Sunday, 6 December 2015

Writers' Retreats by Abie Longstaff

Last weekend I went away to a farm in the middle of nowhere with 17 other authors.

We meet up regularly through the year via the Scattered Authors' Society (which I thoroughly recommend joining). In February we meet to talk about business (I've posted about the 2014 meet up here). In November we meet to talk about creativity.

It's a lovely escape from normal life. We spend the three days playing - finding what inspires us or motivates us. We run our own workshops and this year we had:

Jen Alexander unlocking our subconscious to find images that would help us write
Liz Kessler describing the journey of a book that was heavily influenced by music
Jackie Marchant sharing her techniques for world-building
A group of authors being frank about the commercial pressures of writing
Lucy Coats leading us through a meditation
Steve Gladwin encouraging character building through drama
June Crebbin exploring poetry

In between the workshops we had cosy chats by the fire

long walks

 and plenty of cake.

This year I led a workshop on 'shaping' - it's not quite plotting (because I'm not a detailed plotter) it's more about seeing the arc or structure of a story. I use a picture book approach - setting out 12 spreads for all my books, even longer fiction ones. I find that being forced to select the 12 most important aspects (in terms of emotional plot or action plot) makes me prioritise.

I use a grid spread like this
There is a link to the PDF of this here in case you want to use it

and I plot out a common book structure on it - so you might have:

Spread 1          Set up – introduce characters
Spread 2          What is the problem?
                        (think in terms of the practical problem and its emotional effect)
Spread 3-10     The problem grows
                        Magic 3?
                        Increase to climax
Spread 11        Solution
Spread 12        Satisfying ending
                        Can have a twist
I find this method helps me see the shape and flow of the book; where the high and low points are, where the character development happens.

Sometimes I find it useful to plot out someone else's book to see their structure. Here is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen plotted out (messily) in 12 spreads:

I found everyone's workshops so inspiring. I love hearing how other authors write; how they come up with ideas, how they move on when they feel blocked. I tend to be quite a practical person - my approach is logical with plans and grids and lists - so it's wonderful to let go and listen to music or bird song and let the ideas come from somewhere deep down, in another part of my brain. Sometimes the necessary commercial aspect of our job means we forget to refill our creative well and I always come back from the retreat refreshed and full of joy for the career I've chosen.

We end with an evening where we each read aloud from our work and it's fascinating to hear the range of texts, from picture book to novel, and genre, from zombies to romance.  

I always work better in winter when the weather is cold so, after the retreat, I'm inside, snuggled up, ready to go.


Penny Dolan said...

Enjoying reading about what happened and that you all came back refreshed from Folly Farm.
Thanks for your planning sheet, Abie, and the idea of using it to break down the plot of novels too.

Moira Butterfield said...

I came for the day and was lucky enough to go to your workshop - Then I used your grid straight away to plan a picture book! It's a really useful story-focusing tool, Abie. Thank you.

Pippa Goodhart said...

It all sounds wonderful! Especially having those helpful and inspiring sessions to share. I've never tried a retreat, and admit to a fear that I'd go into exam terror mode if faced with the luxury of empty time and empty paper!

Paeony Lewis said...

Plotting Pride and Prejudice into 12 spreads made me laugh. I'd love to join you all at Folly Farm... one day...

Paeony Lewis said...

Plotting Pride and Prejudice into 12 spreads made me laugh. I'd love to join you all at Folly Farm... one day...