Bet you expected a photo of a mountain, didn’t you…? Well, there’s been a few of those this week already, and I heard somewhere that cats are popular on the interwebs, so I’m heading this blog with a pic of Napoleon the cat* in a craven attempt to be down with the kidz.
Today was the final full day of this writing retreat at Le Chant de la Cascade and there’s a bit of an end of term feel to proceedings. I was up at around 6am, and by 10am I had done all I set out to achieve. The first five chapters of my middle grade book have been thoroughly rewritten and I have a road map of how to finish the rest of the book. Just having the head space to ruminate on this story has been invaluable. Note that I said ruminate and not concentrate. Concentrating is what I do during my regular working week; grabbing an hour here and there and focussing intently on the story. Here I’ve been allowed to let it drift in and out of my head as it pleases and we’ve been getting along better than ever as a result.
After my session, I went for a walk and found myself clambering up a very steep path, stopping every twenty minutes or so to avoid a coronary. I was eventually treated to this…
This has been an extraordinary week. A leap forward for a writing project, great company with my fellow writers, and wonderful hosts in Marcus and Maureen. If you have a project that needs some rumination and you like an environment that’s tranquil and inspiring, then check out the next retreat in May. I can’t recommend it enough.
*Not his real name. He asked for anonymity.
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The best thing about this retreat is the space it gives you to think. Work emails are off on all my devices, I’m not worrying about catching trains, or getting to meetings on time. I’ve been given the luxury of time to let this story float around in my head and take shape.
I’m still working on streamlining the opening, which has meant chunky rewrites, but I’m really happy with how they’re coming out and I now feel like I have a roadmap to finish the next draft of this book before the end of the year, if not sooner.
It also helps that my fellow retreaters are night owls and I’m up first thing in the morning, which gives me the run of the place all morning.
After the morning session, we became tourists and visited the market in Les Gets and Morzine and I think I’ve bought chocolate, cheese and beer than will actually fit in my luggage. Our host, Maureen also took on a diversion to Lac de Montriond (pictured above) which is depleted after a drought. Everywhere you look here, there is epic scenery and I know I’ve banged about this already, but it really does get the synapses sparking.
We’ve been discussing author intent all week, so tonight we watched Room 237, a wonderfully bonkers documentary where various writers/conspiracy theorists outline their thoughts on Kubrick’s intent for The Shining.
Most of them start with intriguing hypotheses, and then eventually go off the deep end because they just don’t know when to stop. My theory about The Shining is it’s just about a poor writer who wants to finish his book, but his wife and kid keep interrupting him… maybe he should go on a retreat?
Another early start with a little bit of light podcasting for next week’s episode, and a good morning’s writing. I’m realising that a big problem with this book is I’m setting too much up too soon, and a lot of what I’m setting up doesn’t even need to be there in the first place (retrospect is a fine thing and this is why we have rewrites). So my first four or five chapters might only need to be three chapters with clearer intent so that the reader’s expectations aren’t muddled and I have a greater chance of getting them engaged with the story.
It’s all about focusing on what’s important and taking out the trash… Speaking of which, Marcus asked if we fancied helping him take the trash up the road to where it’s collected, because when you get there, this is the view…
I mean… blimey… that puts our local recycling centre into perspective. I couldn’t stop staring at it, and these photos don’t do it any justice whatsoever. It’s magnificent and gets something ticking over in my excitable little brain.
Fired-up once more, I returned to the chalet and worked harder than ever. This is the nook that I’ve been writing in. A little mezzanine level in the chalet with a not-remotely distracting view of the trees gently swaying outside…
After a walk and an incredible dinner, we gathered for this evening’s session with Marcus, which was on endings, twists and readers’ expectations. This all came from conversations we’d each had with Marcus during the day, which is such a nice way of tailoring the group sessions to our own needs. I also got to interview one of my fellow retreaters Dawn Kurtagich who has been to a number of retreats and now even runs her own (subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss out on that!).
I was up pretty early this morning and got straight into my rewrites, working solid for an hour or so before I hit a crossroad. One of those writing moments where your choices can end up taking you down all sorts of blind alleys.
Last night, our host Marcus Sedgwick talked us through a mapping method that he uses to sketch out his outlines on a large sheet of paper. I gave this a go, but my bum had been stuck in the same spot for too long, so I decided to take a walk to get the oxygen flowing through my beleaguered noggin. Marcus thought this was a good idea, pointing out that the Romans had a phrase for this: Solvitur Ambulando! (Yes, say it out loud and make a Harry Potter wand action, good, yes, now sit down, well done). It means, ‘It is solved by walking.’ Well, I’m all for that, especially when the views are like this…
These photos do this place no justice whatsoever. It’s incredible. Sheer cliffs, mossy boulders the size of a house, the distant clonk-clonk of cow bells, deep, impenetrable woods echoing with the sound of mysterious creatures… if you’re not inspired by this stuff, then there’s no hope for you.
After a couple of hours going up-diddly-up, I came down-diddly-down, staying close to the stream to ensure that I didn’t get completely lost. Returning to the chalet I was fired up and ready to write and had a very productive afternoon completely and utterly rewriting the second chapter of my middle grade book.
Part of my suspicion of writing retreats is the thought of having to read out my stuff to a bunch of other writers who will then rip it to shreds. I embrace a bit of healthy criticism, but I’ve ever thought that’s the best way to go about it. However, our session with Marcus this afternoon was partly inspired by my switching from third person past tense, to first person present, and so it made sense to read a bit of both versions out to make the comparison, and I’m glad to say it went down very well. We also discussed character, opening pages and how shifting the perspective of your narrator’s voice can make a dramatic difference to the tone of your writing. This was an easygoing hour or so with a small group and it was inspiring stuff.
Oh, and tonight I got to interview Marcus while we were both in the hot tub. Another first for the Bestseller Experiment. Please subscribe on iTunes or your pod catcher of choice to ensure that you don’t miss out!
I’ve always had a healthy, working class suspicion of writing retreats: do you really need to go to a nice country house in Dorset to work on your novel…? Really?! Really??! Oh, get over yourself…
But then I stumbled across Le Chant de la Cascade over on Instagram. A retreat run by Marcus Sedgwick, an award-winning children’s author whose books I used to sell when he was published at Orion Children’s and someone whose writing I like very much, and he’s a very decent chap… and as I’ve said before, in these trying times I try to only work with nice people.
I dropped Marcus a line and he explained that the retreat is a small affair, just a handful of writers, and it’s all very relaxed and easygoing. No enforced jolliment or systematic abuse or ritual humiliation (you might think I’m confusing prison with writing retreats, but I have heard horror stories…).
After an incredible drive from Geneva through some truly stunning countryside we arrived in approximately the middle of nowhere, and it’s perfect. The only sound is the gentle hiss of the wind through the trees and the occasional cock-a-doodle-doo from a laid back cockerel.
I’m here to crack a middle grade children’s novel that I’ve been working on. I sent a draft to Karen Ball over at Speckled Pen and she gave me some excellent notes, which I plan to tackle while I’m here. The main note was about the authorial voice of the book. It’s currently in the third person past tense, and she noted that it just sounded too much like me (a bloke in his forties) and not the protagonist (a child), which can really hobble a children’s book. Karen advised that I read Joanna Nadin’s Joe All Alone – an excellent example of a first person present tense children’s novel – to see if it appealed… and it does. My first task today was to experiment with my book and see if that worked for me… and it does. That’s the good news. The bad news is I now have to rewrite the whole book in the first person present tense, which is a bit of an undertaking, but y’know what? What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and that applies to rewrites.
Tonight, Marcus, myself and the other writers here discussed plotting, outlining, story, and we had fun sorting lyrics from ballads and synopses from films into order. This has put us all in an excellent frame of mind for the rest of the week… More tomorrow!
I’m now fully rested after a week or so off from the usual routine of commute/write/day job/commute/write/fall asleep in front of the TV. The family and I explored Kent, the county we moved to a little over a year ago. We found castles, wind farms, sea forts, crypts, a submarine, a shell grotto, and an ossuary with skulls lining the walls:
Claire in the shell grotto in Margate
Margate looking all epic
Rochester castle big. Kids, small.
A music video being shot at Botany Bay
And the Kentish Flats wind farm
I’ve had all the Garth Marenghi jokes, thank you
The Red Sands Maunsell Forts
The Foxtrot Class Russian sub currently rusting in the Medway in Rochester
The town itself is impressive, especially if you’re a Spaghetti Western nerd like me. You can explore many of the buildings, clamber up the steps onto the landings and generally stride across the middle of town feeling like Clint Eastwood (it also helps that they play Ennio Morricone’s greatest hits through a tannoy the whole time).
There are also museums housed in a couple of the buildings. First up was a museum of cinema, which was little more than a collection of old projectors and Spanish Western posters. My favourite was the one for Y Ahora Le Llaman Aleluya (aka Deep West), in which the hero uses a machine gun disguised as a sewing machine…
The other museum was dedicated to coaches, starting with horse-drawn buggies, and fire trucks and, er, a BMW 3 series from the 80s. That made me feel old, and I questioned its value in a museum, as you could probably get one on eBay for under a grand. There was no real attempt at curation in these museums, but who cares when you have such wonders to entertain you?
At noon we joined the crowds for the first Western show of the day. I was looking forward to this as the leaflet promised that it would be performed “by actors” no less. Just in case anyone was expecting the real Hole in the Wall Gang to show up and start blowing people’s heads off. Over the distorted tannoy a recorded voice explained that “Mffrm meefle frrp villainous brothers grlgle flan frrop arrested furgle jail.” Oh, good to get all the exposition out the way, eh?
So a man was dragged to jail, his brother came to the rescue, a Sheriff fell off a balcony onto a poorly-disguised crash mat, another fella was dragged through the dirt by a horse, there was lots of shooting, and this guy…
… died first and spent the remainder of the show face-down in the dirt in the blistering heat. I guess he does this three times a day, six days a week. Now THAT’s acting – take that RSC!
My horse allergy started to kick in (the only thing stopping me from becoming a massive Western movie star) and so we left the Western town and explored the zoo at Oasys, an expansive collection of enclosures featuring some fairly miserable-looking animals. There were no keepers to be seen and no evidence of the kind of zoological research undertaken in UK zoos. But if you’re a fan of bored animals skulking in tiny slivers of shade to stay out of the relentless glare of the sun, then this is the place for you!
We ended the park experience by the family pool, and the kids had great fun. There are a couple of slides and a bacteria-filled jacuzzi with a sign declaring in many languages that it was strictly for adults only (it was packed with kids).
But it was in the gift shop where I made an important discovery. We knew that one of my favourite scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was shot near here, but looking it up online could only give us a vague destination. However, the gift shop had a Spanish-language book that had more detail and, more importantly, gave us the name of the beach – Playa de Monsul. We punched it into the sat-nav and hit the road.
It took about an hour to get there and the kids were getting tired. ‘Hang on,’ George said, ‘we’ve come all this way just to see a rock?’
But Emily got it, ‘I love my geeky daddy,’ she said.
The road ran out of tarmac and the sat-nav was trying to send us into neighbouring fields, but we followed the signs along 5 km of incredibly rocky road. I spent much of that drive quietly muttering ‘Don’t get a flat,’ over and over as the car rocked perilously from side to side (there is also a bus service available, but at this time we still didn’t know if we were in the right place).
We eventually came to a row of parked cars. Even now, as the sun was low in the sky, the place was busy. It’s a beautiful beach. Isolated, with gentle waves and perfect for families.
And there was the rock. We took a few photos, gazed upon it in admiration and I quoted from the film in my best Sean Connery.
That wasn’t enough for George, though. The rock he’d bemoaned en-route now presented him with a challenge. He climbed all the way to the top. When he returned he reported that from up there he could see “six boobies and two couples making out.”
What did we get from that extra few hours out of our day? I’m not sure. Pilgrimages are weird things. Religious folk will talk about how they feel kindred spirits in a place, I know football fans who will go out of their way to visit a stadium if they’re in a particular city, and I love to just be where films have been made. Maybe it’s that thing of wanting to step through the screen and be part of that world – surely the sign of a successful movie? – or maybe it’s knowing that every time we watch the film from now on, we can all yell “We’ve been there!” Who knows? All I know is, we went all that way and I forgot to pack a bloody umbrella…
After a day of western-themed activities, it was sad to come home and find that Elmore Leonard, author of many fine Westerns, had passed away. Most writers will know his ten rules for writers. If you don’t, here they are, and heed every word, they are wise and sublime.
ELMORE LEONARD’S RULES FOR WRITING
Never open a book with weather.
Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” … he admonished gravely.
Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
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