary Inconnue in their life?

Through this quiet book, Joyce tackles huge themes. Death, dying, loss, forgiveness, love, and, anxiety. Themes that roll around the pages of the book like movements in a symphony. Death is never far from many pages in the book, yet it is not a morbid book. I laughed and cried in reading The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and felt bereft when I closed it for the last time.