Sunday, 16 June 2013

My first writers' retreat: Team Cooper 2013

Last weekend I went to my first ever writers' retreat, organised by the best of all agents, Gemma Cooper, especially for her clients.

What is a writers' retreat? I hear you ask. (I hear this because I am psychic. Or maybe you haven't asked, and I'm just wrong. Whatever. I'm going to tell you anyway.)

This is not what a writers' retreat is
I think a lot of people have vague, slightly religious visions of a large house in the forest, filled with ethereal people in muumuus who look a lot like Margaret Atwood.

Maybe that is what happens sometimes. I don't know. But the writers' retreat I went to consisted of a group of people talking enthusiastically about everything from Doctor Who to ballroom-dancing unicorns and taking frequent breaks for cake, wine and workshops.

The workshops - which included a talk on the publishing process by Annalie Grainger of Walker Books and a seminar on school visits by Mo O'Hara (who, judging by the presentation she gave, does THE BEST school visits ever, complete with comical fish impressions) - were completely fantastic. I came out a lot more confident about my own writing process, and desperate to get started on about ten new projects. Oddly enough, though, I think the most exciting part of the weekend was just being able to spend time with the other members of Team Cooper.

Even though I spend my working days with people whose job it is to create and sell books about time-travelling pirates and sexy Russian soldier witches and then come home to a boyfriend who last week told me that he wanted to change his last name to Ladle, it's sometimes quite difficult to explain to them that my head is full of people without sounding totally nuts. So it's pretty nice to hang out with similarly afflicted weirdos, who, when you begin to describe the intricate lives of your characters, say "THAT IS SO COOL!" and actually mean it, and then tell you about their own brain-children. On the retreat, we were all mad, and that was OK.

Actually, this whole experience has reminded me that not only that am I lucky in my agent and her choice of clients (Gemma, you pick well!), but that I'm lucky in my genre.

Yes, you could argue that there's a vast difference between board books and YA, and also that a realistic middlegrade novel and a middlegrade novel about fairies in the underworld, despite sitting on the shelf next to each other, are really poles apart. But all of these vastly different kinds of books get gathered up together in one big glorious mush of 'children's fiction', and I'm actually incredibly glad about that. Because what it provides is the most incredible opportunity for creativity from the people who write it.

I went into the retreat weekend thinking of myself as an (upper) middlegrade writer, with maybe some leanings towards YA, and came out of it reminded (by Gemma's excellent picture book and non-fiction workshop, among many other things) that because I'm a children's writer I've actually got license to try my hand at anything I want to. I could write a picture book about dragons who bake doughnuts, or a 7+ about werewolves in space, or a non-fiction book in which historical characters fight for supremacy in a giant pit of jelly. Not that I am planning to do any of those things. But I could.

THIS is what a writers' retreat is. Team Cooper salute you. Photo credit Benjamin Scott.

As a teenager, when I was first reading Big Grown-Up Books (Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse springs to mind especially), I kept coming across descriptions of the Pain of Authorial Creation, and getting really worried. I'd always thought of writing as a basically fun, if occasionally annoying, activity, but here were all these adults wailing and groaning and straining their brain-muscles about the sheer HORROR of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). For a while I wondered if I was doing something wrong in not being so tormented. Did I need to stop writing about talking werewolf cats in space, and start an epic of the human condition?

The problem was that I didn't really want to write an epic of the human condition. I wanted to write about horrible murders and zombies and vampires and exploding universes. It took me quite a while to realise that it was totally OK to write children's books, and to love doing it.

I don't know, obviously, but I do wonder whether most children's writers have gone through a similar process of discovery, and whether it's made them more chilled than adult writers about the things they create as a result. Certainly, the rest of Team Cooper are incredibly practical and non-precious about the projects they're working on, and (like a lot of other kids' authors I've come across) they're also pretty amazing to hang out with.

All of Team Cooper have experienced those infuriating moments when you can't get words out, or when the words you do get out just look wrong. But the retreat weekend reminded me that despite the difficult times, most of the time writing should be, and is, fun for us. We write because we love to do it, because we couldn't wake up in the morning and not want to make up a story.

We may be a bit mad, but I think that we're also very lucky.


  1. this sounds brilliant. Especially the talk on school visits! I wish I could see one of those...

    1. It was amazing and so useful! I think Mo should take it to all writing conventions.

  2. Couldn't have put it better myself - it was great to see you and all of Team C :)

    1. I agree! Here's to next year's (I hope!)