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!

Revise, cut out, start again…

Today I went to meet a children’s book editor. We spoke for two hours about my book and it was the most productive time in my entire writing process.

She questioned everything: Why had it written it? Who was it aimed at? How did I imagine the characters? (It turned out that what I said aloud was actually very different to what was written on the page.) Most importantly, she asked – Did I think that I’d tied up everything at the end? I thought I had, but the answer was ‘no’.

It took someone asking these very basic questions to make me realise where I had gone wrong with the narrative. Having discussed my answers at length, I now have a much better idea of what I need to work on.

I decided on this type of editorial process for several reasons: it was within my budget, I found it useful to discuss the process of writing and I don’t think I’m yet at the stage where having an editor go through my work line by line would be helpful.

But I had a few options open and I thought other writers might find it useful if I listed these:

1. Give your draft to a friend or family member and get their feedback – obviously this is the easiest and cheapest option, but you’re likely to get a lot of bias, with people saying your work is great and giving little constructive criticism. If you have a ready audience available that is within your target age group, you’ve struck gold – particularly when it comes to the younger age ranges, in which it becomes quickly apparent if they’re bored of your work.

2. Join a critique group – I would recommend SCBWI (www.scbwi.org) –  You pay an annual membership fee, but the critique groups are free and it’s easy to join. You don’t even have to meet in person – work and comments can be shared online. Here you have the great benefit of having other writers for the same age group giving you feedback on your work.

3. Use and editorial consultancy – there are many around and amongst the most well-known in the UK are Cornerstones (www.cornerstones.co.uk) and The Writer’s Workshop (www.writersworkshop.co.uk). You submit your draft and they match you up with the best editor for the genre and age-group for which you’re writing. They range in price range depending on how detailed a report you’re looking for and the length of your manuscript, but you’re looking at around £150 – £350. Expect a detailed written up report on everything from characterisation to spelling and grammar. Some offer to recommend you to agents if they think your manuscript is strong enough.

4. Use an independent editor – This is the route that I went down. They offer the most personalised service – often preferring to talk you through their recommended changes either in person or over the phone. Most will also do a detailed report on your work and some may offer to represent you to agents. Make sure that you choose the right agent for your genre. Amongst top independent children’s book editors that I’ve come across are Shelley Instone (www.shelleyinstoneliteraryconsultany.co.uk) and Bella Pearson (www.bellapearson.com).

Good luck with the editing!

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