On Retreat

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As you are reading this I am presently on a writers’ retreat. We may be minutes from a busy town, but I am happily ensconced in a time warp idyll surrounded by bucolic countryside. A salve to the mind and a huge inspiration creatively.

On Retreat
The view from my bedroom window

I am lucky enough to belong to an extraordinary writers’ group. There are seven of us in the group and we are all novelists, some traditionally published, some indie published, some hybrid and some unpublished. We meet once a month in a local bookshop when we celebrate any successes members of the group have had, usually with Prosecco, we critique two pieces of work, taking it in turns and discuss any writing related subjects that happen to come out of our discussions.

A group of different people, most of whom did not know each other before joining, brought together by their shared love of writing have, as time has gone on, become firm friends. We are a support base, a sounding board, a ready made set of beta readers and a sympathetic ear when things don’t quite go to plan.

In addition to our monthly meetings, we already have a summer meet up for wine, nibbles and chat and a Christmas meal at which a lucky dip of a preloved book is swapped with another member of the group.

It was my idea to float the retreat with my friends in the group. I had always been intrigued by the idea of a retreat. We all lead such busy lives and finding time to write is precious. I had in mind that maybe three or four members of the group might be interested and we could rent a little cottage by the sea.

To my surprise and delight, all seven members of the group wanted to come. Bang went that cottage by the sea. Worse was to come. No one in the group wanted to share a bedroom. First world problems and all that. In my mind, I upgraded from country house to mansion.

A fellow member of the group found the most extraordinary place. Mansion does not do it justice (and no I am not going to tell you where it is because we want to come back!).

We write in our own individual spaces all morning, come together for lunch, have a group session on a particular aspect of writing between 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm and then either take a walk in the garden or the woodland, have a siesta or, if we want to be very industrious we can go back to writing. We break between five and six in the evening for a glass of something fizzy on the terrace and enjoy our evening together over a meal and several bottles of wine.

Everyone, prior to the retreat, was asked to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by the theme or title of May Day. The competition entries have to remain anonymous and have been available downstairs in the hall for all of us to dip into. It has been fun trying to work out who wrote what.

On our last night we have splashed out on a private caterer to come in and cook us a three course meal. At the end of the meal we will each be given a competition entry to read aloud. Then we will all vote (anonymously) for our favourite. The winner and runner up will receive a prize and we will then see how close we all came to guessing which story belonged to which writer. It should be a fun way to end a fabulous writing break.

I have never been on a writing retreat before but as I was the one who suggested we do this it would have been bad form not to go along. I am so glad I did. I feel as though we are living in a creative bubble and leaving here and going back to reality will be hard to do.

We are already talking about making this an annual event.

I made plans about the projects I wanted to work on but staying in such an extraordinary setting has swept me along. Voices of characters I never thought I would write about have  demanded that I tell their story. Four and a half thousand words later, I have a short story or serial that is ready to go. I also have the memories: fabulous company, great food, lovely surroundings and brilliant weather. As writing retreats go, I think we struck gold.

I cannot speak for writers’ retreats generally and going away with strangers may have been more problematic but if you belong to a writers’ group or if you have a set of writing friends who all get along well together, why not find a house to accommodate you all and step back from real life for three or four days to rest, recuperate, fill the creative well and write. Like me, I am sure you will be really glad you did.

Happy writing!

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White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

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The Ups and Downs of being a Writer

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It’s tough being a writer. We are constantly putting our work out there and peeking from behind laced fingers as the reviews roll in, fearing that stray comment that might cut us to the quick. Writers need the hide of a rhinoceros and if you don’t have one yet, you’d better develop one because the life of a writer is not an easy one.

Climbing a mountain

It’s human nature to want to compare yourself to others. It’s also a less attractive part of human nature to want to do better than others. I’m all for having a plan of what you would like to achieve but plans should be adaptable to life’s twists and turns and if you have the basics heat, food, love is the rest really so important?

That said we all chase the figures – numbers of sales, amount of money earned, the number of likes on a page, the number of followers etc., and if we are not too careful this obsession can get out of hand. I’m not saying these things aren’t important but we need to be careful not to obsess over them. I know writers who are constantly logging on to track their sales. The trouble with this is that their mood then tends to be dictated by whether the figures are good or bad. If the figures are good they are at least temporarily happy but if the figures are bad they then start obsessing over why the figures are bad, why don’t people like their books, are they a bad writer and so it goes on.

Figures

Sales go up and down. That’s market forces for you. It doesn’t mean you are a bad writer and your books suck it just means someone else is doing better than you. It’s not you, it’s them. They are having their time in their sun. They have worked hard. They deserve it so don’t begrudge them and don’t catastrophise the situation and dramatically declare you are quitting like one of my friends did recently. Just get back to the keyboard and write. One day, with a bit of luck, it’ll be your turn.

I have always taken quite a sanguine view of the peaks and troughs of my writing career. I find a good sense of humour goes a long way. Here’s a great example, recently I have been trying to build my Twitter followers. I’m doing this organically, no bought in follows or automated this and that. I don’t bombard people with direct messages and I play nice. I’m really pleased at how well it’s been going. I’m not setting the Twittersphere alight but that was never my aim. As I ticked past another milestone I allowed myself a few moments of satisfaction. Then I spotted a basset hound with their own Twitter handle. Every part of my being told me not to look but of course I could not resist. The basset hound had at least 1,000 followers on me (probably double that by now). It was one of those laugh or cry moments. I chose to laugh loudly at the absurdity of it all. And so should you.

Mad world

Happy writing!

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White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

Being Social

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Writers today, whether trad, indie or both, need to have a social media presence. It’s another thing on the stuff to do list but hopefully more enjoyable than doing your filing or your tax return.

Before I launched my writing career I had no social media and it was a sharp learning curve. I opted for the main players – Twitter and Facebook and chose to add Pinterest into the mix as well.

I had thought Pinterest would be my favourite because it allowed you to be creative, producing Pinterest boards for various subjects, people or themes. I had thought Twitter would be my least favourite. I’m a 100k kind of girl. I don’t do short. I thought Facebook would fall somewhere in between.

Social media2

What did I know?

I do love Pinterest but I find it time consuming so tend to create boards in spurts and then have a break from it. I daresay I’m doing it all wrong but hey that’s part of the fun right? I don’t take my social media too seriously as you may have guessed. Life’s too short and there are too many other important things to be getting on with like writing.

Pinterest is great for creating boards as companion pieces for my books, however. That is a piece of escapism I enjoy after the hard graft of a book is done and it makes you see your book in a purely visual way which adds an interesting dimension.

Facebook has been a bit of a drag for me. I have lots of friends. I have a page that many people like so that’s nice. I don’t engage with it anywhere near as much as I should because I find it boring (oops! Did I actually write that?). It is not my social media of choice. I try to energise myself to get on there and take part but I never seem to be able to sustain it in a meaningful way.

And that leaves Twitter. Ah, Twitter. Remember I said I thought Twitter would be my least favourite? Ha! Turns out, I love it. I am on it most days and find it the easiest platform to use, the most engaging and interesting to be a part of and most importantly, for me at least, it’s fun.

Twitter

I put up links to my blog on Twitter – some of you may have found your way here from there. I put up articles that I find entertaining and so am keen to share. They don’t always relate to writing in fact I would say it’s a pretty even split between writing and non writing subjects. I tweet about the things I enjoy and which interest me and yes I do put up tweets about my books but they do not make up the majority of what I share with my followers, they probably account for less than a third of my content.

There will be lots of writers out there who, with very serious faces, will tell you how you should sell, sell, sell on all these platforms. They will probably tell you that you should be on at least another three I haven’t mentioned and possibly double that. Yeah, well. As I said above life’s too short etc.,

Don’t go on social media expecting to sell books. Go on social media to engage with other people, get caught up in debates, have a laugh and a joke, ‘meet’ interesting people, reach out to someone who is having a hard time, share the joy of someone who is celebrating an achievement and most of all have FUN. Enjoy the human interaction and you never know you may just sell a few books along the way, too.

Being social

Happy writing!

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White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Pointing The Way

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Whatever type of book you are writing it is always better not to signpost the action too much. By that I mean, do not make it obvious what is about to happen. If you do, why would a reader bother to read on? After all, they already know what is going to happen.

Dead End Signpost

With so much competition for the attention of readers, you need to make them sit up and take notice, to wonder and speculate. If you do that, they will want to read on to see if they were right.

If they were right they will feel pleased with themselves for guessing, if they were wrong they may love you all the more because you challenged them and did not do as they expected.

Dropping breadcrumbs to lead a reader in a particular direction, even if it ultimately proves false, is acceptable. Lighting the way with flashing neon signs is not. It is about as subtle as a brick through a window and never works. Suddenly the writer is stepping forward, making themselves visible to the reader, and that is never a good thing.

Neon arrows

Taking the TV series Britannia as an example, let me illustrate what I mean. In episode eight one of the main characters Aulus takes it upon himself to talk to a lowly scribe, bringing said scribe front and centre of the action and encouraging him to talk about his family.

I did not recall seeing hide nor hair of said scribe in episodes one to seven, yet suddenly here he is being thrust into the forefront of the viewers’ attention. It was ham fisted to say the least. Immediately, my spidey senses told me that said scribe was going to meet a sticky end and we were only being allowed to get to know him a little so that we would know of him and “care” when he died.

Sure enough Lucius tries to murder Aulus later on in the same episode. Having stabbed the sleeping form in Aulus’s bed with such gusto he would be unlikely to wake ever again, Lucius is fairly confident that he has done the deed until of course Aulus steps from the shadows and it is the poor scribe who has met an untimely death. [As a scribe he was probably turning in his grave to have had his own ending written so poorly].

That is how not to do it.

Face Palm

If the scribe had appeared in earlier episodes, if only fleetingly, with one or two lines to mark his presence and his role, we as viewers would have been less clued up to his fate and may actually have cared a little more.

I have the same complaint to make about animals in storylines who are there solely to meet an untimely death to show the readers/viewers how dastardly a particular character is.

It is rule 101 in the Lazy Writers’ Handbook and should be avoided at all costs. It’s been done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun.

So next time you need to dispose of a convenient body, as it were, give them a little bit of life before death and if you need to show the readers that a character is capable of doing bad things, stretch your creative muscles a little and show us this in an imaginative way.

Anything less is writing by numbers and we should all strive to be better than that.

[I have given Britannia a bit of a kicking in the last two blogs – I should just say that I did actually find the show entertaining although not always for the right reasons 😊 which just added to the fun. It is all rather gloriously bonkers and for that reason alone, I was quite pleased to discover they have been given a second series].

Happy writing!

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White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

 

 

 

The Runaway Character

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Have you ever worked on a story and found a character off to stage left keeps insistently pushing their way forwards, stealing the limelight in every scene in which they feature and generally making a nuisance of themselves to such an extent that you have to start taking more notice of them?

runaway

This has happened to me on a number of occasions. As a writer we are soon faced with two choices, we can either learn to love the impudent rascals and give them the space they need to breathe or we can take them out of the story completely.

If we leave them in we are often rewarded with a richer story with more depth and colour than would otherwise have been the case.

Fans of Gossip Girl may be surprised to learn that the character of Chuck Bass was only meant to be an occasional and minor player in the teen soap but ended up being one of the central characters and the show was all the better and more entertaining for it.

We do however need to be careful that we do not end up creating a monster who even though you have built their part up is still going to ape the limelight and make the hero/heroine seem dull in comparison.

Overshadowed
Bored by Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6yqaro https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This came to my mind recently when watching Britannia on TV. The character of Divis – a demon-possessed outcast – steals every scene he appears in. Clearly having a ball with the role was actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Wonderful as he was to watch, I cannot have been alone in being ever so slightly bored whenever he was not on the screen, surely not what the writers or producers intended.

[Incidentally, when the second best thing about the show is the song chosen as the theme tune you know a show has issues. In case you are wondering the tune in question is Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan played over psychedelic titles – it shouldn’t work on any level but is an absolute triumph. Gold star to whoever was brave enough to suggest it in the first place].

But let’s get back to our runaway characters. It can be an exciting and challenging time when one of your characters threatens to go off piste and run away with the whole thing. As writers we are entering uncharted territory, unsure of our destination and sometimes, often, that is where the magic happens. Enjoy the ride but remember you are ultimately in control. It is enormous fun to follow this character wherever they want to go but it must never be to the detriment of the story you are trying to tell.

Fast car

A runaway character can be a blessing and a curse. Use them well and the outcome can be glorious. Use them badly and you may end up with an indulgent mess.

crash
Crash by Cha Gia Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4Toeoj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As you hang on to the coattails of a runaway character you need to keep asking yourself the same question – is the story better because of this? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then perhaps you are simply telling the wrong story.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Third Man Through The Door

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The Third Man Through The Door concept is taken from film makers. In the most literal interpretation the third man (or woman) came through the door after the hero or heroine and the sidekick.

Third Person concept
Three O by Kwanie courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nWtFM https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Often they were there to bolster the ego of the first two characters and make them look good, sometimes even sacrificing themselves so the hero and sidekick could save the day.

Since reading about this concept many years ago I have always been surprised by just how many stories feature the third man – or person to be gender neutral. Once you are aware of their existence and the reason for their being in the story, you notice them more and more – films, tv and books all feature third people.

As a writer, I’m a pantser not a planner but third people evolve naturally in my stories and I bet they do in yours, too.

We are aware of stories from our youngest age and although we do not generally analyse the roles characters play in them or break them down into their component pieces, we are taking this information in, story by story, by osmosis. We learn that tales often have characters in certain roles and once we recognise those roles, we see them again and again.

Three's company

The third person role is vital to most stories, even if they do not feature throughout the piece, their influence will still be felt. They sometimes do the heavy lifting necessary to make a back story work, they can ask the right questions at the right time, they can impart crucial character information about the hero/heroine and sidekick and, of course, they make your central characters look good.

They are never going to be the sexy one or the most intelligent one – those roles are strictly reserved for your hero/heroine. They are not going to be particularly funny – that role often belongs to the sidekick. They are usually decent and fair and can sometimes be the moral compass of a piece or at least be there to guide the hero/heroine back on to the right track should they waver – although that role sometimes falls to the wise elder. Their backstory can be hinted at but is rarely explored. They are not there to be the centre of attention. They are, as their name suggests, a way down the pecking order and destined to stand off to the side, helping the story along whenever required.

man in shadows

I now find myself trying to pick out the third man in every film or TV show I watch or book I read. I must warn you, however, third person spotting becomes addictive. Once you learn how to recognise them, you will see them everywhere and wonder how come you never noticed them before.

I love the third person. I find the character intriguing and delightful and as a writer they are endlessly helpful and useful.   I urge you to love them too.

When creating your characters we lavish so much time and attention on our main players, rightly so, but try not to overlook the third person. Sketch in their backstory with a few strokes of your pen, give them a life, a past and a future (if they are not destined to die heroically saving the hero and the sidekick, of course ;)). They do such good work for us as writers, they deserve to be more than cardboard cut outs.

Sometimes I like my third person so much they stop being my third person and start to gravitate more to the centre of the piece but more on that next time.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Getting Motivated to Write

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You know what it’s like, you have a miraculous hole open up in the schedule of your busy lives and you think ‘I should do some writing’ but then your inner voice kicks in with an increasingly whiny tone: ‘Do you really want to write? Let’s do something fun instead like go out somewhere/watch TV/play sport.’ Suddenly writing isn’t even on the agenda.

I don’t want to, don’t make me!

It is all too easy to talk ourselves out of time at the desk or in the study if you are lucky enough to have one. There will always be a million distractions. Silencing the whiny voice is where you start.

I was recently in just this position. The last thing I felt like doing was sitting in front of the computer screen. The project I’m working on is tricky. It’s hard work and my psyche was desperately trying to persuade me to do something less demanding and more FUN.

Steeling myself, I sat at the computer steadfastly ignoring the internet and all social media feeds because we all know what a rabbit hole they can turn out to be don’t we!

social media

I made a bargain with myself: sit at the desk for 30 minutes and write the damn thing. I figured if after 30 minutes I was still metaphorically banging my heels on the floor in a disinterested fashion, longing to walk away, I would allow myself to do so.

Sit there and shut up!

I opened the WIP and started to write. Slowly, slowly I was reeled back in to my characters’ lives and the rather precarious point at which I had last abandoned them. I began to engage with the scene, my thoughts racing ahead to the next scene and the next.

And then the magic happened.

magic

I was in the flow. The words were flying into my brain so fast my fingers could hardly keep up on the keyboard.

Two and a half hours and several thousand words later I paused for breath and happened to look at the clock. I could hardly believe it. Where had the afternoon gone? It felt like I had been sitting there for only a few minutes. As we all know time does not exist when we are in the flow.

Don’t go!

Hunger drove me away from the desk in the end rather than an overwhelming desire to check my Facebook updates.

So the moral of the story is get your backside in the chair and write. Don’t listen to the whiny voice trying to entice you away. Make a bargain with it if you must but give yourself enough time to become enveloped in your make believe world and maybe, just maybe, you’ll find yourself wanting to stay.

Aerial view of computer laptop on wooden table

Why not give it a try?

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes