What better way to start the writing year, as I did this summer, than by heading to the Kāpiti Writers Retreat – https://writerspractice.nz/the-kapiti-writers-retreat/ – at Waikanae, an hour north of Wellington?
The annual three-day event offers "intensive" workshops, Q and A interviews with the workshop presenters, and even a well-attended Open Mic evening on the Saturday night.
Writer friends have long recommended it not just for the excellent workshops but also the community with fellow writers – who are at different stages of their careers.
I chose the workshop with author Catherine Chidgey, a multiple award-winner whose novels have achieved international acclaim. https://www.anzliterature.com/member/catherine-chidgey/
I was interested to learn how she dealt with historical aspects in her novels – The Wish Child is set in Nazi Germany – as my forthcoming novel (to be published later this year by Cloud Ink Press, New Zealand) also has historical elements.
Using the theme Less is More for her intensive - an excellent choice of descriptive word here! - sessions, Catherine had us building up a number of separate sections for a complete short story (or even a novel).
Catherine, who teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, led us through some fascinating exercises – for example, including something unexpected in the setting and mining the symbolic possibilities.
One such exercise was on using monologues. These were part of what she called “floating pieces” or the spaces in between the pages in a novel, not traditional, not spelt out.
A monologue can be a way to break up a novel and use its tentacles to reach back into what has gone on before.
I hadn’t consciously explored this aspect before. The examples we were given were written in a distant and poetic tone and I found the exercise to be too challenging! One writer with a background in poetry came up with a fantastic piece by the end of the session. Later, on reflection, I realised I had actually included several monologues in my novel, but had not consciously set out to do so (perhaps like a lot of writing)!
Catherine was extremely generous in her teaching. We could have been graduate students in a full university lecture theatre rather than 12 of us writers at various stages of writing experience in the comfortable lounge of one of the holiday camp’s lodges (coffee on the go and an amazing supply of fruit and biscuits).
Learning where Catherine got some of the (real) back stories, and biographical detail found in her most recent novel (The Axeman's Carnival) was of particular interest as, like many writers, I like to weave real incidents into my fiction.
My ears pricked up when she spoke about “bending” historical information in her novels. It was reassuring to hear this since it described what I had been doing in my own novel, such as placing imaginary locations alongside real locations!
Attending the retreat took me back to my first writing workshop, a week I spent on the celebrated Arvon Foundation writers workshop in Totleigh Barton, Devon, England. https://www.arvon.org/centres/totleigh-barton/
I was my late 20s and working as an editor on a woman’s magazine in London. It was the thought of getting help starting a novel that had me making the long train journey from London down to Devon.
The workshops were held in the foundation’s 16th century manor house, the writing room upstairs in a converted barn. One long-standing memory for me was a middle-aged woman who was often in the nearby kitchen. She had been on many writers' workshops and liked to espouse her views on writing and workshops to the other attendees. I never saw any sign of her doing some actual writing! (Years later, I would base a character on her in my novel about members of a writing class which I wrote during my MA in Creative Writing.)
The two tutors on the Arvon course were, like Catherine, generous with their advice. Both were well-published novelists. One was Shelia, a Scottish author who had experienced anorexia in her teens (and wrote about this in one of her novels). Somehow on that week we learned she had married a then famous rock star. The other tutor was Colin, a man with a wry sense of humour. They helped us come up with ideas for a first chapter and then sent us away to start writing.
In my final session with the pair, Colin pulled out a piece of copy paper with two typed lines on it. It was a diary entry that had somehow got into the back of the pages I'd submitted. He read aloud in a dramatic tone the one unfinished sentence about a party in Shepherds Bush that was “full of nurses". Here was something! Shelia agreed with him. I think they were teasing me.
They then went on to discuss – favourably - the actual first five pages of the novel. ‘Now,’ Colin said, ‘get on with it and write the rest. It will take you five years.’
Five years! The words resounded in my mind. Five years was such a huge amount of time (especially when you are in your 20s!).
I returned to my work at my desk on the woman’s magazine in London. I put the chapter in a folder and shoved it in a filing cabinet. I never went back to that novel.
The other day I looked up the time it has taken various novelists to write a novel. I saw Donna Tartt took ten years to finish The Goldfinch.
Checking my computer files I found the early drafts of my forthcoming novel went back to at least 2016. Most likely I began it much earlier when I wrote a short story which would lead to part of what is now the novel.
I wonder how many of you reading this have had a novel in the back of your mind for years and years? And just need to get started? A retreat like the Kāpiti one could be a great place to begin the journey.