How I wrote and published Mentoring Mr Singleman - Part 2 - The Arvon Influence.
Updated: Jun 24
This is the second in a short series of three posts adapted from a live talk given to the 2020 Independent Authors Online Festival. The video of the talk itself, which includes me reading the extracts, can be found at Unit 17 of the festival site
I want to say something now about the Arvon foundation, with which many of you may already be acquainted. The foundation runs a wide range of five-day courses for writers and aspiring writers at three beautiful centres in Devon, Shropshire and Yorkshire. With one or two exceptions the courses follow the same pattern. Around sixteen “students” spend the five days in the company of two resident tutors, successful writers in their field. A third visiting tutor drops in to give a midweek evening talk. The mornings are spent engaged in various writing exercises led by the tutors. The afternoons are spent writing, and the evenings in reading work to one another and generally relaxing. All meals are taken together round a huge table, and the catering is done by the students to set recipes and with ingredients provided by the resident staff. It is amazingly good fun.
Accommodation is in small study bedrooms, and single rooms are available for a supplement if you book early. The houses are all in beautiful settings, and are full of interesting literary bits and pieces, with libraries to die for. The courses cost about £800 each, and while I have always slightly balked at the price, I have attended two now, and come away from both feeling that I had more enjoyment than I could possibly have bought for that money on a package holiday or even a week in an apartment in France. (I should say that some bursaries are available.) In addition to the fun that I had, both courses moved my writing forward considerably. Arvon courses are of course all on hold at the moment, but they are putting some excellent stuff online – well worth checking them out on www.arvon.org
Arvon do a vast range of courses to cater for every genre of creative writing, but the only course that was available for my dates was Writing Commercial Fiction. Now this wouldn’t have been my first choice. Like many male English teachers of my generation, I saw myself more as Thomas Hardy or John Updike. But I reasoned that I probably had a few things to learn and in the circumstances, I wasn’t in a position to choose.
So I found myself on this course with fourteen women and one other bloke, and they were a really lovely bunch of people from a wide range of backgrounds, interested in writing many different types of stuff. Our two tutors were also excellent - Mike Gayle and Chrissie Manby are both best-selling authors and were friendly and generous with their time and their advice. The one slightly unsettling thing for me was that while everybody else seemed to be in the middle of writing something, I hadn’t actually started.
So on the first afternoon proper I sat at my little wooden desk in the piggery at Totleigh Barton, facing the dreaded blank screen. I decided I would start my school novel, and as I had absolutely no plot of any sort, and only the vaguest idea of where it was going to go, I chose to start with a set piece where I would introduce a couple of the main characters. I decided to start with the in-service training day at the beginning of term, which for me has always been one of the most intense and frustrating moments of the teaching year. If you’re a teacher I suspect you’ll know what I mean.
I’m going to read a bit of that opening section now. I know we’re going backwards, but I wanted to give you a sense of the chemistry between Dave and Kate first, and Kate doesn’t appear until towards the end of Chapter One. So this is the first day of term at St Petroc’s school, and our introduction to the male protagonist, Dave Singleman.
At this point in the live talk I read an extract from Chapter One
So during the Arvon course I wrote what became, with minimal editing, the first chapter of Mentoring Mr Singleman. I still had no idea, at that stage, of where it would go next. Once the course was over I had to address myself to settling into my new home, and by the time that was sorted, it was nearly Christmas. That first chapter was still all I had on my laptop.
However two other things I had learned on the course stayed with me. One was a deceptively simple grid system for plotting out a novel, based on a forty chapter format, each chapter being roughly 2400 words. This grid had various points on it by which certain elements of the plot had to move forward. It all sounds a bit formulaic, and I didn’t use it religiously, but when I set about thinking where my story might actually go it was extremely useful in preventing me from wandering off course or disappearing down an unhelpful rabbit hole.
The second thing I learned was a simple piece of advice on how to deal with the daunting prospect of sitting down to write a whole novel. Using the forty chapter format mentioned above, the novel ends up between 90,000 and 100,000 words long – which makes for a fairly substantial paperback. Mike Gayle asked us how many words we could reasonably get down in a first draft writing session of two to three hours. Most of us acknowledged that we could manage 1-2000 words in that time. So how many writing sessions would be needed to produce 100,000 words? Well, taking the lower estimate, the answer is a hundred. So let’s say you can write every week-day morning, or even just every evening – that’s twenty sessions, or twenty thousand words, per month. In six months, even allowing for some slippage, you have your first draft.
The winters in Cornwall are not cold, but they can be a bit wet and miserable, and I was aware that once Christmas and the excitement of being in my new home were out of the way, things might feel a bit flat. So I set myself the challenge of writing the rest of the novel. I reckoned I could comfortably write 1200 words, or half a chapter, in a morning session, and still have time for some re-reading, revision, and planning. And indeed that’s pretty much what I did. Bar a bit of copy-editing, the novel was more or less finished by May.
©Kim Sancreed 2020
My experience of publishing through Amazon’s KDP programme is covered in the final of these three posts, while the first post gives some information about the inspiration behind writing Mentoring Mr Singleman.
Image - the Arvon Centre at Totleigh Barton. the piggery is on the left.