Tag Archives: Writers Resources

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 Only Two Books a Writer Needs (Part 2)

BookshelfIn the last post, I waxed lyrical about why you need a good dictionary on your bookself.  Have it to hand when you are reading.  Reading is an act of Input that every writer needs to undertake.  And no, its not stealing.  Its looking for inspiration, in the same way that artists study and copy the Old Masters in order to improve.  Reading helps you learn what works and what doesn’t, but more on that another day.

So that’s the Input.  What about the Output?  This is where the next book comes in – the writing part.

The Thesaurus

If you aren’t familiar with thesauri, my lovely Chambers Dictionary describes them as:

“…a book with systematically arranged lists of words and their synonyms, antonyms etc, a word-finder; a treasury.”

If you are serious about making your writing more vivid, you’ll need a Thesaurus.  I was introduced to Roget’s Thesaurus, probably the most famous thesaurus, while still at school, but the technique of using it is cumbersome and it completely foxed me.

Now I use a very nice, fat Penguin Thesaurus, which is alphabetical, and quite thorough enough to meet my needs.  I keep my Roget in reserve, just in case.  And yes, I have finally worked out how to use it properly, but it’s a pain, so I keep things simple.

The nice thing about a thesaurus is that it helps when you can’t think of a word (which for me is a lot!), or are looking for a more sumptuous way of explaining something.  You want a word like ‘magician’, for instance, but are looking for something a bit more, well, exotic.  Dip into your ‘thes’ and you will find:

Sorcerer, wizard, warlock, sorceress, witch, enchantress, necromancer, thaumaturge, miracle-worker.

Mmmm.  Never heard of thaumaturge before!  That’s pretty exotic, as exotic goes.  See what I mean?  Grab yourself a thesaurus and have a moodle about within its pages.  Yes, its perhaps just another way of defining words, but it defines around them too, enriching them in unexpected ways.  It will help you widen your vocabulary but also makes your stories more sumptuous.  As with anything rich, however, don’t go overboard.  Too much cream can make you sick.  Too many adjectives and adverbs (especially) will put your reader off completely.  Its a case of using the right word, not lots and lots of words.  Be vivid, not verbose.

The Others

Yes, there are other reference books I rely on on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t be without my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, for example.  Or The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and the Chambers Biographical Dictionary.  All of them are fascinating and deeply useful – and not just when you are wrestling with a crossword!  But they are not what I could call ‘necessary’.

A dictionary and thesaurus are as necessary to a writer as a saw and chisel are to a carpenter. On a scale of need, they are prerequisites for the writing life.

As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I have lots of books about writing.  I promise I will tell you about them in another post.  In the meantime, ferret out a good dictionary and thesaurus and keep them close at hand.  Look up any word you don’t recognise, and also those that you think you know what they mean, but have a lingering doubt about whether you are right.  Write down the ones you really love, and use them.    I promise you’ll have no regrets.

Happy wording,

EF

The Writing Life: Writers Groups

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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

Why you need to Moodle

Today, I have been moodling.

Mooching.  Pottering.  Puttering.  Loafing.  Fiddling.  Wandering.  Pootling.

It looks like I am doing nothing very important from the outside, or at least nothing creatively productive.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Brenda Ueland, in her superb book ‘If you want to write’ (hardly bettered since it was published in 1938), calls creative revelations ‘little bombs’.

“You may find that the little bombs quietly burst in you when you are doing other things – sewing, or carpentering, or whittling, or playing golf, or dreamily washing dishes.” (p45)

“…So you see, the imagination needs moodling – long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.  Therse people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas…but they have no slow, big ideas.  And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.” (p32)

Ueland knew that we need to time to contemplate, to think and reflect, to be alone with ourselves, but also time to just let things percolate, soak in and mingle.  We may not look like we are working on our novel when we are washing up.  We may not even be thinking about it consciously.  But there it is, fizzing away behind our eyes, collecting connections, accumulating mass like a growing snowball tumbling down a mountain.

We are incubating miracles.

We need to moodle to charge our brains, to collect impressions, to drink from the well.  However, there is another reason to moodle.  What happens when the well is dry?

This comes back to self care, which I wrote about in an earlier post.  There are always going to be times of creative drought in our lives.  There will be times when life gets in the way, or when we are so busy dealing with our personal stuff that there is no energy left over to flow out into creation.

It is crucial to know that that is alright.  It happens.  It will pass.

And when these droughts occur, and to prevent them if you can, you need to moodle.  Have a nap.  Potter about.  Paint your toenails.  Fix that squeaky gate.  Go window shopping.  Give yourself a break, literally and metaphorically.  Resting will fill the well up again.

This is why I don’t really believe in writers block.  I think that either you are exhausted, or you are stopping yourself from creating out of fear.  If the latter is the case, you need to explore those fears, and work on them in your journal.  If the former, you need to let go of guilt, accept the creative season you are in, and lie around wiggling your toes until your brain is sufficiently rested, and finally ready to come up with a new ‘Aha!’ moment.

I urge you to read Ueland’s peerless book, whether you are a writer or not.  It is full of incredibly sensible advice for anyone who means to create.

I also urge you to take some moodling time this week.  Book it in your diary.  Tell the family to leave you alone in the bath tonight.  Go and lie in the park in the sun.  Not every expedition has to be an Artist Date.  Sometimes, its good just to refill the well.

Happy Moodling,

EF

On Process: Your Creative Clock

Ickworth Garden Temple - take a moment to reflect

Ickworth Garden Temple – take a moment to reflect

I don’t think I have ever read a book about how to write (and I’ve read a lot of books about how to write) that didn’t stipulate that writing first thing in the morning, as soon as you get up, is the best thing to do.

Excuse my “French”, but bollocks to that.

I am not a morning person.  Not in any way, shape or form.  I never have been, and I never will be.  In addition to this apparently genetic disadvantage (my mother is terrible in the mornings too), I suffer from a chronic illness which means I need about four hours to get going for the day.  My brain doesn’t normally come online in any meaningful way until about 11am.  And if I try to get going any earlier, I am totalled for days afterwards.

Writing first thing in the morning is never going to happen for me.  Its a biological impossibility.

Ask me about 9.30pm, though.  Yep, by then I am motoring!  I have suffered from insomnia since childhood, when I lay in bed making up stories in the dark to amuse myself while everyone else slept.  I think this is when I became a writer.  I am at my most creative in the hours of darkness, when my mind flies along, pumping out ideas and exciting images like Spielberg on speed.  I even dream in glorious technicolour.

And yes, I write during the day too, but mostly not before about 4pm.  I often have a big pulse of creativity between 4pm and 6pm that is great for finishing stories, and for writing blog posts, which is exactly what I am doing now – its 5.45pm and my brain is firing on all cylinders.

Ask me to invent something at 10am, though, and you are wasting both our times.  Ask me after 10pm and you probably couldn’t stop me with a sledge hammer!

We all have an internal body clock.  Some of us are naturally larks, and some owls.  If you are honest with yourself, you know which you are, when you function best.  You might be brilliant at doing advanced maths in the morning, or you might be better checking your email or dusting the objet d’art.

This doesn’t just apply to the hours of the day, but to your annual clock too.  I find I have a bit of a manic period in March, when the sap starts to rise and I can’t sleep at all because my brain is whirring so frantically with new ideas.  I actually get breathless!  By the time April comes in, I am mentally drained, and can barely come up with an idea for something for tea until July.  July is often my time for last bursts of activity on a project that needs finishing, the final sprint.  But during the summer months, I can safely say there are better things to do than sit inside with a laptop.

Once September comes in, I start to go into my creative cave, a kind of incubation period where I sit with ideas, mull them over, do my planning.  Then during the depths of winter I engage in my deepest writing, my most productive spells, when I can turn out 2-3000 words a day at times.  I find I draw best in the first half of the year, which to me is an exterior time, a period of surging energy.  The second half of the year is for going inside, for living with the images and tales in my head.

I’ve discovered this pattern over the years, observing myself and my creativity and making notes about how I am working in my writing notebooks.  Self reflection is something that helps your creative process and there should always be space in your writing notebooks, sketchbooks and journals for considering how you work best, and what you do when.  These things are important to know, because that way you can optimise your output.   I know, for instance, that there is no need for me to beat myself up in June when I realise I’m not writing.  That’s ok.  Its not the time to do it.  June is when I am out in the world, filling my well.  I know the time will come, and that the downtime in the summer is an important resting and refuelling stop.  Knowing when not to beat yourself up for not being creative is incredibly important for your self confidence and longevity as an artist, and for your mental health.

Writing Exercise:

Take out your notebook, journal or sketchbook – whatever is your creative workbench – and spend some time reflecting on when you have produced your best work, both in terms of the time of day, and of the year.  Do particular seasons have creative resonances for you?  Are the liminal times of dawn or twilight the moments when you come up with your best ideas?  Do you write or paint great stuff in the summer months, or when you are on holiday?  Are you stupified by the cold grey winter skies, or do they encourage you to look within for brighter pictures?

Make sure you take time periodically to reflect on this subject, as it will help you build up a clearer picture of your creative clock.  I like to do it at the beginning of each month, like a review, or quarterly, at the changing of the seasons.  The more you know yourself as a creative person in this way, the more easily you will be able to use your energy for your best work, and to avoid frustration and blocks.

Happy creating!

EF

Journal Friday: Morning Pages

The Artists Way 2

If you read creative blogs of any kind, you are bound to come across Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ eventually.  It’s cover bills it as ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self’, and yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin.  I first completed the whole 12 week course in 2004, and now I am about to embark on a refresher.  I’ve pulled my much loved, somewhat dog-eared copy off the shelf and on Monday 6th May 2013 I shall launch into the unknown once more.

Cameron proposes two tools for this course, Morning Pages and Artist Dates.  No doubt we will talk about Artist Dates at some point soon, but today, let us think about morning pages, because they are enormously beneficial, whether you are a creative or not.

“What are morning pages?  Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness…”

Julia Cameron, ‘The Artist’s Way‘ Pan Boo 1995  pp9-10

Basically, what we are talking about here is three pages of brain dump.  You write them by hand because it enables your subconscious to express itself.  You don’t judge them, you don’t ty to be neat, you don’t reread them.  Cameron suggests doing them on loose sheets of A4/letter size paper, but I prefer to keep them in a notebook, the same kind I use for my writing notebook.

You can whine, complain, rave, drool, scream, laugh, giggle, rant, enthuse, or just repeat ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write’ over and over again until something presents itself to be set down. Three pages.  Inane babble or heartfelt planning.  As scribbly as you like. (I realised after I had taken the photo above that this particular example of my pages is considerably neater than my usual.  Believe me, most of it is a real mess!)

Whatever comes out.  Three pages every day, no matter what.  Three pages to ground yourself in the very core of your psyche, to drain out the poison and find the shimmering gold doubloons resting on the sea bed beneath.

I have kept morning pages on and off for 9 years.  I have never reread any of them.  But when I do them, I find myself making sense of the world and my feelings, finding a way to my dreams and interests, naming new ideas and enthusiasms, letting out the bile that is getting in the way of health and healing.

I profoundly believe in the healing power of these pages in draining the poison and pain from life.  I have recommended it to several friends and acquaintences who were struggling with clinical depression.  They have found them enormously beneficial, as do I.  I now recommend them to you, not because I think you need help, but because they will help you find yourself, because they will help you become more of who you really are under all the OUGHTS and SHOULDS.

Journal Exercise:

Set your alarm half an hour earlier this week.  Get yourself a decent large notebook and a pen you like to write with (I do mine with a lovely old Parker fountain pen).  Write your three pages every day.  Do not judge yourself.  Do not censor yourself.  Get the dross and the sparkles alike down on paper.

If you would like to join me on the Artists Way, you are more than welcome.  I shall be writing more about my progress on this blog, and I would love to hear from you in the comments if you are game.

A Little Melodic Inspiration

Where do your ideas come from?

That is the question most writers dread.  Or rave about.  Iain Banks rants about it at great length in his glorious book, ‘Raw Spirit‘:

“Leaving aside the obvious, ‘Class A drugs, actually’ or, ‘A wee man in Auchtermuchty’, I’ve sometimes wondered what sort of answer people really expect to this.”

(‘Raw Spirit’ by Iain Banks, Century Books London, 2003 p255)

And so he goes on. I asked him at a signing once about how he dealt with getting stuck in the middle of a novel, and he obviously interpreted it as me asking The Question, and didn’t take it well!

But in my mind its a reasonable question for one thought alone, and it is this:

Maybe we don’t know where the ideas come from, but how do we get our minds into the right place for them to arrive? 

Its about putting lots of mulch in the ground to make it a rich, fertile place for new things to grow.

I have an assortment of answers to this problem, but today I thought I would share one of them with you.

Music.

I make a playlist for every novel I write.  When I am sitting down to work on a scene, or with the characters, I play the playlist on my headphones, and this gets me in the mood, gets me in touch with the characters, the environment, the colours and sounds through which they move.  Often, particular characters end up being associated with specific tracks.

And sometimes, it is just one piece of music that I hear that sparks a story, or gets me in the mood to write.

Here are some to try:

Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge

(This is the core soundtrack for a novel I am working on at the moment)

Suede – Asbestos

(This is the ‘title theme’ for a novel about my favourite character, Evenlode.)

Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams

(This last one I listened to for six months pretty much continually while I was writing the climactic scenes for my first novel, which was set on the South Downs in Pre-Roman Britain.)

Writing Exercise:

Get out your CD collection, or your iPod, or fire up youtube, however you listen to music.  Listen to a few tracks and see what mental images are conjured up.  What landscape can you see?  What kind of people inhabit this world? Can you see their faces?  What challenges are they facing?  Who do they love?  Who do they hate?

Get out your writing notebook and begin to set down what you can of these images.  You may need to make lists of ideas or words, or you might like to write passages of description.  You might even draw!  Note everything that comes to you, and listen again, as many times as you need to in order to get out as much as you can.

Don’t forget to write down the piece of music and the artist whose work generated the images you have found.

This exercise may prompt a whole new story, or you could use your descriptions to feed into something you are already working on, or something you have yet to write.  Nothing you write is ever wasted – it can all be recycled into new work.

Happy listening – and writing!