A new chapter in my life

A ‘book camp’ gave Claire Droney the much-needed push to finally get her novel idea off the ground and onto a page.

ON a muddy walk through the Berkshire countryside, Book Camp’s pink-wellied Cesca Major tells me that Kate Middleton attended her boarding school, and that Coldplay’s Chris Martin is her cousin.

It’s afternoon break. I’ve had a two-hour morning session with women’s fiction author, Rowan Coleman, written 1,000 words in an hour-long ‘word race’, read from a book on plotting, and begun planning my novel.

I’ve always had a desire to write fiction. From sitting in my mother’s arms, listening to her reading Carrie’s War, to watching my fifth-class teacher falling off her chair with laughter as she read Anastasia Krupnik aloud, to setting off to Irish College, wearing purple flares and Doc Martens, with a copy of Catcher in the Rye under my arm, I always loved books and assumed I’d write one. An over-confident bio in a school yearbook states that by 23 I’d be “writing a novel in a freezing Parisian garret”. That was 11 years ago. Still bupkis. Aside from attending a few adult evening classes in creative writing, and a day trip to the Irish Writers Centre, I didn’t follow Frank O’Connor’s writing advice of applying “arse of trouser to seat of chair.” So when I spotted, on Twitter, a no-frills, five-day UK writer’s retreat, I signed up.

Mornings at Book Camp began with a two-hour writing session, around the huge kitchen table, with Coleman. We completed writing exercises and listened to each other’s plot descriptions, and, by the third day, I was no longer embarrassed about reading aloud my paltry word count, or over-descriptive text, in front of the others.

Five of us stayed in a converted barn, with new students joining us for daily sessions. One girl wrote a literary ghost story, another edited her women’s fiction novel about finding love at a Spanish cookery course, and I began a story about my grandmother and her sisters in 1940s Ireland. I had been meaning to write it for years. For anyone with writer’s block, there was a never-ending supply of tea, rosewater cupcakes, apple crumble and jam roly poly, as well as a pile of shiny ‘how to write’ books on the antique sidetable.

It was lovely to be embroiled in a literary world, listening to Major and Coleman referring to authors and reviewers by their first names, as we ate a roast chicken dinner, or having Coleman critique my short story while we drank an evening glass of wine. I met Caroline Hogg, senior commissioning editor at Pan Macmillan, who advised on my fledgling book plot, and gave me a list of similar-themed books to read for inspiration. With patchy internet coverage (accessible only by sitting on a tree stump outside, near the horse paddock), and encouraged by the constant clack-clack of other people being productive, I wrote more fiction in a week than ever before.

I learned that the most productive way for me to write is by using ‘word races’. This involves setting a 60-minute timer and spewing the words onto the page as fast as I can. All text can be cleaned up and polished later. Seeing Coleman write and edit daily, while showing us iPhone photographs of her five children at home, alerted me to how much dedication and hard work it takes to write a book.

With a newfound impetus to write, I look forward to attending The West Cork Literary Festival 2013. Starting on Jul 7, there are authors to hear (Anne Enright, Kate Mosse, Mary Robinson, Melvyn Bragg, Darren Shan), workshops to attend (‘The Novel: How to Get Started and How to Keep Going’; ‘Become a Travel Writer in 5 Easy Steps’), and evening sessions (‘A Novel in a Year; The Freedom Poetry Show’). There is also a ‘writer idol’, whereby aspiring authors submit the first page of their novel anonymously and a panel of judges (including novelists, Kate Thompson and Louise Doughty) reads and critiques it in front of an audience. Throughout the week editor-in-residence Francesca Maine will spend 50-minute, one-to-one slots with would-be writers and their four-page manuscripts.

If the muse doesn’t appear after all of that, I’m not sure it ever will.


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