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Five Secrets I Learned on Writing Retreat

07/07/2014 14:39 BST | Updated 03/09/2014 10:59 BST

With the deadline for my next book looming, I headed to Somerset for a writing retreat at Book Camp. It was a spur of the moment decision, taken when I looked up from the words "The End" on my Christmas sequel to Sealed with a Kiss. It dawned on me why people were giving me That Look when I said airily "oh yes, I've ages until the next one's due, and I've written loads already".

The reality was with 10,000 words done (curse the three chapters and a synopsis method of securing a book deal) and nothing more than a Pinterest board and a theme song in my head, I was a bit lacking in book. So off I went. And here are the five things I learned on writing retreat:

1. Silence is a bit surprising. If you've got a busy life/lots of children/lots of children and a busy life (I'm definitely the latter) you'll find the sudden drop into the silence of a writing retreat quite disconcerting. I found myself walking around for a bit when I first arrived, saying to myself in a hearty tone of voice "Gosh, well, this is nice, isn't it?" and "Why don't we take a walk down here to the end of this field" like I was talking to my seven year old.  By the end of the first evening I'd started to settle into the idea of spending a large amount of time alone with only my thoughts for company.

2. Planning helps. I got there with a synopsis, a set of pretty well-developed (in my head, in any case) characters, and a copy of Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris. We had dinner and a good chat and I headed upstairs, thinking I was off for an early night so I could get straight to writing in the morning. Instead (still not quite knowing what to do with myself) I stayed up until 2am doing this.

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That's a beat sheet, a basic character development chart for each main character, and the whole novel measured out in post-it notes. And a lot of stationery. Oh, how I love stationery.

3. You have to sit down and write. We were in a beautiful farmhouse, complete with a swimming pool and a sauna, surrounded by the Somerset countryside. The first morning, a bit exhausted from staying up until 2, I ended up ambling around, having a swim, and then finally sitting down to write 1500 words or so before lunch. Imagine my surprise when I discovered my fellow book campers had all got a substantial number of words down already. I felt like a bit of a slacker so I got down to work in the afternoon and hit 4500 words by dinner time - my least productive day. The other days I reached 5000 words. I ended up each day feeling like my brain was a sponge that had been squeezed dry, my eyeballs spinning in my head and my ability to string a sentence together seriously impaired.

But what I did realise was this: setting a one hour timer on the clock and telling myself to just write actually works. And "I only write in the afternoon/when I'm listening to music/when the wind is blowing in the west and the corn is high" and all the other things I've told myself over the years - they're crap. And for that alone, Book Camp was invaluable.

4. When in doubt, insert a comedy animal. Talking tactics over one of the gorgeous dinners, we established that the secret to getting the first draft down is to just keep swimming. So my first draft has things like this:

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and meaningful phrases like this:

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not forgetting incisive technical detail like this:

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If I hadn't put the Self-Control app on my laptop, I'd have disappeared down a Google vortex looking for meaningful gardening quotes I can half-remember, or finding out what the technical name for LANDGRAB THINGOLOGY was. Instead I just kept going and realised that at the end of this first draft, once I've told the story, I can fill in the details. And insert monkeys.

5. Spending time with other writers is essential. It felt a bit self-indulgent disappearing off into the countryside on a writing retreat, armed with my laptop and a mountain of stationery, but it has left me inspired and far more productive than I was previously. We gossiped about publishing, we cried (over Saving Mr Banks) and laughed (over Crazy Stupid Love), we told ghost stories and talked politics and thanks to our resident chef and adoptive mum for the week, we ate the most amazing food (I had no idea that writing huge amounts made you so hungry, but I was permanently ravenous).

The main secret I learned was there's no escaping the fact that the key to getting a book written is hard slog. But if you're going to do it, you may as well do it with copious amounts of cake and good company. I'm already planning my next escape, even if it does mean working on another novel to justify it.