Writing Retreats: panning for gold…

I suspect just about everyone who attends a Writers’ retreat uncovers a nugget of some kind. Often these priceless finds will be unearthed through informal interaction with other attendees, conversations over dinner, sharing writing experiences – or even experiences of life. At my first retreat four years ago (at Garsdale Retreat in North Yorkshire), my own gold manifested itself in the form of a chance encounter while out walking, and then having the time and space to subsequently draft the short story which went on to prove the catalyst for a whole collection.

No retreat, no encounter, no space to write, no collection.

A week ago I attended my second such retreat. Also in North Yorkshire, this one was organised by Writers Retreats UK. And the gold? In the form of two informal mentoring sessions with screenwriter and film-maker Steven Nesbit.

I had been struggling to get my head around an idea for a potential new novel and to get anything down on the page. Convinced the premise was sound enough, I had only managed to draft a few thousand words and was struggling to find any momentum for either writing or planning. Having outlined the plot to Steve – whose initial reaction was to affirm that I clearly seemed to believe in the story to be told – he suggested I try a different tack to my usual modus operandi. Rather than continue trying to draft the first few thousand words before stepping back to flush out the detail of the plot, he suggested that I stand back immediately and create detailed profiles for the six main characters (the novel is based upon a more complex schematic than is my norm). His argument was that in this instance, and in order to progress, I needed to get to know my characters earlier than usual; that for them to be able to support me – and for me to believe in them – I had to establish our relationship up front.

I had homework to do.

I began the profiles during the retreat and completed the bones of them a couple of days afterwards. Since then I have revisited the 5,000 or so words initially drafted and found that I have been able to enhance them with greater depth and subtlety, to give the first characters met with an increased ’roundness’, to lay more stable foundations. Whether or not this will lead to a better end product – or an end product at all – I will only begin to know when I resume the drafting process; but it is fair to say that I have moved past the roadblock I was facing.

Again, no retreat, no conversation, no suggestion, no progress…