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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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting ready for a Scottish Highlands writer’s retreat

Pitlochry

Pitlochry

I’m now in a wee place called Pitlochry. It’s known as a gateway to the Scottish Highlands. And I’m preparing for a writers’ retreat beyond Inverness, even further into the Scottish Highlands and close to Loch Ness. You might remember I was at a writer’s retreat several months back in beautiful Shropshire. Whilst there, I was invited by the author Stephen May to come along to another retreat towards the end of this pilgrimage of mine to find myself (or something like that). It’s at a place called Moniack Mhor. You can check it out here if you’re interested.

Same deal as the last time, I need to be a part of a cooking team for one night. Oh dear, I loved everything about the previous retreat except that. Cooking is not me. (Pray to God it’s not multiple versions of lasagne for 20 people again. Thank God I had able team mates last time.)

While I have been dabbling with my manuscript as I’ve been travelling, I’m looking forward to getting back into it seriously again. I have certain doubts about the second half of the first act of Beneath the Surface (about a third of the way in), and I’ve sent this section ahead of me so I can discuss it throughly with the established authors when I get there. If I do make changes, they’re big — it’s quite a few chapters that will need to be cut. Perhaps as many as six.

I head out to Inverness by train tomorrow, but meanwhile, I will leave you with a few more shots of picturesque Pitlochry, taken today…

Fly fishing - no, not me

Fly fishing (erh no, that’s not me fishing)

Yes, it really was as sunny as this. Sunny Scotland…

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pit 1

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The town centre

The town centre

The railway station has its own bookshop…

IMG_9211In my next post, I will let you know how I get on at the retreat, and if I’ve gone ahead with that major cut to the first act of Beneath the Surface.

 

How we write

York

York

I’m currently in York (‘Old York’), having just come from Stratford-upon-Avon, and I’m working my way up to the Scottish Highlands where I will participate in one last writing event — a writers’ retreat just outside of Inverness.

Where I met up with the 'London Literary Cafe'.

Where I met up with the ‘London Literary Cafe’.

I’ve been pondering on the differences and similarities in how we all write as I’ve travelled about. Some of us, like me, try to write everyday, lest our rhythm and energy slip. Many, like me again, like to write to music — whether this is to simply cut off distractions from the world or perhaps even draw on the mood of the music as you try to effectively turn ideas into written words.

As I attend groups and retreats (only one of the latter, so far, but another coming), I am struck by how many of us still write from pen to paper, transcribing to computer at a later date. This is something I rarely do. For me, writing from pen to paper just adds hard labour to the task. I avoid it where I can. I much prefer to use all of the devices available to me to aid my writing. For me, this is a part of the fun. I practically surround myself with devices. But at the writers’ retreat in Shropshire I was especially aware that those with a laptop were in a distinct minority. Interestingly, London was different, with many writing with the aid of bot laptops and iPads.

Where I met up with 'Write Together', London.

Where I met up with ‘Write Together’, London.

I often think about rhythm in my writing, which for me is an intuitive thing, the sense of my words and sentences flowing together in a way that supports the images I am trying to convey. I think this is the same for most writers, but one writer I met talked to me about the melody in his writing, and how this was different to the rhythm of his words. Something I’ll need to give some more thought to.

The same goes for the writing spaces we choose. I write wherever I can (I’m writing this sitting up in bed). For others it must be a desk. And perhaps even one specific desk. Many writers also love a good view before them. Of course I like a terrific view as much as anybody, but for writing? I would find it distracting. I would just want to gaze into it. But we’re all different.

Dunstable Downs. Close to where I grew up in the UK.

An incredible view! Dunstable Downs, close to where I grew up in the UK.

I’ll leave you now with a few more travel snaps, and let you know more about the final writers’ retreat soon.

In Shakespeare’s old house, in Stratford-upon-Avon, you can buy the complete set of Shakespearean Star Wars books. Here’s two…

The Phantom of Menace

The Phantom of Menace

There's a complete set of Shakespeare Star Wars books.

The Clone Army Attacketh.

And a Dr Who…

Shakespeare Dr Who.

Dr Who? That is the question.

A literary construction site in Stratford-upon-Avon.

A literary construction site.

And finally, ending a serious note, the house where Shakespeare grew up…

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At a writers’ retreat in Shropshire

long shot of Hurst

My post about the writers’ retreat in Shropshire has had to wait until I finally got over a nasty chest infection (well, almost over) — a hearty thanks to the UK’s National Health Service for their support in this.

So what, in a single sentence, did I get out of my near-week long retreat in a remote part of Shropshire? Easy. Two answers. I spent a week rebooting the writer in me (something I’ve come to realise I needed). And I made a whole host of brand new writer friends.

Pat

Sharing our work

There were sixteen of us — emerging writers — staying in the Georgian Manor pictured above. Plus, the two established authors, Mavis Cheek and Stephen May, who looked after our writerly interests for the week. Then of course there was also the onsite staff, including a poet laureate who helped with lunch meals in the day. Some like me brought their works in progress, others were there to kickstart new projects. There was so much diverse and energetic writing talent in one place, it was wonderful to be a part of it — hearing first hand about each other’s projects, and listening in as they shared their work. 

A typical day for me began with getting in some quick writing (with the aid of a plunger of coffee) before grabbing a small breakfast and gathering in the main tutorial room. In these morning sessions, all of us fresh and ready for the day, we would look closely at any number of aspects of writing, from enriching dialogue, to the eight-point structure, creating good place and setting, and research. While I was already familiar with many of these topics — as were others too — they came very candidly from the personal perspectives of the two established authors and so felt new and engaging.

garden group

Spending some time in the afternoon sun.

The afternoons were given over to our own writing time, informal chats about writing, walks about the grounds and on-on-one sessions.

In the evenings we had the cooking groups. This was my only stress of the week. Recipes were there to help us, and staff were on hand where possible. Yet it was still an ordeal given the number of us and the variety of dietary preferences. In the end, I was proud of the chocolate pudding I somehow created (I kept the recipe but I’m not sure I could ever manage it a second time), but I felt for my fellow writers Pat and Anne who took on most of the lasagne cooking tasks. Imagine making vegetarian lasagne for that many people — plus two smaller ones for other dietary requirements. I helped them where I could.

The evenings after dinner were devoted to presenting written works. We heard from the author tutors, a guest writer  Selma Dabbagh (who was very generous with sharing her personal writing experiences) and, of course, ourselves. 

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later)

Readings on the last night (the guitar came later, as did much jolly abandon)

Happily, much of the feedback for my draft of Beneath the Surface was of a fine tuning nature — or ‘grace notes’, as Mavis Cheek liked to call them. Significantly, however, I was compelled to revisit my opening lines. The opening lines of a novel are critical. No matter how exciting the rest of your story may be, if you have not engaged the reader’s interest from the start, they will not stick around to marvel at those gems waiting later in your book. It was good feedback which I have gladly taken.

So, enough chat, onto some more pictures….

First up, a shelfie. This is a shelf from one of the bookcases I noticed when I first wrote about this retreat some months ago (back in Australia). It now has a new home next to the author tutors’ rooms (and mine – clearly I’d been the first to book in).

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Here’s John Osborne’s (playwright and former owner of the estate) favourite view. I’m standing just beyond the back of the house…

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I had the room directly above me in this photo…

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A walkabout, one afternoon, as I was reflecting on exciting writing ideas, perhaps…

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Finally, I leave you with a short piece I wrote during one of the morning sessions. It’s about my visit back to the old house where I grew up. I’ve not reworked it since the session, besides fixing a typo.

The wide avenue of my memory

Last week I visited my childhood home for the first time in over 40 years. The road up was bendy and thin. Not the wide avenue of my memory.

The first thing I noticed was the red sold sign attached to the hedging. So the people here don’t want to be here anymore? I thought. What a silly thought. What did it matter?

The house, two-storey, semi-detached, leaned to one side and seemed the worst kept in the street. Its sad eyes looked out and passed me.

It was as if I was visiting something I’d once read about in a book.

I peered up at the upper bedroom window, knowing that was where I and my two brothers once slept.

How did a family of seven live in this place for so many years?

I wasn’t going to, but I tried the door knocker. A dog barked. No one was home. But I remembered the sound of the door knocker well. Deep, warm and woody. Want a funny, unexpected thing to remember.

When I walked on to top of the hill, the way I used to go to school as a child, I turned around and looked down. I saw a view I did not recall. I did not know was there. I saw the town stretch away across the valley. I saw where it ended, and there were open fields rising into hills. I saw jets in the distance, landing and taking off.

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.