Looking for something really interesting to add to this nearly defunct blogette, I decided to have a natter with Jo Gatford, who set up a brilliant organisation for writers called Writers' HQ. Why? Well - let her tell you - but it chimes with me, as I do worry that so many writing opportunities are geared to those with the cash, the confidence, the freedom and the chutzpah to go for it. What if you just don't fit that profile?
That's exactly what I asked Jo...
There are 101 organisations for writers springing up all over the place. Why should a writer look closely/closer at Writers' HQ? What can your organisation do for them?
Writer’s HQ was set up as an alternative for people who can’t afford/don’t want to/don’t have time to take a Creative Writing MA or go on longer residential retreats. There are indeed 101 organisations out there offering courses or retreats but a) many of them can be prohibitively expensive, b) many of them require significant time and dedication or attendance at a specific location that’s simply impossible for struggling writers trying to juggle work/life/study/kids, and c) the literary world can unfortunately sometimes give off a somewhat elitist vibe, and emerging/aspiring writers often suffer from imposter syndrome and/or feel that they need to be a ‘proper writer’ (whatever the hell that means) to take an expensive writing course or attend a retreat.
As parents/writers/low-income workers, we really struggled to find accessible courses or groups that would fit our needs, and Writers’ HQ really emerged to try to fill this gap. Our online courses are designed to fit in around work, life responsibilities, childcare, study, and whatever else gets in the way of writing – so people can take part online, tackle small chunks at a time, join a lively and friendly (and sweary) writing community and get their sh*t done at a pace that suits them.
The central ethos of WHQ is to offer space and time to write, writing advice and expertise, and community support for writers no matter where they are, how long they’ve been writing, or how much time they have to assign to writing. We’re kind of the ‘scruffy nerf herders’ of the writing world. We acknowledge that writing is really bloody hard and the average writer spends a lot of time doubting their abilities. We also swear a lot and enjoy posting stupid gifs which seems to appeal to writers who tend to procrastinate online.
So. Our online courses are available worldwide to anyone with an internet connection. You can sign up to individual courses or become a member and get ongoing access to ALL our courses (with new ones being released every month or so) – a bit like Netflix for writers. Once you’re registered, you’ll work through a series of exercises towards a tangible outcome (such as plotting a novel) at your own pace, with plenty of opportunity for flexibility, peer discussion and feedback. Our private Facebook group is open all hours for anti-procrastination pep talks and general writerly discussion (because, let’s face it, you’re all on Facebook anyway, so you might as well be reminded to write while you’re there).
A huge proportion of our students go on to take more than one course and often work their way methodically through the series – from plotting to editing to submitting a novel, or from idea generation to writing short fiction to submitting to lit mags and competitions. And we get results. Our Wall of Fame is testimony to the many successes our students have had in the last year – most recently we had FOUR students longlisted for the Mslexia novel award, a handful of writers landed literary agents or publishing deals, and a whole bunch more had their short fiction published, or were long/short listed for competitions. We are very proud literary mother hens and we love shouting our students’ achievements from the rooftops (or at least Twitter).
Our one-day regional retreats are available in Birmingham, Brighton, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Portsmouth and Worthing each month (with more locations coming soon!). Essentially, at a WHQ retreat, we shut you in a room for 6 hours and ply you with unlimited caffeine and snacks, feed you a tasty lunch, and get everyone to set a tangible personal writing goal for the day. Then we work in small, manageable chunks of writing time, checking in periodically to see how everyone’s getting on, and awarding gold stars for good behaviour (it’s honestly quite remarkable how motivational shiny stickers can be for adults). It’s absolutely not competitive, but the average writer tends to get about 3-5,000 words down in a single day – though we have a few incredibly prolific outliers who have managed a staggering 10,000+ words in one session!
We’ve found one-day retreats are far more accessible for people who work full time or have kids or generally find it hard to carve out time to write. They’re also much cheaper than residential retreats and often more productive than informal writing groups, and around 80% of attendees are repeat offenders, meaning that you see a lot of the same faces each month, get to know other local writers, and keep up to date with how everyone’s projects are getting on gives them a really lovely community feel.
Many writing opportunities are only accessible to those who can pay/get childcare easily and so forth. How are you addressing these issues? Any plans to help with childcare by providing a creche, for example?
We both have a couple of sprogs each, so we know how hard it is to get back into writing once you emerge from the daze of the newborn/toddler days. And we get A LOT of parents (mostly mums, actually, who seem to find it harder to prioritise their writing time) at our retreats and on our courses so we’re constantly looking for ways to accommodate people with kiddos. This is exactly why we decided to run one-day retreats, as it can be really tough to get away for a week-long retreat (not only logistically but also because of the never-ending parental guilt), while finding one day per month at a weekend is much more feasible. Similarly, our online courses can be done in the evenings or during nap times/when little ones are at nursery or school in small, manageable chunks.
We’ve actually been talking a lot recently about a possibility of organising a longer residential retreat avec childcare but obviously there are a lot of logistics to consider – it’s definitely on our list for 2018 though!
I happily added some video support - who else do you have in this series, and what sort of topics are they blathering about?
Oh how we love your videos (watch them all here)! We’ve also had some fantastic advice from award-winning writers like Paul McVeigh (author of The Good Son and winner of the Polari Prize), Emma Healey (author of Elizabeth is Missing and winner of the Costa First Novel Award), Catriona Ward (author of Rawblood, Best Horror Novel – British Fantasy Awards 2016) and Ed Hogan (author of Blackmoor, winner of the Desmond Elliot Prize), editor of Open Pen literary magazine Sean Preston, and literary agent Samar Hammam, so we have a huge range of experiences from the publishing world. We use all our author videos in our online courses covering all sorts of useful subjects such as:
- How to turn ideas into stories
- How to plot a novel
- How to edit a novel
- How to submit your novel to agents and get published
- How to write short fiction
How does running this add to/impinge on your own writing?
Ah. Well. Do as we say, not as we do… The last year has been pretty manic for us – we were awarded funding from Arts Council England to help us set up our online courses and we’ve been busy training our regional retreat representatives to expand across the UK, as well as planning new courses and content for 2018 and supporting our existing writers.
We’re both currently writing/editing a novel each, with plans to get them finished (and published!) in 2018, so we’re going through exactly the same trials and tribulations as our students. One of the main intentions of setting up WHQ was to allow us to factor in writing time and we’re getting there slowly. Maybe we need to take some of our own advice and ‘stop f**king about and start writing’.