What I learned about writing from Arvon (and hope to take back)

Alison Mercer teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival

Photo: Dan Hall. Here I am teaching at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015

Seventeen years ago I did an Arvon course at Lumb Bank near Hebden Bridge; this autumn I’m going back to Arvon, this time as a tutor. I’m so happy to be going back, and a big part of that is because I had such a good Arvon experience myself.

Back in 2000, I knew I wanted to write, but for ages I hadn’t – not since I was a teenager (although I kept diaries, which are still in a cupboard somewhere.) I think part of what I was looking for was permission – that crucial thing that you need to overcome all those negative voices in your head telling you that writing is a waste of time, getting published is impossible and it won’t be any good anyway etc etc.

And I got what I needed, though it was a while longer before I really committed systematically to writing a novel and making time every day to get on with it.

Alison Mercer in Paris

me circa 2000 (hot chocolate in Paris, Café Flore)

I had picked out a beginners’ fiction writing course, figuring that a) it wouldn’t be too intimidating b) my fellow students wouldn’t be too intimidating. In November I’ll at the Hurst in Shropshire with Elizabeth Enfield, leading a course on romance and love stories in fiction. I hope that when it’s over, our students will go back home fired up with enthusiasm and with a few new tricks to help them push on with their writing, as I did all those years ago.

Here’s a bit more about what I got out of my first Arvon experience, and if you ever sign up for a course I hope you’ll find the same.

The power of scenery. My first impression of Hebden Bridge was of how beautiful it was. I was living in SW2 and had barely left the city for months; here, everything was green. There’s something about being transplanted from your usual habitat that’s highly conducive to getting your pen moving across the paper.

Permission to write, big-time. Everything was geared up to make it easy for you and support you in your writing. In everyday life, pretty much the opposite is true. I was charmed by the different nooks and crannies available to write in, and the care that had gone into creating them.

Structure is your friend. The course was highly structured, with morning classes, afternoons for writing and one-to-one tutorials, a mid-week visitor and an end-week goal – writing something to read to the whole group on the final evening. The basic structure of most five-day Arvon courses is the same today.

I’m the kind of person whose natural inclination is to chafe against structure, but over the years I’ve learned how much I need it, both for writing novels and for day-to-day life. (I have an autistic son, so routine and ritual are big in our house.)

My Arvon course tutors in 2000 were Alicia Stubbersfield and James Friel, and our midweek speaker was Patricia Duncker, who I met again at North Cornwall Book Festival in 2015. All of them are Arvon tutors still.

Get on with it. That was the heart of what my first Arvon experience taught me. If you put pen to paper, you’ll get something down, even if you only have fifteen minutes. And then you can revise it and improve it. You might even be pleasantly surprised when you read it back. This was a revelation to me.

There’s also something very powerful about a) reading your work aloud b) reading it to a group – in other words, suddenly finding yourself with an audience.

Other people make all the difference. My Arvon course had a collegiate atmosphere. For five intense days, we lived together, cooked evening meals together and ate together. We prepared the evening meal in teams – luckily, my team back in 2000 included some much better cooks than me. Someone had brought a guitar, and I remember late-night Sinatra singalongs and good use being made of the red wine honesty box. Our group met up a few times afterwards, but I drifted out of touch after I got married, had a baby and moved out of London.

My fellow students were supportive and convivial, and that made the process of writing and sharing what we had written much less alarming. When you’re up against a challenge (like writing), at some point you’re going to need allies – and other writers are the best.

Alison Mercer writing at desk

at work at my desk

There’s something for every writer at Arvon, whatever your form and genre, and whether you’re just starting out or already have a first draft you want to knock into shape. There are also grants available to help cover course fees and first-time Arvon writers are a priority.

I’ll report back after my return to Arvon in November!

PS. My favourite books on writing are:

  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead.

Negotiating with the Dead, by Margaret Atwood

I also like The Writer’s Voice by Al Alvarez and On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, who was Raymond Carver’s writing tutor.

More about tutoring and studying creative writing

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival

A tale of two creative writing courses

What makes a great love story?

What readers want to know about writers (and Stop the Clock)

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Book signing at an event at Wargrave Library in 2013

Meeting groups of readers is the closest I’ve come to having the stuff I’ve made up and stuck in a book come to life. Here, suddenly, is a group of women (sometimes with a few men!) talking about my characters as if they’re real people, who might walk into the room and join us at any moment. It’s a salutary reminder of how much readers bring to a book, and what a strange alchemy reading is.

Inevitably, readers have different ideas about books, just as we all have our own views of what’s going on around us in real life – otherwise, what would book groups ever find to debate? But often there’s some consensus, and sometimes readers have similar questions to ask writers. Here are some questions that I’ve been asked by groups of book lovers (most recently the Oxford branch of the National Council of Women, who had way more life experience between them than any other group I’ve spoken to, and were as perceptive as they were good-humoured).

Do you really write every evening?

As the press release for Stop the Clock explained, it was written between the hours of nine and midnight. That’s most nights from spring 2009 to around January 2012. But, if I’m really honest, not all nights. Sometimes Homeland was on. And sometimes I fell asleep when I put my children to bed. And sometimes I had just finished a draft and gave myself a week off to watch a DVD box set (hello, Game of Thrones).

I know lots of writers say you ABSOLUTELY MUST WRITE EVERY DAY or you will turn into a pumpkin. I’m sure this is very sound advice, along with the guidance that we should all exercise three times a week and eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. I don’t always manage those either. (Ahem. I think I’m better at writing consistently than either keeping fit or consuming fruit.) So the honest answer to this question is, mostly, especially when in a deadline panic. But… not always.

How much do you plan in advance?

I know one writer (a screenwriter) who won’t allow himself to start work until he’s figured out absolutely everything that’s going to happen and can’t bear to hold back from getting on with it any longer. I don’t work like that at all, though maybe it would make my life easier if I did.

Stop the Clock started with characters rather than plot. I had a rough idea of what each character was going to go through, but although I gave them a bit of a steer, I didn’t know when I first set pen to paper exactly how it was going to turn out. What happened to them over time became apparent over successive drafts.

My work-in-progress had a slightly different starting point, a revelation scene – a revelation from the heroine to the reader – that I wrote very early on. Much of the rest of the process of writing the book was finding out how the heroine got to that point and what happened to her afterwards.

I think perhaps I plan relatively little, and then have no option but to plot: to scheme, manipulate, form alliances, and generally attempt to manoeuvre my characters – and the reader, who is just as unseen and imagined – into the parts I envisage them playing. As I go along, sequences of events present themselves and I scribble them down. Not so much planning as ‘plot and jot’.

I also listen to music. That’s my secret weapon. There’s nothing like a song for giving you a short cut to a particular mood. It’s amazing how music can bring emotions to the surface in three minutes flat that a book will toil away over hundreds of pages to elicit.

Do you do much research?

I think this is a very shrewd question. The flip-side of it is, How much do you make up, and how much do you draw from life? And it’s almost impossible to answer honestly, because just about everything is research. And at the same time, when it comes down to it, I make it all up.

The research aide I relied on most heavily for Stop the Clock – apart from my magpie memory and years of conversation with interesting friends – was a table in Sheila Kitzinger’s The New Pregnancy and Childbirth which is designed to help you calculate your due date. It was quite a headache getting everybody to reproduce within feasible timescales and when I wanted them to.

I also like asking myself ‘What if?’ and seeing what comes out.

What do male readers make of Stop the Clock?

I’ve been particularly intrigued by male readers’ reactions to this story, which is so much about women’s relationships with each other and women getting to grips with motherhood – or thinking that they would prefer not to. Some of the very earliest readers were male – my husband, the poet Ian Pindar, and the novelist Neel Mukherjee, who both encouraged me to set about trying to get it published.

Since then? The reactions have been unpredictable and surprising. I think the warmest responses have come from men of around my own age who have young-ish children. There was the twentysomething who gamely gave it a go, and diplomatically told me that he realised he wasn’t the target demographic. Though the truth is, there wasn’t really a target − if you’re at all interested, you’re it! There was also the older man who observed that it was ‘a bit birthy’. Which it is… But that’s life, I guess!

In general, amongst my very favourite reader responses are: the reader who cried; the reader who missed a tube stop; and the reader who promptly booked a holiday to Cornwall. (One of those was male, two female. The man cried.) That pretty much sums up what I wanted the book to do: to make you feel, to make you forget yourself, and to take you somewhere else.

More tips for writers: how to get to the end

Here are some more tips for writers on how to get your first novel out. It’s not just about creativity and imagination – it’s also about stamina, bloody-mindedness and keeping on going. Inevitably you’ll have other demands on your time, so how do you fit it all in, and stay the course till you get to the finishing post?

It is quite normal to have to work for a living as well as write. James Ellroy was a golf caddy. Sylvia Plath did shorthand (for a bit). William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks while working the night shift at a power plant – at least, that’s what he said later. (Writers! You can’t believe a word they say!) You may not be able to crank out a masterpiece at quite such a breakneck pace – I certainly couldn’t – but you can definitely push out a first draft if you work most evenings over the course of a year. I wrote pretty much all of Stop the Clock between the hours of nine and midnight, when my children were in bed.

Don’t worry if what comes out to start with doesn’t look all that great. Write secure in the knowledge that you will re-write. A novel is infinitely perfectible. The words you scribble down on your notepad can be reworked, polished up, transformed into e-book or printed page – but only if you’ve set them down in the first place. You may find longhand is better to start with. A keyboard gives rise to the temptation to edit as you go along.

Take notes. All kinds of writing are useful for getting you in the habit: dry-as-dust research reports, accounts of fetes and conferences, long, crazy love letters – it’s all exercise of one kind or another. If you’re not ready to commit to a novel, try short stories, a diary, a blog, flash fiction, whatever. Keep pen and paper to hand, because when you’re in the habit of writing phrases will present themselves to you at odd times. Don’t lose them. Write them down as fast as you can.

Don’t believe the spiel about the enemies of promise. This was a list dreamed up by Cyril Connolly, and it included the pram in the hall and journalism. It’s a funny, well-written essay. That doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s nobler to try to make something than to knock it – even if you fail. It is always, always harder to create something than to destroy it. Don’t let meanness or indifference put you off. The act of putting pen to paper, regardless of outcome, is what counts. And as Brendan Behan says in Borstal Boy, F**k the begrudgers.

Remember, as the screenwriter William Goldman says repeatedly in Adventures in the Screen Trade, nobody knows anything. Be prepared to listen to advice, especially if it comes from someone whose judgement you trust. However, when it comes to your work, others may be able to offer a view or a steer, but ultimately, you are the one in charge. You decide. You judge. You choose. As a novice writer, you are simultaneously without status and magnificently powerful.

When you put your shoulder to the stone, something magical happens: forces conspire to help you shift it. When I was a student I interviewed the polar explorer Ranulph Fiennes, and he said that when you commit to an expedition, however impossible it seems, things fall into place to get you on your way. That can happen with novels, too.

If you find it difficult to get started, try writing in bed. Like reading in bed, it’s a way of tricking yourself into thinking that you are resting and indulging yourself, and about to go to sleep any minute. It worked for Proust…

Carry on reading. But don’t force yourself to read books you think you ought to. Read whatever you like, and plenty of it. If you feel stoppered up, try a page-turner. I read the Twilight saga when I was writing Stop the Clock in the hope that the flow of it would rub off. Read books that are similar to the one you want to write and see how they’re put together. Borrow other people’s tricks and make them your own.

Keep going. Music can be useful to psyche you up and push you on, just as it is (I believe) for runners. Be stubborn and bloody-minded. You will be peculiarly pleased with yourself when you get to the end.

Here are some more tips on how to write a novel in next to no time.