The valuable lesson I learned on my writing retreat

In 2015 I nervously went on a ‘How to create a submission package’ retreat at Wentworth Castle. I’d finished my first novel and although I didn’t feel quite brave enough to send it out into the world, I wanted to explore my options if I one day I drank enough wine to actually sum up the courage to share it.

Ali Harper and Anna Chilvers were the tutors and after reading the opening for The Sister, felt it would glean much interest and after running through the pros and cons of agents, publishers and self-publishing, encouraged me to craft a query letter and gave me tips on writing the dreaded synopsis. I went home believing, not that I could, but that I might, and I held tightly onto that kernel of hope until the day came when I did drink enough wine to press send on the submission emails that had been languishing in my draft Hotmail folder.

Fast forward three years, four books published, nineteen translation deals and a million sales later I was delighted to be invited back to Wentworth Castle to talk to Anna and Ali’s new students on their ‘Writing Fearlessly’ retreat about my bumpy journey to publication. I spoke about the group I was part of in 2015. How the 15 other students and I were passionate about writing but never believed it would happen for us. How being an author always seemed too far out of reach.  I shared my experience  – how extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people if you can pick yourself up after the inevitable knock backs, always be willing to listen to constructive criticism and never, ever stop writing.

It was in the bar afterwards (where else would you find a bunch of writers) a lovely lady shared with me that she never wanted to be published and had no intention of ever trying to be. ‘I write for myself’ she said ‘for the love of it, because it brings me so much happiness.’

I paused. Lowered my glass and remembered how it felt to write The Sister, with no hopes or expectations, just the pure joy of spending time with my characters. How writing lifted me out of clinical depression and gave me a purpose. I still love writing, of course I do or I’d choose another career but sometimes caught up with the deadlines, the marketing, the accounts, everything else that comes with the job sometimes, just sometimes, it’s possible to lose sight of what drove me to write to start with. The passion, the drive, the possibilities.

The desire to tell a story.

I do hope the retreat participants got something out of my visit, I know I took something valuable away too.

In 2015 I was unable to stand unaided so it was super special that this time I was up to having a little mooch around the grounds, checking out Stainborough Castle and the beautiful countryside. As gorgeous as it was, alone at the castle I was seeing crime everywhere, plots spinning around my mind, picking out potential hiding places for someone to spring out, bodies to be buried. Can we ever entirely switch off the writer side of us?

A shrinking synopsis

Keep Calm and Eat Cake

I’ve loved every second of writing my novel. My sample three chapters are polished and sparkly, my query letter concise.

And then came the synopsis…

I devoured every piece of information I could find on the Internet, met fellow authors for coffee where I sat them under a bright white light and withheld their cake until they shared their tips. And if they were too slow forthcoming with advice and I ate their cake (shrugs) that’s their problem, interrogating is hungry work.

My first attempt made my characters sound certifiably insane. They were doing What??? Why??? I read it back and I didn’t understand the plot, a tad problematic considering I wrote it.

I bought Nicola Morgan’s ‘Write a Great Synopsis,’ Kindle book. It sounded so simple. I was sure my second attempt would be the one.

It was better, but still clunky and at 1½ pages, too long.

This morning I’ve read Nicola’s book again, slowly this time, and attempt three isn’t, well it isn’t terrible let’s put it that way. Watch this space.