I’ve been writing my current novel for approximately three hundred years. Having written and finished one before, inexperience is not the problem. In fact, I have also finished this one, a few times. But it has bounced back from agents with the feedback that: there isn’t enough of a plot; more needs to happen; the book is ‘not enough of a ride.’
Trawling the internet earlier this year, I came across The Novelry and more specifically the editing course. It seemed just what I needed. For good measure, I signed up to the community too. Fast forward a few months and I was in full swing, getting up early to write, more focused than I’d been in ages and feeling like I was making steady progress. At last, I could see what I needed to do to corral my 70,000 or so words into something that resembled a story.
And then the shit hit the fan. My partner had a stroke and ended up in hospital (4 months later he’s still there, learning to walk); work got more pressurised with other people’s jobs dependent on my efforts, and then the school holidays started.
When my friend M texted, saying she was having a horrible time finishing her PhD, with a deadline looming, and why the hell hadn’t we seen each other recently? I suggested that we run away together.
We looked at hiring a cottage on an island but instead, at a crazy last-minute discount, we booked four nights at a spa hotel in a forest.
There is something about going to an unfamiliar place, venturing apprehensively into the unknown, which mirrors the experience of writing. I sat on the bus worrying that I'd made an expensive mistake: What if the hotel was noisy? What if the bed didn’t have a headboard (I write in bed)? What if the view was rotten? What if M and I talked too much and wrote too little? What if, given I had so much other stuff to take care of, this was just a vanity project?
The hotel was enormous - a happy mixture of grand Victorian and high-class youth hostel, with forest all around. It felt unpretentious, tired but loved and, as became evident over the course of our stay, a bit of a local institution in the best possible way. The weather forecast – torrential rain - was perfect. The view from the bed was of sky and trees that got progressively greener and bushier as the rain poured and internet access in my room was intermittent, helpfully making procrastination more difficult.
The stage set, our DIY retreat followed a narrative structure. Having arrived and got orientated, we dragged our writing selves to the trough and urged them to drink. But after attempting to list all the scenes across the novel’s five sections looking at cause and effect, and jiggling things around a bit, I was hit by the enormity of the task ahead. How was I going to make even a dent in what needed to be done within the few days I had when I still hadn’t resolved some of the most basic questions? Past or present tense? First or third person?
This was an incredibly precious opportunity to make headway, but where was I going?
Having hit a wall, I sent up a distress flare via The Noverly Group. Within minutes, The Novelry folk were on the scene. I was talked down from my panic and given kind and insightful opinions. Most importantly though, I was reminded that I wasn’t alone.
In my forties, when I was trying to work out what I’d be when I grew up, I did a part-time course in person-centred counselling. Getting paid handsomely to listen to other people mull over their stories seemed like the perfect job for a wannabe writer. We practised in triads – taking it in turns to be either counsellor, client or observer. The most difficult skill to learn was listening. Hardwired to put an end to the pain of others (possibly because it triggers pain in ourselves) most of us chip in with helpful solutions at every opportunity. The course tutor described the counsellor/client relationship as like sitting companionably on a boat together, in the middle of a loch, possibly shrouded in mist, the counsellor listening with unconditional positive regard. This special deep listening is a magic medium. Like agar jelly, it provides the conditions in which things, in this instance ‘change’, can seed and grow.
This is what the hive-mind of The Novelry community is like: democratic, diverse, experienced, insightful, generous, collaborative and creative.
Safely back on course, armed with the courage to stay with it, what did I learn from a more intensive period of writing? The daily discipline of an hour a day is a fantastic way to keep things moving, one chunk at a time. Those few days away however enabled me to step back and look at how these chunks join up. I began to see how scenes and actions, like dance movements or musical notes or phrases, come alive as part of a flow, their effect dependent on what comes before and what comes after. Having spent months concentrating on individual scenes, it was great to feel the story grow, join up and move forward.
Related to that, I started to really appreciate the necessity for - and joy of - tension. Maybe to date, my writing has been too eager to please, too eager to deliver a punch line, too set on gratification. But what if great writing is mostly teasing? What if it’s about playing with the reader’s expectations? What if a resolution is like the brow of a hill, that when climbed, merely reveals the next brow. What if resolutions can be infinitely, deliciously delayed? What if my inclination to be a good host, making sure everyone is comfortable, that the reader is not kept waiting, that they are not in pain, is actually the opposite of what anyone, myself included, wants from reading?
One day, when the rain stopped M and I went for a walk. We set out to climb a hill, but instead took a wrong turning and quickly became lost. There were millions of mountain bike tracks, marked by colour coded signposts that had dispensed with distances or place names. I got blisters and M felt sick. We arrived back at the hotel, after being out far longer than we intended, irritated and frustrated at how we had been defeated by this unknown, unmarked terrain, whilst our time to get work done was ticking away.
The next day, I went out on my own and climbed a forested hill that again had no signposts. This time I braved the smaller tracks, more like animal tracks, and persisted, zig-zagging through the trees. I got to the top just as the sun came out, lighting up yellow fields being grazed by newly shorn sheep that looked like goats. That day I decided to book an extra night (M went home as planned, having secured an extension to her deadline) and I sent my partner a text:
I have decided to live here. I will miss you all, but don’t worry, I’ll get over it.
He sent a text back saying: Ouch xxx
I have been struggling to find the end of my novel. At times it feels like a ball of wool that could continue to unravel forever. Something about my revelations – about the exquisite pleasure of drawing things out, about staying with the uncomfortable - meant that it dawned on me that an event which happens in the middle of my novel could work better at the end, thereby deliciously elongating the action, forcing the reader to stay in it, stay with the discomfort, making sure they feel hungry before offering even a hint of gratification. Maybe the difficult middle (the muddle) in what I was writing, this disorientating place where I kept getting lost, what if this place was the destination? What if the middle, was actually the end, hiding in plain sight?
In ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost. The word “lost” comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.’
On my last morning, I got up, wrote looking out over the forest one last time, and then took the bus home. My son, back that day from his holiday, was eager to chat and when I phoned my partner (we'd agreed on minimal contact when I was away), he took a wheelchair taxi from the hospital and showed off his newly learnt stair-climbing skills by managing to reach my first floor flat. We ate a meal together. Later, when my partner had checked back into the hospital and my son was in bed, I took a look online for my next opportunity to get lost.
'One of the world's top ten best creative writing holidays.' The Telegraph.
Our writers' retreats and courses are set in a beautiful manor house in rural Dorset, not far from the sea. All the things you could ever want for your dream writing retreat; lovely private rooms, log fires, personal writing space, great food, beautiful scenery, lively chat or rural solitude.
A bonanza week with one of our novelists hitting the shortlist of five for The Bath Novel Award 2019. There were 1343 entries so this is a very meaningful coup. We are all beside ourselves with excitement at The Novelry, and hoping our beloved friend will scoop the prize on September 19th as she deserves.
Congratulations to our beloved graduate Rashmi Sirdeshpande on publication of her book "How To Be Extraordinary" courtesy of Penguin Books.
We always have plenty to cheer about, even on a slow day, and this week a number of our writers finished their novels - Jane, Andrew, Jacqui and Aprajita. Well done to all of you.
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