A writing retreat to West Bay with Retreat West

I didn’t get as much of my own writing done last year as I wanted. Instead, I was focused on building up my freelance writing business. And it was pretty successful, all things considered. The work now more or less falls into one of two categories: travel and legal, which makes planning my working life, and pitching for new jobs, much easier.

The legal work stems from my previous professional career and I enjoy it very much – far more than I could have imagined I would after I left my City job. It gives me an intellectual focus, tangible results that are not always forthcoming from creative pursuits, and the income necessary to help support the rest of my writing. Meanwhile, the bulk of the travel work is for airlines: yes, if you pick up one of those travel brochures from your seat pocket, you may find an article written by me. I apologise if your impression of the destination does not match with mine but, in case you’re wondering, I do try to stick to places I have personal experience of visiting. Writing about them is the next best thing to going there again.

However, towards the end of last year I had the chance to visit somewhere new, thanks to the lovely Amanda Saint and Retreat West. As I explained in my last blog post, my first completed short story in over a year won the Writers & Artists / Retreat West short story competition. Frankly, winning would have been reward enough but I was lucky enough to receive a four night writing retreat in beautiful West Bay, on the end of Dorset’s Chesil Beach, as a prize. And, although I live in a neighbouring county, Dorset is largely an unexplored mystery to me.

West Bay

Amanda founded Retreat West in 2012. Writing retreats are only part of what this fabulous organisation does but what a part they are! I had no idea what to expect – only ever having looked longingly at the promotional material for writers’ retreats in much the same way my husband does with the large televisions I tell him we don’t need – but I had plenty of time to ponder on the drive down.

The 70 miles between my home and West Bay took three hours to traverse late on a Friday afternoon. (My husband was right on that one.) And it was the sort of drive where there was two miles of single carriage A road followed by a roundabout. Not relaxing – and even with a satnav I may have made the odd error in my choice of exits at one or two of the roundabouts. However, there was a glorious sunset that felt only a little like driving into a witch’s cauldron and, when I arrived, there was a glass of wine and a room full of writers.

Who could fail to be inspired when sitting here?

The theme of the retreat was “Plotting”. There were three workshops, each three hours long. The first was run by Richard Skinner of the Faber Academy, and Amanda herself took the other two. Now, I have an MA in creative writing – and while I know some would say that qualifies me not to be a novelist, it also means I have a pretty good overview of what is currently perceived as how to write well. There’s a lot of hoo-hah about the pros and cons of creative writing MAs, which I don’t want to get into because I enjoyed mine immensely and don’t regret it one little bit. What I will say, though, is that, in my view, no course can tell you what to write. Of course it can tell you if something is commercial, hackneyed, unfashionable or whatever but it can’t give you the ideas in the first place or, indeed, the words, turns of phrases and sentence construction to make those ideas come alive. And, until my retreat to Dorset, I was also doubtful whether you could be taught how to plot.

A very specific sub-category of literary fiction aside, most novels live or die by their plot. Saggy middles, peculiar story arcs, plot holes, stories that start in the wrong place or are told by the wrong people are just some of the problems that can be traced back to plot, or lack of. I learned this the hard way. One of the agents who read my first novel said it wasn’t pacey enough. After thinking about this, I realised she was right. I rewrote the book, for my own satisfaction rather than with any intention of continuing to try to publish it, and moved on to novel number 2. I wouldn’t say I plotted this second novel in advance (fundamentally I am someone who has to write my way into a story) but when it came to drafts 2, 3, 4 and 5, I plotted the hell out of that book. In retrospect, maybe I went a little too far.  At times, I suspect, the characters say and do things for the benefit of the plot.


I’ll return to book 2 eventually. For now, I’m around 30,000 words into book 3. It’s why I never rewrote book 1 because it takes one of that first novel’s characters, the one who ought to have been the protagonist, and tells her story. I do, more or less, know what happens to her, but even if I didn’t, I can see how the plotting strategies I learned with Retreat West would help. I now think of my story arc as a series of waves, some bigger than others. The pattern and frequency of the waves are critical: too many huge ones will engulf and drown the reader, but too calm a sea will lull them to sleep (or to another book). Whether this new understanding helps me write a better book, I don’t yet know but I do know I am finding the process easier and a little less like scouring out my own soul.

Oh, and for anyone who’s wondering: aside from writing, there are plenty of other things to one of Retreat West’s writing retreats. There’s the food for one and the company for another, both enjoyed during long convivial lunches, dinners and afternoons in the pub. Then there’s the scenery. Fundamental to Retreat West is the idea of spending time somewhere beautiful and peaceful. I only had to look out of the window in West Bay to appreciate that. Of course, I did more than look: I walked up cliffs, creeping as close to the edge as I dared in order to peer at quarrelsome seabirds, and wandered along the beach, kicking at the stones and wondering what my dogs would make of it all. Finally, in a detour on the way home, I stopped at Lyme Regis, the heart of the Jurassic Coast, to play at being Meryl Streep on the Cobb. And I’ll go back to it all – soon, I hope. In the meantime, I feel the ink flow in my veins again, and there’s little that could make me happier.

In case you were in any doubt that this is the Jurassic Coast – street lights in Lyme Regis

Pretty pastel beach huts – Lyme Regis









Of Cabbages and Wreckers – Writers & Artists Retreat West competition success

Last summer, I took my children to an overgrown path on the Wirral Peninsula that I remember playing on at about their age. It’s choked with bushes and saplings that die before they’re very old due to the lack of light, and a small stream runs along it. Getting our feet wet and our arms scratched, we followed this path from its starting point at Thurstaston Country Park, along the cliffs and down towards the Dee estuary. Once upon a time, it was a smugglers’ path, used by local villagers to spirit away illicit booty that was brought up the Dee, away from the Customs’ checks at nearby Birkenhead and Liverpool. I’ve also heard stories of wreckers who operated along the Wirral coastline, lighting bonfires on cliffs and beaches to confuse ships heading to or from Liverpool Bay. Apparently the cliffs and sandstone bluffs in this part of the Wirral are riddled with the caves and passages once used by these men.

Ever since that summer visit, an idea for a story ticked away in my mind. Being possibly slightly over-preoccupied with the current novel, I didn’t do anything about it until I saw a short story competition being run by Bloomsbury’s Writers & Artists, in conjunction with Retreat West. The story could embrace any genre but it had to use a beach for its setting. Well – it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I wrote and I submitted, and then, a few weeks later, was rather surprised to see my name and story title on the short list. I’m lucky enough to have been short listed in several competitions in the past but have never gone any further – until Tuesday, that is, when an email pinged onto my screen, briefly obscuring the guide to HR law for SMEs I was writing. My story, “Of Cabbages and Wreckers” had won.

You can read it here, along with the two excellent runner-up entries by Mark Mayes and Alexis Wolfe.


Smugglers Path – hidden by the vegetation to the right of the boardwalk path. The child in red is standing where the path comes out onto Thurstaston Beach.

The Sun-drenched Elsewhere – Into the Jungle Book

Autumn is in the air and, rather than tidying up my garden, painting the newly rebuilt porch

or – ahem – concentrating on work, I’m thinking about warmer places and other, earlier times.




When the rice and paneer with peas are reduced to scraped-out dishes, Pradeep, still in his forest guide greens, appears. ‘May I?’ He gestures at an empty chair.
Sitting, he drinks with relief from his bottle of beer. I don’t blame him. Although it’s evening, and already dark, the air is still thick and hot enough to feel like a mugging about to happen.
‘Would you like to see some photographs?’
It’s quite a selection: tiger, antelope, birds of all kinds, even dhole, the elusive Indian wild dog. He’s keen to talk about f stops, ISO levels and shutter speeds, but this is far too technical to be interesting when set against the oranges and blacks of a tiger’s coat, and the wary glint in a chital’s eye.
Once we’re finished exclaiming over the photographs, he brushes away an errant grain of rice, and places a slim manila folder on the table. There’s a reverence to his movements and, when I see what’s inside, I see why. 
These are pen-and-ink drawings, and executed with such skill that I half expect each animal to stir itself, stretch, and step out of the paper. I pause over one: a tiger half-submerged in water, her tail curling up into the air, and her face wrinkled as if in joy. 
‘Ah, yes, Neelam.’ Pradeep could be her fond uncle. ‘Maybe, tomorrow, we’ll see her.’
Tomorrow, when it arrives, is cool enough to require a jacket, and still dark enough to set me fretting about what may pass by, unseen. However, once through the park gates, the air has lightened to purply-grey, and I can make out the humped shape of some animal making for the tree-line. The shape is familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. 
‘Sloth bear. Baloo,’ Pradeep says, and laughs.
Baloo. Of course. These sal and bamboo forests are where Kipling set his Jungle Book. How fitting it seems to sight one of his most important characters. 
Further inside the park, the forest closes around us. I imagine the rustling of the leaves and scraping of branches to be the trees talking to each other, perhaps warning of our arrival. Pradeep has no time for such fancies. He’s listening for the alarm calls of monkeys, or birds. 
But no warning is given. Around a corner, past some large trees (‘duck!’ someone calls, as the branches skid over our heads), and there she is: Neelam, identifiable by her very large white ear spots. Amber eyes watch us and, as I look at her, it’s like meeting someone I already know. Her mouth opens, pink and toothed, and she calls: a sort of grumbly roar. Not to us, but to some concealed, not-to-be-known other.
Later, I buy her pen-and-ink portrait. I’ve no idea if she’s still alive but I pass her every time I come down the stairs. I know I’m anthropomorphising, but I feel we know each other well. She’s become a friend.

Photographs © Louise Taylor

(Clockwise from top: Tigress with two of four cubs in Bandhavgargh National Park; large male tiger in Kanha National Park; Langur monkeys in Sariska National Park; female sambar deer in Sariska National Park)

Friday Fictioneers – After Dark

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write anything in response to any of the Friday Fictioneers’ prompts, as posted by the unflagging Rochelle Wisoffs-Fields. I’ve written several pieces in my head but, sadly, they’ve got no further. Now – hooray! – I have.

The following picture is the prompt. My 100-word story follows. If you’d like to read other people’s stories or to have a go yourself, click here.

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogersondale-rogerson4


He booked us into the only hotel in town. It was too late to take the road up-country, he said.

We sat outside, nursing sundowners long after night’s violet-blackness had overwhelmed the sky. In front of us, a hole in the ground yawned even blacker. That’ll be a swimming pool, he said, when the tourists come – because they will.

I was glad the swimming pool and the tourists were still only a hope. Better to pretend no-one else knew about this place.

Your husband not mind you coming out here, he asked, slunking more gin into our emptying glasses.



Poetry publication in The Woven Tale Press

I had a wonderful childhood. Sometimes, I wonder if it was too good – I remember struggling with the idea that it was finite and that I would (if lucky) live three or four times longer as an adult than as a child. When I was forced into reaching the inevitable accommodation, aside from all that other life, I discovered other consolations. One of those was memory. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I walk around my childhood house in my head or I revisit a particular time, a certain event, a special place. There’s one such place that a cousin and I have agreed feels may be the strongest and most coherent memory we’ll ever be able to hang onto. (We’re not talking entirely out of our hats here; I think we both wonder if we’ll succumb to the dementia that took our grandmother.)

The place is Wales: North Wales and, specifically, the Lleyn Peninsula, where the Irish Sea boils up against a small spur of land that hangs off the side of Snowdonia. I grew up close enough to the place to feel some kinship or belonging anyway, but it was the annual holidays our families spent on a hill farm that really cemented my feelings. I’ve written plenty about Wales, and those holidays, in that writerly, appropriating fashion that I tend to fear must be at least mildly irksome to anyone else who regards the same places and incidents as as much theirs as any old writer’s. And, for that, I suppose I apologise – although I’ve done it again and, this time, The Woven Tale Press, a cornucopia of literary and artistic loveliness, has published the result.

My poem, At Dinas Dinlle, is available through here, together with the other contributions that make up the issue. You can subscribe (for free!) to the online version here. It is also possible to purchase a glossy printed version. My thanks to Sandra Tyler and her team for all their support and encouragement, and for producing such a beautiful and stimulating publication.

Flash fiction – Into Africa

Time for another flash fiction piece with the Friday Fictioneers, as hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. This week, I’ve hit the 100 word target on the nose.


© Magaly Guerrero

Her dress, pink and foamy, would have looked well in a sundae glass. The shoes, though, were serious. Black and heeled, they lent her height that wasn’t hers and a demeanour I knew she meant to keep.

‘Leopards?’ she said, as the shoes took her, arm-in-arm with him, down the veranda steps into the half-dark.

He shrugged. ‘Lions too. And wild dog.’

Watching, I saw how she let him push her up against a tree. And, as they kissed, I smelt what she smelt: Pears soap, leather, sun-saturated clothes and a strong, clean animal scent that wasn’t me at all.


For other 100-word stories following the same photo prompt, look here.

Flash fiction – Homeward bound

Time for another flash fiction effort with the Friday fictioneers, hosted by the lovely Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Here is the picture prompt:

Dhow in harbour

PHOTO PROMPT © Fatima Fakier Deria

They stop on the bridge looking down over the harbour. She grips the railings like she might jump. Next to her, he touches a finger to his lips. ‘Salt,’ he says.

‘Which boat would you choose, if you could, to go home in?’ Her voice is dreamy.

He’s thinking of moules et frites in the little café not two hundred yards away. ‘Home?’ It’s almost a foreign word.

‘Yes. Not that one with the cracked keel; it wouldn’t even make it across the Mediterranean. But, oh, look!’ She’s jumping up and down.

He follows her finger.

‘The dhow,’ she says. ‘Of course! What better boat to sail back to Africa!’


If you’d like to write your own 100-word story, click here for more information, or to read other peoples’ stories, click here.