Writing Retreat at Seasalter
Hello! If you were on yesterday’s writing retreat with the Kent Festival of Writing, here are the links I mentioned. If not, feel free to read anyway – and join us on the next one!
PLANNING: Our day began with a look at tools, as we all quickly identified that one of the things that can hold us back as writers is a lack of organisation, whether in structuring our days or our work. Finding the right tools is essential for keeping track of our writing – and making the most of our limited time.
INDEX CARDS keep me organised. I use them while I’m planning and while I’m writing. I like that you can add cards easily – no software required – and shuffle them to change the order of scenes or elements. After a first draft, I use them to get to grips with my structure and my story – to track what happens when, what the consequences of events are, and how they affect the characters. This way of tracking plot and meaning with every scene comes from Lisa Cron’s “Story Genuis”: if you like the idea of using index cards, give it a read. And if you prefer your index cards to be digital, there are apps for that. Try Cardflow – it’s free.
WHITE BOARD/CORK BOARD: Some people like the freedom of a big board in their writing space – TV thrillers make us all want rooms full of cards and photos and string – but we might not all have the space. If walls are at a premium, you can work with digital boards. Stickyboard 2 is a giant white board with an endless supply of sticky notes, while Scapple is a programme for digital mind-mapping. Apparently, the drawing and linking of words fires new synapses while we’re planning – and as it’s made by the fine people who designed Scrivener (more of that below), it also interfaces with that software.
POST-IT NOTES: The Queen of Post-it Plotting is Julie Cohen – read about her method on her site. She likes their portability, their flexibility, and how they stack together when multiple story strands meet in a scene. (But I wish their glue was a little tougher!)
BUTCHER PAPER: I first heard about planning on long rolls of paper from Shelley Harris from her fab blog post, Plan-O-Matic. In the workshop, we looked about how the paper can roll down, from Scene 1 to The End, or how it can run sideways, along the narrative arc. I use long rolls of paper for story planning – but I like the freedom of lines and squiggles, all drawn with my beloved Sharpies. Wondering how to get to grips with a really complicated plot or series of strands? Get drawing. There is, of course, an app for this too, and it’s called Daedalus. But a little Googling shows that this software no longer works with Dropbox, so if backing up is an issue for you – and it always should be – they suggest using Ulysses as an alternative. Here’s what David Hewson has to say about it:
EXCEL: It may be the dullest piece of software on our computers, but it can really help you keep track of vital information. I use it to log dates: characters birthdates, the beginnings and endings of wars, vital dates for inventions or key events, and specific bits of research. Some use it to keep track of characteristics: eye colour, hair colour, etc., so that characters aren’t repetitious.
SCRIVENER: If you like the sound of one piece of software that can integrate all of the above, try Scrivener. I wouldn’t write without it. It’s a linear planning place, like a roll of butcher paper, that transforms into a cork board with the push of a button, and it provides flexibility with moving, finding, and sorting text that MS Word can only dream of. And now that it interfaces with mobile defices, it is the perfect tool.
At yesterday’s writing workshop, we also talked about our “issues” as writers: what’s holding us back, what’s making it hard? I really enjoyed the chance to think about how to answer each concern – here’s what we all came up with:
MENTAL BLOCK: What happens when we just can’t write something, when the words or the story has us stopped in our tracks? Often, blocks are a sign that the road has run out – there’s something crucial we don’t know that keeps us from moving forward. Do some planning and find out what it is that you don’t know before you try to write. Find out the “what” of your story before you try to tell it.
HOW TO BEGIN: Oh, the terror of the blank page! Where to begin? We talked about the value of prompts to get us going. We did some free writing with a series of words, called out at random, and we responded to a series of images, either looking at them with our senses or making a story from what we saw: who/what/where/when/how. If you have trouble getting started, fill your toolbox with words, pictures, objects, and books that provide inspiration. This is also a method for KEEPING IT FUN.
HOW TO PLOT: Find our how you think and how you work. Try out all the tools above – and make sure you’re clear about structure and plotting. We talked about John Yorke’s Into the Woods as a great book for thinking about structure and storytelling. Here’s him giving a talk about his book – he also regularly offers workshops.
HOW TO MANAGE TIME: This is a big one! We talked about setting limits, so that we use what time we have effectively, rather than frittering it away. In bursts of writing, 30 minutes at a time, everyone seemed pleased and surprised with what they were able to achieve. If you don’t have someone like me bellowing the time at you, you could try an egg timer or use the Pomodoro Technique. And, when time is limited, working with a system like Index Cards will help you to focus on small moments or elements to work with, instead of being overwhelmed with how much there is to do every time you sit down. Lastly, know when it is that you write the best – and defend those hours. There is little point in setting time aside to write – when that time is not your best.
HOW TO FIND A COMMUNITY: Writing is a lonely business and like-minded souls can cheer when the work gets hard. Similarly, there’s no one like another writer to help you celebrate every time you reach a milestone: finishing a draft, finishing an edit, getting an email from an agent. One way to find a community of writers is to write with them – keep going to writing workshops to find your tribe. Every year, I go on retreat with two writers I met at a workshop years and years ago – I trust them with my tender, early writing as well as my ups and my downs. When it’s hard to find the time to retreat, you can find a community on Twitter, by following other writers and with #amwriting. And why not try NaNoWriMo? The National Novel Writing Month starts 1 November and will put you in touch with cheerleaders, prompt-makers, sprint-starters and tens of thousands of writers, all over the world.
HOW TO FINISH: In our retreat, I asked you to jump straight into the hard part – the crisis, the climax, the thing you were afraid to write. Many of you had real breakthroughs, jumping in and swimming hard. However you begin, keep going!
And that is good advice for all of us!