Learning the Hard Way

Yesterday I was surfing the net, as you do when, frankly, you ought to be writing book four.
In fact I’m addicted to the internet with all the ardour of a junky, or one of those saddos that spend twenty three and a half hours a day watching porn.
But I digress.
I have, of late, been having a crisis of confidence and so I did what I always do ( instead of the obvious which is to write the next book!) and began looking for a creative writing course.
This annoys my husband who points out, not unreasonably, that this is like bolting the stable door etc...
What popped up was astonishing. There are courses at colleges across the land. There are internet courses. There are even, for the full writerly experience, residential courses in misty, remote Shetland Islands.
Now, I’m always honest about the fact that before I wrote my first book I had never attended a creative writing course. To be fair, I was working as a lawyer at the time and had baby twins. Where was I going to fit in a few hours a week to discuss the misuse of adverbs?
But once Damaged Goods was sold and I was under contract to produce book two sharpish, the worry worm appeared. What if DG had been a fluke? What if those 90,000 words had simply fallen into a random, yet coincidentally, pleasing order? More importantly, how could I ensure that the next 90,000 wouldn’t disappoint even my Mum.
So I booked myself onto a course. I swallowed my doubts that the simple act of paying over a few hundred, hard earned quid could magically turn my work into art, and signed on the dotted line.
I won’t say where I went, but suffice it to say it is an establishment that is well thought of in the trade and the course was a sell out. I was excited.
Day one and I arrived wearing a rather fetching baker boy hat and carrying my WIP under my arm.
When I saw my fellow students my hopes for literary alchemy lessened. For a start there were thirty of us. How can you learn anything in a class that size? – are you listening Ed Balls - ?
A quick fire round of Q&A confirmed that no-one was a writer. Now I’m not one of those that thinks you have to be published to ‘be’ a writer, but you do have to take it seriously. You do have to think like a writer. At the very least you have to actually be writing something. This particular group of charming retired accountants, tax inspectors and civil servants were happy to chat and drink tea. But write? No, nothing at the moment.
Enter a nervous lady in muddy boots ( this was central London) who announced herself to be the teacher. Later she divulged she was a poet who had been suffering from writers’ block for five years. Hmmm. We spent the first session discussing font size.
Though it galls me to give up on anything, especially when I have paid up front, I didn’t go back. I simply couldn’t afford the time.
Now I'm at that point again. Perhaps a different course, a different teacher? I know folk who swear by them, adamant that their writing has evolved tenfold as a result. I’m tempted.
And yet something stops me. A niggle. These are businesses, set up alongside the publishing industry. They tap into the zeitgeist where everyone wants to be a writer. Now there’s nothing wrong with that. I totally get it. I want to be a writer. But is the way forward to pay someone to teach me? Or is it just to get on with the writing?


Anonymous said...

With the last part you put in your blog post, it isn't about if you want to be a writer or not. Entering a class of creative writing students in my opinion is about simply having fun at the very least. Get on with the writing and if you have fun with it, you'll get it done faster.

batsick said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rosy T said...

I totally relate to a lot of this, helen. I also knew nothing about craft when Book One was published - I was just winging it and got lucky - and had the same attack of cold feet about how Ild ever write Book Two. Luckily a f-t job and a family meant there as no chance of going on a face-to-face writing course, so I avoided the retired accountants and the font size discussion. What I did instead was sign out from the library half a dozen how to write a novel books - and scared myself witless! Which is where my own internet addiction comes in. Online writers' forums (fora?) where you can post work for mutual critique and talk about the whole process of writing is a much less scary version of your accountants - and its also somewhere you can guarantee to find writers and aspiring writers who are really SERIOUS about their craft. And nobody knows whether your boots are muddy or not.

Julie P said...

I wrote an article on this very same subject! Look out for it in Writers' Forum magazine soon. I did a creative writing course and for me it was the best thing I did. I'm not writing a novel but I have had a few articles and a short story published in an Australian Woman's mag since I did the course. Creative Writing courses aren't for everyone, however, as you found out - but they can help you to structure your work and write with some professionalism. There are writers who write excellently without doing courses too.

Julie xx

Susannah Rickards said...

I'm intrigued.

Why do you want to do a course? I read DG and if you had no prior training, you have an unerring instinct for plot. You must have analysed story telling at least to recognise how to pull off those cliffhangers and how to use subplot to build suspense for the outcome of the main plot? If you didn't, I'm speechless.

The ability to teach oneself how to write not only counts, it probably holds us in better stead than most courses, because there are a lot of rule-mongers out there who have no truck with voices distinctly different from their own. I can imagine a tutor telling you to add more sensory detail or to give us more psychological insight into your characters. I can even imagine (blush) making such suggestions that if you'd read a section of your book out in one of my CW classes. But that's not your style. Your style is honed and fast-paced and direct. Not saying it always should be, or that you couldn't/shouldn't write a lyrical languid piece if the fancy took you.

Taken out of context a voice can be overanalysed. What it 'lacks' can be pointed out with no insight into why it works as a whole, even if it doesn't tick a single CW box. Writing is more alchemical than we want it to be. Not knocking craft - I love craft - but many writers can learn craft and not apply it in a vibrant form. Many writers never learned it and yet it pours from their pen (your instinct for plotting knocks spots off my careful study of plotting over the years because I have no natural ability for it, which is why I write short stories.)

As a CW teacher I'm increasingly aware that courses can create a homogeneous style of writing - a little of this and that all correctly in place. The overall effect is so uniform that the individual voices are smothered. Years ago I studied Improv at the Comedy Store. One thing we learned which held me in very good stead as an actor was: if you make a mistake, or you have a flaw, don't try and right it or hide it - amplify it - keep building on it until it becomes a virtue in its own right. I wish there was more of this in writing.

That's why I admire Joanne Harris's Chocolat so much. I remember picking it up in a Waterstones when I was learning to slay all adjectives and reading in wonder, like a child, the delicious sensory overload of her first page, then surreptiously counting the adverbs and adjectives: 37 in one paragraph. That would get knocked out of you on most CW courses. Chocolat without the adjectives would be like sweets without the sugar.

I was very lucky with teachers. I did some dud classes (pretty sure if we swapped notes we'd discover we had that muddy booted blocked poet in common!) but I had two great teachers early on and they gave solid feedback.

My guess is that if you do want to study you shouldn't be in there with the accountants and retirees who don't actually write. Why not look at MAs or PhDs and go for one run by a writer you admire? Even the MAs are full of people for whom a book deal is the ultimate goal. If I were you - had your cash flow ;) - I'd email my favourite author and ask what they'd charge to mentor you. They can only say no. Or yes...

x Susannah

Kate Harrison said...

Oh, Helen, this is so me as well.

My name is Kate and I am a course-aholic. Every time I hit a sticky patch, I think, oh, I can sign up for a course. Despite the very obvious fact that if I haven't learned the basics of writing after writing eight books, there is NO HOPE FOR ME WHATSOEVER.

And yet...one of the things I still love about courses is the random way one comment made by a tutor or another student can suddenly clarify something vital about characterisation or structure. For me it can be a bit like 'guided daydreaming' where I gloss over a lot of what is being said, but then there's a nugget of truth or technique that blossoms in my head into an idea. That has happened to me COUNTLESS times on courses. It's also why I do some teaching, because I believe inspiration comes from perspiration etc!

Incidentally, I find screen-writing courses on structure very useful now, almost more so than 'creative writing' courses, so you might like to check some of those out?

Kate x

sarah fox said...

This is so interesting. I also feel that there's quite an 'industry' set up around aspiring writers.

I did an OU online creative writing course when I first felt tempted to start writing. I enjoyed it, but began to find the course a distraction when I was desperate to get on and write my first novel. I found that most of the other students were not 'serious' and many dropped off within the first week.

Now, two years on, although my first novel found me an agent, it did not find a publisher and, in moments of severe doubt, I've often been tempted by courses - but most seem guaged towards the complete novice and I think it's hard to find something that suits individual needs. And then there is the cost which can be enormous. Faber do an interesting course but it runs into the thousands rather than hundreds of pounds.

In conclusion, I have decided to spend my money on a good criticism service. For that I get one to one, no holds barred, detailed advice. For me that seems the sensible route - though I do think that courses can offer something invaluable to the isolated writer - and that is companionship and a sense of mutual understanding as to what the whole process entails.

Administrator said...

I admire anyone who does a course - it's something i always balk at due to a mixture of fear and laziness. I'm a great one for How-To books and, early on in my journey to get published, i'd say i learnt a lot from them. And from participating in internet forums.

For me, Helen, though, i have learnt most from getting editorial reports done. I learnt so much from Cornerstones and also recently when i worked with an editor on my sub package.

Why don't you submit your next completed manuscript to one of these agencies?

Although i do think nothing beats reading and just writing and writing.

Caroline Green said...

I think one of the great things about these courses is mixing with other writers. The internet also provides this, of course, but it's good to get together with people in the flesh and talk about writing.

Anonymous said...

Check out the Faber Academy. Novelist Louise Doughty is one of the tutors, and says it's the way of the future. The aim is to nurture talented writers to publication.

- NaomiM

Poppy said...

What an interesting post!! thanks, helen. And fabbo comments! (I may print out Susannah's and laminate it).

Naomi, unfortunately, the Faber Academy novel course - wonderful though it sounds - costs £3,500. Way, way way beyond what most of us mortals can afford.

Poppy said...

What an interesting post!! thanks, helen. And fabbo comments! (I may print out Susannah's and laminate it).

Naomi, unfortunately, the Faber Academy novel course - wonderful though it sounds - costs £3,500. Way, way way beyond what most of us mortals can afford.

Poppy said...


Anonymous said...

Helen, I'm not surprised you didn't go back - it sounds awful! I can feel a blog post coming on about different kinds of course, and how to choose them, and when not to do them, and how to find them. I don't suppose there's a subject less suited to a one-size-fits-all approach. I'll do it just as soon as I've finished my CW PhD ;-)

Rosy T said...

I also want to have Susannah's post laminated, Poppy (though maybe just the once). The experience of writing at first from instinct and then being confronted by my utter lack of knowledge of what I was doing led in my case (buried under the opile of how-to books) to a huge crisis of confidence. The trick, I reckon, is to learn about the CW 'rules', as peddled in books and on courses, and then learn to step back from them and rediscover that elusive 'voice' that makes your own writing individual.

As Susannah says, 'Writing is more alchemical than we want it to be' - or than any book or course about craft can ever allow for or convey.

Fionnuala said...

I am chuckling so much about the triple lamination of Susannah's post that I've forgotten what I was going to say?
Oh yes...
I think what's fascinating is the fact that writers of all abilities and at ALL stages go through such self doubt. The cynic in me believes a lot of these courses tap into and depend on that? The reality is I'm not sure I could ever go back to 'study' mode and that's why I've never opted to do more than look at these course options online.

Debs said...

Interesting post, Helen. My only concern is that many of these courses are being taught by people who have never had anything published. There are many people on the internet offering to critique other people's work or teach people how to write a best-selling novel, and when you check you discover that they have never actually had a publishing contract.
When I was toying with the idea of learning script writing, I came across a man who claimed to have 'written 50 Hollywood movies'. He was charging a fortune to teach screenwriting techniques. It turned out that although he had written 50 screenplays, he had never sold or optioned any of them and the majority of his 'course' was copied from Screenwriting for Dummies.
My advice would be to check and double check a tutor's crudentials and ask questions as to where you can see their work. A simple check on Amazon will tell you if they have had anything published or not.

Administrator said...

Good point, Debs.

Rebecca Connell said...

I've never done a creative writing course - I always suspected they would be hideously competitive, even if only covertly. I know I'd be tempted to see the interactions that way, unhelpful though it is.

I'm sure that there are some brilliant courses (though it sounds as if yours didn't fall into that category, Helen!) but I don't think they're for me. I think their primary use is motivation, to be honest... which of course is valuable in its own right.

Caroline R said...

I've never done a course either, and while I don't have anything against them if they work for other people, I don't they would be the right thing for me.

I hate being taught - I'd much rather just learn.

Helen Black said...

Wow, guys, thanks for all the interesting comments.
I'm still blushing from some of the wonderful things Susannah said about my writing.
Truly, I have never been on a course or been 'taught' anything about how to write.
That said, I do take the craft of writing seriously. I desect whatever I'm reading and always have. And one thing I try not to do is thoughtlessly slag off a popular book.
I think it is so easy to say [insert name of multi million selling blockbuster] is crap/badly written/only popular because of the PR machine. I'd rather focus on what actually works about a book. I ask why millions are buying it. Why do readers love it? What can I learn? Because, in my experience there is always something.
ps what an interesting idea about an author mentoring me. That would be like a dream come true no?
And yes, I think I've decided that the next course I shall take will be a screenwriting course. Story anyone?

Anonymous said...

I know too many writers for whom the right course, at the right time, was THE thing which jumped their work up a huge step, to dismiss them.

I think the best courses and teachers don't teach - they help you to learn. They're a fast track, if you like, to your own best work, not a load of facts and tricks. And for a lot of writers, they're better than a book because they're interactive. (Others find it harder, not easier, to be picky about what a tutor tells them than a book.) They won't make you a better writer than you're wired to be, and they won't (please God) make you into a different writer from what you are. And they sure as hell won't get you published.

What I would always say is that the time to take a course is when you've got as far as you can on your own. Courses, like any external input/feedback into your work, must be tackled on the accept-adapt-ignore principle, but you're far better equipped to decide which to do, if your own writerly horse-sense is well-developed.

But in defence of the good course (well, I would, wouldn't I), I would say that the two I've done, although they were complete opposites in style and content (one an anyone-welcome fortnight on Skyros, one a heavyweight MPhil) got me further on, faster, in technique, confidence, ideas, everything... than anything else I've done for my writing.

And, yes, it's an industry, and in the interests of transparency I should state that it's an industry I make my living out of. Of course tutors vary in how good they are. And even in a class, some can find the same tutor inspiring and others no use at all: it depends what you need, what you want (not always the same thing) and how you're wired.

You could argue that writers are lucky: ballet dancers have to go to class, painters pretty much have to go to art school, whereas we can choose between courses, classes, mentors, editorial reports, writers' circles, online forums or nothing at all... I would hate to get to the point where "self-taught" was as much of a damning-with-faint-praise as it is of painters. There are all levels to choose from, from the Sunday painters to the postgrad-only Royal College of Art. No doubt there should be better ways of telling if a course is what you want.

But 'just get on with writing' isn't always the answer. I see plenty of writers who just get on with writing, who refuse all the ways - including courses - which might develop their work, and then wonder why they get nowhere with competitions and agents.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I went on one course that really, really changed my writing life: a week long How To Write A Novel summmer school at the local uni. It gave each of us all the tools we needed to get down and write - we each left with a step-sheet, character biogs, a sex scene, and countless other useful things. From that point on, I knew I HAD to write a novel.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Helen. I've never done a course of any kind, either, and as you're already a successful, published, writer, I don't think you need one! By the sound of the one you tried, you would have been more suited to teaching it, than the teacher was! Try to ignore those doubts - we all get 'em - and carry on writing. Good luck. xx