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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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!

Death in children’s fiction

It features in many of the books that have dominated children’s bestseller lists over the past few years – The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Maze Runner trilogies all contain it in abundance. But how much should death be present in children’s fiction? And is it OK that at times it is almost brushed over as we are so keen to move onto the next action point in the story?

Winston’s Wish, the childhood bereavement charity, recently released its findings that every 22 minutes a child in Britain is bereaved of a parent, which equates to 24,000 newly bereaved children each and every year. It’s a subject that is difficult to deal with for both the teachers and friends of the affected child, because bereavement is a subject that isn’t commonly spoken about between children.

I would argue that the inclusion of the death of a loved one in children’s books is therefore important, because, if nothing more, it demonstrates to a bereaved child that others have gone through similar emotions. At the same time it can help its peers to understand their situation and hopefully to react to it more appropriately.  

Certainly, books such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece both tackle loss in a poignant way, devoting a lot of attention to the changing nature of the protagonist’s emotions.

You then get into the tricky territory of books in which death is prevalent and the plot is so action-packed that there isn’t time to dwell on the emotions that it generates amongst those that remain. I completely understand why the authors have presented it in the way they have – the narrative wouldn’t work if you slowed it down to examine the grief that follows death. But I feel that it’s important to at least acknowledge it. James Dashner does this very effectively in the first book of the Maze Runner, in which the protagonist Thomas, continues to think about his friend Chuck, long after he has died.

But however well described the reaction to death, most narratives tell only a small part of the story. All too often, dying in fiction is connected with a sense of heroism or a desire for avengement, whilst in reality this is rarely the case, as grief takes over the lives of those closest to the person that has passed away. Of course, there’s no golden solution other than to encourage children to read widely and in doing so, engage with the subject from a range of very different angles.

Hungry for more Hunger Games

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I’m not a massive fan of dystopian fiction films, but I caved into my friends last week and decided to go and see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I surprised myself by leaving the cinema desperate to read the entire trilogy. Hats off to Suzanne Collins – I was utterly engrossed in the world of Katniss and the other tributes, forced into a bloody battle that they didn’t want to fight.

Desperate to read more dystopian fiction, I went on the search for some other new releases . They may not quite be the next Clockwork Orange, but here are three suggestions that will definitely keep you gripped. Enders Game was recently out in cinemas and I wonder if the other two will follow in its tracks?  If you have further suggestions to add to my reading list, please post them below.

Orson Scott Card  – Ender’s Game

Title character, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin thinks he is playing computer simulated war games whilst in reality he is saving the earth from a real alien attack. The Formics, or more popularly, Buggers have already attacked the world twice and people are certain that a third invasion is coming. Ender is one of a group of children trained from age 6 in an off-world facility called Battle School, and their training consists mostly of games. The adults who run the school are desperate to save the world and its appears that they don’t have Ender’s best interests at heart.

Margaret Peterson Haddix – Among the Hidden: Shadow Children

Peterson Haddix sets her story in a scarily realistic world in which overpopulation has spiralled out of control and families are not allowed to have more than two children. Bad luck for Luke, who is the third child in his family who is constantly forced to hide in order not to become victim to the draconian laws by which the country is governed.

His miserable life changes when he meets another of his kind, Jen. She is the daughter of a Population Police official and decides to take the ‘shadow children’s’ situation into her own hands by organising a protest march to try and free them.

Scott Westerfield – Uglies

The world that Scott Westerfield has created is centred on the importance of beauty. The protagonist Tally is about to turn sixteen and receive her license for turning pretty. At that point, she will undergo an operation that will turn her from a repellent ‘ugly’ into an incredibly attractive ‘pretty’.

Tally’s new friend Shay would rather risk life on the outside and not undergo surgery. When Shay runs away, Tally learns about a whole new side of the pretty world and she has to face some difficult decisions, as the authorities have placed her before the ultimate choice: find her friend and turn her in, or never turn pretty at all.

The Christmas Mystery

Yesterday was a miserable Sunday, which I spent mainly wrapped up in bed worrying about the mouse. That’s right – the nightmare had come true. We had walked into our kitchen in the morning (and note that said kitchen is based on the second floor) only to find a tiny mouse casually sitting by the dishwasher. What was more, it didn’t seem scared of us in the slightest and literally had to be shooed away out of the front door. It doesn’t use the back door, this mouse.

Anyway, that was it. The mouse was gone, but the vision of it haunted me for the rest of the day. I nestled myself in bed, which was conveniently in the part of the flat that was furthest away from the kitchen and picked up a book which had been lying on my bedside table for months, waiting for it to be close enough to Christmas. And Jostein Gaarder’s The Christmas Mystery, rescued me at least temporarily from thoughts of the mouse. It is an absolutely amazing story, and that is said with no hint of exaggeration. It has just the right blend of adventure and wonder, as well as transporting the reader almost literally back in time to the true spirit of Christmas.

The story centres around two characters – one, Elisabeth is a girl who disappeared without a trace fifty years before from her home in Norway, having ran after a lamb. This lamb leads her on a journey across the whole of Europe through to Palestine, and also takes her back in time 2000 years to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. She meets various characters from the nativity scene who join her on her journey and tell her wonderful tales of what has happened.

The second focal character is Joachim who lives in the Norway of the early noughties. He goes out to the shops with his father before Christmas and buys a strange advent calendar, unlike any of the others that are in the shop. Behind each of the windows, he finds a tiny piece of paper, each of which tells him a portion of Elisabeth’s story and also gives insight into the life of the strange man who made the calendar.

The chapters are titled as different days in December which makes this a great read in the run up to Christmas. It really got me feeling like a child again. It also gave me some inspiration for a potential story involving a girl who follows a mouse… but that’s for another time.

Have any of you read The Christmas Mystery or any other of Gaarder’s books? I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

The usefulness of backstories

I’ve just read the latest edition of the SCBWI bulletin and there was an article which really resonated with me – Penelope Stowell’s comments about her love of creating backstories.

Amongst the top advice from agents and publishers, you’ll definitely find mention of backstories and the usefulness and importance of creating them.

What is a backstory?

A backstory is essentially everything that you use to help you write your book, but which you don’t actually put in it. The current MG book that I’m writing is about a 13-year old girl called Izzy. There’s a lot that happens in the story, but one of the plotlines involves Izzy’s interaction with her dad who’s an alcoholic. In order to get the relationship right, I felt that I needed to know everything about her dad’s history, even if none of it was mentioned in the story itself. Consequently I have reems and reems of writing on his relationship with Izzy’s mum, his job, even his early life. There are factors within each area of his life that together would have resulted in his addiction.  

I previously wrote a draft of a historical YA novel and did lots of background research on the lives of everyday people living in Poland during the Second World War. Again I’ve weaved this into my characters’ backstories – tricky as I had to think back to what their early childhood would have been like in the 1900s. A lot of it ended up being based on anecdotes from the lives of my grandma and her friends, all of which were amazing, but wouldn’t fit in with the narrative of the story.

How can you put a backstory to good use?

I was intrigued about what Penelope Stowell wrote about ‘recycling’ a backstory – i.e. actually using the reems of research that you’ve done for purposes other than strengthening your narrative. She is writing a series based around Iranigami – a society of children on a mission to preserve imaginary creatures – sounds amazing. What’s even more amazing is that she’s used all her backstories to create www.iranigami.com which is a fictional website referred to throughout her stories. She launched the site back in April and her web presence is rising with very little marketing.

It’s really made me think about the possibilities of what I could do with my backstories…

 

What we can learn from Hans

Last weekend I went to Copenhagen, home of one of the best children’s storytellers of all time – Hans Christian Andersen. Visiting some of the places in which he wrote his stories made me think about what I enjoyed most about them as a child and what ingredients gave them their universal, timeless appeal.

And because (as you may have noticed) I love lists, I thought I would jot these down here, with some example stories:

1. Mixing comedy with moral teaching

Many of Andersen’s stories have a subtle element of humour, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which the title character is punished for his arrogance by being blind to the fact that he’s walking through the streets naked.

2. Creating characters that grab the heart

The Little Mermaid is a classic example – giving up her voice in exchange for legs, only to be jilted by the man she loved. It’s no wonder that Walt Disney decided to create the highly popular film version!

3. Combining sadness with hope

The best example of this is The Little Match Girl, whose freezes from standing outside selling matches in the cold – fortunately her grandmother arrives to rescue her and her soul is taken up to heaven.

4. Implying that things aren’t always as they seem

This is a lesson retold frequently in children’s stories. The Ugly Duckling has become a classic story of personal transformation for the better and has been retold in many languages.

And it only seems fitting that the grave of Hans Christian Andersen is in a beautiful Copenhagen park which families frequently visit, particularly during the summer, to have picnics and tell stories.

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