The Clockhouse Retreat @ The Hurst

Usually when I write up my holidays, I’ve been somewhere a little more exotic than Shropshire! Last week I headed up to The Hurst, formerly the home of playwright John Osborne, now an Arvon Centre hosting various creative writing courses. While the main house is given over to running the courses, the Clockhouse is just across the way and is home to a permanent retreat. I spent six nights, getting stuck into the second novel while editing (again) the first.

The Hurst is a fabulous location for a retreat. With extensive grounds, I almost wished I’d had more time for walks. The Clockhouse is made up of four apartments – spacious with a separate sitting room/study and a huge corkboard to plan out those restructures. Downstairs are a shared living room/library and a large kitchen. All food is included in the rates and they even have wine already brought in, payable through an honesty box system. Basically, if you want to max out your writing, you can go and think about nothing else.

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We had lovely weather but the fire was too tempting to resist!

Spending time with other writers is another highlight of the Clockhouse. All deep into our drafts, it was great to talk shop in the evenings and compare experiences. We even kept to the Arvon tradition of reading a little of our work on the last night. We also ate dinner together which was nice to break up the isolation! Most of the food provided is locally sourced, even the frozen pre-prepared meals, so we ate very well. There are desserts, biscuits, crisps, and loads of healthy stuff as well (we did think there seemed an excessive number of packets of prunes). I lucked out and had two fellow inmates who could cook so we had a curry night, roast chicken, pasta arrabiata – thanks to Susan and Andre!!

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Curry night courtesy of Andre Hess

I only left the Hurst once, when offered an opportunity to visit nearby Ludlow, a medieval market town. As well as the market, we walked round Ludlow Castle and visited Ludlow Food Centre on the return journey (perfect for any foodie – they have tons of local produce.

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Ludlow Castle

 

 

 

The verdict of the group was that the Clockhouse was pretty much the perfect retreat. I think it would be better for writers who have a project underway and just need to crack on and get it done. We all made great strides during the week and I’m already thinking about a return visit.

Just Write/Writing Magazine party

Not long ago I wrote a piece about writing competitions and so I thought it only fitting to share my first shortlisting, for the 2016 Just Write Creative Writing competition, run in association with Writing Magazine and John Murray Press.

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The shortlist announcement in Writing Magazine

A big draw for me when deciding to enter this competition was the prize – six shortlisted authors were to be invited to a reception at Hodder HQ. In July I received an email to tell me that I had made the shortlist and was invited to come along on the 18th August for the announcement of the winner.

So, to last Thursday. We were asked to arrive for 3.30pm at the Hodder offices (which are far nicer than the office I work in) to meet the other shortlisted authors and some of the lovely people at Hodder and Writing Magazine who were had liked our stories. After getting to know everyone briefly we were then taken off one by one to be interviewed. On camera! It wasn’t as bad as it sounds – we had been sent the questions in advance which took care of any awkward silences, though I will not be watching myself back whenever the video appears!

We were also given a goody bag which I will go out on a limb for and say was the best goody bag I’ve ever been given. Books, a literary map (which is about to go on the wall in my writing space), a very handy notebook, pens, everything a writer needs basically, and one can never have enough tote bags.

At 6pm we went up to the roof terrace for the party itself. From Victoria Embankment the view is absolutely incredible, especially enjoyable with a glass of champagne in hand. Even the weather was well-behaved. We had time to mingle with ‘proper’ authors (as opposed to ‘aspiring’ which is the category that I place myself in), editors, lots of people who all seemed genuinely interested in us and our stories. Then came the big announcement: the winner was Emma Myatt for her story Wordsmith.

To cap off an amazing day, our stories had been printed into paperback books, Emma having the unique hardback copy to celebrate her success. I even had my first taste of signing copies for people!

 

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Look at that view!

If you would like to see more about our day, and read the short stories, you can find them on this page of the Just Write website.

 

Our work in print

Novel London – 1st July readings

Last Friday I did my first real public reading on Novel London’s historical fiction evening at Waterstones Islington. I say the first real reading as my only previous reading was for only a couple of minutes in front of fellow students and some agents at the Faber Academy. There was something protected about reading in front of friends and colleagues who were in the same boat, standing in a familiar room. This was a real bookshop!

As an unpublished writer, I hadn’t realised that opportunities like this were open to me until I saw a random tweet calling out for submissions for historical fiction. I didn’t think I’d get chosen but read the submission guidelines (very important, always!) and sent in my work. I was very surprised to get a phone call from Safeena Chaudhry (who runs the nights) a few weeks later. The evening featured myself and Kay Seeley, an indie author who has published two novels. She was reading from her latest, The Watercress Girls, like mine set in the Victorian period.

Safeena started Novel London as a response to the lack of new novelists being read at events she attended. Combining her love of novels and documenting events (she is a trained camera operator and editor),  Novel London was set up to showcase new fiction from unpublished, indie and traditionally published novelists. The readings are filmed and then uploaded to the Novel London website.

The other part of the Novel London experience is the coaching aspect. We arrived an hour or so before the evening was due to begin and met with Norma Cohen. Norma is a writer, actor and professional coach, and works with all novelists prior to their performance. For me, this was an invaluable experience, learning how to inject tone and connect with the audience. I found that it also helped with nerves!

 

 

For me, this experience was mainly about boosting my confidence and learning how to read better. For those with physical books, it’s also an opportunity to sell some books. It’s a great platform for debut novelists, and all previous events are documented on the Novel London website. The event runs on the first Friday of every month, sponsored by Cameron Publicity and Marketing. The next event is on Friday 5th August at the Swedenborg Society. Tickets will be available shortly (free) on the Novel London website. If you are even having the tiniest thought that this may be something that you’re interested in then please check out the website and the Submissions section. You may as well give it a go!

 

Are writing competitions beneficial?

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As an unpublished writer I have found writing competitions to be a really useful tool. Here are some ways in which they’ve helped me so far. I’ve just finished my first novel so in no way do I profess to be an expert! I know that when I was at the beginning of this process I thought that competitions were for people who had been writing for years and had loads of experience, and that simply isn’t the case. It’s not all about the winning (luckily as I’ve never won one, though I have been longlisted), there are many benefits to entering writing competitions.

  1. There are competitions for whichever stage you’re at. If you haven’t or don’t plan to write a novel you can enter flash fiction or short story competitions. If you’ve begun a novel but are nowhere near even finishing a first draft, look for competitions that only require the beginning of your novel. If you’re about done, have several drafts under your belt and are almost ready to submit to agents, there are awards that look at the whole novel.
  • Flash fiction/short story competitions:
  • Good for unfinished novels:
  • For completed novels:

2. Learn how to comply with the rules! All competitions have guidelines that you MUST follow. They’re strict so you have to stick to them or else your entry will simply be discarded as ineligible. This sounds like a simple task but having spoken to several literary agents, people still send in submissions that don’t follow the guidelines that are written simply in black and white on their websites. Get used to checking the small print – do they want a 1 page synopsis max or a specific format? What’s the word count (most will have a minimum or maximum, sometimes both)? Is there a font they prefer? If you get used to checking this then when you do get round to submitting the novel you’ve slaved over for months and years you won’t lose out because you sent it in single spaced!

3. Practice editing. One of my novice mistakes in writing was having too much exposition in the early chapters. Look at the word count for the competition. This is all the judges will receive apart from your synopsis. What can you wow them with? If you can only send your first 20 pages and there’s a event on page 22 be brutal. There must be a way of cutting out superfluous information that can either be included later or cut altogether (usually it never makes a reappearance once removed). Again, this is a skill that will be very important once you’re ready to submit to agents.

4. Writing synopses is vile. It’s the worst part of the whole process of writing a novel in my opinion, and I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t share it. Ideally most agents like a synopsis to be on one concise page. Competitions will vary (check the guidelines!) but it’s all good practice. I try and write a new synopsis for every competition in the hope that at some point I’ll stumble across the perfect version. Key points to remember are: it must cover major plot points but doesn’t need to include subplots, must include the ending (this isn’t Game of Thrones, the agent really does want the spoilers), should get to the point. There’s no point in making it all flowery and blurb-like. It’s just a technical document and your novel extract will show off your writing.

5. I can’t promise you results but if you ever do get longlisted, shortlisted or even win the whole competition it’s a great confidence boost. I made my first longlist this year (my second try at the same competition with the same novel) and it reinforced that the brutal edits I’d done over the months before had been the right move. Treat it all as a learning curve. Even if you aren’t seeing results straight away, you should be seeing an improvement in your writing. Look at the judges (many are agents, perhaps even the agent at the top of your list), see what types of novels are making the shortlists, if possible read any published extracts with a writer’s eye and find areas for improvement in your own work.