Amanda Saint's first novel, As If I Were A River, is set in the current day and in the 1950s, 70s and 80s. Her forthcoming novel is speculative fiction, set partly in the future and partly in the past. Amanda founded Retreat West in 2012, and provides a wide range of creative writing events and competitions. Literature Works caught up with the self-confessed "nature-loving nomad" to find out more ...

There’s a lot going on at Retreat West! Can you tell us a bit about Retreat West and what it does?

Retreat West started when I moved away from London to Devon and couldn’t find anything like the one-day writing retreats I’d been going to. So I started my own in Exeter. The fact that I work at home and also move around a lot can be really isolating. So Retreat West was started partly as a way to get me out of the house and engaging with other writers. Retreat West is very much based around the kind of things that I would have liked to have had access to when I was starting out as a writer.

Now there are online courses and competitions to win reviews from a literary agent, cash prizes and publication in anthologies and on the website. We also run residential writing retreats with masterclasses focusing on different elements of writing.

But I think the best thing Retreat West does is bring writers together. It’s created a little writing community and many of our writers have come on retreats time and time again. We have a mailing list of several hundred writers and everything I do at Retreat West helps me to carry on learning and developing as a writer alongside them. I’ve also met and worked with lots of authors whose work I really admire, which has been brilliant.

You have an Urbane Weekender coming up in Sheepwash – a “writing retreat/literary festival mix-up”! What can potential weekenders look forward to there?

Lots of reading, writing and fun! The event will last for 3 nights and 2 full days and provides time for writers to work on their own as well as the opportunity to take part in four workshops. These will focus on improving your writing, reading aloud, pitching and presenting your work and working with a publisher. I’m really looking forward to the Pitching & Presenting workshop. Almost every writer needs help when it’s time to submit to agents and publishers!

It’s all happening at the lovely Retreats for You over a summer weekend, and we’re also taking over the pub just opposite the retreat. So there is room for 14 writers to join us. All of the tutors for the weekend, including myself, are published by exciting new indie press, Urbane Publications. Matthew Smith, owner and founder of Urbane will also be there, talking about the novels he publishes and hoping to find new writers to work with. There’s a First Page competition running and the winner will get their full MS read by Matthew, with a view to it being published by Urbane.

Retreat West also offers longer courses and one to one opportunities?

Yes, there are currently two online courses. A 6-week beginner 1-1 course to introduce people to writing and get them used to feedback. When I first went to classes I found it very scary to read my work aloud and be critiqued. So this is a way, I hope, for new writers to learn the basics and build their confidence before venturing out into the world of live writing classes and events.

Then there is the 8 Month Novel Course, which I have just launched this month, to start in April. This is a creative writing course along with 1-1 mentoring, which will take an idea to a complete first draft in eight months. At the end of the course, each writer gets a full editorial review of the draft and a plan to move forward with.

I also provide 1-1 critiquing and a mentoring service for writers of novels, memoirs and short stories.

Retreat West has published books from previous competition winners? Can you say a bit about them and how to get hold of them?

During 2013 and 2014 Retreat West ran a series of short story and flash fiction competitions and published the winners in e-books on Amazon. It was a great experience to self-publish and find out more about how that works. It was also fascinating to see how people approach the same theme in so many different ways.

Both anthologies can be purchased through the Retreat West website and Amazon. All of the royalties are donated to Beanstalks, a charity that helps school children who struggle with reading.

Speaking of books, you’re a writer yourself and you’ve been a magazine editor, and online editor. Your novel As If I Were a River is being published in 2016. How do you balance all the work on Retreat West, and keep time for your own writing?

With difficulty! My debut novel is coming out in April and when I was writing it, things at Retreat West weren’t quite as busy as they are now. But I have got better recently at making myself sit down and write 500 words of fiction every morning as soon as I get up.

I try to get away to a writing retreat as often as finances and time allow. And I write a lot in my head before anything gets onto paper, often when I’m out walking. Then when I do have dedicated writing time, it pours out onto the page pretty quickly.

What writing projects are you working on just now – what’s coming up?

I’m writing my second novel, which Urbane are publishing in late 2017. It’s pretty different to my debut, which is a family drama/mystery, and has been inspired by my career as a journalist, in which I mainly write about sustainability and climate change. We live in a time when environmental concerns are very much at the forefront of people’s minds. The new novel is set in a speculative near future and I learned last week that it’s part of a new genre called Cli-Fi, which I hadn’t heard of. I’ve always been a big fan of speculative/dystopian novels and now I’m writing my own!

I’m also working on putting together a short story collection of 10 interconnected stories that are loosely based on the magpie rhyme: one for sorrow, two for joy, etc. When it’s finished I may try crowdfunding, in order to get a small amount of illustrated books published and hand bound.

Just finally, we always ask writers about their craft – particularly how they face up to the first draft of a piece. Do you have any advice for writers on how to get that first draft down?

Make a plan and get a writing friend to chat through your ideas and read your work when it gets to the stage where you need feedback.

I started my first novel with a vague premise of a woman whose husband goes missing. I’d seen lots of stories in the news about people going missing and watched a documentary about it and I started wondering how someone would deal with it. I went off in many different directions before finding the right one, which meant that it took years to finish!

This time around I’ve made a basic plan and have a loose outline, plus I have lots of writing friends to chat to. But I’ve also spent almost a year thinking, planning and playing with my idea and my main character, to find her voice and the story.

So I would say – don’t start writing too early and have some idea of the narrative arc and where you’re heading. I started writing my new novel last month and one of the first scenes I wrote was the last one. Now I know where I’m going. I just have to get there.

But the best advice I can give you is not to be too rigid in your plan. Let the characters lead you and play around to discover what works best for you.

Thank you, Amanda!

Retreat West Amanda's Website