A writing retreat

Writers who work from home, especially if they live with a family or flatmates, often find it hard to focus due to a continual stream of demands and distractions. As advised in my short e-book Wellbeing for Writers, interruptions can be minimised by strict time management, setting of boundaries, and self discipline. I know this in theory but still often find myself breaking off to unload the washing machine or dishwasher, check on the cooking, feed a hungry cat or remove it from the computer, or make another cup of coffee. Although standing up and walking about at frequent intervals is better for the health than sitting down for long periods, it does interfere with concentration.

It can be easiest to complete a writing project in a new environment, and thanks to the generosity of a kind friend I recently spent two days in her holiday house on Waiheke Island, revising the draft of my latest novel. All my regular engagements for those days – choir practice, Zumba class, and walking my dogshare Labrador – had been cancelled. Maybe the universe arranged all these synchronicities to support my desire for an undisturbed retreat. But if so, it went too far by causing my precious iPhone to fail beyond repair on the first day. The enforced digital detox threw me into a panic, and I remembered the maxim “Be careful what you wish for”.

Waiheke, with its sandy beaches and vineyards, is just a 40-minute boat ride from downtown Auckland but seems like a world apart. In the summer there are hordes of visitors but now in the middle of the New Zealand winter it is almost deserted, with few sounds except the chirping of birds and the waves breaking on the shore. Here is the view from the deck of my friend’s house.

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It felt strange at first, being on my own in this peaceful place, unable to communicate with the outside world, and having nothing to do except check through the final draft of my novel for errors and inconsistencies. Working on a printed manuscript with a red pencil, after years of only using a computer, also felt unfamiliar. But I soon came to appreciate the quiet solitude, adapted to the absence of my iPhone, and worked both days on my book with just short breaks for lunches at the beachside cafe and walks on the sand. It was the perfect setting for a writing retreat.

It is easy to miss your own typos, so for the the next step I will take another piece of my own advice from Wellbeing for Writers and obtain an independent check from a copy-editor before publishing the novel.

Wellbeing for Writers: Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk Smashwords

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Writing a medical memoir

Regular readers of this blog will know that in 2015 my husband Brian had a near-fatal heart attack, and that this was followed by a whole series of medical and surgical emergencies affecting our family. I had spent many years working on the medical staff of hospitals and hospices, but experiencing serious illness from the perspective of patients and relatives was very different.

After recovering from the traumas I decided to write a short memoir about them, and this is now available on Smashwords, Amazon US and Amazon UK under the title Across a Sea of Troubles. The first part tells the story of what happened, and the second part is a review of various topics including life event stress, the mind-body connection, post-traumatic syndromes and the role of  the carer.

I wrote this partly for myself as a way of coming to terms with things. Whether it has actually been therapeutic I am not sure – revising the manuscript involved rather too much focus on painful memories. So even if it still not a perfectly finished book, I have decided to publish it and move on. I hope it will hold some value for people who are coping with illness, whether as patients or relatives or health care professionals. But as always when publishing something new, I feel apprehensive about its reception: have I revealed too much personal information about myself or others? does it come across as morbid and self-pitying? is the medical information accurate?

A memoir can be defined as “a record of events written by a person having intimate knowledge of them and based on personal observation”. In contrast to an autobiography, it describes one particular aspect of experience rather than a whole life. Naively perhaps, I have always tended to assume that both memoirs and autobiographies are historically accurate. So I was a little shocked to be advised on one on-line site that it is acceptable, even desirable, to alter the facts to make them more interesting or inspirational for the reader. Although I did wish there were more positive aspects to my own story I resisted any temptation to embroider the truth, and wrote it exactly as I remember, checking all the dates from my diaries. So, rather than one of those books about “illness as a precious gift that transformed my life” it is an honest account of a rather gruelling sequence of events. Here again are the links for Smashwords, Amazon US and Amazon UK. I will share a short extract in my next post.

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Marinading a manuscript

When writing a new book I often feel impatient to finish it. There is really no need for this, considering that I enjoy the actual process of writing so much, and know that I am likely to feel a depressing sense of anticlimax when it is done. Melodramatic though it sounds, perhaps I am afraid I might die before the book is complete.

Modern self-publishing technology makes it easy to rush into print too soon. The front page of the Amazon kdp website says Get to market fast … Publishing takes less than 5 minutes. What a contrast to the old days when writers usually had to wait several months for agents and publishers to respond to a proposal, implement any changes requested during the assessment process, and then wait several more months between acceptance and publication.

I try not to be impatient because I know most books turn out better if they are written slowly, going through several revisions with gaps in between. When re-reading a draft manuscript after several weeks or months, I often have new ideas about how to improve it, and discover mistakes or inconsistencies which I did not notice before.

Though this slow staged method works best in most cases, it does not suit everyone. Some of the most brilliant writers – and artists, and composers – have produced their best work through a single burst of creative inspiration, not needing to revise it at all.

This is all a bit like cooking. A skilled chef using top quality fresh ingredients can produce delicious meals in a few minutes, but for the average cook most dishes are improved by being marinaded in the raw state and then being cooked slowly, and taste even better if reheated a day or two later.

I’ve just finished the first draft of my third novella, which will form a trilogy with Carmen’s Roses and Blue Moon for Bombers. I intend to discipline myself to put the new manuscript aside for a few weeks before doing any more work on it, and in the meantime start writing something different, step up my marketing activities, or even clean out some cupboards at home.