A writing retreat – Is it more than wine & cheese?

 

A few months ago, I was lunching with a group of writer friends when it was suggested we should hire accommodation and go on an informal writing retreat. Four of us committed to a date and I spent last weekend packing for my big adventure.

My son sat on my bed as I haphazardly threw an array of clothes into a case and then I spent an inordinate amount of time carefully selecting notebooks and pens.

‘Like you’re going to use those,’ my son scoffed.

‘Of course I am!’ I was a little offended.

‘It will be like the “revision” sessions I used to have with friends during A’Levels.’ he said.

‘I thought those were really valuable?’

‘Yeah. In terms of drinking beer and eating pizza. You’ll be the same but with cheese and wine.’

‘I’ll be writing.’ I stressed again, as though he didn’t know me really well.

At this point my other son wandered into my room. ‘Mum, isn’t an untutored writing retreat really just a holiday.’

‘Umm… no?’ Yes.

Monday, led by Word Warrior Tina, we checked into Centre Parcs and immediately headed to the shop and filled a trolley with wine and cheese. After we’d unpacked, I lounged on the sofa, opened my notebook and jotted down the available times for a massage. Damn my children for always being right.

But although this week there has been much talking, eating, laughter and drinking there has also been much, much more. It was such a privilege to watch and feed the wildlife including this adorable deer who slept on our patio.

The gorgeous surroundings, dusted by the unexpected snowfall, created the perfect creative environment.

Although we’ve been out – our first day saw me heading to the spa after a humungous afternoon tea – we’ve also given each other the time and space to work on our individual projects. We’ve bounced around ideas, read aloud and critiqued each others work with love. I feel relaxed, energised and as I look back at what I’ve achieved this past week I’ve also written more than I thought.

It’s been a really valuable experience and one I can’t wait to repeat. You can listen to my 90 second summary here: –

 

Advertisements

Can you visualise your way onto the bestsellers list?

 

Recently, I blogged about my passion for positivity and how I use vision boards to help create a life I love (you can read that post here) and keep a gratitude journal which makes me feel all warm and squishy inside every day when I realise just how lucky I am (you can read that post here).

Last week I had lunch with fellow author Darren O’Sullivan, whose Harper Collins debut Our Little Secret was a smash hit this summer, so much so his digital only deal has now been expanded to include paperbacks.

Darren was telling me about his long struggle to finish, and publish his novel and how his career only took off once he changed his mindset. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to discuss this properly so I am delighted to welcome Darren onto my YouTube channel today where we chat further about our belief that our thoughts really can shape our world.

I’d love to hear what you think.

You can find Darren over at Amazon here.

On Twitter here.

And Facebook here.

Fear of Public Speaking, Hypnosis & Me #AnxietySlayer

I’ve always had a huge phobia of public speaking and have previously blogged tips from Graeme Cumming, an author and member of a Speaker’s Club (you can read that post here) but despite the excellent advice I still never felt brave enough to try.

Last week I wrote the post I never thought I would. I spoke at my first literary festival – Althorp no less, hurrah – and you can read that post and see the photos here. Prior to taking the plunge I had a course of three hypnotherapy appointments with the fabulous Carmen Wilson of Inspired to Change and although I still had a degree of nerves afterwards, it was I think, a normal amount of nerves. Before I’d have been a sobbing mess rocking in the corner, and when I cry it isn’t movie crying, with a single tear streaking down a perfectly made up cheek, there’d have been streaming snot, a blotchy face, the works.

I am absolutely delighted Carmen has joined me over on my YouTube channel for a ten minute chat about why so many of us have fears, and how hypnotherapy works, and we both share our tips for speaking at events if you’re not in a position to have a course of treatment.

You can view the conversation here.

There’s lots of fabulous content coming up on my YouTube channel so if you’re interested in writing tips and hearing from authors, editors, publishers and agents please do subscribe here.

Until next time.

Louise x

 

 

Hook an Agent Part IV – Tightening those first 3 chapters

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ Part III was Rowan Lawton sharing her top 3 tips for writing that synopsis & I shared part of my synopsis for The Sister. You can read that post here.

Today I’m joined by Eugenie Furniss, from Furniss Lawton Literary Agency and this instalment is her tips for tightening those important first three chapters.

  • There’s a temptation to overwrite that I note frequently – particularly in the first few pages of any novel.  Be sure that the density of your prose at the opening of your novel chimes with the rest of the book, unless, of course, you are making a conscious decision to do something different with it – you open with a diary entry, for instance.
  • I would argue that in our time of short attention spans, it’s critical to engage the reader from the first page or two.  It’s tough, in your opening chapters, to get the balance right between action and scene setting.  If in doubt, I’d always recommend focusing on action, and keeping exposition to a minimum.  Character’s backstories can be drip fed into the narrative later, for instance; you don’t need all the information you wish to impart about someone up front.  It’s particularly important in your opening chapters that you’re showing not telling.
  • Keep it simple.  While I love a surprising prologue or alternative point of view, before forging forward with the central narrative, you don’t want to make the reader have to work too hard.  I’d avoid setting up more than two (max three) story lines in your narrative in the first few chapters.
  • If there’s a prologue you can send that in addition to your first three chapters.

Thanks so much Eugenie. That was really helpful. Next time we’ll be looking at how to find the right agent for you and some bestselling authors will be sharing their ‘how they hooked an agent’ stories.

Below is my opening chapter for The Sister. Good luck to everyone submitting!

Stepping out of my car with heartbreak-heavy legs, I zip my jacket and pull on leather gloves before hefting my spade and bag from the boot: it is time. My wellingtons slip-slide across the squelching mud to the gap in the hedge. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. I shiver as I enter the forest; it’s darker than I’d thought and I take deep breaths of the pine-scented air to steady myself. I fight the urge to go home and come back in the morning, remind myself why I’m here and drive myself forwards.

My smartphone lights the way as I look out for rabbit holes I might fall down. I take giant steps over fallen limbs of trees I’d once have hurdled. At twenty-five I’m not too old to run, but my load is cumbersome; besides, I’m in no rush to get there, I was never supposed to do this alone.

I stop and rest the spade handle against my hip, splay my fingers and shake out my pins and needles. There’s a rustling in the bushes and I have a sense of being watched. My heart stutters as two rabbits dart out, bounding away when they see my light. ‘I’m OK,’ I reassure myself, but my voice seems loud and echoey, reminding me how alone I am.

My rucksack feels tight across my shoulders and I readjust the straps before marching on, snapping twigs underfoot. I’m beginning to think I’ve taken the wrong fork when I reach the clearing with the lightning-struck tree. I wasn’t sure it would still be here, but as I look around it seems nothing has changed – but of course, everything has. Memories of the last time I was here hit me so hard I feel winded. I sink to the ground. The dampness of the leaves and earth seep through my trousers, as the past seeps through to my present.

***

‘Hurry up, birthday girl, you’ll be sixteen at this rate. I’m freezing,’ Charlie had called. She’d been perched on the weathered gate at the edge of the cornfield, plastic bags strewn around her feet, blonde hair gleaming in the weak coral sun. Never patient, Charlie kicked her heels as I trudged towards her, cradling the box that contained our hopes and dreams.

‘Come on, Grace.’ She jumped down, scooped up her wares and dashed into the trees. I shifted the box under my arm and tried to keep up, following flashes of her purple coat and wafts of the Impulse body spray she always stole from her mum’s bedroom.

Branches and brambles grasped at our denim-clad legs, snagged our hair, but we kept going until we burst into the clearing.

‘Your red face matches your hair,’ Charlie laughed as I dropped the box and hunched over, resting my hands on my knees as I tried to catch my breath. Despite the cool early evening temperature, sweat beaded on my temples. Charlie upended the carrier bags: snacks, drinks, matches, a trowel and a small present, wrapped in sparkly purple paper with a ‘Fifteen Today’ sticker on it, all scattered over the crumbling earth. Smiling, she handed the gift to me. I sat cross-legged, carefully opening the ends without tearing the paper, and inched the box out. Nestled inside was half a gold heart on a chain engraved with ‘BFF’. Tears pricked my eyes as I looked at Charlie. She tugged the neck of her fleece down, revealing the other half of the heart. I fastened the chain around my throat as Charlie began to dig a hole. Always the Girl Guide, I lit a small fire. It would be even colder when the sun went down, and the evenings were drawing in quickly now. By the time the hole was deep enough, Charlie was breathless, her fingernails caked in dirt.

I carried the memory box over to the hole and placed it in the ground. We’d spent a whole Saturday choosing the contents and decorating the outside of the plastic tub, sticking on pictures from magazines of supermodels and pop stars we wanted to emulate. ‘You can never be too rich or too thin,’ Charlie said. She scooped an armful of dirt and began to cover it.

‘Wait!’ I cried. ‘I want to put this in.’ I waved the birthday wrapping paper in the air.

‘You can’t now, we’ve already sealed it.’

‘I’ll be careful.’ I slowly peeled back the Sellotape and popped off the lid. To my surprise, sitting on top of a stack of photos was a pink envelope that definitely hadn’t been there when we’d filled the box earlier. I glanced at Charlie, who was looking secretive.

‘What’s that, Charlie?’ I reached towards the envelope.

Charlie grabbed my arm. ‘Don’t.’

I pulled free, rubbing my wrist. ‘What is it?’

Charlie wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘It’s for us to read when we come back for the box.’

‘What does it say?’

Charlie snatched the wrapping paper from between my fingers and scrunched it inside the box, banging the lid on top. When Charlie didn’t want to talk about something there was little point trying to pursue it. I decided to let it go; I wouldn’t let her furtiveness spoil my birthday.

‘Drink?’ I grabbed a cider; it fizzed as I pulled back the ring, and froth spilled over the side of the can. I wiped my hand on my jeans and took a gulp; it warmed my stomach, washing away my unease.

Charlie packed the earth into the hole and pounded the surface with her trowel until it was flat, before coming to sit by my side.

The campfire crackled as we leaned against the horizontal tree trunk toasting pink marshmallows on sticks, and it wasn’t until the embers burned out that I realised how late it was.

‘We should go. I’m supposed to be home by ten.’

‘OK. A pinkie promise we’ll come back and open the box together?’ Charlie proffered her little finger and I curled mine around it before we clinked cans and drank to a promise that we didn’t know would be impossible to keep.

***

There is only me now. ‘Charlie,’ I whisper. ‘I wish you were here.’ Charlie’s half-heart, forever on a chain around my neck, spins around as I lean forward, as if it’s searching for its partner, desperate to be whole again. I gently lay down the wreath. The overwhelming panic that has plagued me since Charlie’s death four months ago bubbles to the surface, and I tug my scarf away from my throat so I can breathe a little easier. Am I really to blame? Am I always to blame?

Despite the January chill I feel hot, and as I pull off my gloves I think I hear Charlie’s last words echoing through the trees: I did something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.

What did she do? It can’t be any worse than what I did, but I am determined to find out what it was. I know I won’t be able to move forwards until I do. I hadn’t been sure where to begin until this morning, when I received a letter in the post in a pink envelope, which triggered a memory of the letter hidden in the memory box that Charlie hadn’t wanted me to read. Perhaps the letter will hold some kind of clue? It will be a start, anyway. Asking people who knew her hasn’t been getting me anywhere, and besides, I’m the one who knew her best, aren’t I? I was her best friend.

But can you ever really know someone? Properly know someone?

I sit back on my heels, remaining motionless for an indeterminable time as the air cools around me. Branches swish and sway as if the trees are whispering their secrets to me, encouraging me to unearth Charlie’s.

I shake my head, scattering my thoughts, and pull my sleeve down over the heel of my hand before wiping my wet cheeks. Picking up the spade with arms that feel too heavy to be mine, I grip the handle so tightly, rockets of pain shoot through my wrists. I take a deep breath and begin to dig.

 

 

A day in the life of…Dr. Carol Cooper

 

 

Today on my blog I welcome Carol Cooper. I’ve got to know Carol via social media and she always seems incredibly busy with so many things, I’m curious as to when she carves out time to write. Let’s find out…

My working life is varied and no two days are the same, but I usually wake up about 7 a.m. unless I’m on breakfast TV. I’m not that sharp in the mornings, so it’s just as well when I can sit in bed for a bit to catch up with social media and sip coffee made by my husband.

I’ve been a hospital doctor, GP partner, and a locum, but nowadays seeing patients is a very small part of my work. I now get more of a buzz from teaching medical students at Imperial College, which means getting to west London by 9 a.m. on some days.

My students are usually fifth or sixth years, so they’re very nearly qualified doctors and already have a vast store of knowledge which they haven’t yet started to forget… I lead small workshops, and it’s my job to help students deal with a range of challenging scenarios. We often use actors as simulated patients. In fact, just such an actor appears in my novel Hampstead Fever, but she’s entirely a product of my imagination. I’d never, ever, put real colleagues, students, or patients in a novel. It’s totally taboo – a bit of a shame, I sometimes think, as I’ve met some wonderful characters.

The teaching session ends around 1 p.m or 1.30 p.m., in time for a bite to eat. In the afternoon, I try to do some writing. I’ve been the doctor for The Sun newspaper for 18 years, which means I can get asked for my say on whatever health story hits the news, be it a radiation spill or a celeb with an injury from stumbling out of a nightclub at 4 a.m. My contribution is usually a short My View, written on the hoof. I well remember an editor asking me for 300 words on the dangers of drinking petrol, adding, “You’ve got bags of time. Take 45 minutes if you need it.” The job keeps me on my toes, and I love it. I never know what’s coming at me next, so it’s just like being a doctor in Accident & Emergency but without getting my hands dirty.

At the moment, I’m working on my third novel. My first two are contemporary fiction with multiple viewpoints, and they’re all about dating and family life in London. The current WIP is a bit of a departure. Although it still focuses mainly on relationships, it has just one viewpoint, covers several periods of time, and is set mostly in Egypt, where I grew up. I often have a non-fiction book to write or co-author at the same time, but this novel needs a tad more research than most of my fiction, so I’m concentrating on just the one book.

I say ‘concentrating’, but my willpower evaporates when it comes to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

On some days, there might be a radio interview or television appearance, such as ITV This Morning. It’s usually on a topical health issue, or on parenting. I’ve written a slew of child health books, including two on raising twins.

My own three sons have grown up and flown the nest, but one or other of my twins might drop in (my eldest son lives in Birmingham so I see him less often). Evening is a lovely time to sit on the terrace with a glass of something with my husband Jeremy, and rearrange the plants or just watch the sun set. If we’re in Cambridge, we’ll go down to the river for a stroll. Jeremy usually cooks supper. I think he’s the better cook.

On some evenings, I give talks to expectant parents of twins and triplets. I’m an honorary consultant to Tamba (Twins and Multiple Births Association), and involved with a couple of other charities as well, including Lucy Air Ambulance for Children, and APEC (Action on Pre-Eclampsia).

Fortunately I don’t have to work as hard as I did when I was a hospital doctor (in the bad old days, it could be 80 hours a week), and I enjoy seeing friends, especially at evenings and weekends. Some of my close friends go back to my childhood or to uni days, but many are fellow authors that I’ve met more recently. Book-writing is a more welcoming world than a lot of people imagine, and I’ve made good friends.

I often read a novel in bed before I drop off, and I always have pencil and paper on hand in case I have a bright idea in the night. Too bad I can’t always decipher my notes in the morning.

WOW. Don’t think I’ll complain about being too busy again. Thanks so much for sharing, Carol. 

Now you can get Hampstead Fever as an ebook for just 99p from October 14 for two weeks.

Carol Cooper is a doctor, journalist, and author, living in London and Cambridge. She contributes to The Sun newspaper and broadcasts on TV and radio. After a dozen non-fiction books, including an award-winning textbook of medicine, she turned to fiction with her debut novel. One Night at the Jacaranda follows the fortunes of a motley group of 30-somethings who, looking for love, find themselves. Her second novel Hampstead Fever focuses on six North Londoners grappling with life and relationships while their emotions boil over in the summer heat. This year, Hampstead Fever was picked for a prestigious promotion in WH Smith travel bookshops around the UK. Carol enjoys gardening on her patio. She’d probably have other hobbies too if she didn’t love writing so much.

You can follow Carol’s blog Pills & Pillow-Talk, or find out more about her writing on her website. She’s also happy to connect on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

 

Hook an Agent Part III – The dreaded synopsis…

 

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ We’ll skim over the part where my teenage son now thinks that’s a fabulous quote to get tattooed on his arm and move swiftly on to nailing that synopsis, often the most feared part of the submission package.

Today I’m joined by the utterly fabulous Rowan Lawton, from the dynamic Furniss Lawton, who will share her top 3 tips to bear in mind when writing that synopsis.

1) Know the difference between a pitch blurb and a synopsis.

There is a big difference between writing a blurb for your pitch letter and putting together a synopsis. Your synopsis should be a plainly written description of specifics – what actually happens in your novel. There is no rule about length but I’d advise sticking to a couple of pages at most.

Approach the blurb as though you are writing your own jacket copy for the finished, printed version. Imagine your book on the shelf in a bookshop and what elements of your story would entice someone to choose your novel over another.

2) Do give away the ending in your synopsis.

When an agent is reading your synopsis they want to see how it’s all going to come together at the end. Will it be a satisfying read? Is the plot convincing? We get so many submissions that we often want to know how a story is going to end before we commit to reading a whole manuscript.

3) Don’t try to make claims about the themes of your novel in the synopsis.

This advice applies to your cover letter and blurb too, apart from possibly a line or two right at the end. I want to know who your main characters are, what is going to happen to them and where the action is going to take place, much more than I want to hear generalisations about themes. ‘This is an epic love story exploring themes of loss, human connection and forgiveness’ tells me nothing about what’s actually going to happen the book I’m about to read!

Fabulous advice Rowan, thanks.

Now I’ve pondered how to share my synopsis for The Sister (submitted as Buried Memories), as I did my covering letter, and have been advised not to as it would ruin the book for those who have yet to read. I will however share my opening so you get the general idea without giving away spoilers. For me, it only came together firstly, when I was able to put aside the rich, descriptive language I love to use when I write and keep it very basic and to the point. Secondly, I had to stop viewing it as an enemy. The synopsis is a friend we use to demonstrate the plot hangs together and an epic love story doesn’t suddenly fall apart when aliens randomly appear in chapter 43 and in the epilogue it turns out it was all a dream anyway.

 

‘BURIED MEMORIES’ is a domestic noir story featuring Grace Matthews, an anxious 25-year old woman who is devastated by her best friend Charlie (Charlotte) Fisher’s death and can’t understand why Charlie’s Mum, Lexie Fisher, would blame her. She feels until she discovers the meaning behind Charlie’s last words ‘I’ve done something terrible, Grace, please forgive me,’ she can’t move forward.

Struggling to know where to start unravelling the mystery Grace remembers a memory box she and Charlie buried as teenagers and digs it up. Grace realises that Charlie’s biological father might know what Charlie did and decides to trace him. During the search Grace is followed by a mysterious figure and becomes paranoid and dependent on medication.

Dan, Grace’s boyfriend agrees to help find Charlie’s father even though he’s struggled to cope with Grace’s misplaced sense of guilt, and erratic behaviour, since Charlie’s death. They begin an online campaign and Anna comes forward. Anna tells Grace she is Charlie’s half-sister and that their shared father is deceased. Lonely Grace seizes the chance to form a bond with Anna, keeping a link to Charlie. Without checking her out Grace readily agrees when Anna asks if she can stay for a few days…

 

I do hope that was useful. Take a deep breath, remember to stick to the submission guidelines (the synopsis might need to be anything from 300 words to one or two pages).

You’ve got this. Good luck!

For the final instalment we’ll be joined next time by Eugenie Furniss who’ll give her advice for tightening those all important first three chapters.

 

Hooking an agent part I – Sharing my submission letter for The Sister

Writing a book was initially a distraction from the chronic pain I was in, a hobby once I suddenly found myself with severely restricted mobility. Even now, I still remember the utter disbelief and excitement when I realised I had an actual finished novel and it was only then I started to think about putting together a submission package and sending my debut, Buried Memories (later retitled The Sister by my publishers) out into the world.

I devoured books, blogs, Googled endlessly for tips on how to write the perfect submission letter, and word by painful word, crafted my offering, almost editing it more than my manuscript. My palms were clammy as I sent off my first submissions, only to two agents at that time, and sat back to wait the alleged 6-8 weeks I’d read about. To my surprise both agents replied within a few hours, they’d loved my letter, been hooked by my elevator pitch, thought the premise was brilliant and and would start reading straight way. Do keep them informed of any offers. What happened to an 8-week wait? Cue total panic (never sub before your manuscript is ready – but that’s another story).

I’m no expert, and neither do I claim to be, but I’ve a few friends at the moment who have reached submission stage and so for them, and everyone else putting together a package, I wanted to share my letter. I do hope it’s helpful.

Next week, for Part II, I’ll be joined by fabulous literary agent, Rory Scarfe, of Furniss Lawton with his guidelines to giving your submission letter a head start.

Good luck to all those subbing!

 

Dear

I enclose the first three chapters and synopsis of my domestic noir novel, ‘BURIED MEMORIES’ a book about a grieving girl who thought there was nothing as frightening as being alone – she was wrong. The novel is complete at 80,000 words.

‘I’ve done something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.’ Grace Matthews, an anxious young woman is devastated when her best friend, Charlie, dies and feels that until she discovers the meaning behind Charlie’s last words, she cannot move forward. As Grace becomes sucked into the mystery surrounding Charlie’s family, her association with them, especially with Charlie’s sister Anna, threatens to destroy Grace’s career, relationship and ultimately, end her life. Grace’s hunt for the truth forces her to confront the childhood she desperately wanted to forget and she realises she can’t trust anyone, especially those she loves.

I am submitting to you because

This, my debut novel, began life as a flash fiction piece in a writing group challenge last year. I was given three words and ten minutes and the bare bones of Chapter One was born. I couldn’t sleep that night for thinking about Grace and Charlie and felt compelled to write their story. I’ve written non-fiction for various publications and websites for several years. I’ve had a column in Holistic Therapist Magazine (LJ’s Journal) since April 2012 and was a contributor to Tiny Buddha’s 365 Love Challenges (HarperOne/Harper Collins.) I attend writing workshops, evening classes and retreats whenever I can – I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning; show me a literary festival and I’m there! I’m currently working on my second novel, ‘Second-hand secrets.’

Kind regards,

 

Louise Jensen