Horses for courses

Oh, how I love a good writing course.
They’re an opportunity to learn about the craft, to pick up tips from people in the know and to mix with like-minded folk. They’re also, if I’m brutally honest, a nice break from the everyday business of kids, work and walking the dog. As for the residential ones – they're even better. I’ve never been on a week long Arvon course [family, dog and job would not make the space for that quite yet] but I’ve been on two short courses through Cornerstones, which were worth every penny. I’ve also done a couple of evening classes through the London arts based body Spread the Word, run by the wonderful writer [and teacher] Maggie Gee.
I’ve recently finished an excellent telephone course run by the London Writer’s Club and just to show how keen I am, I’ve also ploughed my way through a couple of the course books for an MA in creative Writing. I read every blog by editors and agents I can find and buy just about every ‘how to’ book on writing I can get my hands on.
But I’m starting to notice that the advice given is sounding familiar. I think I understand about showing and not telling, about the importance of voice, about the subtleties of characterisation and dialogue, and how to recognise a good plot. You hear about people pretending to be doctors and I reckon I could put on a pretty good impression of a writing tutor if it was a course for beginners.
How to get an agent? Simple: target the ones who are the best fit for your writing, write a sparkling letter, be businesslike in all dealings and make sure your work is at the highest standard it can be. Workshop it, pay for a report, check it and edit it again and again. Then edit it once more before it gets anywhere near an agent’s overloaded desk.
See? I'm quite convincing. Ask me another....
This isn’t meant arrogantly. I’m not exactly beating agents off with a stick so I’m still clearly a way from making a success of my writing. My point is that I understand all of this on a cerebral level and maybe that’s as far as it goes. Some other fairy dust has to be mixed with this knowledge in order to elevate me out of the slush pile. A famous author whose name escapes me was once asked for some advice for authors trying to break through. His answer was, ‘write a better book’.
Harsh? Maybe. Good advice? Probably that too.
I’m reaching the stage where I know what has to be done. No course is going to open a magic door for me and make my dreams come true.
It’s time to put on my Big Girl Pants and simply write a better book.


Susie Nott-Bower said...

What an inspiring post - thank you! I am at just the same stage and can feel your frustration. I recently applied for a mentoring scheme, hoping that it might supply the precious 'fairy dust' that might help me improve my work and was totally gutted when I wasn't even shortlisted. So now I'm faced with that irrefutable fact: got to write a better book. On my own. :) (that's meant to be a rather ironic smilie)

Emma Darwin said...

Great post, and so true. There's all the difference in the world between understanding stuff, and it integrating itself into your writing. I think it often happens when you set yourself a problem: how are you going to write this idea? If you see writing the novel as the way of working out the solution to it, then all those 'right' answers become tools at your hand. At first you have to glare at the problem and consciously try out different tools, but soon your hand reaches for the one you need almost before you know you need it..

Lizzie said...

Thank you for that post. What with all the courses and online blogs available now it's easy to drown in helpful info.

Over the last couple of days I've found myself checking the Winchester Writers' Conference site to see whether they've posted the workshops and one-to-ones for 2010 yet. But having attended for the last two years I think I know roughly what the workshop subjects will cover ... the wheel will not be reinvented. So would going again be nothing more than a comfort blanket?

It's a bit like dieting; there's no magic way to drop the weight. As you say, it's all about writing a better book. Love the idea of Big Girl pants, btw!

Helen Black said...

Having never been on a proper writing course ( I did sign up once, but didn't go back after the first session)I'm intrigued as to what it is they can actually teach a writer.
I'm not against them per se, though I do have ishoos with the whole business that has sprung up around creative writing and which often exploits people's dreams for, frankly, not much in return.
I do worry though, that these courses are often just a way of putting off the inevitable ie writing the damn thing.

Women in particular are guilty of having a certain lack of confidence in themselves in this regard.


Caroline Green said...

Thanks for comments, everyone. Emma - I love that tools analogy, thank you. Lizzie, I went to the WRC a couple of years ago and it was a great confidence booster at the time. Didn;t bring me any practical benefit though and a story I won a competition with there was rejected left right and centre subsequently! So it all seemed a bit pointless in retrospect. Helen, I think that's true about women and confidence. I have definitely picked up some usesful skills on these courses though - wouldn;t want to suggest otherwise.

Old Kitty said...


Oh I'm still getting there I think! I still devour all the writer-ly blogs and writer-ly advice and am immersing myself in my open uni writing course and doing all the assignments and reading all the how-to books! I still feel I've so much to learn and to absorb! I hope to one day join you and be able to say that "today, I shall wear my Big Girl Pants" and "write a better book". Well in my case, a little story that finds a good home would do nicely!

Good luck with wearing the Big Girl Pants - I'm sure you will fill it and then some with a bestseller in the top 10!

Take care

Nicola Morgan said...

So very very very true. I'm glad you still buy the books though, because I'm writing one (!), and its underlying theme is how to write the right / better book. Yep, you can know, adapt and follow / break all the submission rules you want - it still boils down to the writing and the idea / concept / hook.

I do believe that knowledge of how publishers and agents think is one of the keys, but this door has more than one key, and you have to unlock them all. The big mortice key is the actual writing.

Linda said...


What a brilliant blog.

I devour copies of Writing Magazines and like you the advice is beginning to get familiar.

Sometimes I find myself with a reading pile so big that I don't actually have time to write.

So yes I'll join you, not in your big girl's pants, but in my own.

Thanks so much for the push.


Roderic Vincent said...

Great post, Caroline. I strongly relate to the place you've reached. Been there, read that. But the pressure of coming up with the idea for a better book is flattening. Can you let me know where to buy the Big Girl pants? I need to find a pair (it's not just the wimmin that lack confidence).

Caroline Green said...

I'm sorry, I'm not prepared to share or disclose the provenance of my BGPs ;)

Thanks so much for all these comments. I'm really glad it isn;t just me who has felt this way. And don;t worry Nicola, I'm far too addicted to these books to stop buying them anyway!

Gillian McDade said...

I've never done any kind of writing course (does a degree in literature count?) and am fascinated by what they can offer. I'd be interested in knowing what skills and techniques/tips people have learned by going on courses that they wouldn't have known otherwise.

Geraldine Ryan said...

Great post, Caroline. I've had a couple of really inspirational teachers and some not so and I've done my share of courses too. But I agree very much with the slimming analogy. After so many tries at it we all know what we should be doing in our heads but actually incorporating it into our lives involves so many other things - a change in attitude and habits, will power, a goal, knowing what works for us and what doesn't even if it does for others. Plus the comfort that if you don't actually start that you can't actually fail.

Ann said...

I am in the process. I am reading all the how to books I can lay my hands on. Taking an online writing course, signed up for a summer weekend workshop. Wishing I could do more. I would love to be at the place where I felt I had absorbed all the information and only needed to write a better book. Just to write a book would be a major accomplishment for me, at the minute.

Caroline Green said...

Ann.. isn't all it's cracked up to be, feeling that way, honestly!

Thanks again for comments, everyone.

Emma Darwin said...

I think one way to look at it is that there comes a point when general stuff - basic guidelines and tools - is no longer what you need, and that's chiefly what a course can provide. You can be doing all those things right and the writing still not be coming together.

Most courses are built round some sort of feedback, but it's more about illustrating and practising things, than about direct input into your work. As you get better, the problems with your work and the solutions get steadily more individual, and classes and books get less useful.

That's the point at which the way to learn is through knowledgeable feedback - writer's circle, MS swap with a trusted reader friend, editorial report, whatever. You can know all about showing and telling, for example, and still not spot that the reason a scene is flat is because you're doing the wrong one for the moment.

Lydia said...

I've never done a writing course either except right at the very begining I did do part of a correspondance course that taught the basics (put your name on each page, double space etc etc). In a way it's a bit like learning to drive: the point comes when you know you have to depress clutch, move gear stick, look in mirror etc. You know it in your head, you just can't put it all together in practice. With driving one day it just all clicks and then you get better with practise. I'm hoping it's the same with writing. I'm doing lots of practise, can't say it's clicked yet but I'm still hoping!

Caroline Green said...

I really like the driving analogy...I can remember wailing, aged 18, 'But how does anyone ever just do it without thinking about it all!' at my driving instructor [my dad]. That's exactly how it feels and I love the idea that it will click into place...

Kirsty said...

Great post, Caroline. I'm awaiting your author website! xKirsty