News room: Review: An Arvon Writing Retreat by CompletelyNovel's Sarah Juckes

Review: An Arvon Writing Retreat by CompletelyNovel's Sarah Juckes by Sarah Juckes

“From the outset it was John Fairfax’s and Antoinette and John Moat’s belief that […] Totleigh Barton was a Freehouse of the imagination, and as such didn’t belong to, but was owned by anyone and everyone who opened themselves to being part of its life.”

These are the words that hang over the downstairs loo at Totleigh Barton in Devon, one of four houses used by Arvon for tutored writing retreats. Last week, I was lucky enough to spend the week in the pre-Doomsday house on a course focusing on Writing for Children and Young Adults with the brilliant Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, and gritty YA writer, Melvin Burgess.

Make yourselves at home

The week started with an hour-long taxi ride from Exeter train station into the middle of the English countryside – a place where WiFi and phone signal had been replaced by books and cows. On arrival, centre director Oliver Meek told us to make ourselves at home. Usually living in a small room in Brighton, I found it difficult to imagine ever calling such a large, thatched manor house my home, but by the end of the week we were all galavanting around like we owned the place. And it wasn’t the house so much as the feeling of a family ensconced inside it – the sense of community with the 15 other writers, tutors and staff.

The writers ranged in age, background and writing style, but we all got on like old friends. Every morning after a help-yourself breakfast, we sat around the dining room table for a series of tutorials with either Malorie or Melvin, where we learnt about plotting, pacing, character, subtext and publishing – to name a few. My new notebook was soon overflowing with advice that changed my whole perspective on writing a book and helped me fix the tangles in my plot (see the top tips at the end).

Valuable feedback

We also got the opportunity to have one-to-one feedback from both of the tutors in the afternoon, or have it free for ourselves, which I spent mostly in a shed I’d adopted as my writing hut, or walking along the nearby river.

Our evenings were spent listening to the tutors read from their own work, and on Wednesday we had a fleeting visit from the wonderful Meg Rosoff, who spoke to us about the importance of capturing the voice of your character – particularly important for those of you writing YA. On Friday, it was our turn to read what we’d been working on through the week. Reading your work to others is a daunting but necessary part of being an author, and it was a great chance to try this out with others in the same boat.

The atmosphere at Totleigh Barton

The thing I will take away from this week above all else however, is the atmosphere at Totleigh Barton. I found myself running about a lot, eager to get to the next activity or conversation. The other writers on the course were full of tips and anecdotes, and a provided a friendly ear when I needed to rant about how my characters weren’t quite making sense. Outside of writing there was also singing, cooking, eating, walking in a thunderstorm, wine in the barn and yes, even getting attacked by giant moths, which I perhaps didn’t handle as well as I could have done.

By the end of the week, we all left with a few more pages written, a clearer idea of where we want to go and a list of friends to keep in touch with. I’d also been reminded that I really should find something more inspirational than a picture of a large trout to put in my loo. Hopefully in a year or so, we can all meet up and return home again. A massive thank you to Malorie, Melvin, the staff at Totleigh and Arvon!

Top 5 tips gathered from our Arvon Week:

  1. If you’re rewriting something, create a new document and completely rewrite it. I’m terrible for getting bogged down with the words that are already there and this really helps!
  2. Take Melvin’s bath. Melvin Burgess told us that if we’re stuck with anything, take a bath (or a short walk if you don’t have a tub). Doing something else sometimes helps the answer come.
  3. When writing pacy scenes, slow it down. Use long and short sentences to create tension. Malorie used a great example of someone falling down the stairs: “Don’t just write; ‘she fell down the stairs’ – describe every bump.”
  4. Plot it out. Not everyone works like this but if you do, write down what happens in your book in twenty points before you write it. This exercise actually helped me discover that I had a couple of subplots that were never resolved!
  5. If you’re struggling to find a strong voice for your character, try changing it to first person, or present tense.

Find out more about Arvon’s tutored writing retreats on their website.

I used a printed proof copy of my book for editing during the week. If you’d like to print off a copy of your book, get started here.

Further reading:

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Written by
Sarah Juckes
Published on
Arvon, Writing retreat, and Review