Writers’ Retreat at Aldinga Beach

One of the many perks of participating in the Fiona McIntosh Masterclass is the growing network of writers you get to connect with. Fiona has set up a closed Masterclass Alumni facebook group, where we can share successes and coordinate state based meet-ups. It’s through this group that I was fortunate enough to be invited to a South Australia Writers Retreat, hosted by two of Fiona’s early masterclassers. It was located at a gorgeous 1960s Holiday House overlooking the beach at Aldinga.

For anyone familiar with South Australia’s landscape, Aldinga is a far cry from my home region: the Barossa Valley. But the retreat started on a Friday night so I only had to drive from work in the city; about half the distance compared to coming from home.

The weather was horrendous. Autumn finally decided to show up, and she did so with gusto. The wind and rain whipped my car around and it was far too dark to see the house numbers by the time I arrived. Thankfully, someone else stopped ahead of me and looked to be scouting the area, and with two sets of headlights on the road below, our hosts braved the wind and rain to stand on the balcony and wave us down.

Once I was inside, dry and wearing my ugg boots, we all sat down to a lovely dinner of homemade pumpkin soup and bread rolls. The perfect accompaniment for cold weather and getting to know everyone. There were six of us in total that first night (plus the dog and cat), with another to join the following day for the write in.

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The balcony between showers

With full bellies, we moved to the lounge to settle in and watch, The Last Masterclass on DVD. For those of you that don’t know, Fiona took over the masterclass schedule from Bryce Courtenay after he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in 2012. It was wonderful to see the master himself, his passion and humbling attitude towards his life, work and ultimately his death. If you can get your hands on a copy, I highly recommend watching it.

It was an early night for me, being wiped from a day at work and the long drive. The next day would be all about writing.

I woke at 7.30am, a wonderful sleep in for me, being used to a toddler waking me much earlier most days. The other guests were up and it wasn’t long before we all congregated in the kitchen to stare out of the window between downpours to get a glimpse of the ocean. We had free reign to help ourselves to tea, coffee, toast, cereal and loads of fruit. There was no schedule, it was simply an opportunity for us to concentrate on our work without the interruptions of home.

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Not a bad backdrop to work to.

I dove straight into the revision of draft #4 of my manuscript. However, I found sitting for long periods of time quite intense, so like a fidgeting child I kept getting up to walk around, stretch or make a cup of tea. When sitting at the table got too much, I moved to the couch with a rug and read through a couple of chapters of the manuscript I am beta reading at the moment. By half past twelve, tummies were grumbling and it was time to make a sandwich and have some more soup.

I settled down to review another chapter after lunch, but by halfway through I was getting fidgety again. So when Sandy mentioned she was going for a stroll outside, I decided to join her. Wind or not, I needed to stretch my legs.

It was a brisk walk as the rain picked up again, but it did the trick. I was certainly awake after being blown about for 15 minutes. The rest of the afternoon flew by and before I knew it, I’d revised five chapters.

 

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We headed out to a cafe for dinner and had a lovely time. Once back at the house, we settled in with tea and fruit and lazed on the couches to chat. I was the first to bed again that night, relishing the chance for undisrupted sleep.

I woke at 6am Sunday morning after a lovely long sleep, but feeling famished. I got up and made myself some tea and toast, and pottered about, mostly eyeing the view. The rain had finally eased off!

Because I was keen to get back to my family, I headed off at 9am. It would take me an hour and forty minutes to get home, and I knew I’d have lots to do when I got there, so no time to dawdle.

Overall, the weekend was really valuable. I met some wonderful, supportive women whom I know I will be able to call on in future if I ever need advice or someone to read over my work. Though a full day of writing was intense, it forced me to be productive and to keep the rhythm of writing going. And though we were at a beach house, I’m secretly grateful that it was a blustery time, as it kept us inside and focused.

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Fred the Cat

 

Taking the next step

Sending ones first manuscript into the world is no easy step. Like the wavering toddle of a baby learning to walk, learning to hush your inner critic long enough to send a file to someone other than your best friend or mother, can be very daunting. I should know, in the past year I have taken a number of steps like this on my walk to publication.

I started my book in late 2014. A project with no expectations or limitations. I’d always dreamed of being a writer, but I had a job I loved and a comfortable, reasonably carefree life. I wanted to see if I could write a book.

It turns out I can! Though, not a particularly good one. At the time, that didn’t matter, because nobody was going to read it. When I decided to take the next logical step in the process and revise the draft, I made a number of revelations, not least of all that maybe I actually did want to make something real of this story.

I signed up to a Masters of Creative Writing. I applied for Fiona McIntosh’s Commercial Fiction Masterclass. I wrote and rewrote my story until it became something I could almost be proud of.

Through each of these meanderings, I shared a chapter here and there. I took on board feedback and criticism and tried to apply parts of these to the whole. Earlier this year, I got my manuscript to a point where I thought, I need someone other than myself to read this and tell me where it’s not working. I was too close to it now and needed a fresh perspective.

But the thought of someone else reading my work in full was daunting. It was a necessary step, I knew, but one that seemed much harder than all the ones before it. Sharing the whole manuscript would be like stripping off my clothes and standing before a crowd, letting them see all there was to me, with no coverings to hide my scars and imperfections.

When I nervously hit send on the email, a miraculous thing happened; I came up with a new story idea. Just. Like. That. It was as if my brain suddenly freed up an entire shelf’s worth of space for something new. The second I released this huge part of myself, reasoning that I would not think or tinker with my manuscript until all four beta readers had returned their feedback, my brain was open and ready for the next thing.

The saying, ‘when one door closes another door opens’ had never held any meaning for me before. In my life, I’ve been the director of the doors. Deliberately opening them and walking through. I always knew what was on the other side. Yet, there I was, fearing that I would be told my work is rubbish, fearing that I would have a void where my ongoing draft had previously been, and most of all, fearing that I wouldn’t have another book in me.

Sending your work into the world, can be like stepping off a cliff. You’re free falling, almost suspended in the air knowing that soon enough, you’re going to hit the water. It’s going to hurt like hell, but you’re too far gone now to change it.

Strangely, the worry about what my beta readers think has subsided. Don’t get me wrong, I still care deeply and want my book to be a success. I want to publish that story, but I’ve also realised that it’s not all that I have to offer. If it doesn’t get picked up, it’s okay, because now I have something new to focus on, and the experience and tenacity to see it through to the end.

The thing with writing a book is that you’ll step over multiple cliffs, climb back up and do it all again. When all my beta feedback comes in, I’ll revise and rewrite and then move onto the next step; either sending to an editor, a publisher or an agent willing to take on my debut novel.

And if my book does get picked up, then the journey really begins!

On being a Masterclasser: Overview

That’s what we’re known as, masterclassers. That is, the some 200 or so people who have taken the plunge and signed up for Fiona McIntosh’s five day intensive writing course. I know lots of my fellow writing peers are keen to hear how the course went, and I’m itching to share everything I’ve learnt. But not only would it be impossible for me to impart the wisdom of a seasoned pro like Fiona in the same enthralling way that she does, but it also wouldn’t be fair. She’s been in the biz for 17 years, and this is a big part of her job, her livelihood. I’m not about to take something like that away from her, or any writer.

However, over the next few posts I will share some of the highlights of the masterclass and some of the work I created whilst there.

Fiona’s masterclass is completely targeted at commercial genre fiction. So if you’re someone who writes non-fiction or literary fiction, well you may want to stop reading now. (But, please don’t!). Lots of her advice would transcend other areas of writing, but the course itself is really homing in on the commercial stuff. That is the stuff that is mass marketed and mass produced.

For me, this was a real eye-opener in terms of comparing to my previous Masters study and this. I won’t go into it, but if you are someone who wants to be traditionally published in commercial fiction, maybe don’t bother with the Masters like I did. Do some courses at your local writers centre, or take a look at this Masterclass. It really is all you need to get going.

Another great resource if you can’t afford the investment of a course like this is to pick up a writers resource like Fiona’s How To Write Your Blockbuster, or even Stephen King’s On Writing.

Some top tips for getting serious about writing:

  • Set up a writing space with good lighting.
  • Use a proper office chair with good support for your posture – kitchen chairs just won’t cut it. (I’ll admit, I’m guilty of laying in bed with my laptop, this is a BIG no no).
  • Use the best equipment you can afford and upgrade regularly. I use a Mac and Scrivener, but you don’t have to fork out a lot for decent equipment. Microsoft Word is actually the format publishers will want the manuscript in anyway.
  • Back up regularly. I am terribly guilty of not doing this. But I do have an external hard drive and I’m going to try and remember to use it. It would be devastating to lose your work.
  • Here’s the big one: Make time to write every day that you have committed to writing. Note how I didn’t say to make time to write every day period. That’s because, as Fiona says, you need a break. Writing every day can lead to burn out, just like writing loads and loads of words over 2 or 3 days can equally lead to burn out. You want to be getting into a good writing habit, and you want to sustain it. Writing in big chunks more infrequently won’t work in the long run.
  • On the days you’re not writing, let it go. Don’t think about your WIP. Don’t rewrite it in your mind. Don’t plot and plan what you’re going to write until you’re actually sitting in your chair during your dedicated writing time. Give your brain a break and enjoy your time off.
  • Exercise regularly. If you’re sitting at a computer for long periods, most days, it’s important to get out and enjoy the sunshine, get some fresh air and stretch out your muscles and bones.
  • Give up television. I know, this one hurts (some of us more than others). You don’t really need to give up TV completely, but do consider where your time is going and how enriching those hours in front of the TV really are. If you’re watching great quality drama, beautiful movies and intriguing series, by all means, set aside time for them – especially if they are relevant to your writing (era, scenery, character, etc). But do reconsider the trash. Stay away from the reality rubbish that really doesn’t serve you. It’s all contrived anyway.
  • Surround yourself with support. Whether it be a writing group, a book club or just a few friends that can cheer you on and bounce ideas around with you, support is crucial.
  • Get to know your local librarian and book seller. These people are in the know and can be your greatest allies when it comes to selling your books. They’re also great resources for research, and as potential beta readers. Librarians and book sellers generally love books, so it’s safe to say they’d be happy to help a local writer in their endeavours to get published.
  • Know your genre and read it. A lot.
  • Understand the tropes of your genre.
  • Find publishers that specialise in your genre.
  • Don’t let writing define or overwhelm you. It’s OK to be passionate about your writing, but it’s not all there is.
  • Don’t use the truth. Even if you’re writing fiction based on fact. Commercial fiction exists to entertain, so don’t be afraid to dramatise and embellish your story.
  • Relationships are key in commercial fiction. It is human nature to be drawn to interesting and dynamic people, to their conflicts and their emotions.

Over the next few posts I’ll focus a bit on the various elements of writing. Including character, description, generating ideas and publishing.

 

 

Plot vs Prose aka the fight to be taken seriously

I recently read an article criticising, well, critics, for labelling Liane Moriarty’s books as “best selling fluff.” To be honest, I was surprised that Moriarty’s work was even considered fluff. I’ve only read Big Little Lies (pre-miniseries) and I really loved it. The book dealt with some very serious topics, in what I thought was a clever, sensitive and entertaining way. Though the plot is framed by a murder that’s not what the crux of the novel is. It’s about women, friendship and motherhood. It touches on domestic violence and bullying in a very realistic way. It’s a best-seller yes. But it’s hardly what I would consider “fluff.”

So why are the critics hating on Moriarty?

Well for one thing, Moriarty writes commercial fiction. *Gasp*. I say this tongue in cheek of course, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with CF. It’s my preferred genre to read, and it’s what I hope to be published in someday soon.The problem is that it seems literary critics think CF isn’t worthy of the time of day it’s given. According to a great number of articles and reviews, it seems that commercial fiction is synonymous with simple sentence structure, poor prose and a lack of seriousness.

On the other hand, literary fiction is said to be the opposite of all of the above. It is serious. Its words are carefully selected and arranged into sentences that read like poetry and make the reader want to bleed the very blood of which it was constructed. In my opinion, literary fiction is actually less focused on plot and far more derived of powerful, poignant prose.

I like to read great prose. I read literary works because I think it will make me a better writer. Because it makes me think and feel in a different kind of way. I take down notes in the margins of literary books. But I don’t become immersed in them. I don’t finish a page and feel a rush of emotions. Sometimes I even struggle to finish them, because the engagement of a great story just isn’t there.

But that’s just me. Someone else might revel in the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Zadie Smith and Ernest Hemingway.

I couldn’t get into the Twilight books either, and even a recount of any shade of grey makes me cringe. But again, that’s just me. There are millions of people who loves those books. People who are serious about reading, and love those books.

And to that I say, great.

At least they are reading. Because at the end of the day, isn’t the reason we write because we want to be read? Isn’t being read by someone (other than your mum/best friend/partner) the greatest achievement for a writer? That’s what I consider being taken seriously.

No matter what or why people read, whether it’s to escape, to laugh, to think or to feel, we should be grateful that there are still millions of people buying books and reading ferociously. Because without readers, there would be no reason for us to write.