Several years ago, I attended a workshop hosted by the author and creator of Writing Maps, Shaun Levin, with the same name as this article. At the time, I was already making a living as a writer but through journalism and marketing content for businesses. My first novel was a work in progress and I hadn’t yet had any fiction published but I was determined to make a living just through journalism and fiction.
Not long after that course, in August 2012, I moved out of the city to Exmoor and, shortly after arriving there, I started my creative writing business, Retreat West. I’d been inspired by the Urban Writers’ Retreat that I’d been going to one Sunday a month while living in London, and Charlie who runs it was really helpful, giving me lots of advice. So, I started out running one-day retreats in Bristol and Exeter and met lots of writers through them who I am still in touch with today.
At the start of 2013, my novel was chugging along and I’d had a couple of short stories published but I really wanted to learn more about writing both forms. I couldn’t afford to go on any courses so I started my own and brought the people I wanted to learn from to deliver workshops at residential writing retreats. I hosted the events and cooked for the writers that came while the visiting authors taught classes on different elements of fiction writing. I also started running flash fiction and short story competitions with guest judges choosing the winners. Reading the stories to decide on the shortlists helped me to understand writing the short form: what works, what doesn’t, and how you deliver a punch in a limited wordcount without resorting to a punchline.
Over the years of running the retreats, I’ve been lucky enough to have writers whose work I really admire come and share their writing wisdom, including Richard Skinner who heads up the hugely successful fiction programme at the Faber Academy; Alison Moore whose Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Lighthouse, blew me away; and Paul McVeigh, who founded the London Short Story Festival and whose story, My Aunt Maggie, is one of the best works of flash fiction I’ve ever read. I was very proud that one of my own, Purple With a Purpose, was published alongside this story in the 2016 National Flash Fiction Day anthology, A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed.
I’ve learned so much since starting Retreat West that I now teach creative writing to others and designed the online 8 Month Novel Course, which I launched last year, from my experiences of writing my first and second novels. I’ve also started running workshops at the residential retreats and, last year, I delivered two workshops at the Festival of Writing in York, as well as running one-to-one ‘book doctor’ sessions. Having found this kind of help invaluable myself when I was a beginner writer, it’s nice to be able to do it from the other side now.
This month, I have just launched Retreat West Books, an indie press, which is now open for submissions. There are already two titles published under my new imprint – What Was Left, which is an anthology of winning and shortlisted stories from the annual Retreat West Short Story and Flash Fiction Prizes and the reissue of my own novel, As If I Were A River, which was originally published by another indie press at the start of 2016. When the rights were returned to me, I decided to make it available again through my own publishing house.
The first title coming from Retreat West Books in 2018 will be a charity anthology raising money for the global climate action group, Earth Day Network. As for my journalism, I specialise in writing about environmental sustainability, climate change, and renewable energy; and have been involved in this world for almost 20 years. Sadly things have not improved as much as they could have in that time so I’m hoping using climate-fiction stories can help raise more awareness of the problems we face and the changes we need to make.
From wanting to be a novelist and make a living as a writer, I have become a teacher and a publisher. When I went to that first workshop, I could never have predicted that’s what I would become but, now it’s happened, I’ve discovered I love developing and publishing other people’s work just as much as I love writing my own.