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Book A Room

/by Erica Brooks/

I am just the worst for excuses.

Last year at the Edinburgh International Book Festival I sat in a packed audience listening to a newly-published author talk about how she had started her novel once her son was born. Like all new mums she had no time at all to herself, but that didn’t stop her, oh no. She scraped away on that novel a little at a time, five minutes here and there. She did this for seven years. And now here she was, sharing a stage with Scarlett-freaking-Thomas and rubbing elbows with Ian Rankin in the Author’s Yurt (it’s a thing).

I smiled and said things like ‘wow’ out loud, but inside I was thinking less generous thoughts.

I don’t have a baby, but I do have a husband. (He has, by the way, already poked his head into the computer room to ask me to Google something at least four times.) And I have a job. I also have roller derby practice, and I’ve been reading some really good books lately, and we just figured out how to watch Saturday Night Live from the UK, and also writing a novel is haaarrrd. Which is maybe what it all comes down to.

In the end, there’s no short cuts, just do the hard work. We all know this. That said, I’ve never been a fan of self- flagellation, especially when all it gets you (or me, at least) is an extra helping of guilt and no actual words on the page. I like to work with what I’ve got, even if what I’ve got is an underdeveloped motivational drive and almost no self-discipline.

So a couple of weeks ago, I booked myself in for two nights at a bed and breakfast in Dundee. Just me. No husband, no internet (besides the pricey 3G on my mobile) – it was my private writer’s retreat. It might not have exactly embodied the struggling-artist ideal, but it sure was pretty.

I’m not sure how I ended up in Dundee. My original plan had been to find some wind-swept place in the remote Highlands, a physical space to match the psychological one I was seeking. That plan lasted the five minutes it took me to realise that I have to get to said place without a car, after work on Friday, at a reasonable price. I started Googling closer to home. But with the help of online reviews, I managed to find a cosy-looking B&B just outside of Dundee, surrounded by trees and, crucially, not decorated in frothy pseudo-Victorian lace. I’m writing sci-fi, for God’s sake. I can’t do that surrounded by lace.

(The B&B, by the way, is called Balmuirfield House, and literally everybody reading this needs to book themselves a room there. Stat. You’re welcome.)

So I had the place. Now I needed a plan.

Obviously, I wasn’t going to write a novel in a day. But I had a chance to give myself a leg up, to lay some groundwork that would make it easier to keep grinding along when I was no longer luxuriating beside my own private fireplace or ruminating in peace, while I gazed out at red squirrels running across the lawn (seriously – book a room). So I decided to focus on my weakest point, the one element that has caught me out every time I’ve tried to write this thing. I decided to focus on plot.

Full disclosure: the novel I’m working on started out four years ago as a product of National Novel Writing Month, the annual binge-writing event where people all over the world go just a wee bit mad and churn out a 50,000-word novel between the 1st and the 30th of November. It’s a blast, and it gave me a great start on a first draft, but after the second or third time I had to throw out 90 percent of the bugger, I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I could use a little structure. This was my single, focussed goal for the weekend: build a skeleton. A framework. Give myself something to work with. Evil, nefarious plotting.

So I showed up at Balmuirfield House armed with printouts of plot advice, a notebook, a paranoid number of pens and back-up pens, and my little netbook. My hosts were warm and funny, and we stayed up past midnight on that first night swapping stories and eating chocolate. But after that, I was on my own. Yes, I had a fireplace and red squirrels and a giant bathtub. But it was still just me, alone in the room with a big, empty notebook.

I had one full day there. And I grumbled and paced. I heaved big sighs. I smoked too much. I played with the fire.

And I found a plot.

I know some of you are naturals when it comes to this. But we all have our weak points, and so I know you’ll understand when I say that this is huge for me. It’s a genuine first. Even my short stories usually feel their way along as they go, and anything longer I’ve attempted has followed the basic structure of Big Shocking Moment … yadda, yadda, yadda … MOVING IMAGERY JAZZHANDS!! with almost nothing to justify calling it a story.

But this? This was a story. It is a story. I’m kind of in love with it.

It feels like there should be a moral here somewhere, but damned if I can find it. I hope, when it comes down to it, that I can be as brave as that author and nibble out a novel in bits if I have to. I hope I can keep going with what I’ve started.

But in the meantime… hot damn, that was a good weekend.

–Comment below or leave Erica a message at ShortbreadStories.

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5 thoughts on “Book A Room

  1. great post, super idea if a trifle expensive. – ☺

  2. Thanks! 🙂

    And yeah, it was kind of a big deal for me to splurge on this too. I did get cheaper rates as a single traveller, and the Balmuirfield House was running a 25% off special for January, so even with the big lux room, the whole thing, including all meals, cost me a little over a hundred quid, which was a pretty good deal! The train added to that, but that’s partly because I didn’t read the (*ahem*nonexistent*ahem*) fine print and had to buy another £17 ticket ON TOP OF the return I already had. I was bitter. Still am, really…

  3. “I like to work with what I’ve got, even if what I’ve got is an underdeveloped motivational drive and almost no self-discipline.” I’m going to need the phone number to the B&B, Erica, because that’s me.

    Yeah, what’s with all busy parents writing novels? I think they’re all praying, “God, just give me 5 minutes away from this crybaby and I’ll do anything. I swear, I’ll even a write a novel. Just five minutes a day for the next 7 years!”

    Happy to hear you found the plot, and I wish you all the best in writing your novel.

    Mark

    • Can’t recommend this place enough! The number’s at the link…

      And just a shout-out to all those harried parent/authors out there — I hope you realise we’re speaking out of pure admiration here. And maybe a little shame. Stop ruining our excuses, dammit!!

  4. Definitely out of admiration. I’m amazed by people who can just jump in and out of writing a story in five minute bursts. I need to clear an entire day to get ready and write, which has become a rarity lately.

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