Creative writing courses – useless or essential?

A couple of weeks ago I came across Hanif Kureishi’s bold statement about creative writing classes.

Speaking at the Bath Literature Festival, he told his audience that such classes or courses are a waste of time, because most students just “can’t tell a story.” Beyond that, he seemed to imply that talent in writing is an innate skill and not something that can be taught: “It’s probably 99.9 per cent [of students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent.”

All of this of course begs the question of why Kureishi continues to conduct creative writing classes, and whether indeed, following his Bath speech the numbers of budding authors attending his course will dwindle.

Nevertheless, his beliefs led me to question the usefulness of writing classes. Are they really a complete waste of money or can something be learnt from them that can be practically put to use?

Last weekend I attended a Guardian Masterclass run by Tim Lott, whose work I’m a big fan of. It was intended for those writers who had completed a full manuscript and wanted help with what to do next – i.e. how to effectively self-edit, how to polish their work to a standard at which it’s ready to pitch to agents, and finally – how to sell their manuscripts effectively.

The added appeal of this class was a session run by Clare Alexander of the Aitken Alexander literary agency, which was incredibly useful with that final stage of pitching. Clare spoke to us in detail about what puts her off in submissions. Her top tips were:

          Don’t oversell or undersell yourself. It’s good to give context to your writing, but never compare your work to that of an accomplished author, because you’re immediately setting yourself up for failure.

          Tell the agent about your background, particularly if it’s relevant to your writing, but make it brief. The agent is interested in your work rather than you as a person.

          Don’t include praise for your novel from other editors or literary consultants, as it will make you look desperate.

          Always take the time to research what a given agent within a given agency is looking for and explain why your work is relevant to them. As with job applications, there is nothing worse than a scatter-gun approach.

          If you are a first-time writer, it’s often a good idea to approach younger agencies/agents, who are just building up their lists and are particularly hungry to discover new talent.

But going back to our work with Tim – the course was spread across two days and was from 9am – 5pm. During this time, we went through a series of intense sessions including: plot and narrative arc, creating effective and believable characters, developing dialogue, building granular descriptions of characters and scenes and choosing an effective title.

Tim talked us through many ways in which he achieved the above in his own work, and showed us fragments of novels in which other authors had accomplished any one of these traits to a particularly high standard.

Towards the end of the second day he asked us to describe the theme or premise of our novel in one sentence, and later to develop this into a description or ‘blurb’ no longer than 25 words. If you’ve never done this, is an invaluable exercise, as it makes you boil down your work to its very barest form, which is incredibly helpful when you’re editing.

Tim said at the end that it’s likely that 90% of what we learnt over the weekend would be useless, but there will be an essential 10% that we will go away with and use in our own work. I can’t put an exact figure on these percentages in my case, but I certainly went away which a very definite idea of what I needed to work on in my manuscript. The class was also ideal for me at my current stage of writing.

So if you’re thinking about doing a class or course, the main piece of advice I would give is to do your research into its content and really think about whether it would be useful to you at that given moment. And one final piece of advice from Tim – never stop reading. The very best writers are first and foremost absolutely voracious readers!

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Books that teach

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A couple of weeks’ ago, I came across an inspirational blog post by English teacher Andrew Tharby who advocated using a text, in his case Jack London’s ‘White Fang’ as a benchmark of brilliant writing, which pupils could learn from and refer back to. His students evaluated how the author used tone, sentence structure and description to produce truly engaging prose. Then he asked them to emulate this in their own writing.

Examples of students’ pieces are posted on the blog and the results are very impressive. Andrew proudly writes that almost all of the pupils, “worked slowly, diligently and, in many cases, with the care and attention of artists.”

I realised that this was a very clever way to teach a particular skill with the use of literature. Of course, English is the obvious subject choice, but it got me thinking about how far the use of literary fiction could be stretched to support learning in different subjects.

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Today I finished reading Anne Booth’s incredible ‘Girl with a white dog,’ which links the life of a teenage girl, Jessie, in a modern-day English village to that of her grandmother during the Second World War. Told in a voice to which all young people could relate, it tracks Jessie’s concerns about history not repeating itself. From the notes at the end of the book, I could tell that Anne did extensive research into her novel to ensure its historical accuracy.

‘Girl with a white dog’ would be a great book for students to read whilst studying the Second World War, as it brings the subject to life in an accessible manner – something which many textbooks fail to do. Moreover, it highlights the ongoing relevance of the subject to modern life.

Exploring the idea further, how better to learn about different countries than by reading some great travel fiction? For younger readers, the ‘This is…’ series by Miroslav Sasek is a great way of learning about the world.

I think it’s important for parents and teachers to encourage children to learn in different ways. Those who are already avid readers will definitely take to Andrew’s methods, but even those who aren’t might find that they learn better through the literary route…

Celebrating World Book Day

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Every year World Book Day brings up a range of funny and often excruciating memories from my time at primary school, when we were always encouraged to dress up as our favourite children’s book character. One of the most memorable was when, aged 9, I decided that I wanted to be Pippi Longstocking for the day and ordered my mother to dye my mousy brown hair ginger. Sadly, she picked up a bottle of semi-permanent dye and failed to notice that it required at least 20 washes to come out.

But in all seriousness, World Book Day is a great annual campaign to get children interested in reading. It was designated by UNESCO as, and is marked in over 100 countries around the globe. This year it’s taking place on 6th March and there are already some great activities being planned in schools around the country – many much more exciting than just dressing up. On the Guardian Teacher Network, there are activity packs for nursery, primary and secondary schools which include ideas such as organising a sponsored ‘read-a-thon’ or acting out a scene from a favourite classic.

The World Book Day website includes all of the day’s featured authors, whose books are available for just £1: David Melling, Hello, Hugless Douglas!; Emily Gravett, Little Book Day Parade; Jim Smith, I Am Not a Loser; Jill Murphy, Fun with the Worst Witch; Lauren St John, The Midnight Picnic are just a few. If you click here, you can also contribute your own ideas for ways to promote classroom reading and reading for pleasure. There are already some great thoughts up there.

The Reading Agency has created a great pack specifically for World Book day, which includes some great activities such as making a scrapbook out of your favourite book, putting together a book quiz or playing a game of guess the book charades. There are also some great tips about running children’s reading clubs.

In Wales, Olympic Gold medallist Jade Jones is one of the Welsh 2014 World Book Day champions. Over 15,000 posters promoting the day are being distributed to schools, colleges and bookshops across the country in the run-up to 6th March.

The Biggest Book Show on Earth is included in the line-up of events and is due to tour the country in in the first two weeks of March. Some of the authors mentioned above will be giving their hints and tips on different aspects of writing and illustration. Talks will include David Melling’s ‘How do you decide what a character looks like?’ and Lauren St. John’s ‘How do you bring your imagination to life?’ It is also available in a pre-recorded format which you can watch online. For more details click here – well worth watching for all aspiring authors, not just school-aged ones!