Last week, we were on our annual residential writing course 'The Full English' in Dorset. The value of revision became manifestly abundant over the course of a very intense week taking prose through rounds of work towards a shining, tight truth by the end of our seven days together.
I began the week with a lesson on 'Glamour' - and how what is concealed up front in your novel will of necessity be revealed. We begin our story by showing that to all appearances all's well but the veneer conceals a lie. It's the nature of THE LIE which is at the heart of your story, and it's the chipping away at it, the revelatory process which drives the plot. If you're a writer in search of an idea, start with a big lie.
We looked at how with The Great Gatsby it was Scott Fitzgerald's intention from the start to establish a veneer of glamour in his prose and story. He had his eyes on the big lie - the American Dream - which he foresaw as doomed.
I told my writers how Hunter S Thompson typed out pages from The Great Gatsby just to get the feeling, he said, of what it was like to write that way. If I were twenty-five again and starting to write, I think I'd probably start by copying out the book. Since our return one of my writers is doing that very thing.
Gatsby is an awe-inspiring achievement. But I want to add a few words of consolation and remind you that every writer builds a work of accomplishment and magic in layers.
We may draw great comfort from the drafts thrown away over the two-year process in which Fitzgerald repeated the drafting process a number of times. Like we do at The Novelry, he created his first draft fast, then went through rounds of revision.
It is good to remind ourselves of this so that we don't lose heart. We should expect to sit with our work in patience and faith that what is concealed to us as a writer will also be revealed in time.
The pencil draft and the much-revised galley proofs at Princeton library show how thoroughly and expertly Fitzgerald practised the craft of revision.
'Among the many lessons Fitzgerald applied between the rough draft and the finished novel was that of cutting and setting his diamonds so that they caught up and cast back a multitude of lights. In so doing, he found it unnecessary to have an authorial voice gloss a scene. The brilliance floods in upon the reader; there is no necessity for Nick Carraway to say, as he did at one point in the pencil draft: “I told myself that I was studying it all like a philosopher, a sociologist, that there was a unity here that I could grasp after or would be able to grasp in a minute, a new facet, elemental and profound.” The distance Fitzgerald travelled from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned to The Great Gatsby is in the rewriting of the novel.' Kenneth Eble.
'What I cut out of it both physically and emotionally,' Scott Fitzgerald wrote later, 'would make another novel!'
This is how it works.
At The Novelry you get your skills with the course which feeds you master strokes from the greats. You pick up a new good habit - the way of the working writer - and you reach out for support and feedback to help you revise to meet your ambition and newly-muscled judgement and to a bar that is set so high by all of our writers.
You stick with it. You make it better.
You will revise. We won’t get bored. Suddenly it will click. We will whoop.
The Full English Experience: What can I say? I arrived depleted and a little defeated after several months of winter, an unexpected illness that wiped out my writing schedule at the end of last year and a loss of confidence in my novel idea and my writing. I left with renewed confidence, energy and enthusiasm and with a firm direction for my novel.
This is a unique writing retreat. Firstly, the setting of Marshwood Manor and the welcome you get from owner Romla Ryan are superb. The accommodation is gorgeous and to have your dinner cooked every night is a treat in itself! You really can switch off from daily life there and shed your responsibilities. Secondly, the intense attention to the writing process brought breakthroughs for everyone. We were lucky to have Time Lott as our guest tutor, and his sessions on storytelling and story structure were so insightful that he made principles I had been reading about for years come alive. He promised he would drill story structure into us by the end of his four sessions and he did! His approach to teaching character was profound and thought-provoking. Also, my one-to-one session with Louise Dean, who has seen my story develop over the past year, was so personal and focused that I was able to make the choices I needed to make to move the story forward. Louise was also available any time for follow-up chats, and I think this generous, creative midwifery was a real feature of the week. As was the support of the other writers. Everyone there had come ready to work and explore and share, and I am beyond grateful for the encouragement and feedback I received. Oh, and we laughed. A lot. Oh, and we happened to have a mind-blowing two-hour session with world-renowned dream expert Ian Wallace thrown in as well. I would say we more than got our money’s worth!
One unexpected discovery I made during the week was that I could be more flexible in my writing routine. As a morning person, I prefer to get my words down in the morning, and I’ve always told myself that I couldn’t write in the afternoon, that my brain doesn’t function well then. Yet on the fourth day, after a three-hour session with Tim in the morning, I found myself cosied up on the sofa in a blanket, typing away with drooping eyes and having a huge writing breakthrough. I think I’d reached a sweet spot of mental exhaustion that forced my ego and all my doubts and niggles to leave the building. I managed to nail a first chapter that captured a voice I can work with.
That was the thread I was looking for when I came on The Full English, and the experience totally delivered.
The Novelry Report: Tracey is published author of the intelligent psychological thriller She Chose Me with a stack of five-star reviews on Amazon. She is writing her second novel with The Novelry. She is planning the storyline beautifully and showing flashes of brilliance in her understanding of the shadowy line of unreliability. Some of her turns of phrase make you tingle with their promise and foreboding. In the vein of Patricia Highsmith, this novel will be a great ride for the reader.
I almost didn't make it to The English Writer’s Retreat this February. When I finally arrived at my cosy cottage in the Marshwood Manor, I was two days behind, worried and agitated, and trying very hard not to show it.
That evening I sat with my fellow retreaters round a blazing log fire and listened to a very talented writer read her first few chapters. I knew from that day I will never be able to write anything remotely close to what I had heard. Every evening the bar went higher; the level of talent displayed at the evening readings was extraordinary. Every day the writers at the retreat, including The Novelry’s lovely and super talented founder Louise Dean, encouraged me to share my work, and I smiled and said I’ll try, but I knew I could never do it. I had taken The Novelry’s Ninety Day Novel course, had written fifty thousand odd words of a first draft, but still, I wasn’t convinced I had the talent to write or that my story was even worth sharing. As I often say to my friends: never underestimate the crippling power of the imposter syndrome.
I attended every remaining session with the award-winning guest author Tim Lott. I talked about my story and listened to others talk about theirs. There is nothing more refreshing than being able to talk about your work among like minds. I always felt like everyone in the room wanted the best for each other. Gradually I started seeing ‘the forest for the trees’, and my story started to evolve into something I felt wasn't half bad.
By the second to last evening, I knew I had to share something. Even if the words were total rubbish, it would be better rubbish than what I’d written in the two years since I’d started writing. I spent all of that night and the morning after writing my opening page. That afternoon I shared it with Louise and her warm and enthusiastic response gave me the confidence I needed to share with the rest of the group.
I will never forget that last evening. I kept forcing myself to smile and laugh with everyone, but all I could feel was my heart thumping in my chest. My whole body was shaking and only I knew it wasn’t from the cold. Suddenly it was time for me to read. The silence that fell on the room was unnerving and I didn't dare look up.
At the room erupted in applause. I looked up then and all I saw were beautiful smiles. I was almost giddy with relief. I kept bobbing my head like a bouncy toy as each writer said what she loved about what I’d read. They were so excited for me, it was contagious and I started feeling excited too. The euphoria stayed with me all night and lingered through the next day. On the last day of the retreat, one of the ladies held me close and said, ‘you’re a writer, never forget that.’ I mumbled something back, I don't even remember what, it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
Now I have an opening page, a clearly mapped out structure, and the confidence to write to the end, and this is all thanks to The Novelry and its amazing founder Louise. I would recommend anyone writing a novel, at whatever stage you are in the process to be part of The Novelry family and attend one of these retreats. Believe me when I say you would never regret it.
The Novelry Report: Nogzi's touching writing and unpretentious knack of nuance and setting give the reader a truly immersive reading experience. The dissonance she introduces with a culture clash piques interest and she has a firm grip on the story from the outset. She makes it plain to the reader that the quite loveable narrator has a flaw which could prove her undoing. This is a writer to watch. I'm very excited about her potential. If she can continue the book in the same voice and style, work with patience to unravel a story that's got such a universal appeal and such an interesting setup, she'll be courted by literary agents and soon.
Last night I dreamed I went to Marshwood Manor again… Actually, it has been my waking dream every day since I left last Sunday. All I want to do is go back – to Romla’s cakes, the peace and quiet, the dark starry nights, the readings around the fire, the cakes…
The week of the Full English Retreat was what dreams are made of – days spent talking about our books and how to make them better and nights spent sharing them. Each day began with a tutored session. On the first day, we had Louise on ‘Glamour’, and a brand new octopus Moleskine to write all our thoughts in. For the next four mornings, we had Tim Lott, who began with the psychology of writing, and how to be true to ourselves. He then took us through the basics of storytelling, and structure and plot and character. All things I’ve heard before, all things we all know, but how different it is to think about these things with your own story in your head, and with the time and the space to apply them to it.
The afternoons were our own – to write or read or walk or sleep. Or to drive to the coast and let the wind clear your head. I had to prepare a submission for a competition – 50 pages to edit and a 5-page synopsis to write. Having Louise on site was invaluable. Apart from our scheduled one-to-one, we talked my plot over on a dog walk and met again to settle my synopsis.
The evenings began with a G&T in Louise’s cottage, followed by one of Romla’s delicious meals. Then we gathered around the fire to read our stories aloud. It’s such a human trait, to tell a story around the fire. I could have happily listened for longer to every one of them. It was so satisfying to meet the books that people had talked about in our morning sessions, and to hear how they had chosen to tell their tale. I can’t wait to read them when they are published. Yes, they were that good. Everyone who came on this retreat was absolutely committed to the craft of writing. The standard was exceptional.
And then there was a final treat – Ian Wallace, our actual Dream Man. It was a perfect way to end a dream-like week.
I left with my Moleskine already half-filled. I made notes of what Louise and Tim said on the right-hand page, and put my thoughts on how to apply them to my book on the left. So much to think about. So much work to do to make it the best book I can write.
I got lost on the way home. It was deliberate – I didn’t want the week to end.
The Novelry Report: Cate's novel 'Mother Country' is close to finished and what a work it is. Breathtaking in its canvas - Australia in the early 1900's - and far-reaching in its stakes and moral reach. One of the most evocative and sweet opening's imaginable, this is what big novels are made of. It's not a question of if it will get published, but when and who will be the lucky agent. Keep an eye out for this one.
A treat of a retreat! With our first lesson from 'Miss' (Louise Dean) about ‘Glamour’, the tone of the week was set. Our novels grew with the inspiration we gained from each other and our daily lessons. Each evening readings sparkled with fascination, love, intelligence and wit. Our conversations helped us to consider our own novels, inspired us to achieve and learn more. Our one to one’s with Miss channelled those thoughts into productive review, structuring and editing.
The week was wrapped up in style with the exceptional Ian Wallace, fabulous cocktails, a wonderful last supper and a few glamourous shampoo-and-sets courtesy of Chantelle’s in Bridport.
The Novelry Report: Viv brings a gifted musician's ear to prose, seeking to create imagery that works like music She's got her eye on storyline now and that's the vital element to pursue now in second draft. This week, she and I enjoyed a mutual breakthrough as we laughed together about our common need to pare back our prose to get to the heart of the matter. Viv's determination, appetite and flair will deliver a novel in 2019 which I will be proud to recommend to our literary agency partners.
The Full English is available to writers for February 2020 here. Book your place now as it sells out quickly and early instalment payment plans are available. We will have some well-known, best-loved authors joining us as guest tutors. To get the most from the intensive week you will have taken our Ninety Day Novel course and be at work on your novel, at any stage.
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