What You Can Learn on a Creative Writing Course

Can one be taught how to write a novel? Probably not, but that hasn’t stopped creative writing courses from springing up across the land – as well as in some lovely locations overseas. While you’re unlikely to go home with the first draft of a novel under your belt, a long weekend on a writing course can help hone some useful skills.

I’ve been on a few of these, from Devon to Norfolk. Here are seven things I took away from my experience.

1 I always forget something vital. Like deodorant. And the nearest shops are invariably miles away.

2 The loo is almost as far as the shops. And at night the floorboards creak worse than the rigging of the Black Pearl.

3 The tutors can be awesome, even if you don’t plan to write in that genre. The encouragement I got years ago from the legendary Ruth Rendell has been priceless.

4 The other participants can be awesome too. No matter how polished your prose, at least two of the other writers in the group will be just as good as you. 

5 Reading your work out loud in a group can be scary (see 3 and 4). But it’s an essential rite of passage and can help tune the ear. Afterwards, you may find yourself reading aloud to yourself far more often to help with editing.

6 There are new friends to be made (especially if you trek out to buy deodorant).

7 The local beer is stronger than anywhere else. Or is that just the heady atmosphere?

So, while you can’t become a novelist in three days, you can boost your writing powers and have fun as well.

Next blog post: Progress on My Secret Project.

 

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Why Writers Live in Suffolk

Not all writers live in Suffolk, but plenty do, or did. Eric Arthur Blair was so impressed with the county that he named himself after the River Orwell.  And it’s not just writers. Suffolk is a big draw for all kinds of creatives.

I can’t blame a single one of them, I concluded after a recent couple of days in Aldeburgh.

Aldeburgh beach

By any standards, Suffolk is attractive.

No wonder crime writer PD James bought herself a home across the market square in Southwold. The other Queen of Crime, Ruth Rendell, was also based in Suffolk.

Even villages that aren’t chocolate-box pretty are picturesque. 

FreeImages.com/Peter Day

An estimated 375 of them have ornate village signs. That’s more than any other county (except Norfolk).

Freckenham, Suffolk

It’s not a through-route to anywhere, unless you’re heading out to sea. Maybe that’s why it’s resistant to motorways and vapid trends. Walk through any Suffolk town and you’ll find a retro vibe.  Policemen know everyone, tractors roam the streets, and small shops still do a busy trade.

Wine shop, Suffolk

But it’s not Hicksville. It’s a hive of culture. Check out Snape Maltings and the Aldeburgh Festival, founded by Benjamin Britten. 

The light is amazing, as artists soon discover. Even if you don’t paint or sketch, it’s uplifting to be outside. I can’t do the sky justice, so here’s a photo taken by a river estuary.

River Alde

It’s easy to clear your head because the air is so bracing. For most of the winter, the wind blows in straight from the Urals. 

Stroll along the beach, and you might find it comforting to watch fishermen sitting patiently on the shingle in the rain. Especially if you have somewhere warm to go back to.

Writing fiction? There’s plenty of inspiration for intrigue, from the Martello towers dotted along the coast to the nuclear reactor at Sizewell.

Martello tower, Aldeburgh

See the guy at the top? This isn’t someone about to go over the edge. It’s an Antony Gormley statue. 

But what if, despite the odds, you have writer’s block in the middle of your magnum opus? 

Just compose a limerick about Suffolk instead.

Tables on the beach at Aldeburgh

Self-Published Authors, eh? What Are They LIKE?

Unless you’ve been in Siberia for the last few years, you’ll know that publishing has changed with the rise of self-publishing.  Indie authors, self-published authors, author-publishers – call them what you will. Their distinguishing feature is that their books bypass mainstream publishing houses.

Some publish themselves in the strict sense of the word, while others use small publishing outfits. What are they like?  ALLi LBF14

A number are hybrids like me: my non-fiction is traditionally published for good reasons. I can’t see a textbook for medical students gaining much traction without the backing of educational big guns like Wiley-Blackwell. On the other hand, I’m very happy self-publishing my fiction like my novel One Night at the Jacaranda.

One thing to make clear: self-publishing is not vanity publishing, where someone is so desperate to appear in print that they exchange a fat cheque and an unreadable MS for a garage full of books nobody wants to buy.   garage full of unsold books

Authors go the indie route for various motives. Most often there’s the desire to have full control over their work: the cover, the blurb, the price, the royalty rate, the timing of publication and so on. As Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), says, indie authors “see themselves as the creative director of their books, from inspiration to publication.

Orna at London Book Fair 2014

Orna Ross at London Book Fair 2014

When you read a book by an indie author, you’re getting what the writer intended.  If you’ve never come across a book by an author-publisher, you’re probably thinking “What, typos and all?”

No, of course not. That’s because ‘self-publishing’ is something of a misnomer – it takes a team to make a book the best it can be.

You can self-publish all on your own without spending a cent, but you need a bit more to produce a quality product fit for discerning readers (and your English teacher from college).

If you haven’t come across any of the 18m self-published books bought in the UK last year, you may still be thinking of indie-authored fare as pale imitations of ‘proper’ books.

Like, say, a cut-price Ian McEwan or a downmarket version of a Julian Barnes. Or maybe a Maggie O’Farrell with spelling mistakes. A Ruth Rendell minus the mystery. Gone Girl without any suspense. Perhaps even Jeanette Winterson with random capitals and grocers’ apostrophes. You know the type: potatoe’s, lettuce’s, Orange’s aRE Not The Only FRuit.   farmers' marketAs it happens, more than one commentator describes the indie scene as a literary farmers’ market (see posts by JJ Marsh  and Lynne Pardoe.

Tesco they’re not. These authors are individuals and they provide fare you can’t easily find elsewhere.

So it’s tough to generalise about what they’re like. Indies are poets, thriller writers, romantic novelists, and a lot more, but some things unite them.

Jane Davis' novel 'I Stopped Time'

Jane Davis’ novel ‘I Stopped Time’

  • Their books may defy genre, which is one reason why they may not sit well in a supermarket.  You’ll see what I mean if you check out the work of Dan Holloway, Orna Ross, Rohan Quine or Alison Morton). 
  • Author-publishers relish the control they have over their own work. They may have turned indie after their publisher insisted on changing the title of their book, or made the titling pink and loopy to shoe-horn it onto the chick-lit shelf.
  • They know readers deserve first-rate content and presentation, so they’re increasingly professional. The best author-published books are on a par with high-end products from big publishers.  And many of them have accolades that say so.
  • That’s because they take it on themselves to produce books with care, but they do so with the help of editors, designers, beta-readers and so on. No author, even an indie author, is an island.
  • As you might have guessed by now, they’re not all sitting by the phone waiting for one of the Big Six to call.  But indies aren’t all fed up with traditional publishing either.
  • Most write for love. Indie authorship is not a get-rich-quick scheme, though some have done spectacularly well.

I think all this choice makes it a very exciting time to be a reader.

So, what are indie authors like? Come and see. You’ll find about 40 of them at the Indie Author Fair in Chorleywood, Herts on November 16.

Indie Author Fair 2014

 You may also like to read this informative book from the Alliance of Independent Authors which gives a great overview: Opening Up to Indie Authors.