The week in brief:
A residential writing course focused on novel writing, staying at the beautiful Lumb Bank in Hebden Bridge, with some stunning scenery down the valley. Staying with fifteen other writers, we were all allocated a night to cook for everybody, and then given time to ourselves. With workshops run by published writers in the morning and the afternoons and evenings to write, my expectations for my own work was high. I promised myself that I’d come into the week with a rough outline of a plot, and come out with a good starting word count, aiming for 1500 or so a day and get some feedback on my work from other people.
The tutors and workshops:
Jonathon Lee and Naomi Wood both have a couple of novels written. Although Jonathon’s Joy wasn’t really to my taste, it has an interesting narrative structure to it. I really enjoyed Naomi’s Mrs Hemingway, which tells the story of Ernest Hemingways’ four wives from their perspectives, and The Godless Boys. We also had a ‘guest tutor’ Suzanna Joinson, who read one evening and did a q&a afterwards. Jonathan and Naomi took turns leading workshops for three hours each morning on a range of topics – openings, structure, maintaining pace and tension in the middle, finding a narrative voice and keeping it up, and endings They also did a one to one tutorial of about half an hour with each participant.
The tutorials were great; a nice opportunity to speak to someone about my writing and get their opinion on it – some very complimentary things were said. All the workshops were useful in kick starting some ideas, tightening some scenes, and considering we were all at different stages of writing our novels, tailored well to everyone I think. I particularly loved the one Naomi did on maintaining pace and tension on Wednesday morning; well timed and structured, with excellent ideas including: set a deadline for your characters; have your character consider the possibilities before choosing one; see the alternatives; set obstacles for your characters. Even the problem of being unable to untie a knot in a boat rope while mounting a rescue (can’t remember the name of the story!) ups the tension immediately and stops the story sagging.
Amazing. I’ve been fortunate in experiencing this level of bonding quickly with a group a few times in my life but actually. don’t think it’s ever been so fast. It’s like show week if it came at the beginning of rehearsals instead of after a year! They were incredibly professional and brilliant writers. It’s always a bit of a worry; if someone’s terrible, how much do you say without being overly critical but honest? Absolutely not an issue. I genuinely believe that with the standard I saw from their extracts, everyone there was capable of being published and had interesting stories that I would like to read. They were also excellent at constructive critique which was the MOST valuable part of the week, that generosity in being willing to read each other’s work but giving honest, thoughtful feedback about where it works and where it doesn’t. We’ve already connected on email and facebook, and I hope that will continue to be a good thing for us all. in another ‘what I learned at Arvon’ blog post the writer said “you are my saints”, and I have to agree.
* Be proactive. I initiated a few writing sessions and workshops, asked people to read my stuff (which makes it hard to say no!!) and it really paid off and made the week the success I was hoping for.
* Give good feedback. Everyone’s there for help and support. Think about what they give you, be honest but helpful. Avoid empty comments about how fabulous it is; be nice, of course, but say why it works and why it doesn’t.
* Share as much as possible.
* Spend the time writing!
So what did I come out with?
Did I keep that promise to myself? Yes – I came out with a firm plan, a starting count of around 9000 and got some good feedback. I actually came out with so much more than that though. I found a group and place where I got the feedback I’d been looking for but with it came confidence because they responded so positively. Writing can be lonely. Even when you’re publishing stuff, you don’t get much back and certainly not in detail. When you’ve been writing for so long, it can be easy to let yourself be critical, to think you’re no good and will never really get anywhere. I have champions in my life who tell me that’s not true, and they’ve gone a long way to discourage that kind of thinking. At Arvon I got a super-strength dose. On the last evening we went round and said what we had learned, and a week later, this is what I should have said: “I learned the confidence to say ‘I am a writer. I write, and I want to write professionally.”
Arvon courses cost around £700 for a week, including food and board. There are plenty of grants available; I was the grateful recipient of a Teacher’s Grant to cover some costs. The course is relatively expensive, but if you’re serious about developing your writing skills, it’s worth it.