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!

Agents – to have or not to have?

This is a confusing question for me, as I’ve received conflicting information. At the Nosy Crow conference earlier this year, Hilary Delamere spoke about the value of a good agent in not only finding you a good publisher, but managing the author – publisher relationship ongoingly. I came away thinking that you couldn’t really do without one. At the same conference, there was a panel discussion involving three authors who had been plucked from Nosy Crow’s slushpile and ended up getting published without at agent.

Once you have an agent, the task of getting a publisher inevitably becomes much easier, because they do the legwork for you. But have agents’ slushpiles now grown to the same heights as those of publishers, therefore making it more sensible to apply to publishers directly?

In case you’re considering this route, here is a selection of UK publishers accepting unsolicited submissions, courtesy of Lou Treleaven (http://loutreleaven.wordpress.com)

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on agent/non agent routes to publishing!

Andersen Press Ltd

Anderson Press publish picture books of approximately 500 words (1K max), juvenile fiction of 3-5K and older fiction of up to 75K. They require a synopsis and 3 sample chapters, hard copy only, and aim to reply within 2 months. They use a standard rejection slip and reply promptly.

Buster Books

An imprint of Michael O’Mara Books, Buster Books publish children’s non-fiction and activity books as well as a small range of fiction. Submission details are sparse so try the usual three chapters plus synopsis and covering letter/email. You can submit by post or by email and they ask you to include an envelope if you would like your paper manuscript returned, but they can’t guarantee a response. Again, probably best to assume the usual procedure and submit elsewhere after three months if you haven’t heard back.

Curious Fox

A new publisher who will be releasing their first titles in Spring 2013, Curious Fox are looking for “bold, fun and imaginative” fiction for age 8 upwards, by email submission. They are also intererested in incorporating innovative approaches such as reader-generated plot turns and delivering content through websites. Send a synopsis, the first chapter and a covering letter by email only. They aim to respond within 2 months (I heard back after 10 weeks which is pretty close!).

Hogs Back Books

This small publisher specialises in picture books for up to age 10, but also accepts young adult (and non fiction). Send your manuscript by post or email – full text for picture books, first three chapters and synopsis for young adult. Paper submissions will not be returned so just include an SAE or email address for a reply. View the catalogue on the site to get an idea of what they publish.

Mantra Lingua

Mantra Lingua is a very specialised publisher providing multilingual and multicultural resources. They accept picture books for up to age 12 that can be translated into a number of languages – this means the concept and theme needs to be universal too. Read the submissions guidelines carefully and look at the current titles before proceeding. Submit by email only. As the maximum length is 1400 I should think the full text will be acceptable.

Mogzilla

Mogzilla are an emerging independent publishing company with educational links, specialising in pre-teen and teenage fiction from 45-75K long. They ask for proposals to be emailed and they will then request the manuscript if they are interested, either by post or in pdf form. They do not return paper manuscripts. You should also avoid sending them a historical cat series (see website)!

Nosy Crow

Nosy Crow are a young publisher keen to embrace the latest technologies who accept ms for readers up to age 14 (think family-orientated rather than edgy). They ask for a short synopsis and the first chapter plus a covering letter about you and your work. They accept by email (preferred) or post and aim to reply within 6 weeks, although this can vary.

O’Brien Press

This Irish publisher accepts picture books of less than 1K words, and fiction for 6+, 8+, 10+ and 13+. They ask for a synopsis and 2 or 3 sample chapters – full text for picture books – by post only. Although they state they do not return unsuccessful submissions, they did return mine recently. Also note that if you do send an SAE don’t use English stamps!

Pants on Fire Press

This US publisher is a small independent keen to expand and explore new areas of technology as well as traditional printing. They accept submissions from the UK and recently signed Welsh author Craig Jones to a four book deal. They are currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts for picture, middle grade (equivalent to the 8-12 age readership in the UK) and young adult books. Send an email with the first three chapters in the body of the email, plus the information they ask for on the submissions page. Also check out the specific details for middle grade and young adult.

Phoenix Yard Books

This young publisher accepts submissions for readers up to age 12, although they are particularly seeking stories for 7-9 year olds, and comic book style or graphic novels. (They also take ideas for apps.) Send a covering letter, synopsis and the first 3 chapters by post or email with an SAE to Emma Langley. If you do not hear back within 12 weeks you should assume you have been unsuccessful.

Piccadilly Press

Piccadilly Press specialise in contemporary fiction for 6+, 8-12 and 11-15 year olds. They also publish picture books of between 500 and 1K words (32 pages). They no longer accept email submissions – send by post your brief covering letter, synopsis and 2 chapters. They reply promptly, within 6 weeks.

Ransom Publishing Ltd

Ransom publish books for reluctant readers, specialising in low reading age/high content age books. They will consider unsolicited manuscripts and ask you to email in the first instance rather than submit straight away.

Scholastic Children’s Books

Scholastic publish a wide range of fiction for 5-9, 8-12 and older readers as well as picture books. They ask for postal submissions of 3 chapters and a covering letter, and say to expect to wait up to 6 months for a response, though I have always found they reply very promptly. However they did address me as Mr Archambrault on one rejection letter!

Strident

Strident are looking for books for the 7-9, 9-12 and YA age groups. Do not send the usual submissions package but email with information about your book as outlined on the submissions page on the website. This should include a blurb you have written yourself (imagine the back of a book – how would the book be described which would make you want to read it?). They will then contact you in 2 to 3 months if they wish to take your submission further.

Stripes

Stripes are owned by the same company as Little Tiger Press and they publish books for readers aged 6-12. They accept postal submissions only which should consist of a covering letter, a detailed synopsis and the first 3 chapters. They aim to reply within 3 months but usually take longer due to their backlog. I recently received a lovely detailed rejection letter from them apologising for the long delay with some really useful feedback and encouragement.

Tamarind

Part of Random House, Tamarind was set up to redress the balance of ethnicity in children’s literature by promoting books with black, Asian or mixed heritage characters. They prefer to be approached via an agent but will consider ‘exceptional’ unagented manuscripts; read their submissions guidelines which also suggestions word count and possible subjects You can submit by post or email and should send them a covering letter/email, a synopsis and the first three chapters. Picture books can be sent in their entirety without illustrations and you should avoid using animal characters but keep to the ethos in the guidelines.

Tango Books Ltd

Tango publish novelty books for age 1-8 with an international element. They accept manuscripts by post or email and you should include the full text up to 1000 words and a brief author biography. You should hear back from them within a month.

Templar Publishing

Best known for the wonderful ‘ology’ books, Templar also publish picture books and a range of children’s fiction. They ask for a synopsis and the first 3 chapters, by post only, and aim to reply within 3 months.

Top That! Publishing plc

Top That! specialise in children’s picture and activity book and internet-linked fiction. Their submission guidelines are brief and advise you to study their catalogue (on the website) before submitting as they are very specialised. They prefer postal submissions with a contact email address but will accept emails under 1MB.

Walker Books

A big name in the picture book publishing world, Walker don’t generally accept unsolicited work, but what they will accept is illustrated manuscripts – so if you are a writer/illustrator you have an opportunity to submit. Use the email address given to send the whole document as an attachment using Word for the text and jpegs or pdfs for the pictures. You can also submit by post but do not send original pictures, only copies.