When I booked my week at the Arvon Centre at Moniack Mhor, I was desperate for it to be a good experience. I’d pored over the brochure every year, listened to other writers’ tales of their Arvon adventures, but never been able to get the time off or the childcare to fit with a course that I’d wanted to do. But in the summer of 2010, my turn had come. My two sons were both on a residential holiday, my part-time teaching job made me eligible for a small bursary towards the fees, and the course seemed a perfect fit: a tutored novel writing retreat. I’d finished a novel manuscript on an MA course just a few months before and I wanted to move it on to the next stage. I knew it needed editing and I’d also started another project, on the advice of an agent who thought young adult might be more marketable than literary crime.
I read the novels of both my tutors, Kevin MacNeil and Zoe Strachan, and loved their work. It all seemed so perfect that I began to get nervous. What if all the other people were psychopaths? What if I turned out to be the psychopath and they all hated me? As the train got nearer to Inverness I tried to work out who in my carriage looked like they were on their way to an Arvon retreat. There was a lady with her hair in a bun wearing a handknit sweater who looked possible (I was wrong) and another calm young woman, tapping into a laptop (I was right). We were met at the station and soon were introducing ourselves in the taxi minibus. The feeling of being among a bunch of easy-going, friendly people began to calm my nerves. Later as we stood around in the kitchen over a glass of wine, we all admitted the same fears. Five days in a remote house in the Highlands with a group of complete strangers felt like reality TV, yet here we were without a video camera in sight and no TV to watch either.
My room was the stuff that writers’ dreams are made of: small as a nun’s cell, painted white, with a single bed and a little desk and a view of the fields and hills beyond. I got into the habit of finishing my breakfast and saying, right, I’m off to work now. That’s not something I ever manage at home, where there’s always another potential displacement activity lying in wait. We wrote, we ate, we drank, we talked, we went for long walks and we all got on incredibly well. We talked about how incredibly well we all got on. Many of us have stayed in touch and become friends. Two are now married.
The tutoring from Kevin and Zoe was wonderful and I’ve gone back to the notes I made from my sessions with them several times over. They never said it would be easy and they always told us it would be a long haul to get our work to the next stage, but they were a crucial part of my own journey to publication. My MA novel became To Catch a Rabbit, which has just been published by Moth Publishing, a new imprint focusing on crime writers in the north of England. Learning to edit my work, to polish it and to wait for the right opportunity were all part of that week. Beyond the writing was the sky, the hare that came up to the back door and the placid, woolly cows in the field next door. When I need to find some peace and quiet in which to work, I imagine I’m back there again.
Helen’s debut crime novel, To Catch a Rabbit, is published by Moth Publishing, £6.99.