Creative Writing Courses – are they any good?
Quote: “Novel writing is something else. It has to be learnt, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative-writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.” James M. Cain, 1978 (in: The Paris Interviews, 1)
Hi – I thought I’d share this article from The Times with you. I attended a creative writing course at UEA three years ago and and another one at Curtis Brown Creative Writing School in Feb/March 2018. I’d be be happy to tell you about my experience. But you may wish to read this first:
How to bring your novel to life (or bury it): an expert’s guide
The novel tuition business is booming, but which courses are worth it?
January 6 2017, 12:01am, The Times
Hanif Kureishi attacked writing courses, but now teaches on one. “Everybody has a book in them,” said Christopher Hitchens ten years ago. “In most cases that’s where it should stay.”
That may once have been the case but no longer: if you have suspected there was a novel in you, there could hardly be a better time to get it written. Which is exactly what I intend to do in 2017. The Times books department may receive two large sackfuls of books each day, many of which will never be read, but as an editor and book critic on this paper, I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to add to the shelves.
And help is at hand. What do nearly half of Granta’s 2013 Best of Young British Novelists, three of the four writers shortlisted for last year’s Costa First Novel award and some of 2016’s bestselling authors, including Sarah Perry, Jessie Burton and Kit de Waal, have in common? They all took creative writing courses, which these days seem to be the fast track to a high-profile book deal. Burton, Rachel Joyce and SJ Watson are among the more successful recent graduates.
Because the problem that many aspiring writers face isn’t getting started but keeping going. Most people in full-time work or with family commitments will struggle to find the time each day to put pen to paper, which is perhaps one explanation for the astronomical rise in the number of courses in the UK. In 2003 the Higher Education Authority found 64 creative writing programmes; by 2013 there were about 504 degree courses in which creative writing was a main element. When courses cost several thousand pounds, you have to start wondering if it’s really worth it. Is the slush pile being monetised or are these courses really out to help potential writers in need of encouragement?
Hanif Kureishi, who teaches the creative writing MFA at Kingston University in London, famously berated such courses in 2014, saying that they were “a waste of time” and “it’s probably 99.9 per cent [of students] who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent”. Can good writing be taught? I ask Julia Bell, the course director for the MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. “Well, I can teach interesting people to write but I can’t teach boring people to be interesting,” she says. Her course is spread over two years, which allows the students to continue their jobs. That is part of the course’s appeal: you mix with students who have seen the world. Bell’s have included croupiers, teachers, someone who runs a boxing gym — people who have life experience who also need guidance.
“People do get better at using language if they read and they write and they practise on a regular basis. As with anything, you improve,” says Bell. “The difference between doing an MA and doing it on your own is that it’s like having a personal trainer: you improve much better when you’ve got somebody on your side, guiding your practice and helping you to think. Getting your work to a point where it’s really good is more difficult than people think.” Yet the time and guidance comes at a cost of nearly £8,000.
Do you need to fork out all this cash if you want to write a book? The novelist Rose Tremain, who taught on the University of East Anglia’s prestigious creative writing course (alumni include Ian McEwan, Anne Enright and Kazuo Ishiguro; cost, £7,300 a year), doesn’t think so. Only pay to go on a course if you feel you need “constant supervision and guidance” to complete a work, she says.
“The thing to remember about creative writing courses is that they are only as good as the people who teach on them. Not all writers make good teachers. Some are superlatively good; some just pass on the mistakes that they themselves make. Remember that few writers want to become teachers after they’ve made a substantial career out of writing novels. You risk, therefore, to be tutored by writers who still have a lot to learn themselves or by those who have had some success but can’t make a living out of writing.”
Yet the number of book trade stories about debut novelists with six-figure deals who were plucked straight from finishing such a course makes you think there might be something in it. As does the fact that agents have begun to run their own. Curtis Brown, the literary agency that represents John le Carré, Margaret Atwood, David Nicholls and Jilly Cooper, started its own fiction writing courses in 2011. They aren’t interested in “hobbyist” writers, says the agency’s boss, Jonny Geller. They want to coach people with publishing potential.
Curtis Brown Creative in London makes its students aware of how the publishing world works and gives them the tools to get their book written. The six-month novel-writing course, which has entry requirements, includes tuition from award-winning writers and agents, workshops and an opportunity to pitch your novel to agents at the end. Thirty students have got publishing deals so far. Such exposure comes at a cost: £2,990. But you’re not just paying for the course, it seems — you’re paying for that gateway.
“You know you’re going to get read quickly” if you have the name Curtis Brown Creative on your cover letter, says Geller. Among the recent graduates who have scored major publishing deals are Burton, author of The Miniaturist (2014), the former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis (The Butcher’s Hook, 2016) and Nicholas Searle (The Good Liar, 2016). “There are a lot of novels that I read where I think, there’s a lot of talent here but I can’t sell this,” Geller says.
Anna Davis, the managing director of Curtis Brown Creative, wanted to create a more practical alternative to the masters. “We get people coming to us who have already done MAs,” she says. “We get people coming to us who are serious about what they’re doing, who are ambitious and want a practical approach that can fit around their busy lives.”
The publishing process is more democratic these days, she says. Deals used to be agreed over “a meal and a bottle in a members only club. Today it’s much more rigorous: people have to work their novels very, very hard and get them up to a very high standard before they can sell them.” Even if you do get your novel sold, some advances will be only a few hundred pounds; after paying for a course, you might not break even on cost.
There’s a feeling among many people I speak to in the publishing world that certain courses “manufacture books to genre”, as one lecturer puts it. “We don’t want our students to be chasing trends but we want them to understand what’s going on in the genres they’re writing in,” says Davis. “We are very responsive to genres and commercial writing as well as literary writing. And it’s much less about writing a beautiful sentence than it is about how to make a novel tick overall.”
Faber Academy, which is housed by Faber’s publishing company, runs a similar six-month novel writing course (£4,000) aimed at “serious writers”. They have launched the careers of SJ Watson, the author of Before I Go to Sleep and Rachel Joyce, the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In fact about fifty of its students have got fiction publishing deals.
The ethos here is different: telling Faber in your cover letter that you have applied in order to meet agents and get your book published is seen as a “red flag”. Surely that must be a huge incentive, though? Ian Ellard, the head of Faber Academy, disagrees. This is a writing course, not a free pass to a book deal.
“The course is really long and effortful. If someone is hoping to sit it out until they can pitch to agents at the end, it’s going to have a negative effect on the room. Meeting agents and getting published is not something that we can guarantee or control the outcome of, so selling out course places on the basis of that is not right. This is not a guaranteed route into the market.” Would Watson have written his novel had he not taken the course? The author has said in the past that what the course gave him was permission to think of himself as a writer and the drive to type “until my fingers bled”.
Only one former student has been published by Faber. Why not more? “We’re not a football academy, bringing up our own talent,” says Ellard. “And we don’t publish that many books or what a lot of what the people coming through our courses are writing.” You might think that in retrospect they would regret not publishing Watson’s internationally bestselling psychological thriller, which became a film starring Nicole Kidman, but no: “We passed on SJ Watson and that was absolutely the right thing to do.” Before I Go to Sleep went to Black Swan, an imprint of Penguin Random House, which also published Terry Hayes’s thriller I Am Pilgrim. It’s a position that seems foolish, or bloody-minded, of Faber from a business perspective, but honourable enough from a creative one.
Courses are clearly effective as a way of getting your first novel off the ground, but writing is a solitary process and you can’t workshop everything you write. Clare Alexander, a literary agent who represents, among others, Alan Johnson, Francis Spufford and Mark Haddon, is critical of courses. The publishing world has become obsessed with the much-hyped debuts they create, she believes. “Every agent in the land will take on any graduate and will send the books out without necessarily working with that person,” she says. “One of the values to me of that university-level creative writing course is that people find a peer group. It’s not about the teaching — though I daresay the students do learn a lot from teaching — but it’s reading each other’s work and forming relationships that can be for a lifetime.”
Doing an MA is like having a personal trainer
Cost is the other prohibitive factor. For many, a course, particularly one in London, will be too expensive. Which is perhaps one of the reasons why, when I speak to these London course leaders, I’m told that many of their students are professionals — lawyers, civil servants or successful script writers seeking to switch to novel writing.
For those whose pockets aren’t so well lined, there are alternatives. Curtis Brown Creative offers online writing courses. The Starting to Write Your Novel course, which lasts six weeks, is £200. I’m dipping my toe in the water with this course — my pockets aren’t that deep and it’s getting me into the habit of writing regularly without having to commit to time in a classroom.
This pairs well with Write-Track, a goal-setting website that allows you to track and comment on your progress. Wyl Menmuir used it to write his first novel, The Many, which appeared on last year’s Man Booker prize longlist. “Set a goal, track it and learn from your progress. It’s like Fitbit for writers,” says Chris Smith, who founded Write-Track with Bec Evans, who was the centre director for Arvon’s residential creative writing retreat at Lumb Bank, the former home of Ted Hughes.
Speaking to people at Arvon gave Evans the idea for Write-Track, which is free. “When writers returned to Lumb Bank for another course, I’d ask them how their novel was going and they’d say: ‘I haven’t written a word since I was last here. I can only write when I’m at Arvon.’ You’re not going to finish your novel that way,” she says.
“What really struck me was that the key to success was more about persistence and habit than anything else. People with the desire to write something have to juggle their schedules and try to make it fit into their life. That realisation came at a time when I was using a lot of tracking apps on my phone and I thought technology must be able to help solve this problem.” Evans and Smith are bringing out a refined and rebranded version of Write-Track called Prolifiko, which they are crowdfunding this month.
Creative writing courses are only as good as the teachers
Courses aren’t the only answer. While working as an editor at Virago in the late Eighties, Rebecca Swift was responsible for telling many wannabe authors that the publisher wasn’t interested in their work. Except it was said obliquely — the rejection slips read “Sorry, but our list is full” or “Your work is not quite right for our list”. “When one client said almost in tears, ‘I just want an opinion’, I had the vision for the Literary Consultancy,” she says. TLC offers manuscript assessment from about £195 for a 15,000-word extract to £410 for 60,000 words. It draws on a pool of about ninety professional readers who work with about six hundred writers a year.
“Agents will tend to say the same thing. We are supporting a writer through their career and we will give as much editorial feedback as is needed,” says Aki Schilz, TLC’s editorial manager. “But the truth is that once upon a yesterday, agents all had secretaries for the admin and they had assistants for the editorial side of things. They are pushed for time.
“Publishers and agents are desperate for talent. Despite the fact that the numbers of submissions are going up, it doesn’t feel that the quality is improving, according to my agent friends.” Take the time and spend longer on your manuscript, Schilz advises. Courses are one way of doing this; manuscript assessment might be another.
And here is my comment on creative writing courses: creative writing can’t be taught, but you can learn the tools and develop the skills. Also, experience is not enough, you’ve got to transcribe it in a way that captures the imagination of other people. And, of course, you can’t be a writer without being an avid reader.