Thursday 22 February 2018

Should you go on a writing retreat? YES

by Teri Terry

Have you ever wanted to go on a writing retreat but weren't sure what you might get out of it? I love writing retreats! Especially the SCBWI variety. But the reasons why have changed over the years.

Back when I was unpublished and unagented, I wasn't sure I could justify the time or expense of a writing retreat...

It took me a year of thinking about it before I finally took the plunge and went to my first SCBWI retreat.

I didn't write at them very much the first few times - in fact, the first one I went to, way back in 2010, I spent all the scheduled writing time reading Jon Mayhew's Mortlock, which I'd brought along for him to sign, and having unscheduled naps and weird Mortlock-related-dreams. This was my very first retreat, and the last one in the midlands; one of the last few ably-organised by the very much missed Sue Hyams.

It still stands out in my mind all these years later: 

1. the sheer joy of being around other creative types for a whole weekend. I started to feel less alone. If other people out there talk to the characters in their heads all the time too, maybe I'm not completely bonkers?

2. a one to one with Lee Weatherly with a ghost story I still may go back to one day: she said my voice was just right for YA!

Lee's latest
3. a talk Lee gave also, where I still remember one of the things she said: that if you've had a full manuscript request somewhere - even if it's a no - it shows you can write; keep going, you'll get there. I'd been in just this position around that time and was feeling down about it, and she made me turn it around and see it for the encouragement that it  was.

4. a picture book talk with Pippa Goodhart! 
I wasn't sure why I was even going - I didn't want to write picture books - but I went along, and I still remember something that she said: that animals are often used in picture books because it makes it less scary than if it were a child. This is something I came back to in other contexts when I was thinking about the appeal of dystopian novels: put something in another world or in the future, and you can look at scary issues in a way that might feel too confronting in our world.

Retreats then moved to Dunford House in West Sussex:
I've been to every one, and even volunteered to organise it myself a few years. The reasons I went changed over time and the years merge together a bit in my brain:
my Dunford Houe library writing buddies in 2011:
Christian Colossi, Jo Wyton, Tina Lemon

1. writing time: more and more I was using the retreat to focus on my work in an intense way that can be hard to do at home with family & work commitments.

2. friends! Writing friends! No one else wants to listen to us agonise over a word or point of view choice or plot point like they will; no one understands the agony of rejection and dusting yourself off again like they do; no one else is quite the same cheer leading section.

3. it made me feel like a writer! Which can be elusive sometimes in those pre-published stages.

Then in 2011 I got a publishing deal, hurrah! Slated was published in 2012. Things were changing ...

Once I was agented and published, I wasn't sure I could justify the time or expense of a writing retreat...

Why go if I don't need one to ones, I'm less interested in going to workshops and talks, and now that I'm writing full time I don't really need the dedicated writing time away?

I kept going. I couldn't not go, somehow.

1. writing time! I still loved having this weekend to focus, away from home/family.

Writing buddies in Dunford House library, 2018
Dunford House
2. writing friends! I think I said it all above: they're the best.

3. Dunford House! more and more it was becoming a place I loved going to every year; an annual ritual; my favourite weekend of the year
Dunford House Conservatory one May

What about solo retreats?
Another point about retreats: I know authors who go away on their own for a week or two to write. This doesn't work for me; I've tried it. I get too morose being on my own 24 hours a day. The SCBWI retreats - also Charlie's residential retreats in beautiful Devon - work for me because I can write all day but have lovely chat with friends at meals and in the evening.

I almost didn't go to the SCBWI retreat this year: 
I've been travelling too much. I've got 
Scooby, the World's Cutest Puppy.
I did miss her dreadfully
some intense deadlines. We have a puppy. Lots of things were falling through the cracks and I didn't register for the retreat: it was sold out. I also didn't plan a book launch for Deception, the second book of my Dark Matter trilogy.

But Dunford House is closing soon so it was the last one there, and I found I couldn't stay away. Someone sadly had to cancel and I got their spot! And then I remembered my very first retreat, and Jon Mayhew bringing along bottles of bubbles after Mortlock was published ...
blurry Jon Mayhew pouring bubbles - back in 2010?
I think it was 2010
... and I had a cunning plan:

A book launch! Prosecco! a writing retreat!! What's not to like?

Prosecco! a glass! no free hands for the book,
but Susan Bain snuck in to help out
Thanks so much to everyone for being there! And thank you to Mel Rogerson and Alexandra English for organising everything so wonderfully. 
Thank you to editor Rosie McIntosh for coming along, and to Dom and Hachette Children's Books for the Prosecco, and to everyone at Dunford House for making this retreat - and my book launch - as memorable as all the others.

And thanks also to Candy Gourlay and Kathy Evans for making the trek, and for the photos!
Books! bookmarks!
from left: Kathy Evans, Nina Wadcock, me, and Candy Gourlay's selfie magic
Editor Rosie McIntosh saying lovely things

So cheers to SCBWI, Dunford House, writing retreats, and writing friends everywhere! 

Thanks to Sue Hyams, for talking me in to going on my first retreat.

the dedication page in Contagion

Please share: writing retreat happenings? things learned? writing retreat successes? haunted rooms? things forgotten/lost? hangovers?

Friday 16 February 2018

Let's start from the very beginning

by Paula Harrison

Beginnings are hard. I've heard writers talk about how they get lost in the middle of their manuscripts or how they find it hard to finish a story the way they want to. But to me, beginnings are hard... although I still love writing them.

So how do recently-published books in the middle grade age range pull the reader in? I thought we should take a look...

First up - The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

They say the day the Governor arrived, the ravens did too. All the smaller birds flew backwards into the sea, and that is why there are no songbirds on Joya. Only huge, ragged ravens.

Bad omen alert! The symbolism of ravens - those dark, carrion-eating birds - instantly puts us on edge. But more than anything it's the image of the smaller birds flying backwards into the sea that sticks in my mind. Flying backwards is pretty unnatural! This story sets up a sense of foreboding right from the start. The information is told to us second-hand too and this introduces the importance of myths and old tales.

Next let's look at Tin by Padraig Kenny

Snow was falling from the night sky, and all the world was cold and hushed except for the regular metallic squeaking of Jack's joints. Christopher glanced at Jack, but the mechanical looked straight ahead oblivious to the sound.

The poetic feeling of this opening is quickly punctured by the end of the first sentence as the metallic squeaking contrasts with the snowy night-time setting. What is a mechanical? We immediately want to know.

And on to Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll

We were halfway through the news when the air raid started. It was a Friday in January: we were at the Picture Palace for the 6 p.m. showing of The Mark of Zorro. All month the Luftwaffe had been attacking us, their bombs falling on London like pennies from a jar, 

This book was one of my favourite reads of 2017, partly because it's fantastic and partly because it has a historical setting. I don't write historical myself which means I find it more relaxing to read. This opening has a simple style but that image of the bombs falling like pennies from a jar transports you straight into the mind of the main character and her life in war-time London.

And finally let's look at Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans

It was such an ordinary evening, but every detail of it would matter; every detail would become vital.
This story had me at hello! My goodness - WHY would every detail become vital? I haven't finished this book yet so no spoilers please, but I had to add this book to my TBR pile after that. Also I love the voice of the main character and how you can tell that she's a young person from the slightly melodramatic way she's expressing herself.

All of these beginnings are authors absolutely in control of their material. We all know why beginnings are so important. Children can easily put a book down if they lose interest in the early pages. A well-crafted opening is a beautiful thing... then you just have to make the rest of the book as good!

Paula Harrison is the author of 5 middle grade novels and 22 young series books, and if you buy them you are welcome to analyse their openings! 

Friday 9 February 2018

Love Thine Editor by Kathryn Evans

If you dream of being a published author you probably dream of being a published author.  There will be  a particular dream that motivates and inspires you.

I’d hazard a guess it’s one of these:
  • Seeing your book in a reader’s hands.
  • Seeing your book on a library shelf
  • Getting a big fat advance
  • Celebrating at a jubilant launch party
  • Holding your published book in you hands for the first time
  • Getting your first fan letter
  • Being nominated for the Carnegie medal

Am I right? Thought so. How do I know? Because I dreamed them all before More of Me was published,  and one more. One that topped my list. One that is still the single most thrilling and rewarding of the lot.

I wanted an editor. A bonafide, professional editor who would help me craft my book into something more.

My fabulous editor Sarah Stewart and me making a stupid crying face because she made my book better than I ever could on my own.

For an author, there is no greater gift than this. Your editor will love your book - they had to in order to pitch it to sales and marketing and get it through acquisitions. But they will see its faults. They will see where the pace drops, or the characterisation flags. They will see where your story is muddled, or where your have lost sight of the heart of what you’re trying to say.

They will go through your work, intimately, and gently tell you all the places you need to make it better. They probably won’t tell you how to make it better, but they will let you bounce ideas off them until you come up with an improvement. 

As a writer, what more could you ask for than someone as committed as you to making your book the best it can be?

I recently had my first editorial meeting for a Secret Project.  I got so excited at the new ideas it generated that the boss asked me to keep the noise down. Through a partition wall. I know, mildly embarrassing. But the book is going to be SO MUCH BETTER. Of course I got excited.

It does now mean I have a major rewrite on a moderately tight deadline but what a gift. I’m 14% in to the changes , I have direction and enthusiasm and a belief in the new book that only comes from the endorsement of people you trust seeing what you see. Potential.

If you get given this chance, embrace it. You will learn so much if you let go a little:
  • Don’t be too precious about your beautiful words - there might be better words. 
  • Don’t hang on too tight to characters you adore who just aren’t needed in this story - park them up for another story - maybe their own story if they’re that good. 
  • Remember you are not best placed to see where your story lacks ‘something’ , you know it inside out and may be mentally filling in blanks that the reader can’t see.

Be grateful that someone else wants to help make your story great. Love your editor like they love your story.  Remember, they’re pulling it apart for one reason only: so you can rebuild it. Better.

 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. Find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk. 

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