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Retreat Blog

The latest in what's interesting

Author interview: CM Taylor on the transformational arc

October 21, 2016
I saw CM Taylor (aka Craig) deliver a workshop on Character is Destiny at the York Festival of Writing and was hooked on the ideas he introduced in it. So much so that I invited him to come and teach an expanded version at a retreat. So the Character is Destiny Retreat is taking place in March 2017 and there will be two 3-hour workshops expanding on the ideas that intrigued me at York. Delighted to have Craig here on the blog today talking about character development and the transformational arc. Craig, you co-wrote a horror film that’s coming out soon about writers retreating to a remote island and terrifying things happening (I’m sure our retreat won’t be like that!) – can you tell us how writing characters for the screen and novels differs and also how and where it crosses over? Yeah, that’s correct. The thing which makes a writers’ retreat an apt subject for a horror film is the same thing which makes it appropriate for advancing yourself creatively. You take yourself out of a normal environment, and put yourself in a situation where you can go into yourself, and, with the help of others, engage with your emotions and creative truths. But about characters, and how writing characters for screen and prose differs, well, one of the main differences I would say is that in screenwriting you need to leave room for the actor and the director. In prose, you are the writer, the actor, and the director, and how you portray the character is the totality of that character’s portrayal. Whereas with screen, you are merely providing the ingredients which the director and the actor will cook up between them. You need to leave room for actors to act. Plus in screenwriting you work a lot with sub-text. For example, the character can say the opposite of what they really feel and the actor’s face will convey this duplicity and conflict. Like in a film someone can say, “Yes, my Lord”, but their face and tone and body-language can mean, “I will kill you tomorrow.” So in screenwriting you don’t write the, “I will kill you tomorrow” bit, but in prose you kind of have to, because you do not have a twenty-foot high actor’s face to show the concealed meaning. So prose is more of a spoon-feeding kind of medium in a way, the sub-textual elements are fewer. Now, there is all this stuff in creative writing teaching about showing not telling, and prose writers can learn a lot from screenwriters about that skill, but fundamentally, prose is obliged to be a slightly telling sort of medium. The kind of radical, bone dry showing-only that screenwriters trade in will just not work in prose. The reader does need to be told a little bit. The unique strength of the novel as an art form is that it can slide behind the eyes of a character in the way that other mediums can’t. We can fall into

Author interview: Dean Lilleyman

October 19, 2016
Delighted to welcome Dean Lilleyman back to the blog today. He last visited to talk about his debut novel, Billy and the Devil, which is a reading experience not to be missed. He’s back now on the launch of his new book, The Gospel According to Johnny Bender, which I also thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend. Book blurb: ‘Once upon a time there was a village called Edendale, and some people were good and some people were bad and some people were in-between. Do we know who is what yet? I don’t think we do…’ During the celebrated carnival of 1979, the villagers danced beneath a mirror-ball, as a young girl drifted dead in the river. Who knew the truth of things? And would the truth matter? Now it’s 1999 and Edendale is holding another carnival. An anniversary to commemorate the life-changing events of twenty years before, by pretending it’s 1979…again. One day, two decades apart, the mirror-ball turning in the dark to light a truth. Dean, I loved how the 2 days from 1979 and 1999 were weaved together and showed how the past influences the future, and also how some things never change. Can you tell us where the inspiration for this dual timeline story came from? This all started from a mishmash of things scribbled on my walls, which is how I tend to put stories together. I like the idea of things forming themselves, no questioning why. The more things that get scribbled the more the glue seems to happen. I definitely write from where I’m at, so I guess there’s a relationship between these things, even if they do feel unconnected at first. I think the truth of the thing starts to show itself this way, maybe because I’m not presuming I know. The Johnny scribbles started coming at a time where my life was dancing fuck-it on one end, but rattling loose at the other. These two ends definitely started to show a clash in the scribbles. For sure the past was trying to grab the now by the scruff and say hang on fella, the future a shrug, the now grinning a so what? Looking back, I see all this as a massive influence on how Johnny happened. And with the scribbles it’s not just what’s happening to me at the time, it’s the stuff I’m taking in. Books, films, music, whatever. Like jamjarring sparks. When Johnny was coming together, one of the things was definitely seventies disco. It seemed to be soundtracking my headspace bang on. And the more I listened, the more it made sense. As Dennis says to Debbie in the book, soul music is oh baby I want you so much but I can’t have you, while disco says hey, yesterday’s gone, tomorrow’s not even here, only now now now, so let’s do it. There’s a gamble of moment here. Time. This fed another bunch of scribbles about the end of things. Culture seems rammed with this sense of precise guillotine

Competition: Win a place on the 8 Month Novel Course

October 17, 2016
We love a comp at Retreat West! The latest is to win a place on the online 8 Month Novel course starting in January 2017. Deadline for entries is 20th November 2016. It’s a mix of creative writing course through exercises and readings and 1-1 mentoring from Amanda Saint, and by the end you’ll have a short first draft to go away and work with, along with an editorial report to help you develop it. The course is for a maximum of 5 writers to work together at a time and there’s an online forum space where you can chat and share your work with each other. You can get the full info on it here. You can win one of the places on the course by entering the competition – all you need to do is pay the competition entry fee and submit up to 500 words pitching you and your story idea and why you’d like to do the course. Full T&Cs below. A winner will be chosen from all entries received by the closing date and will get to join the online, collaborative course in January. Last time 2 writers won a place – Poppy Peacock and Jacqui Stearn – and they start their course next week. Although the competition is just for one of the places on the course, I found it impossible to choose between them so you never know, this could happen again for the January course too! Competition T&Cs You can enter as many times as you like with different novel ideas but must submit them separately and pay the competition entry fee of £15 each time All entries must be written in English and received by 23.59 on 20th November 2016 The prize is a free place on the online 8 Month Novel Course starting 27th January 2017 and it is not transferable and there is no cash alternative By entering the competition you agree to take part in the course if you win and to having your details announced on the website and in the newsletter Enter using the button below

Guest author: Katherine Hetzel on writing fantasy

October 12, 2016
Delighted to welcome Katherine Hetzel to the blog today. I’ve known Katherine for several years now after first meeting online then in person at the Festival of Writing in York, where we see each other every year now. She’s also previously won a short story competition and her story, The Colour of Life, provided the title for the first anthology of winners published by Retreat West. She’s here today talking about her debut children’s novel, Starmark, which was published earlier this year. Thanks for visiting the blog, Katherine.   Fantasy has always been my favourite thing to read. It offers an escape from the everyday and ordinary and gives me the chance to immerse myself in new, impossible worlds inhabited by people who aren’t a bit like me, but who I can imagine being. I suppose it was inevitable then, that I should begin writing what I most loved to read: fantasy. It also has the advantage of not needing much research – I can quite literally make everything up! I wrote for children because I saw as a volunteer ‘listener’ to readers in my local primary school’s classrooms, so many children who hated reading. As a confirmed bookworm, and with two bookwormy kids of my own, I wanted to change that. With the arrogance of ignorance, I began writing my first novel about ten years ago. StarMark is actually my second novel but the first to be published. It’s a rags-to-riches story (because I’m a sucker for a happy(ish) ending) about Irvana, who discovers her past, which changes her future (a phrase I have pinched from a five star review on Goodreads with the reviewer’s permission!) I think as a child, I wanted to be something different, something special. Perhaps we all did…I knew I wasn’t, though. So I used a lot of my imagination pretending to be ‘discovered’ as someone important with a real purpose in life. As an adult, with a very normal life (whatever that means) I found that in the fantasy I was still reading, birthmarks were often used as a device to indicate destiny. Perhaps some of that childish desire to be special stayed with me even into adulthood, because that’s the point I started from when I first had the idea for the novel. Instead of Cinderella’s shoe, there’d be something on the skin – a magical mark which turned to gold at the coming to power. That’s what made you ‘special’. But…but…what if you had that mark and didn’t know? And someone else discovered it before you did? What kind of story would that make? That’s when Irvana’s world came to life. It’s very much a ‘pantsed’ novel rather than a ‘planned’ one, partly because during the eight years it took to achieve publication with Bedazzled Ink, I learned so much about the craft of writing and myself as a writer. The goalposts kept moving and I lost count of the number of edits I completed. I needed to create a world different enough for the reader to imagine comfortably but not so different to their experience they couldn’t connect with it. I needed strong, memorable characters that children

Getting the voice right

October 6, 2016
Voice is something that a lot of writers have been asking me about recently when sending their work for feedback. I think when you are so close to your writing you can often feel that the voices you have in your story, especially when you have more than one narrator, are not distinct enough, or authentic enough. I know I felt this way when writing As If I Were A River but in virtually every review I’ve had of the book the readers have said that the voices are really strong, really different, and really real. So, it can be difficult to tell when it’s your own work. Part of the problem for me when writing that novel was that I became really annoyed with my main narrator, Kate, at one stage. It seems that I am not alone in this dilemma. Morna Piper’s guest blog for Mslexia ‘What to do when you hate the sound of your own voice‘ reveals that she finds her narrator irritating. While a lively discussion of Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel, Gone Girl, over On The Literary Sofa blog shows that voice can kill a novel completely no matter how clever the plot may be. So how can you tell whether you are getting it right? Well, as writers you all know that you are far too close to your own work to be able to tell. So my advice is feedback, feedback, feedback! Get as many writer friends as you can to read your work and let you know what they think. Use critiquing services if you can’t find anyone honest enough or if, like me, some of your most valued readers are now almost as close to your work as you are. Even if I’m writing a story in third person point of view, I always do some exercises writing in first person for each character and find the ‘what if’ ones can work really well for this. Play around and get to know your characters well and you’ll find that the voices will come naturally. Think about the novels you love and return to again and again. What are the voices like in those? Why is it that you keep returning there? Conversely, think about the novels you haven’t enjoyed and the ones you abandoned – why did they not draw you in? As well as feedback, I definitely recommend reading more novels as a writer rather than just for pleasure and analysing them as you go. Also read Francine Prose’s Reading As A Writer, do the exercises in it, and eavesdrop whenever you can to hear different voices wherever you go.