The Arvon Experience – Part 2

Unrealistic expectations and pleasant surprises

Every morning when I woke up in my little bedroom in Moniack Mohr and drew back the curtains, a different view greeted me. Sometimes there was a thick mist reminiscent of the eerie haze permanently surrounding the house in the film, The Others. On other days I awoke to a beautiful blue sky and a wide vista stretching out to the hills and mountains beyond. One morning there was even a very vivid rainbow sprouting from a mountain, arcing upwards. It shouldn’t have been difficult to get inspiration, feel at peace and write, write, write; except for the factor of ‘unreal expectations’.

I’d been anticipating this course for over half a year. I wrote nothing for about two weeks prior to the course; believing there was little point as Arvon would probably fundamentally change my view of my novel. I’ve never been in the presence of a bone fide ‘published author’ before, let alone two, and I was eager for their views on my writing.

My first tutorial wasn’t until 2.45pm on Tuesday, therefore I wasted much of the day being unsure what to spend my time on. The half hour tutorial seemed to pass in a flash. I was pleasantly surprised at my tutor’s thoughts on the 2,000 words I had sent a month beforehand. Sue Peebles, author of The Death of Lomond Friel, gave me some good, detailed advice on particular aspects of my writing. She was also very encouraging, quoting her favourite line from my piece.

Despite all this encouragement my main reason for coming on the course was the need to pull my sprawling novel into a coherent whole, with a firm spine running through it. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I sent my novel to a literary critic about two years ago and part of the feedback was to stop thinking of my novel as one book; that it was more likely to be three or four.  Instead of trying to chop, which was distorting the story line, I should expand certain areas where critical scenes were touched upon but not explored. They recommended an end point for book one, and suggested I work on that; which I have done. The problem I found was that every time I attempted to fill in the gaps I sometimes created more. My word count was going up and up and I still wasn’t pulling the things together; it’s like the Magician’s Apprentice only with words instead of water.

Now I believe this is the first time Arvon have run a Novel writing tutored retreat, so there were bound to be some teething problems. However, something everyone noticed was that, instead of the eight to ten students expected, there were in fact fourteen. That’s fourteen novels all at different stages of development for the tutors to get their heads around (bearing in mind we had not been asked to supply synopses, but 2,000 words extract from the novel prior to the course). It’s also fourteen different sets of problems; some people were at the planning stage, some having difficulty developing their characters, some felt they’d gone off tangent and needed reining in plus a host of other issues I probably haven’t even considered. I obviously didn’t help; trying to develop a sprawling fantasy. I mean how could I get help strengthening the central core of my novel without being able to get my tutors immersed in my world? I think perhaps Arvon has a bit to learn with this particular format. Less students and more preparation in terms of students supplying a synopsis, a few words of prose and a brief overview of what exactly they are struggling with probably would have helped the tutors.

The tutors did their best, given all these issues, to provide as much help and advice as they could. Sue helped me confront a thought I’d been batting away from my consciousness for some time: the second storyline in my novel had to go – a whopping 80,000 words removed at a stroke! (Depression hit the day after, but hey I’ve got two or three more books to write and no doubt at least some of this 80k will be included).

Alan Warner, author of Morvan Caller and The Sopranos to name but a few of his works, provided another perspective. He, unlike Sue, has read fantasy and so had a good take on the challenges of the genre. He recommended some good reading material and we talked about how to portray battle scenes without them being too formulaic and functional (ie he swung his sword up and to the left then…. etc.). Alan also gave me a perspective on what he understood from my extracts about my world (he was kind enough to read about five chapters of my book in total). It made me realise some things, well defined in my own mind, are not coming across on the page. In places I assume too much knowledge on the part of the reader – especially regarding the key themes of blood and magic; these are my central core. (contrastingly, in other places I am not trusting the reader enough; I build up a scene, create an atmosphere, hint and cajole and then write blatantly what the situation is – the reader doesn’t need that, they’ve understood it from my build up.)

So, as a result I know that I need to do a number of things;

  1. Scan novel to look out for: tautology, areas where I don’t ‘trust the reader’ and areas where I’ve assumed too much knowledge.
  2. Strengthen my own understanding of the role of blood and magic within my novel – and then stick with it.
  3. As the 80,000 words I took out were all about a young girl call Agnes, I want to develop the two other female characters in the book to ensure there is a good gender balance – but that’s a another story all together!

(Part 3 of my Arvon experience – will look at overcoming fears and making dreams come true).


The Arvon experience – a writer’s paradise

Part 1 – first impressions

I can’t believe it’s been four days since I came back from the Highlands. Seems to have taken me that long to get back up to speed with everyday life.

For anyone who doesn’t know what Arvon is, it’s a charity offering life-changing creative experiences to anyone who writes; from beginners to established published writers, from school age upwards. They run a programme of weekly residential courses, open to the public, and tutored by leading writers in genres from poetry to fiction to script writing, at secluded rural centres. On their five day writing course you find yourself living, working and eating in a secluded historic writing house. To help those on lower incomes there are grants available. I believe they also work with school and communities, often from very disadvantaged areas, to help them develop self-confidence and language skills.

The particular course I attended was a Novel writing tutored retreat at their Moniack Mhor cottage, about fifteen miles from Inverness in Scotland.

For me the journey was pretty mammoth. I took a late train into London, then experienced the joys of the Caledonian Sleeper, arriving into Inverness in the early morning and waiting till later that day to join the shared taxi to Moniack Mhor.

I had intended to awake refreshed in Inverness, dump my bags at the station then explore the city. However, the ‘Sleeper’ train failed to live up to its name (though the service was wonderful). I spent all but perhaps two hours of the journey wide awake. This was due to a combination of factors:

a) My paranoia of someone breaking into my cabin

b) The fear I was about to be trapped with a group of strangers in a remote cottage where my writing inadequacies would be exposed

c) Some snoring man who sounded like he was lying right next to me. My aggravation with him was compounded by the frustration he wasn’t lying next to me; as this would at least have enabled me to give him a firm kick

d) Deciding to have a coke with my whiskey with my evening meal (should have had it neat, doh!).

As we drove into the countryside I got my first glimpse of the stunning mountains and flowering gorse and had high hopes for the week. We arrived to a warm welcome and, after putting our bags in our simple but comfortable rooms, gathered for a welcome reception. It was our first opportunity to meet our fellow housemates and the tutors.

The attendees were from a wide range of ages and backgrounds, the youngest was just turning 24 and the oldest, well lets not dwell on age…I try not to! Some students had an almost completed novel with them, some had a few chapters written, others just a sketchy outline. It became clear everyone wanted something different out of the week. It also quickly became clear that just being around other writers was going to be quite liberating.

The cottage itself is a homely place with the most gorgeous farmhouse kitchen (the kind I’ve always dreamed of). I was surprised to find it packed full of food which we were encouraged to help ourselves to whenever we wanted; fresh bread every day, basket of crisps, tray of chocolates, a fruit bowl, cereals, cold meats, variety of cheeses, a range of teas, coffees and soft drinks. In terms of creating that relaxed feeling I personally think this is quite important (though a little hazardous for my waistline). It’s a small thing, but can make all the difference.

Every evening a group of three or four of us would cook the meal for the whole group. On the first evening the two tutors read for us and were followed by two very brave students who decided to read their work as well. Every evening after that three or four students read out their work. This was entertaining and interesting, as well as being very daunting. The standard of writing was very high. I have to admit the merest thought of my reading anything out nearly gave me a panic attack.

Every day we spent half an hour with one of the tutors and the rest writing – or walking, eating, chatting. It was really up to us to make use of the retreat. I think other course are slightly more structured but, as I came on it to get to grips with my novel, time and peace and quiet were an important component to it working for me.

In my next blog I’ll let you know how I got on….

Lovely, supportive writers everywhere….

This will be a quick post as I’m mid panic about my imminent trip up to the Highlands of Scotland tomorrow.

I first joined twitter out of a feeling of necessity. As I mentioned in my first ever blog, one piece of key advice I picked up for budding novelists, was to get yourself a ‘following’ before you publish a book – because publisher or no publisher, the marketing is down to you.

I begrudgingly set up an account and stared at the list of unrelated, sometimes undecipherable comments, hashtag markers and dubious links, wondering how the hell anyone made any sense of this live, online dump of human thought processes.

I’ve since come to love the medium – nothing to do with amassing followers. I know that quantity will be deemed important by others, but quality, right now, is important to me. Amongst the hundreds of people I follow, there are a handful of writers who have been in touch to talk about our shared interests, our struggles, our writing projects and sometimes our personal dreams. I’ve critiqued other peoples writing, pointing out with some authority(!), mistakes/anomalies I undoubtedly make myself ALL the time!. I’ve also had my own writing critiqued. No-one (so far) has been rude, everyone is tactfully helpful. These wonderful, if not entirely selfless, acts of kindness are educational, encouraging and give one faith in the human spirit.

Thank you to all those writers who make Twitter so worthwhile for me. I can only hope I am as inspirational and helpful as you have been for me.


Guest Blog – Michael D Roberts

It’s my first Guest Blogger! (Hopefully the first of many),

I’d like to welcome Michael D Roberts, Actor, Writer, Stage Technician at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and twitter friend of mine since November 2011. We first came in to contact when agreeing 30th November was definitely too early to start Christmas shopping. Since then Michael has become a very supportive writer-friend, he is also a very funny sitcom writer and a name to watch out for in the future.

I’ve always believed in the saying, you get out of life what you’re willing to put into it.

Hi, I’m Michael David Roberts, remember that name because you’ll be seeing it in lights one day, well I hope so anyway. My story begins back in 2007 when I started a writing a pilot episode to a sitcom, based around a funeral directors called Morbid. The whole show centred on a brother and sister called Michael and Ashley. In the first episode we find out Michael and Ashley’s parents are recently deceased and the plot of the first series was to see if they could take over the family business and make a success of their inheritance. But as we all know a sitcom never allows for straightforward thinking; my aim was to see how many funerals they could mess up. The sitcom contained two other characters, Dave and Elric. Dave’s character was based around your modern day Del Boy and Elric was an off the wall character you could write anything for; it would just make sense because he was that strange. So as you can see I had my work cut out for me at the start.

English: Buick Flxible Hearse (note spelling f...

I bet you’re thinking, why did it take me five years to write it and get it sent off? Well, I kept thinking in my head it wasn’t finished and was scared of the outcome as well. I’d built these characters up in my head and didn’t want to let go to them if no-one wanted my script.

January 2012 came. I made a pact to send it off as soon as I’d looked over it and touched up a few more scenes, only to find out the BBC already had a similar idea from a writer in Huddersfield. Well I’ll be honest, I had no-one to blame but myself, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. My next step is to put things in place to film the episode and see what the world thinks of my idea. I’ve been calling up funeral directors for hearses and coffins, speaking to friends who know a cameraman and talking to actors from the local universities in Liverpool. I know at the moment I can’t offer anything in return, but I am a man who never forgets a favour and remembers everyone who helped me get to where I am today. I know I will find the people needed to help me and when I can repay them I will. What really matters is that you’re willing to put the time and effort into working toward something you truly want to do in life.

Out of Morbid came my production company, Take the Cake Productions. I’ve recruited some really talented people and I’ve got a new mission now: to make the best loved comedy production company in the UK. I need you to help me get there.

I don’t want to change the world, I just want to make it laugh.

Thank you for listening to me. I hope this has made you want to achieve goals you’ve set out in life.

If you’re based around the Liverpool area and can offer any help to get the Morbid pilot off the ground, please get in touch with Michael. You can follow Michael at @michaeldroberts , @takethecakepro and on Facebook at

View a short sketch by Michael at:

Focus, perseverance and perfectionism

In the lead up to my long anticipated Arvon course I’ve experienced something of a writing paralysis. I’ve tinkered with a short story and sent it to a fellow blogger/twitterer for a bit of reciprocal criticising and I’ve written a few blogs, but I just haven’t been able to look at my novel.

I think part of the reason is, I’m hoping being locked away in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish highlands, with nine other aspiring authors and two published/acclaimed authors, is going to provide me with such a radically different view on my novel it’s hardly worth me doing anything until then. Another part of my mind screams; every day is precious, every writing minute counts. And it does, but here I am nonetheless.

Focus and perseverance are incredibly important traits in a writer. I imagine there are hundreds of manuscripts out there that started very well but remain unfinished. Perhaps some of them deserve to stay there, but a great many simply faltered because their author lacked these two traits, or lost them for a bit. I can bit a half-arsed about some things; sewing, cooking and decorating to name just a few, but if I really love something I will stick at it no matter what. There is, inside me, a quiet confidence that ‘I will get this bloody novel written and it will be good’. I won’t just finish it and think ‘thank god’. I will make it the best it can be.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a perfectionist. I won’t pore over my novel endlessly once it’s done, but I will hold back on showing it to an agent, publisher or the general public until it is ready. I know I’ve already been writing my novel for a number of years and some people have said to me ‘just send off the first chapter to a few agents, see what they think’.  Even before I started looking into this part of the process, this seemed like a bad idea.  I am aware, despite the number of years I’ve been writing, I still have a long way to go before I can produce a novel I would be excited by if I were the reader. I look back at my first drafts and they were awful. I have improved so much since then and I know I will improve further. The fact it’s a slow process is incredibly frustrating for me (and probably for those around me) but shoving something half-baked under people’s noses then expecting to get a following, an avid audience eagerly awaiting my next masterpiece, is folly.

I get a bit antsy when I’m not writing, luckily I can present a fairly serene outward impression, but inside I’m twitching. Perhaps it’s because of this, I know, although I’ve taken a pause, I will be back and I will be badder than before (by which of course I mean gooder…better).

Someone once said to me, (after I’d admitted to being a bit of a bodger at particular tasks), that people are either conscientious in all things or the opposite. Do you think this is true? I really hope it isn’t, I think it’s more to do with how you prioritise your life.

I don’t know if you write every day no matter what, or have periods when you’ve written nothing – either because of commitments or writers block – how do you cope? Do you sometimes feel under pressure from those around you to ‘just get it finished’?

Thanks for reading this blog, feel free to comment 🙂

English language: fabulous, inclusive, adaptable – but get it right!

Today someone called ‘Grammar Nazi’ interrupted a twitter conversation to point out I had written Glamourous instead of Glamorous. Despite my instinctive reaction, which was to feel quite indignant, I had to admit Grammar Nazi was right. (Well I didn’t admit it, I actually replied, ‘ Thank you, yes I am’; obviously still feeling indignant at that point!) It did get me thinking however, about the often arbitrary nature of the English language.

It is actually one of the things I love about our language. I love that words like rough, cough, tough through and bough look so similar and yet are not only completely different in meaning, but also in pronunciation.  AsideHow many of of you when watching Sharpe, LofTR or Game of Thrones have made that terrible old joke “Isn’t that Shorn Born (or Seen Been)” upon seeing the deliciously maturing Sean Bean?

In the novel I’m currently writing this is one of my themes (it’s not a key theme but still, its a thread running through it). I’m writing about a fantasy England full of sword fighting knights, gypsies, pagans and an emerging new church. During the adventures on this small isle we meet a gallimaufry (just found this word so i’m using it – can’t pronounce it though!) of races, languages and beliefs. I’m not trying to make any grand comment on multiculturalism – I’m woefully uneducated to do so, I’m just revelling in the richness of our ancestry and being a little bit nostalgic about what we’ve lost. (My Grandfather was a Welshman who lived for many years in Cornwall.  He had the most beautiful mixture of accents/dialects. I would love to be able to speak both Welsh and Cornish, but (notwithstanding my complete inability to learn other languages) the last Cornish speaker died in 1777.

Old English (500-1100 AD)

English: Map of England and Wales, showing Ang...

English: Map of England and Wales, showing Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms as of c. 600. Redrawn from a map in James Campbell, The Anglo-Saxons, Penguin Books, 1991. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Apart from my Grandfather’s nationality, I also love Welsh and Cornish because (as well as Irish, Scottish and Breton) they contain remnants of Brythonic and Goidelic; spoken before West Germanic invaders arrived from Jutland and southern Denmark in the fifth and sixth centuries (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes). These invaders spoke a language called Old English similar to modern Frisian (region of the Netherlands).

Old English developed into a range of dialects, notably,  Northumbrian (Northern England), Mercian (Midlands), West Saxon (South and west) and Kentish (Southeast).

Also influencing English at this time were the Vikings. Norse invasions began around 850, bringing North Germanic words into the language.

Although the majority of modern English words come from foreign, not Old English roots, Old English is more important than this indicates. About half of the most commonly used words have Old English roots; like be, water, and strong, for example. Old English, whose best known surviving example is the poem, Beowulf, lasted until c1100, shortly after the most important event in the development of the English language, the Norman Conquest.

Middle English (1100-1500)

I love the term Middle English, I like to imagine it originates somewhere in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In reality it came into existence after William the Conqueror (from Normandy) conquered the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 AD.

I didn’t realise until recently how completely the Normans crushed the Anglo-Saxons. Fairly well know is The Harrying (or Harrowing) of the North, a series of campaigns by William the Conqueror[1] in the winter of 1069–1070 to subjugate Northern England. The death toll of over 100,000, caused substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. William installed new overlords speaking a dialect of Old French, known as Anglo-Norman.

Language very obviously discriminated between the indigenous population and this new French speaking aristocracy. Great examples of this can be found in our words for meats and the animals they came from: Pork comes from the Norman-French word for a pig, porc, whereas the animal itself, variously pig, swine, hog, etc. comes from Anglo-Saxon. Mouton is French for the meat of a sheep. Beef would be eaten by the Norman aristocracy, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic word, cow.

Sometimes French words replaced Old English words; crime replaced firen. In other instances French and Old English combined to form new words; the French gentle and Germanic man formed gentleman. Sometimes two different words with roughly the same meaning both survive into modern English; like the Germanic doom and the French judgement.

In 1204 AD, King John lost Normandy to the King of France. Norman nobles became estranged from their French cousins. Consequently they adopted a modified English as their native tongue. 150 years later, the Black Death (1349-50) killed a third of the English population. Labouring and merchant classes grew in economic and social importance, and English increased in importance compared to Anglo-Norman. This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. The most famous example of which is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Early Modern English (1500-1800)

The revival of classical scholarship in the Renaissance brought many classical Latin and Greek words into the Language. These borrowings were deliberate and some people disliked their adoption. Shakespeare’s character Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost is a satire of an overenthusiastic schoolmaster too fond of Latinisms. Many familiar words and phrases were coined or first recorded by Shakespeare, some 2,000 words and countless catch-phrases are his. such as: One fell swoop, vanish into thin air, flesh and blood and the words, critical, leapfrog, majestic, dwindle, and pedant.

There was also something called the Great Vowel Shift; a change in pronunciation which began around 1400. While modern English speakers can read Chaucer with some difficulty, his pronunciation would be unintelligible to the modern ear. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would be accented, but understandable. Long vowel sounds began to be made higher in the mouth and the letter e at the end of words became silent. Chaucer’s Lyf (pronounced leef) became the modern word life. In Middle English name was pronounced nam-a, five was pronounced feef.

After the advent of the printing press in England in 1476, literacy became more common and brought standardization to English. To neatly include my favourite King of England, Richard III into this blog, I would like to point out that in 1483, he was the first monarch to take his coronation oath in English. He also ensured laws were printed in English, so as to be more easily understood by the population.

Modern English continues to develop to suit our needs. This inclusivity, this tendency to adapt and assimilate only adds to its vibrance. It also means if I can induce enough people to start writing Glamourous, then eventually the OED will have to enter it into the dictionary! 😉

I do mourn the loss of old languages like Cornish and the fading out of words (still heard in northern England) like thee thou, thy, thine, aye and nay. Bring them and top hats back, and I shall be a happy lady 🙂

Are there any quirks of the English language you particularly like, bad grammar that gets your goat or bad habits you’re trying to shake?