Back in 2016, when an editorial report of my book picked up promise but suggested a hefty redraft, I had three options:
- Jack it in and take up another hobby. (Baking for instance, but after a few flour bomb incidents, I had to abandon my plans to usurp Nadiya)
- Rewrite the book using pointers from the report but risk going down the wrong path and finding myself back at square one.
- Write the book on a writing course guided by peer and tutor feedback.
I remembered seeing a newspaper piece by a famous writer who dismissed creative writing courses as a waste of time as “either you know how to tell a story or you don’t”. I was also aware that a lot of folks think that writing learnt on courses ends up morphing into a homogenous ‘writing workshop’ style. Well, after a lot of uhming and aahing, I took the plunge into a year long online “Work in Progress”course with Faber Academy in 2017. Here’s why I think it helped my novel:
It makes you feel like a ‘writer’: You are struggling to get a manuscript in shape. It’s unpaid work with no guarantee of publication. It can be difficult to see yourself as a writer in such a situation. Being on a course immediately legitimises it for you and those around you. ‘Sorry, I have a deadline,’ can be you new ‘go to’ response when writing gets bumped down the to-do list.
- It gives you focus: You have a readership! For me, it was the first time anyone other than family had read my work. Knowing that your fellow writers and a published author/very experienced tutor are going to see your stuff will encourage you to really pull your socks up. I found that things I would normally leave for ‘the edit’ got addressed in the here and now.
- You get to analyse your writing: Reflecting on what works and why helps hone your skills. We had a new book and novel extracts to look at every month with tutor podcasts and group discussions about them. Analysing the extracts and applying the principles to your own writing is a great way to evolve. Also, learning what doesn’t work makes you avoid pitfalls. I found that reading other writers’ work and providing critiques was surprisingly helpful in analysing my own writing too.
You network: Everyone tells you how important it is to have a writer’s circle for feedback and for support in this lonely business of scribing. Where do you find such a thing? There were no groups near me and work/family commitments meant I could not travel to a regular meeting. An online course meant I could mingle virtually with other writers and schedule my tasks around the rest of my life. I have stayed in touch with a few alumni, beta-read for some and had my own work looked at too. All invaluable. You grow a rhino’s hide: I wanted to throw myself off a cliff after reading my editorial report but by the end of the course, I had dealt with feedback every single month for a year. By the end, I was not only as resilient as this handsome chap, I also had a better understanding of the feedback that was right for my project and the bits that weren’t.
- You smarten up your writing CV. Mentioning a well regarded creative writing course on your query letter may subliminally suggest to your dream agent that you have been through a process of hitting word counts and doing editorial work based on feedback. If you have no previous writing credentials, it’s a great thing to have on your CV.
So, did it help? Our tutor, Rupert Wallis noted towards the end that our critiques were much more insightful. I think this is because we were reading more as writers than readers. As a welcome bonus, it had begun to show in our writing. When I compared the final chapter I wrote on Faber to what I’d written at the start, I could see a clear difference. I also had a better understanding of “macro” concepts like structure and character arcs.
As with anything in life, you do get what you put in. I didn’t know whether I was ever going to get feedback and tutor input again so I tried to hit every deadline. Tough, but it meant I got to the end of Aghni: Reign of Fire and was able to get valuable feedback about the denouement, not to mention, a successful submission later on down the line.
Have you been on a writing course? Done a creative writing MA? Please feel free to post your own experiences below.