Creative Writing classes – worth doing? (this post applies mainly to FE courses – I’m saving MAs for a future blog)

 The Writing Bit

There’s much debate about whether creative writing can be taught, but does anyone question a musician  for talking piano lessons? A vocalist for having a voice coach? A painter for studying art?

Even a modicum of talent can be nurtured.  A good course can turn not-very-good writers into competent ones, competent writers into better ones and good writers into exceptional ones.  Every writer, no matter how inexperienced, can learn to sharpen their observational skills, develop their descriptive powers and generally improve and hone their craft.

How should you choose a class?

I’ve often heard potential writing students advised to find a class where the tutor is well-known or at least published.  It’s certainly something you should consider, but it’s not the only thing.  Being published doesn’t automatically make someone a good teacher. The line between publication and non-publication is often a fine one, which means there are a lot of good and even exceptional writers who are as yet unpublished, some of them incredibly skilled and inspirational teachers.  There are also a lot of published novels that really aren’t very well -written, and I don’t think it’s right that one tutor be considered better than another solely on the grounds that he/she is published.

As a student and as a tutor, I’ve met a number of CW tutors over the years. Many were and are excellent at what they do, incredibly generous with their time and knowledge. But I can think of at least three, all well-published, two quite well-known, who were appalling. They shall remain nameless! One was lazy,  only giving students’ work the briefest of glances, often in class while another student was reading;  another  halved the class in a few weeks by shredding the students’ confidence, and the other, on advising a mutual colleague about running a course said, ‘just tell them they’re wonderful and take the money.’!!

 So, here are a few questions that might help you decide:

  • Can you sit in on a couple of classes before joining? If so, you can see the tutor’s style and how the session works as well as chatting to the group about their experience of this tutor.
  • Is there a good mix of writing exercises, reading and feedback?
  • If the class only involves workshopping, might a writers’ group be more appropriate for you than a structured class?
  • Does everyone get a chance to read their work?
  • Is the feedback sensitive and constructive?
  • How inspiring is the teacher?
  • Does he/she address the various aspects of the craft of writing, or is the feedback too general?

A creative writing class will provide contact with other writers, as well as precious time and space in which to write.  A well-run class should also motivate and inspire, and can often lift your work to a whole new level.  Good luck!

The Reading Bit

After the mixed reviews of A Visit from the Goon Squad, I approached it with some trepidation, but I have to report, it’s brilliant!  The characters leap off the page, a disparate bunch with assorted flaws,  all of whom are connected by two key characters, kleptomaniac Sasha and her record-producer boss, Bennie, and all of whom we instantly care about, even when they’re less than sympathetic. The narrative doesn’t stay with Sasha or Bennie; it zooms off into other viewpoints, skips back and forth in time between past, present and future, and in one chapter, even takes the form of Powerpoint slides, a technique I thought I’d hate, but I loved it. The unusual structure emphasises the book’s main theme of time and what it does to the characters – the ravages of ageing, how life doesn’t pan out the way you’d planned it, and how sometimes, it’s cut tragically short. Have you read it? What did you think?

The Food Bit

Whether it’s the weather, (if you see what I mean) I don’t know, but I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to make cakes this week. Given that my husband is now a vegan, knocking up a few cakes isn’t quite as easy as it used to be, but there are a few decent recipes around, and this one for banana cupcakes is a favourite: Stir together 120g flour, 100g sugar, one tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt. Set aside. Whizz together one ripe banana, 80g vegan margarine (Pure make a good sunflower spread) 60g peanut butter & 80ml soya milk.  Mix the wet and dry ingredients together and spoon into paper cake cases.  Sprinkle dark chocolate chips or shavings on top (some dark chocolate contains milk, so check first) and bake at gas 5/190C for about 15 minutes or until golden. I like these best the next day, but Vegan Husband eats them warm. Instead of topping with chocolate chips, you can decorate with buttercream by whisking together some vegan sunflower spread and sieved icing sugar, then piping a pretty swirl on top.  Back to main courses next week.

What to do with a novel that’s ‘almost there’

 If you know your book’s good, if you’ve come pretty damn close to selling it but the deal is still elusive, you have four choices:  
  1. Keep trying — there are lots of small presses as well as mainstream publishers. Maybe the next editor it goes to will be the one who falls in love with it.
  2. Self-publish — a respectable option these days. Many authors self-publish very successfully. Not to be confused with vanity publishing.
  3. Put it aside and start a new book — good option if you’ve another idea that excites you. Many authors have actually published earlier novels after their debut.
  4. Put it aside for a substantial amount of time so you can really get some distance — at least six months is good, 9-12 months is better.

The fourth option is the one I chose a year ago. Most writers put work away for a couple of weeks as a matter of course, and even this little bit of distance helps show up things like typos, repeated words, clumsy sentences, unnecessary words/phrases, and tense slips  etc. I’ve just hauled my novel out of its virtual drawer after a year. I’ve read it again with fresh eyes, which sounds a bit like something you’d buy at a cheap butcher’s but you know what I mean, and I asked myself the following questions:

·         Does the narrative drag in places?

·         Are there areas where the pace is a little hectic?

·         Have I been telling when I should be showing?

·         Have I over-explained?  

·         Will my reader care about my characters as much as I do?

These are the questions I feel are appropriate to my novel – you may have others, e.g. does the story start in the right place? Whose story is it? Is there enough tension? Is the ending satisfying?  I’m not saying every writer needs to put every book away for a year – with a bit of luck, you’ll get that publishing deal on the first round of submissions! But if you’ve come very near to a deal but not quite made it and you know that you, your writer friends and even your agent are way too close to see the problems, putting the novel away for a big chunk of time might be the answer.

So, this week, I’ve been going through my manuscript with highlighter pens in various colours, marking out areas that need attention. I’m happy to say that overall, I enjoyed my novel, and there are bits that still make me cry. But there are areas that need improving, and I plan to tackle these over the next few weeks. Watch this space!

The food bit

This week, I’m only going to introduce the food bit, because the writing bit is slightly longer than I’d planned and I don’t want anyone dozing off.  I am passionate about food, and still occasionally work as a chef. My cooking life has become more interesting of late because of my husband’s interest in veganism.  Now, vegetarianism is easy-peasy; you can even do fine dining for veggies. But I’m finding veganism a little more challenging. I’m on a quest, people. I won’t be cooking vegan every day, I won’t even be cooking vegetarian every day – I still eat fish, and very occasionally, chicken – but I’m massively reducing my consumption of these and of dairy produce. So, I’m on a mission to produce delicious vegan meals, as well as the odd non-vegan meal. Again, watch this space!