Today is the last full day of my writing retreat at West Dean College. I won this nearly a year ago in the Myriad Editions Writer's Retreat Competition for the first 5,000 words of The Gift of Looking Closely.
West Dean and Myriad very kindly extended the dates within which I could take the prize – I was able to look forward to it the whole time I was busy having cancer and treatment. Now here I am! And in addition to having the all-clear healthwise, I have had the proof paperback copy of The Gift of Looking Closely to check.
West Dean has been fabulous, a real opportunity to focus on the proofreading and clarify my plans for world domination (write the beginnings of some publicity material, I mean!).
I’ve met some lovely, interesting people who have been doing some of the short courses here – Janice and Janet, Cynthia and Dudley, Sue, Allan, Erna… and have thoroughly explored West Dean College and gardens. No wonder people get addicted to this place, coming back again and again to learn or improve some fabulous art and craft skills. I was adopted by the ‘Atmospheric Watercolours’ class taught by Wendy Jelbert and have learned the little miracle of sprinkling salt in watercolour to create stars and leaves. I was also invited to pop in and see how Gaudi’s designs were inspiring extraordinary machine embroidered pieces in a class run by Wendy Dolan. Amazing.
On Wednesday, I visited the Tapestry Studio, where I met Philip Sanderson and Katharine Swailes, who undertake commissions to produce extraordinary work – for example, translating the art of Tracy Emin and Henry Moore into tapestry.
The West Dean gardens are fantastic, too – I did the two mile walk over the green shoulder of the hill amongst bleating lambs up into the scented woods, then visited the kitchen garden to discover that peonies can smell like honey and ice cream. Who knew?!
And what about writing? Well, I made a schedule and stuck to it. Proofreading the paperback; answering questions from a local (Brighton) journalist; researching publications and websites that might be willing to review my novel; putting together some material for book groups who would like to read it; writing a Press Release about the paperback; developing writing exercises for my next workshop… I got LOADS done!
So. Many, many thanks to Myriad Editions and West Dean College for a really valuable prize. It couldn’t have come at a better time for me – this level of space and attention simply wouldn’t have been possible within the parameters of my ordinary life. It means The Gift of Looking Closely will be available through Amazon as a paperback so much sooner – within the next couple of weeks, in fact!
I am hugely grateful.
Other people can shed a different light on your writing, just by telling you what they feel about it.
The bits they love.
The bits they don't understand.
The bits they find problematic.
They can do for you what you absolutely cannot do for yourself – see your writing from another point of view.
For that reason alone, I'm a big fan of writing groups. Although I have to admit to being biased – I've been part of a fabulous writing group for the past 11 years. It's been hugely motivating to work with other people.
Ok. Perhaps I can be a bit more truthful about that:
Without my writing group, I would never have finished my novel.
There are 8 of us. We have shared our writing, our aspirations, our insecurities. We have witnessed one another's big life experiences. These have become some of the dearest human beings in my life.
Something brilliant happens when a group of people get together to do something creative. There's so much more that can be learned by sharing each others' process. And it's so much more fun. (Sometimes we don't write at all, we just drink flavoured vodka).
I asked them the other night what they believe is important about belonging to a group...
Russell: 'The writing exercises we've done together over the years have taught me never to be scared of a blank page. Even if I have no ideas at all, I can start writing without worrying about the end result.'
Dave: 'Writing together is good discipline. And it works best if everyone is willing to share their work and be critiqued.' (See Dave's published novel – Fitzgerald's Wood)
Carol: 'Just coming and participating reminds me I'm a writer.'
Neela: 'It's great to be with a bunch of people who get it. I feel supported. It works because we're honest, not too schmaltzy.'
Justine: 'It's a brilliant way to get feedback from people you respect and trust.' (See Justine's published novel – Advice for Strays)
All good. And I'd say belonging to a writing group has been at the heart of my growth into a novelist.
It's scary sharing your stuff; joining a group can feel like a massive challenge.
And joining the wrong group can even do more harm than good. Because powerful stuff can happen in groups, not all of it helpful. Group dynamics can be tricksy, a playground for egos and insecurities.
Make sure you join the right group, one with guidelines in place to keep things safe and constructive. Or, even better, create the right group – there are loads of writers out there who would be interested in setting up a group with you. Discuss and agree a structure together from the start.
My advice, in a nutshell:
1. Agree on guidelines for giving constructive feedback.
There's a balance to be struck between being positive and being scared to say anything critical at all. But with a few sensible guidelines in place from the start, confidence and trust can grow.
2. Set boundaries.
Create a 'system' that means everyone gets a fair go and nobody hogs all the space.
3. Share responsibility.
Don't leave it down to one person to organise things. (We take turns sending out reminders and devising writing exercises to do together).
4. Commit to it.
Turn up, even when you don't feel like it.
What do you think? If you belong to a writing group, or are considering joining one... what's important to you?
Writing the book was a challenge.
And getting to grips with what was required to publish an ebook, that was another challenge.
But the biggest challenge so far? As a self-published author who wants to give her book a fair chance of reaching some readers, I am going to have to be a bit 'pushy' about bringing it to people's attention. Now that's just downright embarrassing.
I grew up with the expression 'It's not polite to blow your own trumpet' – and only now am I realising just how deeply that little gem of self censorship has embedded itself in my psyche.
At an excellent comedy night last week, I was offered the chance to say something about my novel. I did not blow my own trumpet. Indeed I did not. I mumbled a few apologetic sentences into the microphone, mostly about Kindle apps, and sat down as quickly as I could. Afterwards, I realised I had said absolutely nothing that would make anyone in the audience think 'Oo that sounds like an interesting read.' Nothing.
So I've been thinking about that. How am I going to get over this? What do I need to do differently? And the answer I've come up with is a bit of a relief to me.
I need to tell the truth.
The truth is, I love a good 'psychological mystery'... and that's what I've written. I'm fascinated by the relationship between Claire and Evie. I'm intrigued by Claire's relationship with the ghosts. I love the lumpy sullenness of Margaret Keyes.
The truth is, I have totally enjoyed finding out what happens when these characters are brought together, the gradual unpeeling of their secrets.
So, I've decided, the next time someone asks me about my book I'm just going to tell the truth.
I'll let you know how I get on.