Writing Retreats

Are there any writers who don’t dream of going on a writing retreat? Well, what’s stopping you?

I recently got back from a long weekend in Cromer with writing friends I met when we were all studying at the Open University. We’ve all come a long way since then and gone in different literary directions, but it’s great to get together and socialise in a safe space, with other people who know what a challenge writing can be.

the pier at cromer on a stunningly blue day.
Cromer pier on a cloudless November day, 2022.

This is who met in Cromer:

  • Mairibeth Macmillan writes Viking romances.
  • Palo Stickland writes mostly memoir now.
  • I write popular women’s short fiction and novellas.
  • Julie Bissell writes a little bit of what she fancies, but particularly enjoys fantasy and sci-fi.
  • Enza Vynn-Cara writes mostly short literary fiction and poetry.
  • Ian Elves writes high fantasy.

We meet in November when it’s cheaper to rent a house, but three of our members couldn’t attend this year:

  • Rebeccah Cohen, a prolific writer of MM romance.
  • Russet Ashby, who writes mainly short stories, and
  • Elisabeth McKay, who has a WWII adventure trilogy looking for a home.

Together we form Women Who Write With Elves, and two of our members scooped prizes at the Scottish Association of Writers conference last year.

Five of the Women Who Write with Elves, and Mr Elves himself.

We are experienced now and write in such diverse genres that we have outgrown the universal interest workshops we used to run ourselves. Instead, this time we had quiet rooms, where people could sit and write undisturbed, and social rooms, where we could sit and write and natter if we so wished. But most importantly, we had an initial catchup session, where we explained what we had achieved (or not) this last year and set ourselves individual goals for the weekend and the year ahead.

This is remarkably effective. Everyone essentially achieved what they set out to this over our 3 days together, including one of our number who quite simply needed to start writing again.

Not everyone can manage the sort of retreat we run, there are many organised retreats out there, with feedback from experienced tutors and without. So if you fancy one, why not drop a hint this December, or blatantly write it on your Xmas list.

Plotting a Mystery

This is a quick post, as I’m not supposed to be typing at the moment. I recently came across Ten Tips for the Mystery Writing Pantser, which is full of brilliant advice for those writing mysteries, like me, who is also a terrible pantser. Please take a look if you enjoy writing mystery stories.

I have been forced into minimal computer use for the next 10 days because of my elbow problem, but this has helped me with actual plotting, my bête noire. I have had a new idea around a female apothecary at the end of the 18th century, coming into conflict with both the handsome new doctor, and the newfangled chemist, who bought her father’s shop when her back was turned.

Using The Conflict Thesaurus and The Emotional Wound Thesaurus, both by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, I have mapped out my main characters’ character arcs for the book. Consequently, last night, during about of prolonged tossing and turning, three fully formed scenes popped into my head, which I managed to remember long enough to write down the barebones of. I now just need the plot of the mystery element of my romance to come to me, and I shall be away as soon as I’m allowed to start typing again. Methinks arsenic will be involved, which means plenty of research to do before the typing begins in earnest.

Missdemeanors, who wrote the mystery-writing blog post, suggests making a list of all your characters’ secrets and the lies they are willing to tell to protect themselves. You may consult this at a later date when making your plot work. So that will be my next task. She also advises writing drunk and editing sober. I’m not sure I’d be following that one, especially as I write during the daytime, and if I have a drink before six I shall be snoozing in my chair all day.

Che Lavoro Fa?

I’m learning Italian on Duolingo at the moment. Technically I (just) passed the equivalent of A-level Italian years ago (molti anni fa). But this was online with the Open University, so I write great Italian, but as for finding out what’s happened to the train you were expecting to get you back to your villa before night falls and the wolves come out – forget it. Sure I can ask someone in a uniform (una divisa) ‘Dov’è il treno?’ but I won’t have a clue about the answer.

Okay, I exaggerate about the wolves, but night-time in a foreign place can be pretty scary for worrits like me. And although I’m a night owl, I’m not exactly a party animal. So if I’m not tucked up with a glass of wine and a cosy fire once the sun is gone down, there’s something seriously wrong in my life. Hence why I’d like to better speak Italian.

I joined my local U3A Italian conversation group a few weeks ago and am completely out of my depth. Hence the daily Duolingo (and a roomful of language books). ‘But what’s this got to do with writing?’ I hear you ask.

Some of my Italian language books

I’ve just started unit 11, and we are learning occupations. This is something I struggle with when I’m writing a story: what job should my character have? A fellow womag writer told me she has a similar problem and frequently reverts to the same call centre scenario.

And yet here in unit 11, I have listed a pageful of occupations from avvocato (lawyer, not a piece of fruit) to pescatore (fisherman). Most tellingly, I didn’t know the Italian for my own ‘job’ – la scrittrice (writer). It set me thinking. When did I write a story containing a clown (pagliaccio), a director (dirretore), a farmer (contadino) or a plumber (idraulico). Actually, I do remember a plumber – Piotr, who played Prince Charming in a pantomime for a winter story accepted by The People’s Friend. I’m hoping that one is published this winter.

In the two stories I submitted this week, I only mention two occupations – a ranger at a nature reserve, and a scientific researcher (ricercatore). Both occur in the same story and neither is the main character. The reader doesn’t meet either of them. I did not mention the occupation of the main character even though she desperately needs a day off to avoid seeing bunches of roses and boxes of chocolates being delivered to colleagues on Valentine’s Day. Why did I not mention it? Because it’s irrelevant. Roses and chocolates will be delivered to many different workplaces across the country on Valentine’s Day, from hotels to hospitals, and large stations to … call centres. So although traditional writing advice is to know your characters inside out, the flip of that is to leave most of what you know out of the story! Use the relevant points only and don’t weigh the reader down with unnecessary facts. Concentrate on actions, interactions and feelings and you’ll end up with a far better story, as long as they all fit with the character you have built in your head. After all, what you mainly need to know about your character is how they will deal with the challenges they face.


I Sold a Book!

About two weeks ago, I published Tara’s African Adventure on Amazon. I did it exactly as you shouldn’t – quickly and quietly. No fanfare, no preceding marketing hype, no cover reveal or book launch as all the self-publishing gurus tell you is vital. But I needed the link for a blog ‘interview’, and I was trying to get my desk clear before I went on holiday. This is real life, after all.

However, when I checked my Kindle publishing profile thing today, I found I have actually sold a book! Yes, I know that’s pathetic in the general scheme of writing for profit, but you only sell your first book once, and it’s given me the biggest ‘happy’.

Tara’s African Adventure is a cosier kind of romantic suspense. No gun-toting FBI agents or bodyguards, just a woman determined to get home from Botswana and a handsome safari guide running a business someone wants to destroy.

I had the idea for this book during my first-ever safari. Dear reader, I was petrified! Camping in the countryside in Cumbria where one is in more danger from the weather than the wildlife, yes, ok, if I really, really have to. But in the middle of the hyena-infested bush? No fences to keep the beasties out? And where were the toughened windows of the safari vehicle? Game drives happened in an open-sided 4×4. I felt like we were so many pieces of finger food being driven around in a motorised tray.

safari vehicle
If this isn’t safe in a British safari park, how could it be safe in the wilds of Africa?

‘Monsieur Lion, may I interest you in a morsel of organic, sun-dried Homo Sapiens tenderised by decades of resting on an indulgent sofa of multi-layered feather and down, served in a crisp, khaki coating? Or you, Madame Léopard, an amuse bouche of roly poly, glazed with Ambre Solaire and the merest hint of deet?’

But the more the animals ignored us, the more I relaxed and learned to love everything about the holiday. It turned into the most fabulous adventure. I fell in love with the country, it’s wildlife and its traditions. Botswana is such a safe place although, with those long stretches of isolated sand road, I figured there must be scope for all sorts of shenanigans…

Meanwhile, in less than sunny and hot Cook Towers…

Scene from our last walk in Freiburg

Our holiday in Freiburg, Baden-Wurttemberg, was sooooo relaxing. Our last day was as warm as summer and utterly cloudless – perfect for walking among the vineyards up above Sankt Georgen, along with the buzzards and the red kites.

Unfortunately, we returned to heavy rain and a garden devastated by wind. Good weather for ducks, as they say. You can see the damage our five duckies have done to the lawn in the last few days.

What better distraction from this devastation than telling people that hey, I have a book! So, my reading for the next few weeks will be around book marketing because ebooks do not sell themselves. At the same time, I’m trying to get books two and three ready for publication. And then there will be books four and five. (Did I mention my fifth pocket novel, Murder at the Monastery, will be out with My Weekly next week?)

And while all that is going on, I ought to be writing new material. It’s a good job I’m retired. I have no idea how people do all this and work as well.

Swings and Roundabouts. Or Rejection and Success

Patsy Collins, prolific WOMAG writer and host of the WOMAG writer blogspot, tweeted this week to say she’d had a short story rejected. The reason, she explained, was to balance all the acceptances we writers tend to advertise on social media. At times, it seems like we are the only person not selling anything, and that can be very dispiriting.

I am one of those who can get very down when faced with others’ successes, and I have posted previously about being open and honest about rejection as well as success. That said, I received an acceptance this week and passed a milestone at the same time. Alan, my editor at The People’s Friend, accepted a ballroom dancing story that I sent 11 months ago. It was my 13th story accepted by The People’s Friend, which means I am now, finally, after 7 years, on the top tier of pay for my stories.

But, until writing this post, I have only told my immediate WOMAG circle of writers because I’m aware it could be dispiriting for others, even though it equates to less than two sales per year. If you have just received yet another rejection or are struggling to sell anything, all you will see of that information is that I have reached the top tier of payments.

I am, of course, delighted. And I was even more delighted when I added this sale to my spreadsheet of submissions. The bottom half of last year is mostly green, meaning sales.

However, that is the danger of only looking at a snapshot. The top half of last year is mostly red, meaning rejections.

See the difference? This writing game is all swings and roundabouts and it’s dangerous to take too narrow a view. But even showing these two halves to the year, different people will take away different messages. The more prolific writer might think, “Is that all she wrote?”. Whereas someone who is struggling to sell anything might say, “Wow! I wish I was that successful.” Which is why it’s important to take any piece of other writer’s news in perspective.

Meanwhile, Cora Graphics is working on the cover for my self-published version of Tara’s African Adventure. I’ve seen the mockup covers and am very excited. Hopefully I will see the final article in a few days. I can’t wait.