13 September 2011

The Failed Retreat, 4-9 September 2011

I've just got back from The Failed Retreat - a termly activity that gathers Failed Novelists together to write and workshop under the same roof. This was my third or fourth (I forget) retreat with the same organiser, and, as always, the most valuable part was getting to see first-hand how people instinctively react to my work, and getting to see how I reacted to theirs.

The retreats began modestly a long time ago, before I came to Oxford. These days they're so popular that the poor host has to run two separate weeks every holiday in order to sate demand.

Development Hell

My first Big Project for the week was a radio play called The Fear Diary, which is about an out-of-control psychology experiment on fear. This was my main project during the week, and everything else was procrastination. Especially my second Big Project, a novel about Oxford's underground prostitution scene called The Tragedy of Magpie Lane.*

Both Big Projects are still in the plotting phase, so working on them was, and remains, very tiring. A lot of time was spent choosing suitably symbolic names for characters and answering the Proust questionnaire over and over again. Graphs were drawn, subplots were dreamed up and discarded, character arts were inspected for excessive similarity to each other, and my insistence that becoming a management consultant is a suitably dreadful fate for my villain was questioned by the group on multiple occasions. No significant progress was made.

I also spent a lot of time studying Story by Robert McKee, and wondering whether his dilemma triangle actually makes sense. One of the other Failed Novelists had brought a copy too, so we were able to have a right old bitch about it.

Much head was wracked as to how storys can be best structured. Should one plot beforehand, or "do a McKee" as we called it, or simply written to see what happens?

Writing Writing Writing

Each evening at Failed Retreats, the inmates (as they are called) gather to share and comment on each other's work. Highlights this week included some cuneiform poetry, the memoir of a Communist grandmother and a horror story about creating monsters in a lab.

The lab monster was a response to my "horror challenge", which demanded that everyone wrote a horror story by midnight on the first night for a firelight reading. (I confess this idea was nicked off Byron. Perhaps The Fear Diary will be the next Frankenstein? Somehow I doubt it.)

This horror theme continued throughout the week, no doubt fueled by me going on about The Fear Diary. One of the other inmates actually write a fan poem based on my play, although, as the host cruelly pointed out, I can't really copyright the concept of "fear" for my own work.

Pigs on a Plane

By far my most successful contribution to the evening workshops was a television short called Pigs on a Plane, inspired by some real life pork prancing we witnessed on a blueberry-picking ramble. In it, Churchill and Athquith, two pigs in need of affection, escaped from their farm and started stalking some writers, in the hopes of a hug. The humans don't understand the pigs' good intentions, of course, and hilarious complications ensue.

As you can imagine, I started writing straight away and didn't bother with plotting or character development or anything like that. It's just a joke, I told myself. Curiously, imagining Winston Churchill and Herbert Asquith as pigs resulted in quite well-developed characters. The simplicity of the story made structuring of the plot very natural. And the stilted formality of television script formatting made its rather silly content even more gigglesome.

Athquith the pig ("Asquith" with a lisp) taught me that all pigs really want is to be loved. Photo source.
It was a mediocre offering, but the group loved it unconditionally. It just goes to show the strange power of cuteness. Perhaps I should stop trying to plot deep and meaningful novels, and just write television series about fluffy animals?

Or perhaps not taking the plotting too seriously freed me up just to write something enjoyable?

We'll never know. And no, the dilemma triangle does not make sense, no matter what else you may think of McKee.

* Magpie Lane is a real street in Oxford famed for its rather rude history.


  1. You should start writing Fear Diary. Otherwise you will forever be mired in the plotting stage and never progress.

    I think a certain amount of plotting is needed before you begin, but once I had enough to write the opening it was better for me to get on with it before I succumbed to disillusionment and gave up. For me it has been a symbiotic process; I will spend some time plotting and freewriting each day, and some day writing the script itself.

    I've written about half now, and I'm still not entirely sure how the last third is going to work out, but I got ideas as I was writing, and it is surprisingly easy to go back and change things that don't fit when I revise the plot. For example, I've just decided that certain elements in the scene I've just written should come later on in the play. But that doesn't mean I need to scrap the scene or that I wasted time writing it - on the contrary, I just need to take some elements and rework it into the later scene, and in its place add a different plot development point.

    Re: Pigs on a Plane: FINISH IT!
    It did free you up and allowed you to write without worrying too much about perfect plotting. The plot and the humour came from the characters. Although we probably loved it because it was based on in-jokes, that does not necessarily mean it won't be appealing to other people. A story was written (by 'Superhumble underwear') about all of us on the first retreat and put it up on the Etcetera website and it is the most viewed prose on there.

  2. Pigs on a Plane sounds deliriously lovely, I hope it will become available to the Public at some point =)

    I'm glad to hear you're still working on 'Magpie Lane', did you keep the asexual narrator? xx

  3. The asexual narrator idea ended up as a short story. Mainting a whole novel would be possible, but the limitations would shape the novel away from what I wanted it to be in the first place. The asexual story is now one of my party peices: it's great fun watching people not notice that none of the characters have a gender. Ok, I would never actually whip it out in a party, but you know what I mean. :)

  4. @Mmmbvitamins - Alright. I will write about farmyard animals on holiday. ;)

    I think that once I have a main-events-style outline for Fear Diary (or at least know how it ends!) I'll be fine, but I'm getting raging about it not making sense at the moment.