The Retreat West story: running a creative business

Retreat West turned seven this year, and Retreat West Books turned two. When I first started out, I had no idea that running one-day writing retreats once a month in Exeter would lead to running several competitions, residential writing retreats, online courses, live workshops and an indie press. Recently, when Gaynor Jones started working with me and she asked about plans, I replied that I never made any. And beyond planning to start the one-day retreats, I haven’t ever made plans to do anything else. I just have ideas for things and everything that’s followed has happened organically.

I think this probably ties into the fact that as a writer I am a pantser rather than a plotter. In our life together, my husband and I have always been spontaneous and upping sticks at short notice to go off and experience life elsewhere. I used to think it was a bad thing and that I should be more organised, less impulsive, more business like, but I have come to accept myself for the way I am. First and foremost, everything I do at Retreat West stems from a love of writing and reading great fiction. I think to be too business like about it would kill something in that for me. So I am just going to carry on doing what I’ve always done. Which is having ideas, launching them and seeing what the response is. So far, that’s been working!

But it’s not something that I can make a living from so it fits around my day jobs: one as a freelance journalist and content writer specialised in environmental sustainability; and the other as a freelance editor and tutor with Jericho Writers. Doing this work enables me to invest in the books I’ve been publishing and keep running the competitions, which get just enough entries to cover the cost of paying the prizes and readers with a bit left over to pay for the running costs of the websites. I’m hoping that one day the competition entries will grow enough to have a little bit more left over after paying the running costs and that book sales will match the huge talents of the authors I’m working with.

I feel incredibly privileged to get to work with so many great writers and read so many brilliant stories. Everything I do at Retreat West has had a huge impact on my own writing too and it’s enabled me to develop my own skills as well as other people’s. Understanding what works in stories and what doesn’t, and why, has been one of the best things about it all. It’s helped me to be a better writer and to help other writers improve too. And that means more great stories to read for everyone, which, I believe, has to be the best judge of a creative business’s success.

So I hope you’ll carry on supporting what we do by entering our competitions, doing our courses, sending us your stories and buying our books. As without all of you, there’d be nothing for us to do! So thank you for being part of our writing and reading community. Here’s to another seven years (and hopefully more) of great stories.

 

8 Month Novel Course BLOG – Give your Character a Birthday

 

If you’re reading this the chances are you have a couple of characters, elusive and half-formed or irritatingly real, chasing around your mind all day. You may be able to picture them, you may know how they sound and what their most annoying traits are, but how well do you actually know your characters? Have you given them a birthday? It seems simple, but I know I hadn’t.

I’m Kelly, one of Retreat West’s social media marketing interns. As part of our internship, Phil and I are embarking on Retreat’s West’s ‘8 Month Novel Course’. This remote course is a mix of creative writing course with 1-1 mentoring and editorial reviews. It’s a month in and we are loving it! Phil and I plan to share our writing journey with you, giving you a blog article every three weeks which shares what we have learnt and gives you a sneak peek into the course.

Before starting the course I had a very basic draft of my WIP ‘Lily Trap,’ based on my own experiences with a neuro-functional disorder. I like to think of it as a coming of age, fantasy thriller. I’m pretty sure this is not a genre so, as you can tell, I still have a long way to go. Anyway, back to the birthday thing. ‘Give your character a birthday’ was part of an activity provided during the second week of the course. When you sign up to the course (which you can do on our website) you are sent weekly course material with complementary activities that really get you thinking. I’m no writing expert but I have been to numerous workshops and read plenty of articles, and yet no-one had ever encouraged me to think about birthdays.

During my drafting I had given my main character Lily a birthday, 9th February 1999, a date which I had plucked out of the air when I needed it. To be honest, I was thinking of skipping this part of the exercise; suspecting it to just be a matter of plot-device. I’m very glad I didn’t. Now, I’m not a horoscope kind of person and I’m not saying you should confine you character’s traits to them. However, exploring the different characteristics associated with each star and zodiac sign made me realise that I didn’t know my main character well-enough at all.

I knew Lily was sweet, altruistic and un-emotional. What I’d never considered was her level of independence, what factors most affected her decision making, and what enriched her life.  As I read on I found myself thinking about how she would react in an argument, an aspect  that will add so much depth and flavour to my dialogue. I also found myself wondering how she would react in circumstances which my narrative didn’t see her encounter, like her reaction when she found out her Mother had died. Even though I purposefully don’t write about it, it’s still an important part of her life story and thus gives an insight into her character. I even ended up wondering about silly things. For example, would she leave the rest of her apple if she found a hole in it or just eat around it? Now I’d really started to get to know her I wanted to know everything.

Browsing the descriptions for each sign made me more aware of the true complexity of our personalities. In the end I did change Lily’s birthday too, just because it felt right. It is important, as writers, that the personality’s we create on paper are no less complex than those which exist in real life. Readers need to relate to our characters, and to do this we need to know everything about them, including their birthday.

This blog article has given you a tiny insight into Retreat West’s wonderful ‘8 Month Novel Writing Course.’ Find out more here. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then check out the short and sweet six week ‘Start your Novel Course’ on the same page. Also, don’t forget you can receive 5% – 20% off with the ‘Retreat West Author Membership’ packages. More details about membership are here.

Shouting at the page

We all do it I know, the literary equivalent of shouting at the TV. No matter how well researched a book, from time to time something will crash through the narrative and make me want to scream – that moment when the writer introduces something which you know is a terrible cliche or just plain wrong. Worse than that, it’s something you’ve seen a hundred times before and yet it keeps coming up, over and over, jerking you out of the book like a scratch on a record.

Maybe it’s just me, I do come from a long line of TV shouters, but in case anyone else is interested, here’s my list of my pet hates/peeves/soap box rants and the reasons why.

Pearls

Ahh, there’s nothing so beautiful and classy as the classic pearl necklace, usually, well, always displayed on the slender and elegant neck of a heroine. But wait, what’s this? She’s being attacked or caressed or grabbed from behind – sometimes it’s a little hard to tell the difference – and look, the necklace breaks and the pearls cascade down like hard drops of rain, so metaphorical, such a devastating image – you can almost imagine the pretentious black and white pop video. Of course, these pearls are always THE BEST quality, they are keisha pearls, black pearls, perfectly round – but this is wrong, wrong, wrong!! Why? Because if you have ever had a pearl necklace, from the cheapest plastic number upwards, you will see that each pearl on the string has a little knot between it and the next one. This simple, genius device is so that when the heroine’s slender neck is grabbed and the necklace breaks, the most she’s going to lose is a single pearl. Get it? because they are so perfect and expensive, those clever old jewellers had already thought it would be a shame if they all rolled away down the gutter in an accident, and they spend their time tying tiny knots in the silk between the pearls so this won’t happen. So please, no more pearls scattering like angels tears, ok?

The umbilical cord

I could probably write a whole blog on what cliches people write about birth, but I am a bit of a birth nerd (blame the NCT). My biggest peeve about birth is this:

The baby is coming, yet something is wrong – the midwife cries out that alas, the umbilical cord is wrapped round the baby’s neck – oh no! The life giving cord which has nurtured the infant in the womb is now strangling it – oh, the irony! EXCEPT that doesn’t happen. Yes, the cord can be crushed during labour and cause problems, some of them serious, but this is when the cord is squashed, usually between the baby’s shoulder and the wall of the  birth canal. In fact, the cord round the neck is both pretty common and almost always fine, they are wonderfully stretchy things and very easily slip on and off again, like a turtle neck. Sometimes they even get wrapped round two or three times without problems, so please find another dramatic birth story, because there are loads of real ones to uncover.

He punched in her number

This is one I noticed today, while listening to an audio book. I find that most of these jump out at me when listening in a way they don’t always with reading print, which is why my number one tip for editing is to read everything you write out loud, but I digress. We’ve had mobile phones for a while now, and you’re probably like me in that when you meet someone you’d like to call, you might just have noticed a few digits from their phone number when they put it in your contacts list, but after that you will never look at their number again and so if you’re ever without your mobile, will find it impossible to call anyone. Yet so often in books, characters will ‘enter the number on the phone’ rather than scroll down through the list and choose the correct name. I know it’s a small, tiny thing, but boy, it jerks me out of a narrative.

She ringed her eyes in kohl

No, she didn’t. Not unless she was alive in aching Egypt or was Dusty Springfield, who ever says that? Please, can we ‘apply eye liner’ , draw on eye liner, smudge on eye liner – because that’s what we do now.

She had flowing red hair and green eyes…

I wonder if anyone has counted up the percentage of female characters in books who have red hair and green eyes, compared to their proportion in the world? And what about men with red hair and green eyes, when did you last read about a red haired hero? I mean, sure, I could write a huge blog about how under represented loads of people are, but red headed women with green eyes I feel are in a weird majority. And mysterious heroes with grey eyes, mind you.

I could go on, I really could, but these are five tiny but annoyingly niggley peeves which will always get me huffing at the word on the page. There are of course huge, massive great big ones which will do the same, but that’s for another day and another blog – I’m sweating the small stuff! Comment below and tell me your mole hills you blow up into writing mountains, and we can share each other’s pain!

Guest author – Singing Ourselves: One Writer’s Choice by Annie Dawid

Delighted to welcome Annie Dawid to the blog today with her very lovely and thought provoking post on defining ourselves as writers.

Annie lives and writes in South-Central Colorado. An English professor and director of creative writing for 15 years at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, Annie left full-time teaching for full-time writing. She founded BloomsburyWest, a retreat for writers and artists, in 2006 and shuttered it in 2012. She teaches creative writing at Arapahoe Community College. Find out more on her website.

 

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you….”

So wrote Walt Whitman in 1892, his voice full of joy, confidence, passion. Ever since reading “Song of Myself” decades ago, I thrilled to Whitman’s cadences, braggadocio – his ego.

Is it ego, after all, that allows the writer to proclaim so boldly: I am a poet!

I am a novelist, essayist, playwright, an author of short stories. Over the years I have written poems and book reviews, seen my plays produced, one novel and two collections of stories published, and last month, a chapbook of poetry. Does that make me a poet?

In a 1965 interview, Bob Dylan – lyricist, vocalist, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature – said, “You don’t necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they’re poets. I don’t call myself a poet because I don’t like the word. I’m a trapeze artist.”

Unlike Dylan, I know I’m not a trapeze artist: I’m a writer. Does that title encompass all necessary variations?

Virginia Woolf and George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) wrote everything – in every genre they required. One idea came out as an essay, another a story, another a novel, etc. Did those great literary women feel the need to define themselves? To limit themselves to one genre, as the announcement “I am a poet” seems to do? I now have a book of poetry but hesitate to call myself a poet.

Anatomie of the World (spelling circa 17th century, courtesy of John Donne) is my newest book, published this spring by Finishing Line Press. Priest and poet Donne hovers over all my work, prose and poetry alike. The epigraph to my first book, York Ferry: A Novel, 1993, is from Donne: “Love’s mysteries in souls do grow.”

My failed (and fortunately never published) novel, One Little Room an Everywhere, also takes its name from a Donne poem; even in the 21st century, he shows up everywhere. Last Sunday, on the tennis court, a church bell chimed and a man I didn’t know chided his opponent: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” At 8,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, in a tiny ranching town, I hear Donne’s words singing from the mouth of a stranger, enchanting me in the most unlikely of circumstances. Donne is my spiritual patron, four centuries after he put pen to paper. In addition to his poems, he wrote voluminous sermons, the words flowing every week at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The bells tolling, “no man is an island” – these memorable lines came from his orations. Donne, too, expressed himself in prose and verse.

As long as we find the courage to sing, does it matter what we call ourselves?

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Whitman, “Song of Myself”

***

Thanks so much for visiting the blog, Annie. I always just call myself a writer if people ask and invariably I then get asked ‘Yes, but what do you really do?’ – as obviously being a writer is not a real job!

What do you think of the questions Annie poses around defining ourselves as writers? How do you describe yourself?

Spring Sale! Discounted courses and critiques!


The Spring Sale is here!

Great discounts on courses and critiques...

Until Sunday 14th May there are discounts on:

 


Online 8 Month Novel Course 1-1   SAVE £100

This course will take you from idea to short first draft in just 8 months with help all the way through a mix of online course content, 1-1 mentoring via phone and email, and feedback on work as you go along. You’ll also get a full editorial report at the end to go away and start your edit with. Just £850 pay in full and £900 on the installment plan. Get all the course info here.
Pay in Full Installments


Full Novel Review   SAVE £100

Get a detailed feedback report and tracked changes and comments on your manuscript (up to 85K words) for just £350.
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Submission Package Review   SAVE £50

Before you send it out to agents and publishers give your submission package the best chance it can have by getting it reviewed first. Get detailed feedback and advice on improving your first 3 chapters (up to 10K words), synopsis, and cover letter. Just £115.
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Getting the voice right

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.