My writers’ retreat in the Scottish Highlands

IMG_9515I am coming towards the end of my three-and-a-half-month writing odyssey through the UK and I’m keen to tell you about the writers’ retreat at Moniack Mohr, 14 miles beyond Inverness in Scotland. This was the second of my UK writers’ retreats and, while very different to the retreat in deepest, darkest Shropshire, was just as wonderful.

Marilyn Bowering and Stephen May

Marilyn Bowering and Stephen May

This time around the two established author mentors were Marilyn Bowering (flying in from Vancouver, Canada) and, Stephen May (from Bedford, UK).

A tiny bit of back story: Stephen May, who was a co-leader at the Shropshire retreat, invited me to come along to this second retreat in Scotland, and nobly made a special effort to include new writerly experiences at this second retreat purely on my behalf. Thank you!

The view from my window.

The view from my window.

There were nine of us emerging writers at the retreat, and all were from Scotland bar me. There was something special about that. And I found, to my surprise, there is far more than the one Scottish accent. The writing projects were just as varied, spanning autobiography through to anime-influenced fantasy, literary fiction, short story and hyper social-realism akin to Train Spotting (you know what I mean). And all of it highly accomplished.

As this was some months on from the first retreat, and I’d also visited a number of writers’ group in between, this time around I found myself highly focussed on the rewriting of my Beneath the Surface manuscript. While I was keen to mix with the other writers and forge what I hope will be some lasting connections, I also spent a lot of time closeted in my bedroom, reworking written passages. There was one particular section of the manuscript, spanning six chapters or so, that I was uncertain about. I’d forwarded these to Stephen May before the retreat for his consideration. Sure enough, my uncertainties were confirmed. He liked the writing, but felt many of the ideas could go from the story. They simply did not support the spine of the story. (If you’ve read my manuscript on Wattpad, I’m especially talking about the ‘market of pictures‘ scenes. Perhaps one day the material might re-surface in short story form? I’ve done that before with my first book.)

My room was the third window from the right

My room was the third window from the right.

Apart from the Scottish setting — so different to the setting in Shropshire — and Stephen May’s excellent efforts to include new things in his presentations, Marilyn Bowering’s mentoring style was also different enough to the previous mentors to justify this second retreat experience of mine. Her emphasis, while affirming, was continually on pushing each of us to explore more deeply the narrative purpose of our written works, questioning every step. What’s more, I have many written notes from her on the writing I submitted (a different section of my manuscript to what I submitted to Stephen May), as well as further suggested reading that relates to my story’s imagery. I’m keen to pore over this stuff when I return home.

P1110171It has been an immense experience, and once more, like the Shropshire writers’ retreat at John Osborne’s house, I have come away feeling even stronger as a writer.

And so, as has become my thing, I leave you now with some final photos (quite a few actually).

Looking out, beyond the main house.

Looking out, beyond the main house.

The cottage, where the writer mentors stayed.

The cottage, where the writer mentors stayed.

'The Hobbit House'.

‘The Hobbit House’.

Stephen May in The Hobbit House.

Stephen May in The Hobbit House.

Some of us having a break from our writing.

Some of us having a break from our writing.

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P1110142

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On the final night, I was invited to ‘Address the Haggis’ – a Scottish tradition that involved reciting a Robbie Burns poem and stabbing the haggis…

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And one final thing to share. I was in charge of baking the chocolate brownies. They were delicious. So here’s the recipe, if you’re interested …

Oh yum...

Oh yum…

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve signed up for a writers’ retreat in Shropshire, UK

Arvon 2

Shropshire, in case you didn’t know — I didn’t! — is between Cardiff and Manchester, in the UK. You have to catch a train that leaves from either of those places to get there. And now, amongst my growing list of writerly things to do in the UK, I’ve signed up for a week-long writers’ retreat in an out-of-the-way manor located somewhere in the ‘rolling hills’ of Shropshire. No mobile phone signal. No Internet. No social media. (Oh, what?)

The manor, called The Hurst, once belonged to British playwright John Osborne. Mr John Osborne’s most famous play is Look Back in Anger. In fact, the term angry young man was coined to describe him. Look Back in Anger was also a highly successful film from the late 50s, starring the wonderful Richard Burton. LBiA 1

Of course, John Osborne won’t be there to greet me when I arrive and to help bring in my bags. (He died in 1994.) But I will be in his old home with a group of fellow enthusiastic writers for a week.

So what do writers do on writers’ retreats? (I hear you ask.) Well, write a lot, obviously. (At least, I hope that will be true.) But I’ve selected to go to one of their retreats that isn’t totally heads-down and write, write, write. We’ll be talking about writing too! There will be morning group sessions conducted by established authors, and one-on-one sessions throughout the week.

I believe every writer can benefit from a retreat, no matter your level of experience, and I’m just as much looking forward to learning new things from my fellow emerging writers as I am from the well-established writers. Like any creative art form, you never stop learning, and from all directions.

An angry young man

An angry young man

The retreat’s afternoons will generally be given over to one’s own writing, back in the privacy of your own room. I plan to focus that time on Beneath the Surface (the complete draft of which, by the way, is still currently on Wattpad).

It’s only the evenings I’m less keen on. There will be cooking teams for the dinners, with everyone taking turns. Oh dear, cooking isn’t really my thing. Not sure how I’ll fare there.

So let’s quickly get back to the writing. The Arvon Foundation run the retreats and courses at The Hurst. (They also have locations in West Yorkshire and Devon. Arts Council England support them.) The established authors at my retreat will be:

  • Mavis Cheek

Pause Between Acts

Mavis Cheek is the author of 15 novels. Pause Between Acts won the She/John Menzies First Novel Prize. More about Mavis Cheek here.

  • Stephen May

Wake Up Happy

Stephen May has written three books including Life! Death! Prizes! which was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. His latest novel is Wake Up Happy Every Day. More about Stephen May here.

  • Selma Dabbagh

Out of ItSelma Dabbagh is a British-Palestinian writer who gained fame in 2011 with Out of It, an acclaimed novel centred on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. More about Selma Dabbagh here.

I have read none of the author’s books, I must confess, and will need to get cracking and download at least one thing from each of them before I head off. One more task to add to my still-long Going Away To Do List.

I’m not sure yet if the above authors will be living-in with the rest of us (if so, they’d better be in a cooking team!), but I expect so. The Hurst manor looks to be quite a big place with plenty of room for us all. Here’s a little something I found in The Shropshire Star about the restoration of the 200-year-old Georgian manor in readiness for its new role as a writers’ retreat.

I couldn’t find any pre-restoration shots, but here’s how it looks now…

The Hurst

Arvon 3

Arvon 1

Lounge at The Hurst

Do you like checking out other people’s bookshelves? I couldn’t help but notice those shelves in the above pic. Tidy! They put mine to shame. Checking out other people’s shelves can be rather revealing sometimes. What’s in those two, I wonder? Just John Osborne’s stuff? I’ll have a look when I get there, and let you know. Other people’s bookshelves can be little glimpses into their worlds.

Here’s a bookshelf from my home. (Plus dog.) Not quite so tidy, I’m afraid.

Sparks, defending some of my books -small

Here’s a slightly tidier one, I’m happy to say. Yep, that’s 45s and LPs on the lower shelves. (I like to check out other people’s record collections too. That’s just a bit of mine.)

Bookshelf (small)

And one more. A random bookshelf from my place of work…

Work shelf

Pretty tidy again, perhaps it’s a corporate thing. Not even a stray book chucked on top. And what’s with that book Insults?

I have significantly drifted from my main topic about writer’s retreats. I promise I will tell you more about the retreat once I get there (or afterwards, really, given it’s in a blank zone, phone signal and internet-wise).

If all goes well, my next post will be from London. I’m flying out from Down Under next week and will be in a position to speak first-hand about writerly things in the land Up Over, as I encounter them.

Flying high on Wattpad

wattpad-reviewWattpad, the social media site for readers and writers, began featuring Beneath the Surface on Wednesday, 7 January and a week later Beneath the Surface reached eighth position in Wattpad’s top 1,000 of their Fantasy chart — and I’ve received over 600 votes and many comments.

It was extraordinary to watch. Every time I refreshed my browser more votes magically appeared. I found it amazing to think that while I sat at my computer screen, about the world people were sitting before their screens, reading my writing. And many voting and commenting.

So — forgive me! — I want to share two of these with you. I’ll be quick, I promise. 🙂

There are so many wonderful comments I could tell you about, but I’m singling out these two, both received yesterday, as I like how they respond toBeneath the Surface the story more broadly, not just at the chapter level. I received the first in the morning, the second at the end of the day. So I was on a high all day!

The first, from a London reader, has commented after reading Pt.1, which takes the reader through to the beginning of the adventure. Here it is, I’ve cut-and-pasted it in…

Wattpad feedback 1 (1)

You can find it at the bottom of chapter 7 here.

What more could you possibly hope for in a reader’s response? Hooked into the story. Loves the main character. Compares my writing style to a favourite book. Wow. Thank you! I don’t know Jenny Downham’s book, but I’ll sure be seeking it out.

And here’s the second quote I would like to share with you. All I will say about it is, this is my very first response from anyone anywhere regarding my book as a whole, so, as I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s feedback of critical importance…

Wattpad feedback 2

You can find that one at the bottom of the very last chapter, Chapter 95.

The comments and votes are still coming in. And — human that I am! — I remain apprehensive as I click open each and every one of them.

Thank you all, for your votes and comments of endorsement for my little fantasy novel about an unwell boy who enters a world beneath his garden. And thank you for permitting me this moment of pride in telling you how things are travelling for Beneath the Surface. Which I will end now.

Except to say, Beneath the Surface will be available to read in its complete form on Wattpad for a limited period. The story starts here.

My final manuscript is complete. So what now?

Beneath the Surface

My 60,000 word novel manuscript — Beneath the Surface — is now fully posted to Wattpad. It’s about a young boy who enters a fantasy world under his garden. While writing the fantasy story, I partly drew on my experiences working as an HIV/AIDS social worker in the 80s and 90s.

Publishing the book chapter by chapter to the social media site Wattpad as I reworked it has been quite an experience. There wasn’t a moment when I didn’t brace myself before opening an email with a new comment from a reader. What if this one blasts the hell out of my story? Yet, all of the readers’ comments have been positive — many confirming they were enjoying the story, and some special ones offering thoughtful, constructive advice.

Wattpad offers writers something very special. The chance to hear directly from readers what they think about your book. And my book has changed in certain ways because of the feedback. Often these changes were descriptive details — things that were not as clear as they could be. The one that comes most to mind is the description of the moment when Christopher first enters the fantasy world of The Underplane. The use of ‘micro-chapters’ also received plenty of support. This approach led to many ‘upbeats’ in the story’s rhythm, as I like to finish a chapter on an upbeat (with a sense of actively moving forward). I enjoyed writing in this style and plan to try it again, no matter what my next story may be.

Other aspects of my story may change as I now progress to the next stage of manuscript development. The title, for instance, may change. It used to be Under the Garden, and for one brief moment it was Christopher from the Middle Bit (only I seemed to like that one!). Who knows what it might be called in the future. And new feedback may lead me to alter key moments in the story. We shall see!

But where to now for me with this book? That’s what I have to decide. The idea of seeking out potential interest in the more traditional way does entice me. I thoroughly enjoyed the formal editing process that my first, traditionally published novel underwent. I am also looking forward to engaging others in professional consultation about the story.

I will give myself a little break and begin to explore the options for Beneath the Surface soon. And I’ll most certainly let you know when I have any news.

I also need to decide just how long I should keep the complete manuscript of Beneath the Surface posted to Wattpad. I have no idea how traditional publishers will respond to that — yet visibility on the internet is crucial in this new world of ours.

If you’re interested in checking out my story while it’s complete on Wattpad — some holiday reading of a brand new novel before it’s even published! — here’s where it starts: Beneath the Surface on Wattpad.

Drafting Beneath the Surface

The next chapter of Beneath the Surface I post on Wattpad will be Chapter 23. This is still less than a third of the novel, but Christopher’s adventure in The Underplane is well underway. I’m aiming to have the complete draft novel posted for your ongoing feedback within the first week or two of December. Another 45,000 words (give or take) to go!

Beneath the SurfaceMeanwhile, I would like to present to you my latest chapter, just completed this morning. Bells are ringing throughout the village of Onehill, though Christopher — or Cee as his new friends call him — has yet to know what they signify. Christopher is eating breakfast with Ria and the children, and recalling…

Chapter  23: The church by the sea

I want to tell you about another time I heard bells.

On that day, I’d no idea where Dad was taking me and I knew better than to ask. All I knew was it took us a long time to get there. Hours spent in silence and bitter cold in Dad’s old Ford Falcon. The heater had packed up long before we’d ever owned it.

We arrived at a tiny church by the sea. It sat on a sandy strip opposite some shops and looked more like an abandoned portable classroom. Ferny branches hugged it, keeping it close and protecting it. When we left the car and made towards it, I could hear the rush of the sea somewhere out of sight. A sound, I thought, that had been going non-stop forever — before all things to do with humanity. Before that even. And would continue to go on forever. Way beyond us.

It almost suggested that the church, as piddling as it looked, was connected to greater things.

Almost.

I kicked at a pine cone and Dad tsked at me without looking up. But the pointy things were everywhere, just begging for it. More of them were piled up in the church’s lopsided gutters above us as we entered. Someone wasn’t doing their job and clearing them out.

And that was when I heard the bells. But they didn’t ring out all over the land like the Onehill bells. They dinged in a shrill, plasticky way. They came from a cassette player sitting on a trestle table just inside the door. The player looked like something left behind by a handyman; it was paint-spattered and the slot in the front where the cassettes went was held together with a rubber band.

People sat on rows of wooden benches. We stood sidelong to them and they turned and faced us. No one waved or nodded. I knew a few by sight — aunts and uncles I’d met once or twice. There were about fifteen in all.

I sat where Dad pointed, in the front row. Everyone behind us. Except for a lone man dressed in what looked like layers of green and white curtain lining. He jumped up from a chair as we sat own and hurried over and clacked off the bells. They went off mid-ding.

Din— Nothing.

Except for some sniffs, and creaks from benches.

Before us was a long wooden box. It was on a metal wheelie stand and in front of a colored glass window showing a bleeding man who was doubled-over, carrying a massive cross on his back. The wood of the box was glossy, I couldn’t stop gazing into its soft reflection. It looked as if it could be warm to touch. The lid was bolted down with shiny bronze knobs and Mum’s photo was on top of it, in a little frame.

I knew Mum must be in that box. I didn’t want to know, but that picture made sure I didn’t forget it. Though I couldn’t sense her with my radar illness. She was long gone.

With only the box to look at, I concentrated instead on thinking about the time she’d spent propped up against a stack of pillows in a hospital bed in our family room, gazing through the bay window and into our garden. She’d been dying for months but living every moment, with her family. That was what her illness had taught her, she’d said. Live every moment.

Not so, me. Born ill, everything just was the way it was.

The man in curtains told us he was Scottish, in case we hadn’t guessed. He laughed loudly, like that was an amazing joke. But the only thing funny was his accent, as if he was always on the verge of cracking another joke, but then thinking the better of it. Thank God.

He told us he’d become a priest a long, long time ago and had been sent here. Across the sea. We were his family now. He raised his arms as he said that last bit. As if to a great crowd.

I twisted around and checked out this ‘family’, half-expecting to see a gang at the back, cheerily waving. But there was only us few bunched up the front.

And then it struck me. Dad was returning Mum to the town where she’d grown up. She would be buried in this place she’d left years ago. A place of happier times, maybe? Or not — she’d run away as a teenager (something she’d told me, but Dad didn’t know I knew).

So why?

I wished she could have stayed with us. We could have buried her in our back garden. That was not as silly as you might think. Who was to say anyone would have found out? (And maybe she would have appeared in The Underplane? Met my new friends?)

I’d never been to that church before or any other and I’d no idea why the priest included me in his so-called family. Same went with the rest. I bet they weren’t regulars either.

A lonely man.

And now, as I ate breakfast in a village in The Underplane with my new-found friends, remembering these things and thinking about lonely men, I wondered if Dad missed me.

Was he out wandering the streets of Acity, searching for me?

I let the thought go, stopped eating and sat back. The others munched on. Maybe my stomach was smaller than theirs? But honest to God, I couldn’t have eaten anymore.

One last thing, back to remembering the church by the sea. There were two things that most bothered me, and I don’t know which was worst: the priest at the end taking the photo of mum and shoving it in a trouser pocket deep beneath all of his layers, or two black-suited strangers turning up and, without a word to anybody, wheeling the wooden box away with Mum in it.

***

If you would like to check out my progress on Beneath the Surface (and the earlier chapters too), my Wattpad page is here.