La Muse Retreat (Wk 2): The learning Curve…

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One of the local forest walks – I saw hoopoes and golden eagles

I’m not one of those writers that hates writing. Nor do I think it is difficult and awful. I love what I do but there are, of course, challenges, and sometimes it can be difficult to motivate yourself, get a balance, or keep your energy levels in check. I’m always reflecting on my work and my process and I try to streamline things to work smarter, rather than harder. After all, I have money to earn and a life to live too.

Well, there’s nothing like being in your own company for two solid weeks to help you reflect. This doesn’t mean sitting and waiting for inspiration to hit – like Ann Patchett says in her fantastic essay, The Getaway Car – A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, I sit down and work and that’s my inspiration right there – but it does mean looking for clues on what saps energy, what wastes time, what feels different. And for me, part of being on a residency is looking at how positive elements can be brought home and incorporated into the everyday to improve the real life practice of being a writer.

So, two weeks into my residency at the glorious La Muse Retreat, this is what I have learned…

  • I always feel better when I have walked 10 km or more. Short walks add up, but do not give the same feeling of exhilaration or accomplishment, or let the mind switch off.
  • I love this novel that I’m working on, but it also scares me – and I think this fear is positive. It means I have something worth working on, something that challenges me and makes we want to keep going. Which is good, because there is a long, long way to go yet.
  • Afternoon tiredness is linked to digestion. When I have eaten heavier foods, I get an afternoon slump.
  • About halfway through a residency, I get a day of melancholy. And that’s OK – it’s a day of evaluating… Have I done enough? How can I make things better? I find I overcome this best with long walks and an even longer night of reading.
  • Breakfast does not work for me, ever – I’m listening to my body and sticking with brunch.
  • Yoga or stretching is just as effective in regular 10 minutes bursts to let go of shoulder/neck cramps as it is in hour-long sessions. Which is good seeing as writing/walks need long stretches of time and I have a low boredom threshold.
  • My average daily output of writing on this residency has been six to eight hours. Reading, around three hours, hiking, four hours. Sleep, eight hours – I have needed more sleep than usual and am glad of it.
  • The boring minutiae of home becomes gloriously shiny rituals on a retreat/residency – this is something I need to remember so when routine hits (which I find demotivating) I can kick its butt.
  • You should be open to people’s book recommendations and try new reads. You’ll always be drawn to those that suit your tastes anyway.
  • Missing home now and again means I’m blessed to have a home to go to.

As for my output, I have now edited (and we’re talking about going deep here) 18,000 words (76 pages) of my novel, I have written a new 1200 word short story and the first drafts of two separate essays of 1500-2000 words each.

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The beautiful church in nearby village, Mas Cabardes.

Although I am always productive at home, it’s the depth that’s invaluable when you’re on a retreat or residency and at La Muse, the thinking space, the hikes in wooded mountains, the wonderful living library, the conversations with others, have all enabled room to explore and grow. It’s a springboard for later work and that’s exciting. However…

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Enjoying some fresh mountain air.

I am now on my final week and I’m trying not to let the inevitable panic set in. Six days is a lot of time, I am telling myself. It’s plenty of time to go deeper into my novel and to fix my broken timeline, my meandering plot.

Things always look different with hindsight and so a simple trick I often use is this… If I looked back on this experience in ten years’ time, what would I see as the most important learning curves for me in the coming week? Let’s hope this trick helps. I’m going in…

How is your own writing going? Do you find residencies useful? Or it something you dream of doing but haven’t managed yet? 

#1stdraftdiary Week 3 (28K to 36.5K)

IMG_5818One of the most amazing things, and something I didn’t expect, is the amount of people joining in with #1stdraftdiary. Although I’ve been finding my own journey this time around to be disjointed and frustrating, I’m loving the response it’s getting from others. From people thanking me for being honest about the process and making them feel better, to lots of writers joining in to kick start their own work or understand their own process, it’s been phenomenal. And so, if you head to #1stdraftdiary on twitter and click on the Live tab, you can see what everyone is up to and offer your support. And if you’re writing a first draft, why not join in? In the meantime, here are my #1stdraftdiary days 15 to 21.

#1stdraftdiary Day 15 (June 25th): although I prefer to write first, it’s not always possible, especially when you have a number of freelance clients waiting for work or a garden that needs rescuing. I manage 2000K words of freelance, some intense weeding of the vegetable patch and herb garden (before everything dies), a dog walk, and some article pitches sent before I can sit down to write. I see it as creating an air of calm for writing; I can’t write when I have lots of things hanging over me. Despite starting late, I get my word count up to 29,400 in a very short space of time and eventually hit the 30K target. Can’t extol the virtues of switching off internet enough! Word count: 30,000

#1stdraftdiary Day 16: I was going to take a day off writing to clear some freelance work but the words are calling. I manage 300 words in a cheeky 20 minute stint and eventually finish the day at 31,500, as well as 2000K words of freelance and two guest blog posts. I set up a corker of an opening for the next morning. But first, I have a birthday party to go to! I’m chuffed that I added 1500 words on a supposed day off; it just goes to show that once you get in the swing working at this pace, it’s hard not to write! Word count: 31,500

#1stdraftdiary Day 17: Day off! I need some creative so I treat the day like a holiday and let it lead me wherever it desires. A meander through film, books, poetry, and countryside lanes with a paddle in the sea. Word count: 31,500

Bookofshadows#1stdraftdiary Day 18: Just half an hour in and I reach 31,900 words, before adding another 700 words in a short space of time. Write when you can! It builds up! Freelance load is heavy today also, so two fast but short dog walks keep me sane. Aiming at 2K words a day, I should be on 36K words and I end up reaching 32,600. BUT: some unexpected final tweaks to The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives Trilogy 2 arrive in my inbox – a plethora of small and fiddly details that need immediate attention. Word count: 32,600

(I decide to take a pause until July 3rd because as well as the urgent edits, I have a trip to Dublin for an Arts Council event on making applications in the Irish Writers Centre – it’s a 16 hour round trip & an overnight stay for a 1.5 hour session but MUCH NEEDED!)

#1stdraftdiary Day 19 (July 3rd): I’m back to it this week before another little pause on the horizon. I’ve never written a 1st draft so disjointed before but you have to prioritize. Today: five freelance articles, 2 residency/bursary applications & 2 interviews so it’s late when I get started. I know it’s going to be almost pointless at this level of tiredness but I start at 32,700 and finishing at 33,500. That’s only 800 words but that was all I could manage today. Word count: 33,500

#1stdraftdiary Day 20: – hit the target of 2000 but it feels like filler and not really connected to what the story needs to be. Another cul-de-sac. Word count: 35,500

#1stdraftdiary Day 21: (July 5th) 1000 words. It’s usually frustrating when you don’t get many words done, but today I’m super happy as I actually thought at one point that I’d get zero done! This is the final day before I take another, longer break – I have to go on a visit to the UK to say farewell to my sister who is moving to Australia for good, and I have a massive freelance project I have to finish first otherwise I won’t get paid. When I return I’m interviewing Carol Drinkwater at West Cork Literary Festival the next day, before doing three events of my own, and so the 1st draft will have to wait until it can have the time and respect it deserves. And so, I pause on 36.5K until July 21st. Word count: 36,500

Conclusion: This has been the most disjointed first draft ever – I have never had to stop and start like this before – but when you are juggling, prioritization is necessary and I just have to live with it. Events need just as much preparation and focus, so Im prioritizing chronologically. Am I worried? Unsettled perhaps, but then, isn’t that always the way?

It seems the result is the same – I’m writing myself into a lot of cul-de-sacs so when I step away I can see where I’m not to go. The only difference is, this time, I’m not getting that buzz, that intensity that I love, because of all the gaps. This doesn’t feel great on an emotional level, but the important thing is: it’s moving forward. The process is still working it just feels different. So long as the manuscript is the best that it can be by the time I deliver it on October 31st to my publishers, all is well. By then, these weird feelings will be forgotten about anyway, so time to turn off that inner critic (she’s particularly rampant right now).

I will start again on July 21st with a view to get my draft finished by the end of the month – that gives me exactly 9 days (the right number of days to have completed this draft in my usual 30 day timeframe) to write 20-24K words (it will come to a natural halt – or at least, it usually does). Wish me luck! I’m going to need it. But in the meantime, I’ll be cheering everyone else on with their #1stdraftdiary. Come and join me?

WIPs & the Writing Process: A Blog Tour Q&A

Thanks to the lovely, supportive and talented SJ O’Hart, today’s blog post is a little different (for me, at least) as it’s part of a writer’s Q&A blog tour. The idea is simple: you answer three questions about your writing/writing process, then ask the same of another writer you’d like the world to know a little more about. So, here goes…

What am I working on?

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I find a change of surroundings useful. This window is known as ‘Elizabeth’s Office’ in Grove House

I work on several pieces at a time, switching between projects when I need distance, so my current projects are:

The first draft of an apocalyptic adult novel, currently at 20K words, progressing at a speed of around 1-2K per day. I usually write a first draft in 30 days. I’m giving myself 60 days for this one because I’m also looking at…

An experimental rewrite of my completed Young Adult novel, switching from third to first person. Although the book is polished to submission standard, I’m checking whether the story would be more engaging told in first person. My instinct is telling me yes. Why did it not tell me before? I don’t know. That’s just part of the process. This would be a huge rewrite, so I’m taking my time with this one. I have the first 5 chapters & prologue rewritten – I’m letting it sit for a while before comparing the two versions one last time.

A poem for submission to Furies (in aid of Rape Crisis): I write very little poetry and this poem has been milling around for quite some time, so I’m hoping that I can improve upon it enough to submit to this worthy cause. At the moment, it’s proving rather challenging and not at all what I want it to be. I have one month to kick it into shape. And although it is a poem of less than forty lines, I’m definitely going to need it.

I’m also working on several short stories, varying in length from 1000 words to 5000 words; I have all my 2014 submission deadlines organised in my diary and I switch between the stories (once the day’s novel writing is completed) with one eye on the deadlines. The way I work is to take a story as far as I naturally can – e.g. write a first draft (sometimes this can be as short as a paragraph) then set it aside for another day, switch to a final edit of another story then set it aside for a final read through before submitting, then redraft another story to move it forward a little, before setting aside.

I make sure I have at least five stories on the go at all times as I’m never sure where they will lead. Sometimes they don’t work at all. I can usually tell a flash fiction piece or a much longer story when I begin writing it, but I let the stories develop naturally and don’t limit myself with word counts. I find word counts for competitions useful and they can really help you to tighten your work, but I’ll never crop a story to its detriment just to make it fit a deadline. Having several stories available, I feel I have more freedom and more control.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

This is a really tricky one to answer because originality comes down to voice, and that’s probably one of the hardest areas to try and discuss or explain. It’s also difficult to see/say what makes your writing differ; I think the reader is the one that makes that decision. The way I see it, your job is to create something that moves a reader in some way.

Whenever you write, whatever you write, you’re writing the kind of book/story/poem you want to read. You’re initially looking at a germ of an idea – a feeling perhaps that you want to convey, a character that’s bugging you, or a situation that grabs you and won’t go away – and then you’re led by the characters and how they act and react to the challenges that arise, often being surprised yourself by the turn of events. And all the time, you’re using what you know about human nature and the world around you to convey the story in a way that makes it convincing. Hopefully you combine these elements skillfully enough to create something that grabs a reader, keeps them with you to the end and affects them in some way that makes the story resonate.

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My trusty running partner

I’m not sure I’ve answered the question thoroughly, but like I say, this is a tricky one.

How does my writing process work?

I’ve realized that I have two distinctly different working patterns during summer and winter. I’ve been teasing these out over the last three years since I moved to a rural part of Ireland, and have finally found patterns that work – which isn’t easy because I despise any form of routine.

In summer, the days are extremely long and bright and so I wake up naturally early (around 6am) and do about 2 hours of writing before the rest of the world wakes up. I focus on the main WIP as I find my concentration is at its best and this really sets me up for the day. Then I usually fit in another 4 to 6 hours in short bursts (2 hours seems to be my natural concentration level) around my social media business, running, exercising the dog, fishing and the vegetable garden. I also work three days a week in a bookshop, so on these days, I start the morning with some free flow writing (sometimes called ‘morning pages’) to generate more short story ideas and then I go for a run with the dog in tow. I don’t write after work as I find the quality isn’t good enough, though I do have to keep reminding myself of this. Overall, this setup keeps the WIP fresh, the ideas coming & the days varied.

In winter, it’s a different story. I wake later, around 8am, and I find it takes longer for my brain to wake up, so I take a walk or run, take time over breakfast, and get the chores done like cutting/gathering wood, seeing to the animals, answering emails and bailing water from the boat. Then I settle down to a 2-3 hour stint of writing, before heading out for more fresh air. I’ll do another 3-4 hours in the evening, with the fire & candles lit. My writing is slower and calmer, like my energy. I get some really intense writing done in the winter and it’s the perfect time for me to write first drafts.

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Things get a bit soggy out here – just 5 minutes into my walk.

Living rurally, you’re really exposed to the elements. There’s no hiding in theatres or gyms, no shelter from buildings or distractions such as art galleries or shopping. The second you step outdoors, you’re cold/wet/wind blown/all of the latter. I find the lack of light really difficult in winter, so I need to spend every opportunity that I can outdoors. I walk and run in all weather, but if there are really bad days (like the gales/storms we’ve seen this winter) I find my concentration (& writing) suffers.

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I’m delighted to be passing these questions on to Irish writer, Lia Mills, who is due to have her fourth book released later this year.

And finally – a big thank you, S J O’Hart, for giving me the opportunity to answer these questions. I hope this has been of interest to some of you, and I’d love to hear whether your writing day is similar or completely, utterly different. It’s always good to take a step back and think about your own story, not just those you’re creating on the page.