There’s been a lot written about creative writing courses over the past few years. They spring up like mushrooms, proliferating at an alarming rate. When I sat down at my computer in September 2015 and googled “creative writing courses”, the array was bewildering. I was fairly sure that some of them would be excellent and some less so, but how to tell the difference?
I consulted a friend of mine, the only person I knew who had written a book, and whom I knew had taken creative writing classes in the past. She recommended Curtis Brown Creative, a writing school attached to the eponymous literary agency that had not come up in my googling. Or perhaps it had but I had discounted it, as there was a competitive element to even being accepted onto the course. I didn’t think I was good enough to get onto a course that didn’t take anyone who could afford to pay.
This leads of course onto another contentious issue: cost. Curtis Brown Creative have recently started to offer shorter, online courses which are much more affordable, plus they usually have one free sponsored place available on each longer course. But if you want to do one of these longer courses and don’t bag the sponsored place (competition is fierce) the cost is prohibitive for a lot of people. Many people feel that this is another way in which books and publishing are kept firmly in the hands of the middle classes, and it’s hard to argue with this. Frankly, I don’t know what the answer is. CBC is not a charity, it’s a business and as such needs to make a profit if it is to survive. I have worked in conference and events for many years and have often been on the receiving end of complaints about the price of attendance from delegates. I am well aware of the costs, both direct and indirect, of putting on these kinds of things. It’s not just the tutors’ fees (and they attract great tutors who presumably don’t come cheap); there are staff to pay and overheads to consider. I doubt if it would be financially viable for CBC to charge much less than they do. However, the fact remains that this puts the possibility of applying for one of their longer courses out of reach of many people who might otherwise do so.
But putting the money aside, was it worth it? I’ve heard it said that you can’t teach someone how to write, and I think that’s true, but you can definitely teach someone to become a better writer. I learned an enormous, unquantifiable amount from my amazing tutor Erin Kelly about the craft of writing, from creating suspense and atmosphere to structure and voice; but almost more important was the confidence I gained from somebody else reading my work and saying it was OK. I’d never really showed my writing to anyone before and I genuinely had no idea whether it was any good or not. If I hadn’t received the encouragement I did not only from my tutor and the CBC team, but also from my classmates, there is no way I would have been able to muster the stamina required to finish my novel whilst working full-time and bringing up a family.
The course gave me something else too: an understanding of and access to the mysterious world of publishing. It had always seemed to me a rarified, exclusive enclave that only those with the right contacts were permitted to enter, contacts I simply didn’t have. But with each guest lecturer that we had on the course, whether agent, publisher or author, the veil was twitched aside a little more, and I began to feel that maybe, just maybe, there was a place for me in there.
I don’t know if creative writing courses per se are “worth it”. I suspect that even amongst my classmates you would find a range of different answers to that question. All I know is that for me, it was the best decision I have ever made and it has changed my life utterly, leading to agent representation and ultimately to a publishing deal for my debut novel Friend Request.
I’d love to hear your experiences of creative writing courses.
From what i have discovered from creative writing courses such as those offered by CBC (I have done two of their short ones), and the extensive reading I have done around the subject of novel writing, it’s fine if you are aiming to write a thriller or a piece of psychological suspense. I’ve read ‘Friend Request’ and enjoyed it. It follows the formula exactly. It starts with a strong hook, cleverly misdirects the reader as to how the story will conclude, then hits us with an unexpected twist at the end. And you have only one main character who engages with us directly in first person. My gripe is, what about us writers whose story refuses to fit this formula? There appear to be very few agents out there at the moment who are prepared to risk taking on a book which doesn’t conform in this way.
Any suggestions or comments?
Jane Bean, 18 Jul, 2018
Hi Jane. I know it can seem like it’s all crime thrillers, but there are lots of different kinds of books being published every week (look at the success of Eleanor Oliphant for example!). It boils down to the fact that publishing is a business, and if an agent thinks they’ll be able to sell your book, regardless of style or genre, they’ll take you on. Of course agents/publishers are always on the lookout for good thrillers, because crime fiction is a high-selling genre, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want other kinds of books too. Good luck! Laura X
Laura Marshall, 19 Jul, 2018
Hi Laura, Jane,
I think the best lessons in how to write is reading a lot. Not a new theory but it works. Whatever your genre, I think learning how to tell a story in way that keeps readers reading is vital. And for me, learning some techniques also helped. I’ve gone on some writing events which have workshops and also have read writing how-to books.
There are great examples of books that (appear) not to formulas. Sarah Waters’ ‘The Night Watch’ is one. Again, reading them is a good lesson.
The best book on writing that let me feel I had a chance and wasn’t too unschooled to do it was ‘How To Write A Million’. This book is an amalgam of the Writers Workshop books. I don’t think you’d need another.
Tom Southern, 5 Jan, 2019
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