Category Archives: Writing Retreats

Friday Quickfic: Cooking Breakfast

Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox in ITV's 'Lewis'

Kevin Whately and Laurence Fox in ITV’s ‘Lewis’

Its been a long time since I conjured up a quickfic for you.  I wrote this little morsel while I was on my writers retreat last weekend.  My fellow writers liked it, and I hope you will too.  Just a little bit of Lewis romance to start your weekend off with a smile.  Here’s a taste:

  ” He is in the kitchen, dancing his Sunday morning sarabande amongst the pans.

            You stand in the shadows of the hall, take a moment, watch him lit up by the morning sun, count your blessings. Because it wasn’t supposed to be like this. You weren’t supposed to get this lucky twice in one lifetime. If you believed in God, you’d thank Him. (Never mind, leave all the thanking God to James.)”

You can read it here at AO3, or if you prefer, here at FF.net.

If you like it, you’ll be glad to know that I am working on a companion piece, told from James’ POV.  Watch this space!

Happy Creating,

EF

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Snowy sky from my living room window today.

Snowy sky from my living room window today.

Well, I am finally coming down from my time away – six days caring for my mother, and then my annual weekend writing retreat.  There is so much to deal with, so many emotions to process.  Its been a very intense time, with not much time for myself or my creativity.  The only thing I have really been able to do is to keep taking photographs.  I’m so glad I did, though.  It gave me such pleasure to be able to capture a few moments, which I’d like to share with you:

john hallettDuring my time at my mother’s home, her hairdresser visited.  John Hallett has been cutting my mum’s hair for a mind-boggling 41 years.  He used to cut mine when I was little.  It was wonderful to see him again, and a privilege to watch him work.

We managed to get a couple of walks on the beach nearby when my mother was feeling better.  Even in the bitter wind, it did us both good.

Sunbeams over the Isle of Wight

Sunbeams over the Isle of Wight

You see trees like this on every coastline.  This one is on Stokes Bay, near Portsmouth.

You see trees like this on every coastline. This one is on Stokes Bay, near Portsmouth.

The view from the train station at Portsmouth on the way home was pretty impressive too:

HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy's first iron-clad warship, seen from Portsmouth Harbour train station.

HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy’s first iron-clad warship, seen from Portsmouth Harbour train station.

I managed to settle to a bit of writing on my retreat, in spite of all the emotional upheaval.  This is a shot of my desk during the weekend:

My desk at our 2015 writers retreat.

My desk at our 2015 writers retreat.

And this was the sky outside our house yesterday morning.  Freezing cold, but sunny and beautiful.  I’m so grateful to live where I do.

Freezing cold, but great weather!

Freezing cold, but great weather!

Hope you’ve enjoyed my little photo interlude.  On Friday, I’ll have a new Quickfic for you, crafted on my writing retreat!  Yay!  I got something done!

Happy Creating,

EF

 

 

 

Retreat Debriefing

The house is cold and damp, and the fridge is empty.  Coming home from a retreat can feel a bit like being marooned on the shores of real life after a blissful dream.  It is wonderful to have your own space, and three two-course meals a day, plus a continual stream of tea and cake, laid on for you.  I feel as fat as a walrus.  Two and a half days with nothing to do except write, and talk about writing with your writing friends – it’s hard to beat.

As idyllic as it sounds, it can come as a bit of a shock to start with.  I woke up on Saturday morning and immediately plummeted into a panic attack of ‘Oh, Gods, I can’t do this!’  The day stretched out before me, packets of emptiness between appointments with the dining rooms.  Just me and my four walls, my pen, paper and laptop.  Suddenly writing was inescapable.  No more displacement activities.  There are only so many indulgent baths and long, breezy walks you can have before you can no longer avoid the inevitable contact of nib with paper.

By about 11.30am on Saturday morning, I had done every displacement activity available to me, and there was no choice but to get down to it.  I opened a fresh page of my notebook and off I went.

And it was wonderful.

I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I didn’t judge or edit myself.  I put down everything that came into my head, page after page of it.  Story after story fell onto the paper.  My two favourite pens ran out in the course of the weekend.  By afternoon tea at 3.30pm, I had 12 pages of A4 paper covered with my spindly scribble, and I had discovered things about my new hero that I had never dreamt of.  By supper time, I had two pages of polished script to read out at our evening meeting, where we gather to share our progress so far.  On Sunday morning, again about 11.30am, I started again, and by lunchtime had an idea of what research I would need to do, and a list of indigenous names for my characters, gleaned from the one book I had bought with me for research purposes.  By tea time I was exhausted but happy.  I had worked so much out.  I had a better idea of what needed doing next.  And I had learned to write lying down on my back (which became necessary because my back has really been playing up the last few days, and sitting up proved a nightmare).

I felt a bit dazed when I got home.  I stared at the telly for a couple of hours and then went to bed.  This morning, when I woke up, I felt slightly hung-over.   Just as you can eat and drink too much, it seems you can write too much too.

So I am having a bit of a day off.  I am just lolling about, digesting the weekend, getting my head around this week’s diary appointments, catching up on the laundry, and reading comforting books.

Tomorrow I will start again.  I will get back to my blank A4 pages and start downloading backstory with my biro, and my soul will soar.  In the meantime, I think a little time on the yoga mat may be what my back needs!

Happy creating,

EF

Preparing for a Writing Retreat

I’m so excited.  I’m going on a writing retreat!

This weekend, my writers group is convening at a nearby conference centre for a weekend of writing and eating and talking about writing and eating some more, and maybe a little bit of dozing or walking, and then some more writing.

We normally do this once a year, but this year, we enjoyed ourselves so much we thought we’d do it again at the end of the year.  So here I am, thinking about a weekend spent solely with my friends and the Work.

Over years of doing this, I’ve found I need to do a few things to prepare myself so that I get the most out of the time:

Plan:

I usually like to sit down with my writers notebook or my journal, and think about two things:

  • where I am, and
  • where I want to be.

This year I am thinking about the goals or intentions I have set myself for this website, for my publications, and for moving my writing on to the next level.  Its one of the few truly extended, uninterrupted periods I get to just write, so I like to choose a project that I can get my teeth into, but also one that really needs to be tackled.   Something pressing.

This year, I am toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, because I want to crank out a novel as fast as possible.  So I have decided to lay the groundwork on this new idea, and throw myself into it, immerse myself in it as much as I can.  In previous years, I have redrafted novels or short stories, polished specific sections of a novel, worked specifically on character, or redrawn a dodgey plot.

My goal this year is especially fuelled with the knowledge that I need to be writing something original, something other than fanfiction.  Nothing wrong with fanfiction.  Its given me marvellous confidence in my work, and I love writing it.  I just think I need push myself, to do something new.

Manage expectations: 

I’m not going to finish an entire novel in a weekend.  I may even get no further than writing 500 words.  And I am okay with that.

When I first started going on retreats, I had HUGE expectations of myself and what I could achieve.  I thought I could crank out 20,000 words in two days, a third of a novel.  I thought I could create publisher-ready prose.  The truth is that even on retreat, there is only a limited amount of time, and making really good prose takes time.  A lot of time.  I have only learnt this with experience.

There have been several retreats where I have slept badly on the first night, or felt ill, and as a result have really been unable to do anything much at all apart from eat, sleep, talk with my fellow writers, and be.  Sometimes that is what a retreat is for.  I have gained from those experiences.  These days I am ready to allow my retreat to be whatever it needs to be, and to trust that whatever happens is part of the process.

So I make plans, but I don’t get too attached to them.

Be present:

Being aware of my physical wellbeing is very important on retreat, and not simply because I suffer from chronic illness.  I need to be present in my body, so I do yoga and meditate, go for walks, stand in the shower and feel the water on my skin, and take naps.  (One friend uses the annual retreat to undulge in long, hot, scented baths because she doesn’t have a tub at home!)  This might all seem time away from writing, but it is crucial.  Self care is part of retreating.  Doing these things allows me time to think about the writing, to form scenes and sentences in my head.  But it also allows me to come to the laptop refreshed afterwards.  So it is an investment in my writing, as well as my body.

Packing: 

As a result, packing right is really important.  I always make sure I take warm, snuggly clothes, my yoga mat and yoga clothes, a hot water bottle, walking boots and, on occasion, even a teddy bear for cuddling purposes.  And because I have weird dietary issues, I make sure I take an extra supply of good, healthy foods and my favourite herbal teas too.  The centre staff are really great in catering for my diet, but there are those in-between-meals moments, when what you really need to fuel the Muse is your own favourite brand of chocolate!

Be absent: 

I get very anxious when I am away from home.  I need to be grounded in my safe environment in order for my imagination to work properly.  It helps that we have been going on retreat to the same place for years, and also that it really isn’t very far from my own home, so I feel like I am on home turf.  Other people find their imagination is stimulated by unfamiliar territory.  Mine just shuts down so that my emotional system can cope with the panic attacks.

To counter this, I take music and listen to it doggedly in order to transport me to safe psychic territory.  I put on my headphones, close my eyes and fly away.  And then I can write.

It is a major diffence to how I normally write, which is in silence.  So part of my preparation ritual is to gather music around me.  I make playlists for different characters, delve into iTunes and my CD collection,  choose music that evokes particular memories or landscapes for me, or none at all.

Allow it: 

Going on retreat is supposed to be calming, an activity to feed your soul.  Its supposed to be downtime from your usual life.  As a result it is easy to get really wound up about how good it is going to be, and then find yourself disappointed.  To feel like you just aren’t calm enough, or getting enough done, or maybe even that you are wasting time that should be spent looking after the kids, doing the washing or writing that sales report.  This harks back to managing expectations.  But it also has a deeper meaning.

you are allowed to have time to yourself

You aren’t being selfish.  Leave all your SHOULDS and OUGHTS at home.  You deserve to have this time spent solely with yourself, doing something you love.  I continue to struggle with this.  I tend to make retreat a time which is about productivity rather than identity – about being myself and giving myself what I need.  When you accept retreat as a gift to yourself, managing expectations becomes easier.  And that precious dimension of writing that no one seems to talk about – moodling – becomes possible.  Have a weekend’s moodle.  Because you are worth it.

I heartily recommend going on a retreat if you can manage it.  Maybe for a day, or even overnight.  Maybe just for an afternoon.  If you are looking for ideas and guidance, I also recommend Judy Reeves’ wonderful ‘A Writers Retreat Kit:  A Guide for Creative Exploration and Personal Expression’, which I ordered recently from Amazon in preparation for this weekend.

Now I had better get back to my packing!

Happy writing (and moodling)

EF

The Writing Life: Go On Retreat

DSCI2692It’s getting to that time of year.  The sun is out, schools are breaking up, and the beach is calling.  You may have already enjoyed a holiday, or you are preparing to join friends, your significant other and/or family for a week or fortnight chilling out.

I love annual holidays, believe me.  These days, though, my system won’t handle hot weather anymore, and money is thin on the ground, so we don’t do the foreign holidays like we used to.  A week in the Inner Hebrides, surrounded by fantastic scenery (and enough whisky to entertain the husband) is the most we occasionally manage.

Holidays are great, especially if they include sun (we don’t have unreasonable expectations when we go to Scotland, put it that way!).  You can spend a week by the pool reading and relaxing, visit a few local sites, enjoy slow evening meals in a tavern while you watch the sun sunk into the azure sea.  Bliss.

But have you ever thought of taking a holiday with your creative passion?

And no, I am not talking about one of those great holidays where you go painting with a tutor in the South of France, or take tutorials with a famous poet at Arvon, although I have no doubt they are fantastic!.

I’m talking about just you and your muse.  One on one.  Taking time out for what may be the most important romance of your life.  Your relationship with yourself.

Once a year, our writers group gathers at a local conference centre in the South Norfolk countryside.  We arrive on Friday afternoon and leave on Sunday afternoon.  Three hot, delicious meals a day are provided, together with morning coffee and afternoon tea.  We each have an en suite study bedroom with bed and desk, and views across the fields.  The welcome is friendly, and you can practically hear the collective sigh of relief as we all turn inward, away from our busy lives, to concentrate on our writing.

Imagine that.  An entire weekend, just you, and your stories.

No having to food shop, cook meals, prize your angry children from each other’s throats or soothe your spouse’s ego when their team lost at whatever sport they are obsessed with.  A whole weekend where you can sleep, soak in the bath, so some yoga, walk through the countryside, listen to the birds, and pick up your pen when the muse strikes you.  There are familiar friends from the writers group to discuss your work with, to talk about writing and reading and the ideas that fill your head.  But there are no everyday worries to distract you from your work.

It doesn’t have to be expensive.  Our retreat costs around £140, which I think is pretty impressive for full board for two and a half days.  We don’t have luxury, but we don’t need it.  The luxury is being able to spend time with our stories.

Each evening, we gather together after supper.  On the Friday night, we are still settling down, orienting ourselves within the space we have set aside to be with our work.  We bring bottles of wine and soft drinks, and snacks to share.  We also bring pieces of writing by other writers from books and poetry collections that we have recently enjoyed, and take turns to read to one another.  This provides a cross-fertilisation, and a chance to reconnect.  During the weekend, we meet for meals and coffee breaks, but mostly we spend time alone, working or moodling, feeding our souls, communing with our creativity.  On Saturday evenings, we gather again, to read and workshop what we have written through the day.  And we always gather for afternoon tea on Sunday, about 4pm, to finish off and say goodbye.

Sometimes, when someone is going through a difficult time in their lives, this retreat is simply time spent with themselves, refilling the creative well.  It doesn’t have to produce anything in particular apart from a chance to ground in one’s own needs and interests, to find a bit of peace.  At other times, we come with a sense of what we specifically want to achieve, meaning to address some particular aspect of a current work, or a precise task, such as preparing a synopsis for an agent.  Having a plan is good, but its better to go with your creative season.  If you just need to down tools from a busy life and immerse yourself in creativity, that’s the thing to do.  Each of us seems to find her own need for every retreat, and we look forward to each new one from the moment we leave the last!

Even if you can’t find a group to go with, you might have a friend who could join you.  This weekend, I had the pleasure of greeting two of my fanfiction writing friends who came up to Norwich for a weekend, shared a cheap hotel room, and enjoyed a break for writing, creativity and fun.  We got together, had a meal, and shared our interests.  It was so refreshing!  Making time to go somewhere different allows you to depart from your everyday cares, and concentrate on the art form that you love.  This more informal approach might be a good way of managing a retreat for you.

I heartily encourage you to find a way to take time out for a writing or creativity retreat.  It is a practise that I think every creative person should incorporate into their process and their life.  It revives and stimulates.  It also reminds me that I am part of a tribe, however hidden we are.  It stimulates new ideas and new interests, and above all, it gives peace of mind.

So if you are planning a hectic family break right now, why not take the time to dream up a way of escaping on your own, however you do it, just you and your muse, as part of a group, or alone, to feed your soul.

Happy retreating,

EF

The Writing Life: Writers Groups

DSCI2689

I belong to a writers group.  And it’s great!

It all began years ago, when I started the Diploma in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.  It was the first writing course I ever went on.  I walked into the room and found myself surrounded by people like me.  It was the first time I ever felt like I wasn’t different and strange.  I had found my tribe.

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it is crucial for both your mental health and your work to socialise.  And what better way to do that than with other writers who are going through the same trials and tribulations as you are?

As part of our diploma course, we went on a weekend retreat, involving taught sessions, visiting speakers, workshopping and private writing time.  It was a huge success and we bonded.  Many of us went on to study for the Advanced Diploma in Prose Fiction, which was primarily a workshop-based course, and that further cemented the group.

Since then we have continued to meet, once a month, to share our work, our experiences, problems and interests.  And an awful lot of tea and flap-jacks!  Members have come and gone, buts okay.  There is a core group who have stuck together for over a decade now, sharing life experiences, supporting one another through MA courses and publication.  We go on annual retreats together, about which more in future.  We meet at each other’s houses, planning dates ahead and each offering to the host nights most convenient.  Hot and cold drinks, nibbles and cakes are provided to lubricate the conversation.

Based on the old course model, each member brings a piece of new writing that they have done, and we try to keep it to around 1,000 to 2,000 words in length – any longer and it takes up too much time.  You can read your own piece, or ask someone else to read it.  (It is sometimes really helpful to hear another person read it in order to pick out the parts where the writing is less fluid.)  Then people comment.  Helpful and empathic criticism is offered.  We always make sure we start by pointing out what we like about the piece.  Often, if it is part of a larger work, people will ask questions about plot or backstory.  Because we know one another’s work so well, we can refer back to earlier stories, or earlier parts of the work, and kick around ideas to find out what might be a useful improvement for any problems.  At the end of every participant’s session, they are asked how they feel about what was said, which gives them the chance to say anything that has been missed in the discussion.  We usually manage to workshop about three pieces of prose in a 2.5 hour meeting.

Not everyone may have something they want to read, or will have had time to write that month, and that’s okay too.  They contribute by commenting on and supporting the work of others.  We have prose writers and poets.  We share news of any courses or day schools that may have been attended, and often discuss what books everyone is reading too.

And of course, we do a lot of nattering and gossiping too.

Outside the regular meetings, we have been known to circulate work and meet informally for writing sessions.  We even do writing sessions over the phone.

I encourage you to find your own tribe.  You can do it online or in person.  Libraries and publications such as Mslexia and the Writers Digest often have small ads for writers groups.  Or start one yourself, as we did.  Make sure you are happy with the atmosphere and ethos of the group you join, however.  There is no point in sharing your work and then having it brutally cut to pieces.  Gaining confidence in dealing with confidence is one thing.  Bullying is quite another.  There are pitfalls with joining any group, but the advantages with a good one will outweigh any glitches.

My pals in the group have stuck by me through thick and thin and seven novels, and I am eternally grateful to them for their kind support and criticism.  And for banning me from using the word ‘massive’.  Sometimes you need that kind of pal.

Dear Bridget, Clare, Heidi, Nina, and Sally, I love you.

And now I had better get myself together and go and put some flap-jacks in the oven, because they’ll be round tonight and I haven’t written anything yet!

Happy creating,

EF