Apr 20

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The time I totally lost my s**t – and what I did to get it back again

An Arvon Writing Retreat is the cure for many ills –  including Cold Feet and Imposter Syndrome.

To have two novels published and two on the way is “a consummation devoutly to be wished” for any aspiring writer. I don’t expect sympathy for a career that is moving in the right direction so far, but no-one was more surprised than me when, on signing the contract for my fourth book, I went down with a severe case of crippling self-doubt.

It was a turning point.

The moment had arrived when I put aside all other work – and all other income –  to have a go at becoming that rare beast, a “full time novelist”. The trouble is, it was not because I have a huge backlist and readership, with regular royalty payments, but because I accepted a commitment to deliver a 90,000 word manuscript to a top five publisher with just four months from signing to delivery. Yikes. And in case you fondly imagine publishers accept late manuscripts with a resigned smile I can tell you, for a Christmas novel aimed at the commercial fiction market with a short but (hopefully) intense selling window, delaying publication to January or February is not a thing.

So, what did I do?  First, I indulged in a little panic at mine and my agent’s reputations being doubtless demolished at a stroke. Second, I sat down and thought about what I needed to help me deliver. I know enough about my process to understand a well-timed boost would give me a) encouragement in the earlier stages, knowing I had it coming up, and b) a massive boot up the backside later, when focus, concentration and a decent daily wordcount would provide the impetus for the sprint to the finish.

Then, I thought of Arvon.

I was at The Hurst for a screen writing course in 2015 which was incidentally when The Clock House was being renovated to become a dedicated Writers’ Retreat. That week I learned, usefully, I am not a script writer. I also learned the valued of being cradled in the arms of a place that understands a writer’s need for calm, beauty, simplicity, solitude (mostly) and the company of other writers (sometimes). Even the long physical journey to Shropshire – by way of transition from my normal life – these were all things I needed.

There was one more problem: As I had given up my proper job for a modest advance, I was in no position to fund it. Tricky. Then, I pulled myself together, applied to The Frances W Reckitt Trust and the Society of Authors, completed their simple application process and had funding confirmed instantly. I grabbed myself a place on a Retreat for six weeks before my delivery date.  I was lucky to get it. There are six-day retreats and four-day retreats to choose from but  the shorter ones are especially popular and seem to book up well in advance.

My Retreat

After months of rising panic, I am tearfully grateful to arrive. The transformation of The Clock House has been beautifully done. There is no grandeur but simply everything I need. Everything. It is clean, comfortable, uncluttered but not austere. There is a briskly efficient heating system, endless hot water, en suite apartments with separate study and bedroom but – wisely – no kettle, forcing us all to come out and forage in the communal kitchen. Managing a chronic pain condition is boringly exhausting and intrusive when away from home; I have to wonder, are there enough pillows? Yes. Can I have a hot bath whenever I like? Yes. Is the chair in the study going to allow me to write for long enough before I am forced to get up and ease my dysfunctional musculo-skeletal system? Yes, yes, yes! It is an amazing chair! I Google how to get one. Blimey. They cost a lot… maybe when I get my next advance.

The fridge is full of fresh, delicious food, plus loads of locally produced frozen meals with a good range of choice for all diets. It is easy to eat well. On the last night, the four of us have dinner together and end up chatting in front of the fire. We all met our goals, even the unreasonable ones, and I not only achieved a five-figure word count, I also planned out my tricky final chapters so I know my writing will stay on track after my return to real life.

Thank you Arvon, The Hurst, The Society of Authors and The Reckitt Trust. You have done more than facilitate my silly deadline, you have helped me silence my ‘not good enough’ voice – for now, at least.

And finally, thanks to Dan for the last-minute mercy dash to catch my train when the whole taxi thing went tits up. You are my knight in shining armour.