Should I do a Writing Course?

As I mentioned in my last post, nothing much has changed since I got my book deal. I’m still finding lost library books, dealing with the ants that always invade at this time of year, being the dragon that makes sure everyone does their music practice and the administrator that makes sure everyone has lessons. I still cook and clean and wash up and swear when I tread on stray bits of Lego. But I’m aware of a quiet, underlying confidence that wasn’t there before. I’m a writer, I can say without apology or explanation. And it’s only now that I’ve found that ability that I realise I could have been saying it all along.

If you are where I was a few weeks ago – a writer pre-deal – then that’s what you are. A writer. Not yet published, maybe. But if writing is what you do despite your other responsibilities, even though those responsibilities have drained every moment of your time and every ounce of your energy, then you are a writer. Live like one. Talk like one. Call yourself one, and if people ask questions about your writing, answer them. It’s good to practise. You have to be a writer before you get your deal, otherwise you’ll never get your deal.

People have asked me about writing courses, and I smile and get ready to sing the praises of Tobias Hill, who taught the first ever Faber Academy course half a decade ago. Of Erica Wagner, who sent us all off to find stories in the British Museum. Of Maggie Gee, whose session on Middle Sections was as honest and inspiring as her writing. Of Louise Doughty, who matched her board markers with her dresses and showed the same elegance and commitment to everything else she did. Of Andrew Miller, so generous with his time and insights. Of Anna Davis, who combined professionalism and expertise with a commitment to her students way beyond what was offered. Go, I poise myself to say to those who ask me about writing courses. Go, find your idols and learn from them! Walk into a room where your ambitions will be taken seriously! Commit some time and money to exploring the thing you want most in the world! Find the support group that will carry you forward when the course is over!

But so far, the people who’ve asked me about courses aren’t interested in the writers who teach them, or the various teaching methods, or how to get the most out of whatever course they’re contemplating. They want one reassurance – that doing the right course will get them published.

If I do a Faber Academy course, will Faber publish me? No. They won’t. They might turn you down, as they did S.J. Watson. But S.J. Watson had written a novel with huge potential, and so Before I Go To Sleep was published elsewhere. On the other hand, they might publish you, as they did Rachel Joyce. She did a Faber course, but that’s not why The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry got published. How about Curtis Brown Creative, then? They’re an agency. Will they take me on if I do their course? They might, of course.  They did me. But getting a novel published is not like starting a business, or training for a specific profession. There’s no specific number of certificates you can chalk up, from an approved list of creative writing courses, to gain an entitlement to a book deal. Everyone who’s ever finished a novel is entitled to a book deal, but not everyone who ever finishes a novel will get one. And a course, in itself, is not going to make the difference.

My first course was a Creative Writing MA back in 2004. I’d already written one novel whilst teaching full time, but had no success with agents. I thought that an MA was a magic bullet. It wasn’t, and four years later, I was married with children aged three and one, plus a newborn and two more unpublished novels in my collection. The next course was an attempt to create time that didn’t exist; by gaining my family’s support for that course, I dragged them into the commitment to my writing that I’d already made in spades. That achieved, the writing I did, and the friends I made, were a bonus.

What I am saying is this – if you are looking for more from a course than the experience of doing it, then think again. There is no magic bullet. There are no short cuts. There is no way of not going through the mill, if your aim is publication, any more than a broken heart or a thirst for revenge can be served by anything other than time. It is soul destroying to write and rewrite, to be rejected, to rewrite again and be rejected again. But unless you have a stroke of incredible luck (and make no mistake, genius is not enough alone), that is what has to be done. Courses spared me not one drop of blood, or sweat, or tears. They helped me only when I came to expect nothing from them.

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