Writing a novel is a solitary business, especially when you are unpublished and there is no agent or editor screaming for the manuscript; when you have no idea whether that genius plot twist you’re so proud of is actually agonisingly contrived and when there is no guarantee anyone will actually ever read this thing that you’re pouring your heart and soul into at every spare moment.
After a few years, and three drafts, my first novel had warped into something like an old magic-eye image. I’d stared at it so long I could see the outlines of the plot but not the original detail, or the point I was going for originally. Was each new draft making it better or was I actually making it worse? I couldn’t actually stand to look at it any more.
For years I thought to be a proper novelist you had to work in a secret garret somewhere…
Then I met Diana Bretherick, who won Good Housekeeping’s Novel Competition in 2012, and whose wonderfully dark crime novel, City of Devils, is out this summer. Diana had done a Masters and PhD in Creative Writing and, while the skills she’d learned on the course were useful, the real strength she’d found was sharing her problems with her classmates. That support network had kept her going – thanks to them she’d finished two books, one of which had won the competition.
That’s when I realised I needed to go on an Arvon course. I’d first heard about them years ago and they sounded amazing – residential courses in stunning countryside locations. No internet, no contact with the outside world. Just you and a bunch of like-minded people, plus two established authors who would look at your work and give you individual feedback.
My course was at the Lumb Bank centre in gorgeous Yorkshire, and my tutors were Patrick Gale and Stella Duffy – two fabulous writers who turned out to be great teachers too. There were workshops on plot, character and a slightly toe curling one on sex scenes, which were all hugely helpful.
But best of all was the chance to sit around with a dozen or so other writers and ask questions like “Is my dialogue convincing?” or “I like my character too much to kill him off” without feeling like a pretentious fool. By the end of the week all of us – even those who hated the idea of speaking in public – had read some of our writing out to the others. The criticism wasn’t half as painful as our nerves beforehand!
For years I thought that to be a proper novelist you had to work in a secret garret for years and emerge with your Completed Work – perfectly formed and beautiful. But I know better now. Writing is a messy, emotional, playful, agonising business and, like most of the fun things in life, is best done with like-minded friends.