How a week away saved my novel (and me)

Last Saturday I pulled into my carport, weary after a five hour drive and keen to unpack the car, put on a load of washing and have a bath. But I was also totally inspired, felt a wonderful sense of achievement and was fired up for the next few months at least.

I was arriving back from a whole week away in a remote house in an incredible setting with a fellow writer. Something I never thought I’d have the time for. I work full time in a demanding job as a high school English teacher and have little time or energy for writing. Usually I manage between 30mins and 45mins every morning at 5.30am. I have written more than 75,000 words over the last two years in this way but it has been excruciating and as I near the end of my second draft I’m finding it harder and harder to keep the thread (and my sanity).

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The remote house we stayed in.

How I talked myself into going

My fellow writer (we were in a writing group once, but there are only the two of us left now) told me earlier this year she realised to get a book finished she had to be selfish. So with these words ringing in my ears I agreed to a whole seven days away. This meant giving up the first week of the school holidays – usually the time I relax and refresh, do some school work, reconnect with my partner (daytime movie sessions!), clean the house properly, finish reading something I’ve been trying to read for the term, get other ‘life’ jobs done and generally turn back into a person and not a ‘teacher’. As the holidays approached I felt more and more guilty about the perceived extravagance of taking this time just to write.

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The stunning location.

But, I told myself, steeling my nerve, I am serious about writing this novel, I am currently floundering around not achieving anything and the world will not stop turning if I step off for a week. So I took a deep breath, packed the car and headed down south the day after school finished.

How perfect is perfect?

The place we stayed had no phone or internet and only limited electricity. We were surrounded by the distant roar of the ocean, the water of the inlet lapping at the shoreline, the birds gossiping excitedly in the trees and, of an evening, the crackle of the open fire. Sounds perfect, right?

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Completely distraction free writing desk.

It was. I didn’t actually know if I could write all day – I’d never had time to try it out – but I very quickly developed a routine: up at 6am, write 800 or so words, walk for 30mins, eat breakfast, write more words until lunch then another walk or a nap, a few more words then reading until I bedtime. In between my fellow writer and I would talk about our work, ask questions, read sections, try to solve plot and character and pacing and voice issues. And while I don’t think it is necessary to have a fellow writer with you, if you have someone who knows your work I think they could be invaluable.

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Writing by the fire.

The other very cool thing that happened is that a published author lives next door to the place we stayed. Even though we only really saw her twice during the week, having another writer (published no less!) around was lovely. And there are plans afoot to keep in contact. Never underestimate the possibilities of getting out of your life for a moment!

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Reading Tim Winton’s new book by the water.

How this retreat has set me up for a year of retreats

My very first writing retreat was when I was accepted into the Margaret River Press’ Writers Retreat last year. It was three days away with the lovely and brilliant Laurie Steed and while this experience was very exciting and inspiring, it was also full on with workshop sessions and one-on-one sessions and so totally different to the week my writing buddy and I had. I came home from Margaret River renewed with motivation for my work but no wiser about whether I could actually pull it off.

This year, I’ve won a Katherine Susannah Pritchard Fellowship which I take for the whole two weeks of the September holidays, although it only takes 30mins to drive from KSP to home, so I won’t be quite so isolated. I feel much more prepared for this now. I know how my days will look and I will definitely have a completed and finished draft to work on. Up until last week, it was all a bit of a mystery!

I have also won a place at Varuna’s 2018 Residential Masterclass on The Novel with Claire Corbett. I found out when checking my emails on a rare trip into Walpole while I was away and I’m not sure it has sunk in yet. In fact I’m certain it hasn’t sunk in. But I can now also kind of understand how and why this will be useful too. And go into it knowing what I want to achieve.

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Another stunning sunset

So, how did the week save my novel?

Here are some stats:

Words written: 16 497

Words removed (in a good, moving forward way): around 10 000

Major structural issue solved: 1

Major decisions on voice and POV made: 1

What can’t be measured is my confidence in my novel, the way it seems like it might actually turn out to BE a novel, how valuable fellow writers are and understanding what ‘being creative’ really means.

My strong advice is to get selfish (and you decide what that means for you) and find a way to have space and time to ‘be creative’. Go on, do it.

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I took this on the last morning walk. I think I look so pleased with myself, possibly sickeningly so!

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