Earlier this year I was stuck in the doldrums with my novel, knowing that it still needed some work, but not sure how to go about it.
On Twitter I happened upon Writers HQ and discovered their online courses. I ended up taking two and well, now I’ve got a publishing contract!
Writers HQ is run by Sarah Lewis-Hammond and Jo Gatford and it isn’t your typical writing course. It’s a sweary, badass community of writers who only get more successful. Now Sarah and Jo have launched a membership scheme that gives you even more access to their fantastic and very affordable courses.
I had a little chat with Sarah about their plans for world domination…
Tell us a little bit about Writers HQ (and yourselves)…
That’s a big question! Jo and I are both technically ‘early career’ writers I guess. About 7 years ago I did an MA in creative writing and then had my daughter a few weeks after handing in my dissertation. Obviously then the time I had to write disappeared completely, and I thought I couldn’t be the only one struggling to fit it all in, so I set up a day-long writing retreat in Brighton.
Two really important things happened on that first retreat. One is it sold out, which really surprised me but also let me know there was a need for it, and two is that Jo walked in. We became friends straight away and when I had my second child she covered the (by then regular) Brighton Writers’ Retreat during my maternity leave.
We’d been talking for a while about doing something more with BWR – we knew there were a lot of people out there who were feeling as though the courses they’d taken weren’t quite the right fit, or who felt they were missing vital pieces of information. We also felt like we knew from their questions and our own experiences what those bits of information were.
There was also a really strong sense of community at Brighton Writers’ Retreat and everyone talked about how they finally felt as though they’d found their writing gang. People started asking us if we did courses, and when we started recommending other people we became very aware of how expensive they were and how that made it impossible for so many.
While I was on maternity leave I was made redundant from my job and it was next to impossible to find something to fit my skill set and my family needs so I basically spent the nine months of mat leave quietly brainwashing Jo until she finally relented and agreed to set up Writers’ HQ with me, even though she had absolutely no time to do more work. But there was no way I was doing it without her and like we always say about writing – you can always squeeze 10 minutes in here and there.
One of my absolute favourite things about WHQ is that some of the people from that core early Brighton Writers’ Retreat community are now running retreats for us in various locations. It just feels like family. I love it.
How do you fit your own writing in around running Writers HQ?
Hahahahaaaaaa yeah no we don’t. That’s why we’re still ‘early career writers’ and not ‘best selling kick-arse world-changing genre-defying writers’. The original idea was that it would tick over and make enough money to fund our writing but obviously it’s become an all-consuming beast and the only time we really get to write is when we run retreats. It’s frustrating but also the warm-fuzzies we get from seeing WHQers succeed is so rad it kind of doesn’t matter. (I mean it does matter, I’m riddled with pain and angst about my own writing, but there’s a pay-off at least).
The Writers’ HQ students have formed quite a tight community on social media. Do you enjoy seeing the interaction and following their progress?
It’s the best. It really is. It feels like there was a whole bunch of disenfranchised writers who didn’t really fit in any of the available places – certainly I felt like that – and we’ve somehow, almost accidentally, made this cosy little nest for them. It’s lush.
What’s been your biggest success so far with Writers HQ?
To be honest, all of it! Winning an Arts Council grant, running a successful business in such a hard economy (especially when the things that keep the business going are considered a luxury), seeing our students flourish. I think it was only last month when it really hit home that the thing we set out to do is really working – we had four students on the Mslexia first novel long list, a whole bunch of people on the Bath and Bristol short story long list, a handful of publishing deals, one person signed with an agent, the list of achievements is massive.
Have you got any plans to expand and take over the literary world?
YES! We expanded from two to seven retreats last year and we’re looking at more across the UK in 2018. (Psst: potential retreat reps get in touch, particularly if you’re in the north and super particularly Edinburgh thanks!). We also have people who want to set them up overseas so we’re looking at various models of how to do that. We also have more courses coming online and some other top secret stuff. Give us a couple more years and we’ll be in charge of everything.
What’s the mistake your students most often make in their writing?
I’m not sure if there’s one particular thing necessarily. Everyone has their own processes and insecurities and what we try to do is say ‘here’s the centre of the spectrum, learn it, understand it, and then go mangle it in whatever glorious way works for you.’
I guess if I had to pick something it would be about a misunderstanding of the planning process. First off, every story sounds crap when reduced to a handful of bare-bones sentences and often people panic that what they’re doing isn’t worth it. It’s really hard but you have to keep imagining the flesh around the bare bones and keep an idea in mind of the beautiful thing you’re trying to create. And secondly, for a bunch of chaotic worriers, writers are a weirdly methodical lot. So when we talk through our process of planning, often people get hung up on it being perfect and correct and a one-time only deal and that it has to be done a-b-c, when actually planning is part of the never ending cycle of writing. You plan a bit, write a bit, adjust your plan, write a bit more, tweak, write, nudge, write, edit, cry, tweak, and so on until you collapse and die (or, you know, finish and publish). It’s more like a dropped Scrabble set than an orderly alphabet.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out as a writer?
You’ll think that you’re going to produce something wonderful straight away but you won’t. Even reading this you’re thinking ‘oh I’ll be different, mine will be great’ but you won’t and it won’t and that’s fine. All writing starts off terrible and the best writers are the ones who keep going, sometimes for decades, even when the writing isn’t quite right yet.
Be brave, always.
Never delete anything, keep it in a big document marked ‘crap’.
And finally, what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
Achhh I can’t just pick one. I feel like most of the books I’ve read this year have been too safe. Nothing has really given me That Book Feeling. I finally read Jane Eyre which was an unexpected joy. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell was great. But there’s nothing that I’m shoving in Jo’s face yelling YOU MUST READ THIS. Which is probably a relief for her but a bit disappointing for me.
If this interview hasn’t persuaded you to sign up for Writers HQ, head over to Twitter and let the alumni talk you into it!
4) Longlisted for @Mslexia Novel Award (judging still ongoing)
5) Shortlisted for #Flash500 Novel Opening Award (judging still ongoing)
6) Accepted as a mentee into the #authormentormatch mentoring programme (with the awesome @AdrianneFinlay as my mentor)
— LorNativity Riley (@lc_riley) December 4, 2017
If you want 2018 to be your year then SIGN UP TO ONE OF THEIR COURSES / GET ONE PUT IN YOUR STOCKING FOR XMAS.
YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT!!🙌🙌
— LorNativity Riley (@lc_riley) December 4, 2017