What magic turns sixteen anxious wannabees with doubts a hundred feet high into confident, capable producers of good writing within a week?
In February this year, I booked the Arvon Foundation course ‘Popular Fiction’ 4-9 October at Lumb Bank, Yorkshire. It was to run from 4 to 9 October, with tutors Mavis Cheek and Paul Sussman. My writing buddy, Denise Barnes, had been on several Arvon courses and urged me to plunge in. So I booked my flight, organised the rest of my itinerary and put it out of my mind.
Months later, on 4 October, I rammed some warm jumpers into my suitcase (Please! This is Yorkshire in October…) and set off in plenty of time for Nantes airport. But this was on the day of the worst gridlock in the town for months. I arrived three minutes before the gate closed. Twenty-seven people missed the flight. The airport, security and Ryanair staff were calm and collected, unlike me who had run like a hell-hound into the terminal, torn across the concourse and dived into check-in. Perfect scenario for a thriller writer…
Arriving at Leeds Bradford International(!) Airport, the sky was as blue as in my home Poitou-Charentes. Huh? Where was the rain and cold? I’d been a student at Leeds. I knew how cold it got. But the sun was to hold for the rest of the week. Negotiating buses and trains, I arrived at Hebden Bridge railway station, redolent of The Railway Children. After a hairy drive up drystone-walled single track lanes, we arrived at Lumb Bank, once owned by Ted Hughes.
Sixteen nervous nellies from the UK, Nigeria, France and the USA, of different ages and backgrounds, whose experience of writing fiction ranged from none to authorship of two unpublished novels, awkwardly introduced themselves to each other as they drifted in. Eyeing each other up, we struggled to remember names. By the end of the week we were BFFs.
The centre staff, Rachel, Becky and Liz, explained the Arvon ethic; this was our home for the week, away from Internet, blogs, Twitter, radio and television. We lived together and worked together, taking turns to wash up and cook. My corner room was exactly as a writer’s room should be; fabulous, inspiring views, a large desk, quiet and comfort.
Each morning at ten, we assembled promptly for our workshops. Mavis and Paul put us at our ease and were tirelessly enthusiastic, but strong on timing and fairness for everybody. Their double act (Mavis clever, tough, full of wisdom and quotations; Paul jokey, supportive, cheeky and brooking absolutely no use of the word ‘sorry’) seduced us. We were engaged from the first hour.
So what did we do? First morning workshop was an exercise on ‘My childhood home’. We can all write something about that. Twenty minutes later when we read our efforts out, I realised with sinking heart how good they all were. But whilst inwardly panicking, I smiled as if unconcerned. Qui s’excuse, s’accuse and all that. Later that evening when the wine began to flow, we all confessed to the same. At that point the bonding started. The group melded and became a supportive entity of its own. A magic ingredient to the mix. Over the next few days, we did exercises on describing a room without the owner present, character, dialogue, turning point and using location. On Friday we worked from art postcards, drawing together the lessons from the week. Imagination was strongly encouraged as well as hard crafting which is why I turned the three Sitwells into vampires…
In the afternoons, I wrote. And wrote. I am applying the machete to my first novel thanks to excellent advice from Nicola Morgan of Pen2Publication. The barn at Lumb Bank has a long row of networked computers, plenty of deskspace and a peaceful atmospher. Comfy sofas, including an eight-seater, encourage lounging whilst reading and re-reading.
Half-hour tutorials with Mavis and Paul gave me valuable insights into genre, pace and characterisation on my current WIP. Both loved my idea, Paul venturing to call it ‘high concept’.
Lissa Evans visited on Thursday, reading from Their Finest Hour and a Half . Extremely knowledgeable about the 1940s and clearly loving the period, she talked about and answered questions with humour, patience and verve.
Friday night was the big night. Open mic night, when we read out pieces we had written, revised or polished up from our WIP. I’m pleased to say mine went down well (Tries hard not to be too pleased about rapturous reception). Much wine was drunk that night in the barn…
Saturday was inevitably an anticlimax as we prepared to tear ourselves away. Email adresses swapped and taxis ordered, we dispersed in small groups.
Since then, I’ve had some emails from the group:
‘It’s odd not to be sitting round the lunch table with you all right now and with complete strangers sitting across from me instead. They have no idea that I am irritated with them for not being any one of you.’
‘I’m in bed with laptop on knees, my lie-in having been scuppered by the need to write. I feel bags under my eyes from here on in may be all down to Arvon… The magic of the place has definitely come home with me.
I feel very priviledged to have shared such a beautiful place with all of you and have come away knowing I have 15 Fairy Godmothers and fathers.’
‘Thank you all so much for this past week, it’s been really helpful and so lovely meet such kind, friendly, nurturing, fabulous people (too many adjectives?) I intend to never self-edit immediately on a first draft, or to apologise for or explain anything ever again.’
Says it all, really, doesn’t it?
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