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Monday, 3 July 2017

Arvon Foundation's Children's and YA Fiction Tutored Writing Retreat

A few months ago, I attended the Arvon Foundation's Children's and YA Fiction Tutored Writing Retreat. I'd started writing a children's novel in March 2016 and I knew I would need help along the way if I wanted to get to the end.  My aim in writing was not to be published. Not to become an author. Just to finish writing a book.

My prior weekend experience at Arvon had been so positive that I had high hopes for this course. A week in a remote part of Devon dedicated to writing with one-to-one tutoring from published authors in the genre. In the company of other writers all working towards the same goal.

It sounded idyllic.


Arvon Totleigh Barton centre

I arrived at the Arvon Totleigh center near Sheepwash in Devon with 30,000 words of a story that did not work. It had taken me about thirteen months to accumulate and shape those words; time stolen and snatched amidst paid work, childcare and domestic drudgery. I wasn't close to the story however and I knew something was wrong with it. But what?

Turns out, just about everything.

Melvin Burgess and Lucy Christopher were the tutors at Totleigh. Melvin, who has been nominated for the 2018 Hans Andersen Author Award has written a gamut of YA books covering everything from dogs to drugs to Vikings to giants. Lucy, a fellow Antipodean and lecturer in the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa has also covered the YA market with kidnappings, swans and a soon to be published reworking of Shakespeare's, The Tempest. Despite their considerable output, I had never read a book by either of them and didn't remedy this in the lead up to the retreat, Quite frankly, I didn't have the time and I preferred not knowing their work as I wanted to meet them as people, not as authors.**

The story I'd taken to Totleigh was not for the YA market. It was aimed for 6-8 year olds in the vein of a Michael Ende-ish Momo allegory with Robin Klein-Hating-Alison- Ashley humour.

Well it was in my head anyway. The reality was far from it.

All the retreat participants bonded quickly. As a group, we were united in our determination to use the week to write as we lacked time in our real lives to do so. It soon became apparent that the other thing we had in common was drinking. And even if we didn't to start with, a week at the retreat fixed that. We were a diverse group, hailing from around the UK with one participant from New York City. By the end of the week, we knew not only each others plots and characters but also occupations, childrens' names, places of work, relationships and preferred choice of tipple.

This is where we ate and talked about writing. 

This is where we sat and talked about writing. 

During the retreat, each of us had four individual tutored sessions with Melvin and Lucy over four consecutive days. We also had to cook dinner (in a group with three others) for one night and take responsibility for our own washing/clearing up. In the evenings we gathered together for group activities including author readings from Lucy and Melvin and a guest visit from David Almond. The last night was reserved for participants to read out something they had written during the week. The rest of  the time was free for writing.

Most of us had arrived with ideas of what we would work on in the week. Mine was to edit and bash my manuscript into some sort of draft material shape. Prior to attending we'd all submitted 2000 words to both tutors so they had some clue of what everyone was working on.

My first tutorial was with Melvin. Ten minutes into that tutorial was all it took for him to accurately highlight key issues with my story. My stomach twisted as I realised I would have to rewrite the whole thing if I wanted it to be the story I wanted to tell. Goodbye thirteen months work. Goodbye 30,000 words.

Kill your babies they say of the writing process. Get rid of what you love if it doesn't serve the story, no matter how good you may think it is or how attached you are.

In my case, it was more like, Torch the Village and Kill (Nearly) Everyone.

It's a strange paradox that writing can be a emotional, psychical process. To create characters and stories, you have to dig deep. But then you must be completely unsentimental to shape the story into life.

It's a fascinating and grueling learning process.

I stumbled out of the tutorial slightly ashen, in a state of semi-shock. If someone had asked me there and then to climb Everest, it would have seemed an easier prospect.

Over the next day or two, I buckled down and started from the beginning. I took some comfort from the fact that others were in similar states to me. Frantically re-writing, rethinking, re-working. We all worked so hard that week, including Lucy and Melvin who were locked up inside from 9am-5pm giving feedback and advice to writers in various states of mania and descending madness.

No wonder we drank.

So two months on from the retreat and I have plugged steadily away at my story. I am still nowhere near the end but I can see it now.  The story is rough and there are so many problems with it but the process of grappling with words, story and characters is rewarding. I have learned that committing to a writer's process is a daily struggle. It's hard, fantastic and renewing all the one time.

A small group of us from the retreat have committed to meet monthly to give feedback to each other's projects. And in truth, to attempt to recreate a small semblance of the Arvon atmosphere. You cannot write in a vacuum and as Lucy said, You must find your tribe. Writing stories is hard and only other people struggling with it truly understand.

But how lucky we are that we enjoy this particular type of struggle.


Hallelujah, Amen. 


**However during the retreat I read Junk by Melvin and The Killing Woods by Lucy. Both compelling in very different ways.