THE WRITING LIFE – some thoughts on Arvon at 50

Most writers are familiar with the Arvon foundation,  that wonderful organization that runs five-day residential writing courses and retreats in its four ‘writing houses’ across the country. For those five days, you live and work alongside 15 other course members and two published writers who lead the course.

Arvon celebrates its 50th birthday this year, and I’ve been thinking about  my experience with them and how it’s changed since I first went on a course at Lumb Bank, near Hebden bridge, in 2002. I love Arvon SO much! I’ve been to two of the other Writing Houses (Devon and Shropshire) but Lumb Bank always feels like coming home – I’ve been there many times since.

This may be one of my favorite sights ever!

I felt very much a beginner back then, and although the course was apparently suitable for beginners, I was terrified that everyone else would be much more advanced, and that I’d end up feeling embarrassed and humiliated.  I remember saying to my husband the night before I went, ‘I’m just going to get my head down and get through it.’  I wanted to improve my writing, so I was determined to stick with the course, no matter how difficult it was.

Lumb Bank

That week changed my life. I arrived on the Monday as a nervous, aspiring writer, eager to learn all I could and to get through to the Saturday morning as quickly as possible. I left as a writer, not really wanting to go home at all. It had been wonderful. I’d made new friends, I had more confidence in what I was doing than I’d ever had before, and I’d had a ball. I knew on the first evening that my fears were unfounded. Everyone at the centre was friendly and welcoming. The  tutors were amazing and put us all at ease immediately – like me, almost all the other participants were worried that they would be the least experienced writer there!

For those five days, it’s all about you and your writing – complete immersion! The mornings are spent attending workshops with one or both tutors, then it’s lunch – all laid out for you in the kitchen so you just help yourself. The afternoons are free to write, read,  or get feedback on your work in one-to-one tutorials.

The table set for the evening meal

Everyone eats together in the evening, and a considerable amount of wine is consumed during dinner. And after dinner. And sometimes before dinner, too.

On the first night, the centre directors prepare the food, but on the other nights, it’s prepared by four of the course participants – you take it in turns, so everyone takes part in preparing the evening meal once. I love this, because I’ve always enjoyed cooking alongside other people. Trouble is, I can be a bit bossy in the kitchen because I like to take charge – I used to be a chef, so it’s instinctive. I always declare this in advance, though, and there are usually people who want to do the same night as me because they don’t feel confident cooking for so many people. Thing is, the recipes are very clear, and the centre directors guide you through everything anyway, so it’s virtually impossible to mess it up. (Don’t tell anyone it’s easy, though, or they won’t let me be in charge!)

Anyway back to my first ever Arvon in pre-smartphone 2002. One of the things that had such a profound impact on me was the feeling of being completely cut off from the outside world. There was a payphone in the house, but no TV, no Internet, no radio, and that particular week, no one brought a newspaper into the house, though sometimes, people do.

Imagine it! You’re not bored – you have your writing, or if that’s not going well, there’s a library so plenty of reading matter, and the houses are all in beautiful locations, so there’s always the option of going for a walk. You’re not lonely – there are 15 other writers to talk to, plus the two tutors, and the centre directors., and there’s a kitchen stuffed with goodies. So you really don’t need the outside world – those few days are all about you and your writing.

Heading back down the drive to the house after a late afternoon walk

I did not want to go home; none of us did. We joked about hiding in the house, squatters’ rights and all that. Coming back on the train was a strange experience as the ‘real world’ came crashing back in. I felt raw and exposed, and as though I had been living in a dream for the past five days, like I had emerged from a magical mist of creativity. The train was full of people talking about things other than writing, people reading newspapers, people looking miserable. It felt almost as though I was being stretched on an invisible cord away from the Arvon experience, an attachment I didn’t want to break. And when I got home, much as I wanted to tell my husband all about it, part of me wanted to stay in the dreamlike bubble I’d been in since the previous Monday.

I’ve been back to Arvon many times since then, these days, it’s on retreats. I still love being there – especially Lumb Bank – but now we all have smartphones it’s very hard to re-create that feeling of being in a wonderful creative bubble. Even if I left my own phone at home, or if I managed to stay off social media, I’m fairly sure someone else would be checking their phone, talking about Trump’s latest tweet or something.

The view from the top of the hill

So I don’t think it’ll ever be quite the same again (apart from at the Devon Writing house, Totleigh Barton, where I gather that Internet and phone connection is still very patchy) but I still love Arvon, and I’m off on a retreat again in October, this time at  the Clockhouse retreat at the Hurst  Even with the real world and social media ever-present, I’d still say you should go on an Arvon course or retreat if you possibly can – I’m fairly sure it will change your life!

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A fairly short post this time. What do you mean, “good”? I’ll start with a picture of gorgeous early morning sunlight pouring down onto the sea at Scalby, which is near Scarborough, just because I find it so inspiring. This was at six in the morning, and it was worth getting up early for.

After the doom and gloom of previous posts, I’m sounding a bit more cheerful this time, mainly because I’ve made good progress with the novel over the last couple of weeks. We had a week’s holiday in Scalby, where part of my new novel is set. It was a quiet cottage holiday, lots of eating and drinking, reading, writing and enjoying this gorgeous sea view. (above) I also spent a lot of time walking along the Scarborough seafront (below) and thinking about my novel.

You may remember I’ve been struggling with structure. I’ve gone through several stages of planning the structure, refining all the time, but while we were away, I think I finally bashed it into a properly workable shape. I typed out a chapter breakdown in three different colours to denote the different strands, and I’ve found that helpful. I came back feeling much more positive. Then, three days later I was off again to a writing retreat. I’ve blogged about these several times before and regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of the writing retreat.

The one I’ve been on this time (for the fourth time!) is particularly conducive to work because it’s just me, in my little room, with my wonderful host bringing me meals and encouragement. And the meals – I’m surprised I haven’t put on a stone! This was one day’s lunch:

If you think you might benefit from this retreat, which is in the Forest of Dean, you can find details here It works very well for me because if there are lots of other writers around, I’m tempted to spend too much time chatting. But here, I really work! During my five-day stay, I moved the new draft forward from 48k words to 66k. Probably around 3000 words were imported from a previous draft, but even they were edited. I still have a lot of work to do, but it’s all looking much healthier. Now I’m home, I’m trying to crack on, and resenting having to do admin, shopping, laundry etc. Ah well.

In other news, the Italian translation of The Secrets We Left Behind will be published soon, and I’m quite happy with the cover.

I can’t say I ever saw it as a thriller, but hey, what do I know?

This evening (4th June) I’m off to the Derby Literary Festival with four other local writers. We’ll be reading from our work and talking about books, writing and publication and taking questions. do come along if you can – it’s £4 but it’ll be worth it! Details here: Hallam writers on the road – to publication

I’ll leave it there for now, because I need to sort out my reading and talk for tonight. but if you’d like to know more about me and my work, please visit my website, like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter


When I last posted two weeks ago, I’d done lots of thinking and planning for this gargantuan re-draft. I hadn’t started the actual rewriting at that point, but was hopeful about the progress I’d make while on a writing retreat in the Forest of Dean. Here’s a picture of the balcony outside my room, bathed in golden afternoon sunlight.

Part of my revision process has involved getting rid of a character who’d had quite a substantial part in the novel. What I’d realised, though, was that while he did have some important work to do, the storyline that sprang from him was complicating matters, and wasn’t really relevant, so he had to go. Here’s the fun post in which I gave him the sack! The home for redundant characters

But as I say, he did have an important role, so I then went through every chapter that featured him and identified what was essential to the storyline, the things I just couldn’t afford to lose. I decided that most of those areas could be covered by another character, so her role has now become much more important. I’ve essentially combined two (possibly three) characters.

I marked the bits from the original character that  I wanted to keep and the rest, even the good stuff, had to go. Before I left for the retreat, I’d cut 36,000 words from the draft, and I did it (almost) without flinching.

I then printed out the remaining 59,000 words. First, I identified chapters that I thought (in my foolish naivete) could be kept with minimal rewriting. I went through the rest with a highlighter pen, marking out what to keep rather than what to cut. I didn’t start deleting at this point, though – I’m brave, but not that brave! I knew there would be a lot more to go, but I didn’t think I could take seeing the word count plummet much lower until I had some new words to replace them.
Off I went on my retreat with the chapters I’d decided to keep – about 30 of the original 50. I wrote a new opening chapter, then rewrote what I’d decided should be chapter 2, and that was the point at which I realised that, because of the changes in character, location, the year in which it’s set, and the order in which I’m telling the story, I need to rewrite virtually everything. Yep, everything. Because even the events that are staying, even the conversations, even the characters’ thoughts – will all be at least slightly different because of the other changes.
At this point – understandably, I’d argue – I muttered a few choice expletives. Then to calm myself, I opened the doors to the balcony, took a few deep breaths and feasted my eyes on the lovely morning sunshine before returning to my laptop.

It was good that this realisation hit me on the first morning of a four-day retreat; if I’d have been at home, I think I might have gone back to bed or hit the gin or something. But I cracked on. If I’m going to make this novel as good as I think it can be, then twiddling about with paragraphs I’ve grown fond of is only going to cause me more problems in the long run. So I wrote new chapters, I rewrote existing ones to the extent that often only a tiny part of the scene remained.

I’m still struggling with the structure, because although, like my first two novels, this story is about how the past can affect the present, it’s a more complicated timespan showing two characters’ lives over a number of years. I’ve started in the present, and need to gradually reveal the past. I tried planning the whole thing, but found that impossible, especially as so much has changed, but I’ve planned the order of the first few chapters and will continue to write a bit, plan a bit, write a bit etc. By the end of my four days, I’d ditched more than half of the original draft, and had written just over 15,000 words, about half of which were completely new.

Now I’m back home, I’ve printed out the ‘to keep’ chapters – these are chapters with an important message or emotion, but which may still be set in the wrong place and time, and may still contain redundant characters. I’ve written a couple of lines at the top of each one explaining why the chapter is important, and this is helping me to rewrite as I go along.

Despite the huge changes, the heart of this novel remains the same, and despite the mammoth amount of work I have to do, I’m feeling passionate about it. Please tune in in two weeks to see where I’m up to!

In the meantime, if you fancy coming to a one-day writing workshop in Sheffield, there are two coming up – check out the workshops page of my website

To keep an eye on what I’m up to, you can like my facebook page or follow me on Twitter  @sewelliot