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David Allan-Petale: burn your drafts, abandon your plans

David Allan-Petale stayed at KSP in 2021 as a KSP Fellow.

10 tips for writing and writing retreats by David Allan-Petale

Time and space to write are precious things too valuable to waste.

If you’ve got a stay at KSP coming up, I hope I can help make it smoother with five tips on making the best use of your time in the hills.

And if you’re locked in the struggle of writing as I always, am, they segue neatly into five things I use to make writing life better in my own practice.

Happy hunting!

1. Make a plan…

The whiteboard in my cabin at KSP was covered in notes and word count tallies. Right in the middle was a detailed plan for how I would spend each working hour of the days I had in hand.

Starting with a walk in the early hours, I split my day into three to hour sessions, ending the day with another walk, dinner, then another two-hour session at night.

There was also a writing plan, starting with a few days of typing up and editing 10k of handwritten chapters, then reverting back to typing for the rest of the draft.

Plans focus the mind and define the task, while allowing us to control something, even if it’s just the whiteboard.

2. …then abandon it

I arrived at KSP exhausted: sick at sea with a cold, and utterly worn out from the unbalancing act of taking care of my kids and working.

So even though I wrote that very ambitious plan on the whiteboard, I tripped at the first hurdle.

Instead of working I sat on the floor of the cabin and meditated, listening to the birds and the planes and the trucks and the wide-open air.

I realised I couldn’t just immediately switch from full time parent and professional to full time creative with the snap of fingers. So I relaxed them, and let KSP get into my skin.

3. Let it be

Letting go allowed the retreat to develop its own essence, instead of me forcing it.

I came to KSP with questions about what I was writing, looking for direction and inspiration, not just time and space to bash it out, though that was helpful.

So I stuck to the spirit of the plan, doing the work in regular blocks throughout the days and nights. But I made sure to keep a loose grip, so I wouldn’t miss the happenstance KSP brings.

4. Push aside your guilt

Two weeks away from my daughters was hard. Leaving my wife to parent alone was hard.

I also work for myself, so there was a significant financial sacrifice that had to be made.

The guilt I felt was very large and very real. But I used it as coal to fuel the writing.

5. Go for regular walks

Work for an hour. Take a lap of the KSP grounds. They are beautiful and restorative.

I also made time every day to go for an hour walk in the John Forrest National Park. It’s a great place to work out a plot problem, or think through the next steps.

6. Burn your drafts

The first book I wrote sucked.

Took me four years. Then I realised I had written the backstory instead of the real story.

I had a choice – edit it, or start again. It was very difficult, but I binned the book.

It’s either right, or it’s not. No amount of editing can save something flawed.

7. Figure out what it’s about

Locust Summer originally focused on the relationship between the protagonist and his father. But during a retreat at another writing centre, I realised it should have been about the protagonist and his mother.

I used my time at KSP to work on a new project I’m calling Black Clouds, and this is the fourth time I’ve written it – and yes, I burned the drafts!

Because I’m figuring it out. And I think I got something up in the hills…

8. Say something, not just anything

We can all write. But it's more important that we have something to say, and stay true to that, and that alone.

Have that and the prose sorts itself out.

9. Do it again

Deep into the editorial process for Locust Summer I was sick of the book. Really sick of it. But I went again and again and again, because I was sicker of the feeling that it wasn't as good as I could make it.

10. It’s ready when it’s ready

Locust Summer took ten years of writing, rewriting, editing, and then all of that so many times I lost count. Totally inefficient but never a waste of time.

It takes as long as it takes.


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