Last week I posted a brief, muffled endorsement of the Arvon Foundation and their very fine writing courses, from beneath the proverbial bedclothes under which I’d crawled until I recovered from the substantial hangover that I’d accrued during the week. Now I think I owe it to all of you, and indeed to the Arvon Foundation, to go into some more detail. This post will probably end up being much longer, but I hope it gives you an idea of what it’s like to attend a residential writing course, so that you can decide for yourselves whether it would be a good investment for you.
I decided a fair while ago that if I was going to take this writing malarkey seriously (and give potential employers the impression that I was taking it seriously), I was going to have to do one or both of two things: get a short story published in a fantasy anthology (I’m still working on that one), and/or attend a creative writing course. At the time, I thought about it mostly as CV padding: in my ill-deserved arrogance, I assumed that there wasn’t much that a writing course could teach me about the art of writing which I wouldn’t already know. How wrong I was.
It’s funny how these things come about. A few months ago, I did an internship with an academic publishing company, and I found out that their chief book editor was an aspiring writer, far further down the line than I was in terms of having prepared her manuscript, and gauged interest from a few agents and publishers. I sat down for a short conversation with her where I asked her about her experiences as a writer and hungrily jotted down almost every word she said, not caring about the vague awkwardness of the meeting – a mere intern ruthlessly grilling one of the senior editors of the company – so long as I gleaned a few useful morsels of advice out of it. She said a lot of interesting things about her writing habits and the best day-job to pursue if I wanted to become a full-time writer, but the most useful thing she said was “do a creative writing course.” She’d attended one herself, and she had only the most glowing praise for Arvon, the company who’d orchestrated it. I was initially sceptical, but I was surprised to learn that Arvon had a writing centre only about an hour’s drive from where I live. She’d gone to the same centre herself. And when she told me about how much it had boosted her confidence as a writer, I started to come around to the idea.
It was only recently that I booked the course. I paid the £750, filed the absence form at work, and was called into the manager’s office a day or two later to be told “Well, seeing as you’re off on your holidays soon enough, we thought we’d best give you the bad news now.” So when I turned up on the doorstep of the Hurst, Arvon’s writing centre in Craven Arms, it was in a slightly more advanced state of unemployment than I’d been anticipating. But the beautiful venue helped me to forget about my redundancy pretty quickly.
The Hurst was once the home of the English playwright John Osborne, famous for originating the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement in British literature. I confess to never having read any of his work, but after living in his house for a week I can at least attest that he had good taste in architecture and interior decorating. There was also no WiFi and no mobile phone signal. This came as no surprise to me, having lived in the wilds of the Shropshire countryside for most of my teenaged life, but it did make me think about how a writing course in an isolated mansion would be the perfect setting for a murder mystery. I will be logging that idea away for if I ever want to write a quick best-seller.
Fortunately, nobody died (A sentence which I’m sure Arvon will be plastering all over their promotional material if they read this review). The first night consisted solely of getting to know the other writers on the course, along with the authors who’d be tutoring us over the course of the week. Arvon has a colourful carousel of different authors who they bring in for different courses throughout the year, and my tutors were Christopher Wakling and Anjali Joseph, authors of some very fine works of contemporary literature. The other writers on the course were from all walks of life: there were practicing journalists, one or two graduates doing slightly better than me in the world of employment, a few full-time mothers, and a brace of happy retirees looking to polish off their books now that they were free of the trammels of the daily grind.
Upon arrival, I felt a little like I’d misunderstood the brief of the course. It had been advertised to writers with a “work in progress”, and I’d taken this to mean writers past the point of embarkation, still moulding the first drafts of their book and viewing publication as a distant dream rather than an imminent possibility. I turned out to be in the minority. Most of the people on the course had completed their first draft, and many of them had consulted with agents, gaining the accolade of having their manuscripts rejected, or even published, albeit in languages other than English. I was far behind – but this didn’t end up mattering as much as I thought it would.
On the first night we also had to think ahead about when we wanted to schedule one-on-one meetings with the tutors. I booked a tutorial on the first full day of the course, and realised only towards the end of the evening – once I’d already had my fill of complementary wine – that I hadn’t written a synopsis for the tutors to read, or compiled 3,000 words of my first draft into a presentable sample. I retired to my room (well-furnished with an en-suite bathroom and vintage writing desk) and tried to gather my addled wits together and rattle off a short summary of the book I was trying to write. Easy, I thought.
I was amazed how difficult I found it to sum up my book in just under a page. Having never submitted a manuscript before, writing a summary was something that I’d never had to do. I stayed up until long past midnight agonising over the synopsis, alternately worrying that the whole concept for my book was completely juvenile, or thinking “these literary snobs aren’t going to appreciate good fantasy when they see it.” In retrospect, having to write a synopsis for my tutors was good practice in of itself for whenever I come around to making submissions, but I didn’t see that at the time. I eventually wrote a fairly apologetic synopsis and went to bed feeling like a sham writer who’d signed up for a course that wasn’t going to be of any help. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I got up early the next morning, printed off the previous night’s desperate efforts, left them on the designated tutor’s shelf on an upstairs bookcase, and went down to breakfast. From there on in, things improved drastically.
The course lasted four days, and each day had roughly the same schedule. We all got up early and helped ourselves to breakfast in the communal kitchen, chatting about whether we’d got any writing done the night before, and hoping to sit near one of the tutors in case they let slip a few esoteric secrets of how to become a successful author whilst it was still early and they hadn’t quite gotten their guard up. Then we went straight into tutorial sessions that lasted until lunch.
The sessions had a different theme every day, progressing chronologically through the writing process – starting with openings and first lines, moving on to characterisation and pacing, and ending up with editing and how to get your work published. If I tried to cram all of the stuff I learned into a single post then you’d be reading for days, but it was all very insightful and practical advice, conveyed by two very talented teachers. It ranged from technical lessons in prose and structure to general discussions about how to maintain the levels of self-confidence that any author needs to see their book through to completion. We did five-minute writing exercises to try and bring extra life and depth to our characters, and then if we wanted to we could read them out to the group, letting everyone get a flavour of the kind of book that everyone else was writing. All in all, the sessions were as fun as they were informative. On one morning we ventured out a little way into the grounds of the Hurst and strolled around looking like we’d escaped from a rehabilitation centre for romantic poets, trying to capture the sublimity of the English countryside in prose. Which proved a little difficult, given the pervading scent of manure.
The grounds were open to us throughout the week, meaning we could go and stroll through them as much as we liked during the afternoons, which were left free for us to spend time writing or doing whatever we pleased. A few writers made regular pilgrimages to the pub in the nearest village, whilst I personally found it hard to resist rifling through Arvon’s expansive library. Given the huge amount of books on site, the paltry half-shelf devoted to fantasy and science fiction seemed a little bit of an afterthought, but they did have Joe Abercrombie’s Half a King, which I’d never had the pleasure of reading before. I can recommend the whole of the Shattered Sea series. Even if Abercrombie did basically steal my world-map, the fiend.
Others took the retreat more seriously and bolted themselves away in their rooms every afternoon, only coming out for meetings with the tutors. We were given twenty-minutes of one-on-one time with each of the tutors, which might not seem like a lot, but it proved to be more than enough. 3,000 words and a synopsis is what any agent or publisher will expect when a new author is submitting their work, and it was enough material for the tutors to get a good sense of my work and give me detailed feedback. I got to guide the discussion as much as they did, and Chris Wakling went out of his way to address my concerns about the characterisation of my narrator, being kind enough to look at several different drafts of the opening page of my book and help me decide which narrative voice was best. Anjali helped me in unexpected ways by giving me a few plot and character ideas from Indian history, which has always been a huge source of inspiration for my writing. One of the things she mentioned gave me the germ of an idea for an entire book, which will hopefully come midway through the series I’m writing. Between nailing down my narrative voice and figuring out the plot for a whole book, I’d say the one-on-ones by themselves were worth the price of the whole course.
One of the other things that made the week truly worthwhile was the atmosphere of communal living, which really came to a head during the evenings. The writers took turns cooking dinner for everyone else in groups of four, under the watchful gaze of the site staff, without whom we probably would have set the place on fire or poured whole jars of chilli powder into the risotto or heaven knows what else. Everyone came together at 19:00 to eat, and then moved to the lounge, where we sat around and heard different readings on each night: first from the tutors, them from a guest speaker (ours was David Whitehouse, author of Bed), and then from the favourite authors of every writer on the course (in my case it was, of course, the late Sir Terry). Finally, on the last night, we read out five minute excerpts of our own work. The sheer variety of good writing in the room was staggering, covering genres all the way from political thrillers to romantic comedy to bold experiments in writing about people with mental illness. And each of the readings was followed by hours of discussion, lasting well past midnight, full of the kind of off-the-cuff inspiration which had me scrabbling for my notebook and underlining things with an urgency that seemed a little excessive when I tried to make sense of my notes the morning after, unhelped by the fact that wine had been flowing by the bottle since before we sat down to dinner.
I should probably add a brief disclaimer that the liberal consumption of alcohol was by no means mandatory or even encouraged during the week. I can recommend the course even to the strictest teetotallers. The organisers made us all aware on the first night that there was a local wine merchant who would be taking our orders if we wanted, allowing us to stock up based upon our personal estimates of how much we would be drinking during the course of the week. Naturally, some of us ended up making bigger estimates than others. There was a full spectrum of imbibement from total abstinence to the kind of indulgence that Ernest Hemingway might have been proud of, perpetrated mainly by myself and one of the tutors. (Although being the youngest attendee and thus having the biggest ability to bounce back from hangovers, I was probably the worst). Most of the writers went to bed at a respectable hour every evening and probably benefited from it by being clear-headed and fully awake for the 9 o’clock tutorials. I was not among their number. And indeed, on the last night, I stayed up with a dedicated core of other writers until 05:00 in the morning, meaning I had to be woken up by the site staff at 10:30 AM to be told that all of the other writers had left and my father was waiting in the car park to pick me up.
For me, that by itself is the mark of a very good week. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether a writing course sounds worth your time and money, even without all the drunken revelry, but I can heartily recommend it.
If you want to replicate my experience exactly, spending a week among fellow souls with excellent tuition and facilities in the heart of English countryside, pay a visit to the Arvon website and book yourself in on a course!