As writers, we need to be confident about our abilities and we have to be dedicated. In the early stages, there’s usually a certain amount of arrogance in play, but I think that’s a necessity if you want a writing career. Otherwise, how else would you start?
The initial focus tends to be on publication and typically you hammer out lots of work, usually way before it’s ready, and the badge of honour rejection slips start rolling in. It’s not what you expected and it’s not particularly nice, but that’s when you begin to look at your work differently.
There may be some writers out there that were immediately brilliant, but I’d say they’re definitely a minority. There may also be some who skipped the first embarrassing step mentioned above – if so, I wish I was one of them. But generally, you need to work towards this next phase, when you start to concentrate on the quality, rather than the quantity, of your writing.
You get some things published, or secure an agent, and you expect to nail a publishing deal. But you don’t. You get some positive responses and you keep going despite the odds, pleased with your progress so far but always wondering – when will it be my turn?
This is a conversation I’ve had with plenty of writers of late. And I’ve realised that this is a difficult stage, when there’s a danger of falling into the trap of believing you know enough – or at least enough to write well – and all you need is to keep going. And going. Until you find the magic that unlocks your plot/voice/character/*insert troublesome issue here*.
Dedication and determination are certainly necessary – they’re key ingredients for success in any field – but I think there’s more to consider. I believe as writers we should be constantly open to improvement, and part of that improvement is reading, listening to and getting advice from the authors you admire and aspire to emulate. as well as talking to people who are at the same level.
I recently attended a residential Arvon writing course at Totleigh Barton, a rural retreat near the tiny village of Sheepwash in Devon. Surrounded by farmland and stunning walks, the property is a mishmash of manor house, home, country garden and meadow. Your room is perfectly furnished – think small and contained, with enticing desks and no distractions – and the absence of Wi-Fi and phone reception adds to immediate feeling that everything is designed to make your stay comfortable yet productive.
In short, it’s a writer’s dream.
I’d read a few reviews before I arrived and expected the week to be great, but nothing could have prepared me for how great. (Isn’t it good to know that despite the fact we can look everything up online, you can still find magic?) This week was singularly the most useful investment I’ve made towards my writing and I would encourage any writer to give it a try.
Encapsulating the overall experience is really difficult. It feels almost impossible to put into words. And yet, the impact it has had on my writing is so great, I feel it would be a disservice not to, so I’ll give it a go…
Imagine a week’s full board stay in a house that’s almost one thousand years old, in the company of 15 other people who are all as passionate about and committed to writing as you.
Now, take that image and add two truly incredible writers – in this instance, Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess – with each willing to spend their week sharing their knowledge and experience in both group and one-to-one settings.
And for good measure, throw in a visit from Meg Rosoff.
Can you picture it? If so, you’re starting to get an idea of what to expect from an Arvon course.
The description above is certainly impressive, but it’s not the name-dropping that stays with you, (though of course, you can’t help it) it’s the relationships you build and the light bulbs that go off as the week progresses.
Malorie and Melvin were warm, funny, approachable and friendly throughout, and their completely different styles provided the perfect environment for us to learn and improve. The workshops and tutorials were seamless, each complementing the last and adding another layer to our ideas of how to write and how to write well.
The standard of the group was really high and it was amazing meeting all these new people – each with completely different backgrounds, experiences and stories to tell – under the common denominator of writing for children and young adults. You cook, write, walk, chat, eat, and drink together. You share your work and your worries, your successes and your hopes and the camaraderie builds.
Out of this grows a real sense of team spirit, which counteracts all those lonely hours of typing, and somehow verifies what you do and why you do it, without a contract or rejection letter in sight.
I could impart some of the knowledge shared by Malorie and Melvin, but I don’t think it would be fair because I wouldn’t do it justice. You need to hear it direct from them, because they’re the ones successfully living and breathing life into books day in and day out. They’re the ones that will inspire new generations of writers, just like they’ve inspired several new generations of readers.
Totleigh Barton and the wonderful people I met there reminded me why I’m doing this. I really did experience some hallelujah moments when certain aspects fell into place (thank you, Malorie and Melvin), but even more importantly, I fell completely in love with writing all over again when I didn’t even realise I needed to.
And that’s something that just going and going will never do.