As November’s writing retreat draws closer we’ve been busy preparing delicious menus, daily schedules, and morning workshops. The aim of this season’s retreat is to offer our retreaters the space to write, the companionship and support of other writers, and inspirational workshops designed to nourish their works in progress, whether those WIPs be long laboured upon or newly hatching.
As I’ve been thinking through what I want our guest writers to take away from my workshop on settings, it occurs to me that I haven’t been exploring my own settings deeply enough. Don’t get me wrong, there are several key things that I have of course taken into account. I’ve been careful to invoke all five of the senses in order to ground my readers in a sense of place. I’ve considered the function of my settings in relation to my characters and their story, questioning whether the setting of a specific scene offers a reflection or a contrast to my characters or their moods. Where possible, I’ve tried to give the setting a character of its own, to enable it to evoke atmosphere and tension.
But I now realise that what I haven’t yet done in my current WIP is really get to grips with the tone and textures of my overall setting. I know from experience that doing this will benefit my writing, but it’s an easy step to miss out when there’s so much else to think about. So that’s what I’m going to ask our retreaters to do during that session. I’ll post more here after I run the workshop and we see how everyone gets on.
The Writing Retreat event of November 2014 is now FULLY BOOKED. Apologies to those who we were unable to accommodate this time around. We’d love to welcome you to join us at a future retreat.
The next event at The Writing Retreat will take place from Monday 16th March to Saturday 21st March 2015. Maybe you’re new to writing, or perhaps you’ve written a lot but don’t feel like you know what you are doing yet? This retreat will be perfect for those who want to get to grips with the core elements of creative writing.
Book early to avoid disappointment. See The Writing Retreat website for more details.
As the new academic year kicks into gear, and people turn to their adult education brochure seeking something to do to brighten up the dark evenings, several potential students have approached me, wanting to know about my Creative Writing for Beginners course. One question that keeps cropping up in one guise or another is, why do I teach what I teach? You see, my course isn’t the usual beginners’ banquet of knocking out first drafts and sharing them with your supportive but essentially non-critical class mates. It’s more structured, skills focused, and challenging.
Over the past twenty years or so, I have attended more creative writing classes and workshops than I’m capable of listing. I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve been inspired by some fantastic facilitators, been supported and encouraged by some fabulous writing folk, and flirted with a vast range of fiction techniques, such as character, settings, dialogue, etc. But – and this is possibly because I’m a bit dense – I exited time after time, happy and stimulated but none the wiser about how, exactly, I could become a better writer. Or even a half decent one. I learned a snippet or two about writing short stories, a bit about writing for radio, a tad about writing poetry. I wrote a lot, and had flashes of inspiration during which I produced some pretty palatable stuff. But I couldn’t replicate the success, because I didn’t understand why one piece worked while another didn’t. I didn’t know what I was doing.
It stuck me that there must be more to this fiction writing lark than these classes and workshops were letting on, at least in any form that I could access. I wasn’t willing to buy into the popular belief that good writers are simply born able to do it, that you are either born lucky or not. Truth is, I don’t like elitism in any form, so I threw myself into the task of discovering the elusive secret of writing good fiction. I read every book on the craft I could lay my hands on. I joined a couple of hard hitting critique groups and worked diligently on my (pretty terrible at that stage) first novel. I returned to University and took an MA in Professional Writing. I learned a lot.
Most of all I learned that the actual craft of writing good fiction is something that can and should be taught, and can and should be learned. We all possess various degrees of natural talent. To make the most of our allotted portion of it, we need to add craft and practice to our bundle. So when, seven years ago, I was asked to run a creative writing course in Falmouth for the Cornwall Adult Education Service, I decided I would apply everything I had learned in my previous twenty years as a teacher to ‘teach’ the skills it had taken me so long to learn myself. This approach won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but what is?
I designed a year-long course that takes a beginner writer on a roller coaster ride, by the end of which they will be armed with the fundamental skills they need to become a good writer. They will know how to create 3D characters that defy stereotype, how to bring settings to life, how to select and control point of view, how to write dialogue that either illuminates character or advances plot (and preferably both), how to structure a plot that resonates, what on earth show and tell is all about, and a whole host of ways to tighten their use of language. In short, they will have a clear understanding of how to write a good short story. No plays, no poems, no travel features. My aim is not to touch on a lot of things, but to teach one thing well: depth rather than breadth. The skills, once learned, transfer across genres. I want to enable my students to tackle their writing development from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. What they then do with that knowledge is up to them. That’s when the work really starts.
Before I plunged without a map into the world of writers and writing, for some reason I was convinced that given the option, writers would choose to veer shy of contact with other humans. But the current boom in writing retreats would seem to imply I was wrong. Writers gathering together to write and talk about writing? What’s that all about?
For those of my students who enter the realm of writing as tentative, virginal explorers, one of the biggest surprises awaiting them is quite how much of a community spirit exists between writers at all stages of their journey. It’s true that much writing takes place in solitude. The popular image of the lonely writer holed up in their den living a fantastical existence while the real world plods on by without them, is valid enough – some of the time. But most writers will also work intensively with others of the same species, be they colleagues, beta readers, editors or agents. Being a writer is both a solitary and a social activity.
Writing is part art and part craft. It requires a combination of practice and study in order to become a master craftsman. You can study at home alone, or you can join a class or group and work with others. My adult education creative writing class for this term is over subscribed, so clearly many choose to learn and grow as a writer in the company of others who are on the same journey.
If you are dreaming of publication (go on, you can admit it, you’re amongst friends here) having somebody else cast a critical eye over your work is a crucial part of the writing process. The truth is, few of us can produce our best work without the help of others. Even those who have persisted through the drafting, re-drafting and polishing process while wrapped firmly in a solitary bubble will, should they be lucky enough to snare an agent or publisher, find themselves confronted with the need to work collaboratively on their writing. There’s simply no escaping it.
I believe that the writer who spurns the company of other writers is missing out. The support, learning opportunities and sheer camaraderie that come from getting together with other writers are not only fantastic for one’s development as a writer, but are also a huge part of the fun. For me, being able to drop out of the world of ‘normal’ people and surround myself with writers and writing for a sustained length of time, is a joy I would not wish to live without. That’s why I’m so looking forward to this November’s writing retreat in Cornwall.
Preparations for the November 2014 writing retreat are well under way now.
Advertising starts in a few weeks, menus are coming together, and the venue looks fabulous.
As Autumn closes in all around us, I find myself looking forward to crisp evenings in front of the fire, to stimulating company, to the shared joy of learning, and to the quiet tap tap tap of keyboards all over the house. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait!
What are you waiting for? Go ahead and book yourself a well-deserved writing holiday.
When I first decided to get serious about writing, I had this lovely vision of me sitting on the beach, or in front of a log fire, or huddled into the corner of a country pub, scribbling into a well-worn but totally classy leather-bound notepad. And that would be my life as a writer.
Or so I thought.
The reality is somewhat different. Less peaceful. Nowhere near so self-indulgent.
But for all that, this real writing life is in its own way just as stimulating and exciting as the one I once fantasised about. Just different. Definitely different.
How have you found your writing journey so far? Did it live up to the early dream, or even surpass it?