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!

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.

Nanowrimo – To do or not to do?

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I am currently contemplating whether or not to do Nanowrimo. And this is not a decision to be taken lightly. It would make me a social recluse for a period of thirty days, as I shut myself in my flat and sit at the computer for as long as I can bear it (having already had an 8-hour episode of screen gazing at work). I would have to pour out words, words and more words onto the blank page which stares back at me with its evil flashing cursor.

The sense of satisfaction at the other end, if I ever succeeded in splurging out 50,000 words, would no doubt be immense. But I worry that I’d do it for the same reason that I would enter a marathon – to be able to say, when I’m grey and old, that I’d done it: ‘Guys, one month I just sat down, and wrote a book.’ They would gaze at me in wonder, and it would have all been worth it. Whether the 50,000 words form any coherent order that even vaguely resembles a novel is another matter. So I decided to compile a clever list of pros and cons to help me out.

Pros

–          Above-mentioned sense of satisfaction

–          A tiny inkling of a possibility that it could evolve into a good piece of writing with many, many edits in the coming months

–          Even if I don’t finish, there may be an idea hidden in the depths of my tired mind, that happens to come out in one of my creative episodes

–          A chance to meet fellow writers online and maybe even at one of the events

–          A good way to get feedback from said fellow writers

Cons

–          Not leaving the house, other than to go to work and stock up on foods that enhance creativity

–          Consequently developing cabin fever

–          Churning out words for the sake of it, without creating a coherent plot or anything with substance

–          Having friends who are also participating constantly asking me about word count

–          Losing heart half way through and not being able to tell the grandkids in 50 years time…

Verdict? I will let you know in due course… And in case you’re tempted, here are the details: http://nanowrimo.org/