Think you know enough? Think again.

Arvon, Totleigh Barton

Totleigh Barton, almost 1000 years old

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.

Arvon garden

Need a bit of space? Just one of the quirky places for you to relax and write.

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?

Sound familiar?

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…

Arvon, Devon

Where lots of the magic happens – eating, writing, workshops… sneaky midnight feasts

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.

Rural Arvon course

There are plenty of beautiful walks to help you digest all that excellent advice (and the wonderful food)

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.

(For more detail, you can read a really good, in-depth review of the week here, written by fellow attendee and writer, Sarah Ann Juckes)

Innovation & Quality: Writing for Children with WritersWebTV

online writing workshops

The brains behind the operation…

I recently watched the inaugural live online writing workshop ‘Finding the magic: Writing for Children’ – an innovative world first from WritersWebTV, presented by Vanessa O’Loughlin of writing.ie.

Although I wasn’t sure what to expect, I’ve had lots of wonderful experiences linked to Vanessaincluding finding my agent (Sallyanne Sweeney), the place I now call home and as a result, my husband! – so I was pretty certain that it would be a quality affair.

Although it’s not usually easy, I was willing to write off a day of writing to immerse myself in advice from talented authors and industry professionals. The list was impressive, with the likes of Michael Emberley, Marie Louise Fitzpatrick, Norton Vergien, Oisin McGann and Meg Rosoff on hand to share their knowledge of the industry and writing tips, answer questions and set short writing tasks.

online writing workshops

Attend the workshop from anywhere in the world? A great idea!

Even though some parts of the workshop weren’t relevant to me – I already have an agent, for instance – I dipped in and out, garnering bits of knowledge that made me stop, think and at times, rethink my own approach. I also found myself enjoying snippets of advice that I could relate to, stuff that left me nodding and smile knowingly.

The set up was impressive and multi-faceted, featuring the host Vanessa, an in-house audience and an interactive online global audience with a two-way communication stream via twitter, facebook and email. Despite the fact that the workshop was online, it maintained an inclusive and personal feel and I feel the positive feedback they’re receiving is well deserved.

Covering everything from animation to publishing, illustration to collaboration, finding an agent to finding your voice, this was something I had never experienced before and didn’t really believe could actually be done – at least, not to this standard.

I don’t want to spoil it for you – those of you who missed it and are serious about your writing career can buy it online & watch it for yourself – but here are a few of my favourite bits I’d like to share, to give you a taster…

  • The sign of good writing is to take a feeling and put it down on paper convincingly – being able to create suspense is important and make sure it’s not boring for the child.” Michael Emberley
  • Write, rework, return to your work – time lapse enables mistakes to jump out at you. It took me 14 years to write one of my books and get it right – it was turned down by same publisher 3 times, and taken on the fourth occasion. Not rushing is vitally important.” Marie Louise Fitzpatrick
  • A good agent will understand the market, will know gaps in a publisher’s list and have good contacts within the publishing industry. They’ll also help you work on your book, matching your script to the right editor. If you’re lucky enough to get an agent, it’s important you feel the agent understands your book – they have your vision.” Polly Nolan
  • You don’t need a lot of description but you do need the right words – but trust in your reader and leave some things to their imagination. What you leave out as important as what you leave in.” Meg Rosoff
using social media for writing

Social Media: providing a two-way stream during the workshop

This is just a taste of what was on offer, but if you can imagine an entire day – from 10am till 4pm – of such gems, with the chance to interact via twitter, facebook and email and have your questions answered by industry professionals, then you’ll understand why I’m highly recommending the next few workshops.

  • Getting to the Heart of it: Writing Women’s Fiction Tuesday, October 15th
  • Crime Pays: Writing Crime Fiction Wednesday, October 30th
  • Getting Published Saturday, November 9th

I’d love to know who else tuned in to the first workshop and what you thought of it. And who’s tuning in next time? Even if you don’t write in those genres, you may pick up something useful as the information is always transferable and as writers, we can always improve.