I’ve been home for a few days now; enough time has passed to reflect on the two weeks that I spent there. So what is the overriding feeling that I’m left with? What has my time on Cape Clear taught me?
I guess the overriding feeling is of joy and calm. My trip to Cape enabled me to reset the clock, revaluate my goals and rejig my workload to create a more harmonious work/life. In short, I recharged. But Cape also left me with a few important reminders…
1) A sense of place is important
The beauty of the island, the change of pace, the proud nature of the inhabitants, their determination to preserve island life through a mix of tradition and innovation, all fed into a vivid image of what encapsulates ‘Cape Clear’. As I heard said on the island… “You may leave Cape Clear, but Cape Clear won’t leave you.”
In your fiction, you need to make sure that the sense of place is as deeply rooted in the characters as it is in your descriptions. It’s not enough to describe a place to make it believable; you have to convince your reader, seduce them by making the character inextricable from the landscape (unless of course you’re trying to show them as an outsider. Then the reverse is required).
Consider the wild moorlands of Wuthering Heights, the harsh, unwelcoming sidewalks of Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, or the unyielding, barren landscape of Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child – when it comes to your setting, not just your characters, it’s a serious case of ‘show, don’t tell’.
2) It’s OK to give up
Despite the strong winds and lashing rain at the start of the week, I got it into my head to take the cliff walk. The exposed route involves some incredibly steep hills and boggy terrain, but even with the weather against me, I was determined. Why? Because I’d planned it before even arriving. And I’m stubborn.
However, after hiking for over half an hour without even being able to see the cliff edge or the path ahead, staggering against the wind and sinking my foot ankle deep into a delicious mix of cow pat and bog, I decided to pause. I had another ten days to go. Was it really worth it? For once, I concluded that the sensible decision was to turn back.
Likewise, with writing, it’s important to realise that sometimes an idea just isn’t working. Like a film or book you find dull, the world will not end if you abandon it. The guilt (if you’re prone to such a thing) may linger for a day or two, but if you distract yourself with a completely different project – something fresh, something exciting – you’ll get over it. Trust me. You’re much better putting your energies into something worthwhile.
Now, I don’t mean give up at the first hurdle – you have to give something a good run first. But as writers, we need to be able to see what works and what doesn’t. A story can be perfectly crafted but lack the ‘oomph’ to maintain its reader’s attention. An idea can be brilliant – but not suited to your voice. You have to learn to spot the difference between a great idea and a great piece of writing.
Which brings me to my next point…
3) But sometimes it’s even better to try again
Not to be beaten, I returned to the same cliff walk a few days later, in glorious sunshine, and was rewarded with spectacular views. The waves crashed against the cliff, I had a wonderfully clear view of the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, the gorse glowed against the blue sky and I was surrounded with birdsong. The bog was less boggy and with better visibility, I managed to avoid the cow pat.
If I hadn’t returned to the cliffs, I would have been left wondering – what if? Make sure you give your writing a solid chance before abandoning it completely. Try rewriting in a different tense or person, or starting at a different point in the story. Tell the tale through the eyes of a different character or experiment with alternating viewpoints. You never know, this is when the magic ‘oomph’ could happen.
4) Take time out
I think one of the main things that Cape Clear reminded me was the importance of shutting off for a while and just seeing what happens. We’re used to being flexible in terms of shifting deadlines and juggling projects – but what about being flexible about relaxation? It’s OK to set rigid times to write and set regular goals, but if you don’t have any issues when it comes to being disciplined, then sometimes it’s a good idea to let things just take their course.
Consider, for instance, when you’re writing a first draft of a novel; my advice is to forget editing altogether. Continue with the word count and let the ideas and characters take over without any revision. Some writers like a carefully planned outline before they start to formulate a draft, but I find it liberating, and certainly more enjoyable, to just keep going and let the ideas and characters run amuck.
The main character’s name may change from Mary to Tania to Ermentrude as you stumble through this initial draft, but you can easily sort that out later once you have a big body of work. The way I see it, you only get to play at the outset – after that, it’s down to editing. Separate the two to get the most out of your writing time.
And remember, it’s often during the non-writing activities that our best ideas hit. Taking a walk, having a shower, cooking dinner, train rides, chatting with friends – these are the times when your relaxed brain
As I think back to Cape Clear, I’m thankful for many things;
- time spent enjoying the island
- people I met there
- important reminders relevant to both my life and my writing…
But most of all, I have the island to thank for another ten thousand words of a first draft and an absolutely cracking new novel idea – the novel I’ve always wanted to write but didn’t know how – that I can’t wait to explore.
Thank you Cape Clear!