Cheltenham Writers’ Retreats

A couple of years ago, in severe need of time and space to write, I travelled halfway across the country to Brighton to go to an affordable writers’ retreat run by Writers’ HQ. Writers’ HQ is two writers, Sarah and Jo, who know exactly what it’s like trying to write at the same time as raising a family and paying the bills. Difficult.

At many stages of our lives, writers find that we don’t have enough time to write, or that we feel guilty about carving out the time to write, or that it’s doing our heads in trying to work at home. Sometimes we need to get some time out to pull ourselves out of a rut and kickstart whatever project we’re working on, or sometimes we’re just desperate to get away from it all for a few hours. That’s what writers’ retreats are for.

Personally, before this my idea of a writers’ retreat was the one described in Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years, in which Adrian flies to Greece and skinny-dips in the Aegean with poets. This is the standard, ‘fancy’ writers’ retreat. They may not involve Greece, but you’ll be looking at a stay in a lovely country house, talks by professional writers, a few days away, and a price tag many of us can’t afford. Plus it’s hard to take that amount of time off if you’ve got children, other care commitments, or a demanding job. That’s where Writers’ HQ comes in. The retreats are affordable (£35 for the day, or £30-ish if you bag a first-timer’s discount code/10%-off flyer) and they’re on one weekend day, 10-4. They are not in country piles, and skinny-dipping is positively frowned upon. There’s just a chance to meet other writers, talk about what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, and then get your head down and get some work done. With plenty of caffeine and food.

I liked the retreat I went on so much that when WHQ announced they’d like to expand the retreats across the southern UK, I was one of the people who put themselves forward to host them. There are five of us, in Cheltenham, Birmingham, Portsmouth, Cambridge and Hastings. We’re all early-career writers, and we’ll all be running one retreat a month for writers in our local areas.

Cheltenham’s retreats will be on the third Saturday of every month, starting in August. If you’re interested in finding out more about retreats here or elsewhere across the country, check out the Writers’ HQ website; or go straight to the Cheltenham booking page here, and get £5 off with the code ‘itsmyfirsttimebegentlewithme’. They’ll be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll join me.

 

The results are here!

I recently wrote a post bemoaning the writer’s long wait for responses. I’m happy to announce that this month I’ve had a few of those responses, and it’s been good news.

Firstly, the new Fiction Desk anthology, Separations, is out on the 19th September. It contains my story Poor Billy, which came an honourable third in TFD’s 2015 Ghost Story Competition. If you haven’t come across The Fiction Desk before then I urge you to get hold of an anthology; if you’re a writer looking for somewhere to submit your work then I urge you to send it to them. TFD has been unfailingly friendly and encouraging to deal with, and I recommend them unreservedly. They are particularly keen on showcasing new writing, and were my first publisher. They are also one of the very, very few places which publishes well-written, intelligent and chilling ghost stories. Go get one!

Secondly, I applied for the Writers’ HQ competition (prize: free access to a year of online writing courses) and was very happy to make the shortlist. I’d have been happier to win it, of course, but you literally can’t win ’em all. Writers’ HQ is a fabulous organisation, from its sweary strapline (‘Stop fucking about and start writing’) to its mission to provide teaching and mentorship to writers low on time and money. I’ve been on one of their retreats and it was great. Another recommendation.

Thirdly, I found out on Friday that I’ve won the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network 2016 prose competition. This means I’ll be reading my story Shoals at (squeee!) the Cheltenham Literature Festival, on Sunday 16th October.

And finally, I’m very excited to say that I have organised an open mic night of new flash fiction, to take place at Smokey Joe’s Café in Cheltenham on the 10th November. More details, plus links and promo and all that stuff, to come very soon . . . .

 

 

The Wait

Writing fiction is not a pursuit which gives immediate rewards. Novel-writing is probably the worst. Even short stories, though, require a hell of a wait before they show results: results which may well be negative. There’s the initial rush of waiting for your beta reader to comment (and many thanks, here, to my beta readers: you are wonderful and I really should buy you presents some time soon), but after that there’s the wasteland. The three months, minimum, that it takes for publishers to respond. The even longer period you may need to wait for the competition longlist. If you’re writing and submitting consistently, then the wait only exists for the first six to eight months, after which there will be a steady flow of feedback. But when you stop and start again, you’re back to the beginning.

I stopped and started again when I had my daughter, now one year old. I started writing again in May, and I will not see any results until October. That’s kind of OK: after all, life’s busy enough with a toddler in the house. You look away for a second, and when you look back it’s July. But it leaves me with nothing to say to people who ask me, ‘How’s the writing going?’ If the person asking is not a writer, the only possible answer to this is:’OK. I wrote some stuff.’ Or, if things are going really badly: ‘I haven’t done anything in ages. No time.’ There is no day-to-day progress. No ready reckoner. No translatable marker for success. Other jobs offer this, even if longer-term goals remain elusive: ‘I went to Edinburgh for a conference.’ ‘We got the accounts finished.’ ‘I’ve prepared my teaching for the next term.’ ‘We’ve got the roof on.’ This is what people want when they ask you how it’s going: a titbit, a soundbite that will give a quick idea of what’s going on. Even ‘I got a rejection letter’ is better than ‘OK. I wrote some stuff.’

It’s a long, dry wait for those answers. Often writers suffer from imposter syndrome anyway, and having nothing to report feeds into that. What you do is intangible, solitary and hard to quantify. You find yourself fantasising about the moment when someone will say: ‘How’s the writing going?’ and you’ll be able to answer ‘I WON A PRIZE.’ Or ‘MY STORY’S BEEN ACCEPTED.’ Or, unlikeliest yet, ‘I’M GETTING PAID.’ An answer that reassures people that your pursuit is not a potential embarrassment to be wary of. An answer, basically,  that justifies your lack of a proper job.

One of the best ways to survive the drought is the company of other writers. This is when I wish I lived somewhere else. London would be great, Brighton even better. I need a peer group. I need writer’s retreats. I need open mic poetry nights, and constructive criticism, and people to rave and bitch and laugh with. Twitter is a good proxy, but it’s no substitute. So next week I’ll be heading off to a writer’s retreat run by the wonderful Writers’ HQ (tagline: ‘For badass writers with no time or money’). Not only should I meet people who know exactly what I’m talking about, but I know I’ll come away with fresh ideas and a shitload of stuff to work on. It’s on Sunday, so given that I’ll need to take a Southern train back, I should be back by Tuesday. Wish me luck.