Monday, 18 April 2016

Writing Away (or Going Away to Write) by Malachy Doyle

 I'm lucky, me. I have a study.

I also have a writing hut.

But I still find that some of the best ideas happen when I’m away.

When I started writing, over 20 years ago now, I went on a week-long course at Ty Newydd. It’s on the Lleyn Peninsula in Wales - and it’s a wonderful place to write. 

The tutors were Kevin Crossley-Holland and Valerie Bloom and they were both fantastically encouraging. ‘You’ve got it, Malachy,’ they said. ‘Now go home and do it!’

So I did. And two of the stories I was working on that week became books (The Football Ghosts, 11 years later, and The Snuggle Sandwich, 14 years later!)

A year after that I got a bursary from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and spent it on a week at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, County Monaghan.  Another superb place to write.

Three of the stories I was working on that week became books - Una and the Sea-Cloak, The King of the Birds and Moya, The Luck Child.

These days, when I go away, it’s generally to help other people write. I’ve been back to Ty Newydd many times, running courses, including with both Kevin and Valerie.   

I’ve also led residential courses at Annaghmakerrig and at all three of the Arvon centres across England – courses for schoolchildren and for adults. It’s great to give back, to encourage, to inspire, to help people find their voice… And it’s wonderful to discover the occasional just-about-fully-formed-but-didn't-yet-know-it writer to whom you can say, ‘You’ve got it! Now go home and do it!’

At the Totleigh Barton Arvon centre in Devon I was teaching a new writer for children, Anthea Simmons. She wrote her first picture book story ‘Share!’ there. It’s gone on to be published in many languages, and already has two sequels.

 In the same place, on a course I taught with Vivian French, we helped a new and very exciting young writer by the name of Michelle Robinson find her picture-book voice. (She's been known to lurk hereabouts.)   

And just the other day I heard from the illustrator Guy Parker-Rees that a character he developed on an Arvon course I was teaching a while back has not only become a book, but has sold to Brown Bag films for development as an animation series.

Running courses helps my own writing too. I generally sit in on the sessions of my co-tutors, often finding myself inspired to write things I’d never have written at home. I was recently teaching an Arvon schools course with Sheena Wilkinson, a fellow Northern Irish writer, and wrote a story in one of her sessions (in fifteen minutes flat, as you do!) that, fingers crossed, will soon be a picture book.

So, yes, I’m a big fan of writing courses and of the idea of going away to write. It's a excellent way to shift gear, to see things differently, to try a new approach or a whole new genre and to find the confidence to follow where it leads...

And if anyone’s tempted, I’m leading one at The Hurst (the newly-refurbished and delightful Arvon centre in Shropshire) at the end of May.

It’s a Tutored Retreat, so rather than running workshops, I’ll be available all week, with my co-tutor, the very excellent Narinder Dhami, to help you with your writing. Whatever you’re working on – from picture books to young adult, it’ll be a great place to find inspiration, to write and to develop as a writer. And maybe, hopefully, like me, you’ll get a book or two out of it. Arvon tell me there are still some places left, and that there's a possibility of bursaries for those who can’t afford the full fee. Oh, and our special guest on the Wednesday night is the superb Geraldine McCaughrean – not to be missed.

So has anyone else any suggestions as to other good places to go away and write. What works for you, and why?

 Malachy's latest book is Sea Stories, published by OUP in their series
 'The Greatest Stories' (Oxford Reading Tree: Treetops), May 2016

And if anyone would like to find out more about the tutored retreat at The Hurst, go to the Arvon website:

or ring The Hurst 01588640658 (from UK), email


  1. Wonderful memories of that course, Malachy. It kick started everything for me. I find writing courses act like an adrenalin shot for my writing, too. I always buzz off them for months after and my writing is almost always on the money. It's great to be in a different (and beautiful) environment, to be pushed out of your comfort zone, to be in the company of other writers. I can't recommend Arvon highly enough. I'm desperate to do a retreat week. Alas! I have events at the Hay Festival, Salisbury International Arts Festival and Wychwood Festival that week - I'd never have foreseen that back at Arvon. Seriously, folks, nab a space on Malachy's course, you never know where it might lead...

  2. Lovely to hear, first, from my superstar tutee. It was obvious from the very first thing you wrote on that course - and it's hard to believe it was the very first piece of picture-book writing you'd ever done - that you were a star in the making. I'm thrilled that you've gone on to such success.

    1. Not quite the first - I'd written a few not-so-publishable ones. (I still do, don't tell anyone.)

  3. Thank you for the lovely mention...nay..promotion! Dead chuffed!
    I wish I could attend the retreat. I could do with some Malachy magic as I wrestle with a new title for Andersen. Hey ho!

    1. Good luck with the new one, Andrea. I'm breathing a few milligrams of magic to you through the world wide web. Here, catch!

  4. Attempting to become 'known' rather than unknown as per comment above! Ain't that the truth!

  5. I loved my week at Arvon on your course, Malachy, and can't recommend the experience highly enough. It helped me wrestle with the tricky second story for Dylan, the stripy dog. It was the perfect balance of peace, bonhommie and gentle encouragement that I needed. Thank you.

  6. Thanks for your kind words, Guy. Delighted to hear of Dylan's (and your) success. Guy's week was a tutored retreat, by the way, like the upcoming one at the Hurst. It took place at the Lumb Bank Arvon centre, and my co-tutor was the very lovely Catherine Johnson.

  7. Good writing courses are incredible. It's like being given a wondrous bolt of creative electricity. Yours are obviously super-powered, Malachy!

  8. Where can I find more information on that writing course?

  9. On the Arvon website, Priya.
    Or ring The Hurst 01588640658 (from UK), email

  10. Thanks for that inspiring post, Malachy! I wish I could come to Arvon on your course... Doing a course, home or away, can be just the thing to take your work to the next level. I love coaching new and established authors for this very reason. The SCBWI runs an annual picture book retreat. Readers can find out more here:

  11. Hello Malachy, a lovely post. I agree that there is nothing like getting away to indulge in your craft and be inspired by wonderful tutors. How I wish I could attend your course; you definitely have many success stories to tell, not just for yourself but for your students, too. If it's of any interest to you, I have just started a new venture at my house by the sea in Herne Bay, Kent, where we have so far run two picture book writing weekends, taught by Rebecca Colby and have another coming up in June taught by Anita Loughrey. We also offer retreats for writers wanting to use the whole house as a self-catering, untutored getaway. It's early beginnings and so far very positive feedback from everyone. If you want to know more I'd be happy to share details. Thank you.

    1. Sounds excellent, Frances. Good luck with it all.