Friday 8 November 2019


Retreat: (noun)
3. The act of retiring or withdrawing into privacy or into some place of saftey.
4. A place of seclusion or privacy.

There is a house in France that feels like home to me. Though it doesn’t belong to me, I have a key and I know that whenever I want to go there I can. My family and I have been going on holiday there since, well, since before we were a family. As time has passed and I have moved house and my parents and friends have moved house, this has been the most constant place in my life.

But things change and now the house is to be sold. It’s taking a while, but a couple of months ago I realised time was running out for me to do something I have always promised myself I would do – to go there alone to write. I’ve written there before, writing time set aside during holidays, and once for a week with a writer friend, but never alone. Two weeks all alone? I’d be lonely, they said. Won’t you be scared? Won’t you be bored?

But I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t scared or bored. It was the most extraordinary thing to have my brain emptied of all the things I usually have to think about for other people, of having to walk dogs and clean things and cook and make money and pay bills. Because of the time difference all the TV programmes I might have watched were on late so I didn’t watch TV. This is the essence retreating, of course – the putting aside of everyday life. It is utterly relaxing. I thought about my work, I read a little, I daydreamed, I slept, I ran. I wrote. I wrote. I wrote.
The lovely annexe where I worked

I had planned a new book. Three thousand words a day was my aim. In two weeks – let’s call that twelve days to allow for travelling – that would make 36,000 words. That’s a good start on a book that might be around 50,000 words in the end. First drafts just have to be hammered out. They’re always terrible, but once the words are on the page you can start sculpting them into something better. My plan was very precise – divided into scenes on a spreadsheet with only two or three places where I had written ‘[they go from A to B somehow]’. I plot using the snowflake method with some slight variations. I find this allows me to build my plot in an orderly but creative way. What I didn’t know is exactly what the tone of the book would be or what the characters would be like. I find these are the things that come as I write if I know where I’m going with the plot.

So, day 1, I got up and went for a run. Then I showered and had breakfast. I made coffee and carried it round to the little annexe to start work. It was eleven o’clock by this time and I was irritated with myself for not getting started sooner. How was I going to write 3,000 words a day if I didn’t start until eleven? I wrote for two hours. I had some lunch and sat in the sun (oh how the sun shone those first two days!) and then I wrote for another two hours.

I had written 5,000 words.

A fluke. Must be.

But the next day and the next I got 5,000 words on the page. I kept up the same routine. Four hours of writing, sometimes five, a couple of hours of some other type of work a bit later. On day 7, I wrote the final words. The book was 35,000 words long. Obviously, I thought, as I packed up that day, that was just a start. I would need lots of polish and there would be plot holes that needed work. So on day 8, I reread it and made notes. The beginning needed changing. It always does. There were a couple of other places which didn’t quite work. And lots of other notes of course. But it wasn’t bad. Four more days of revising and then another read. I couldn’t quite believe it.
Lovely evening walks - though I ended up covered head to toe in bites!
The sun shone... some of the time

Of course I haven’t read it again yet. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps there are giant plot holes. Perhaps the plot is derivative or dull. Perhaps the characters are feeble. But I don’t think so. I think this book is nearer to done than any first draft I have done more slowly. In a month or two, when I can read it as though someone else has written it, I will bring it out and work on it again. I’m hopeful.

Retreating is extraordinary. Of course not everyone is lucky enough to get the chance to do this. I know I couldn’t have when my kids were younger and I’m privileged to have access to such a wonderful spot to hide away it. But even without being able to retreat completely, I think this experience demonstrates the necessity of clearing mental and physical space for writing so that when I write I can focus on nothing but my story. Just got to work out how to implement that now…

All locked up and ready to leave

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