27 September 2016

How to get the most out of a novel writing course

Photography for Curtis Brown Creative
by Anna Davis Course News, From the Agents, Writing Tips

Each time I welcome a new bunch of students to one of our London writing courses, I always make a point of telling them how to get the best out of their novel writing course. And actually, much of my advice also applies to studying on many other creative writing courses – whether it be an online writing course, a residential weekend course, a university MA or an evening class in your local library or college. So here it is for your general use and delectation:

  • Giving feedback is as useful as receiving it: Almost all creative-writing courses feature peer feedback – students read each other’s work and give editorial comments in a writing workshop or online discussion forum. Sometimes you can start to feel like you’re spending more time thinking about other people’s writing than your own when you’re on a writing course. But when you’re grappling with your thoughts on someone else’s work, you can also learn a lot about your own novel-in-progress and your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Critiquing helps you to develop your ‘inner editor’, which is very useful when you come to edit and revise your own work.
  • Listen to criticism – and reflect on it: When we show our writing to other people, we’re basically hoping for adulation. Instead we might get criticism, and it may even be hefty criticism. You might be upset or angry; you might feel the urge to defend yourself and argue back on each point made. My advice is to just sit back and listen. Later, with a cool head, you can work out which feedback has the ring of truth about it and which doesn’t. I’ve often found that the comments that most upset me are the ones I really need to act on. Specific suggestions for solving problems in your novel might be wrong, but they may nonetheless help you find your own way forward. Conversely, some students are over-keen to act on all criticism straight away – and here too I’d say it’s best to take your time, and reflect on what’s right for your novel rather than rush to action.
  • Workshop the dodgy bits: If your course allows you to choose which bits of your novel you’d like to focus on in your workshops and tutorials, choose extracts which you know aren’t working so you can use the feedback to help you get them right. It’s tempting to pick your party pieces – resist the temptation unless you’re having a bad week and are desperately in need of reassurance.
  • Find your tribe: Joining a creative-writing course isn’t just about feedback and writing workshops – it’s about comradeship. Being part of a group makes writing a less lonely pursuit; it gives you the chance to debate and discuss, or maybe just have a pint in the pub every now and then (think of Hemingway and his compatriots in 1920s Paris or those pesky Romantic poets). At Curtis Brown Creative, many of our student groups meet up to workshop each other’s work long after their courses end – some even go on writing holidays together. And most importantly, you might find your trusted readers – the two or three people you’ll ask to read your finished novel…
  • Do your homework: And by this I don’t just mean handing in your work on time. Our courses – and some others – feature guest speakers: usually authors, agents or publishers. To get the most out of visiting speaker sessions, do your research: If it’s a publisher or agent, find out who they publish or represent. If it’s an author, read their books – or at least one of them. This enables a much more meaningful discussion in the sessions. It’s also a good idea to prepare a question or two – there’s nothing more awful than a gaping silence when it gets to Q&A time. And asking a genuinely smart (but non-show-offy) question will get you remembered. Read your tutors’ novels too!
  • Loud or silent: Every course has one or two very loud people and one or two extremely quiet people – as well as others who are in between. Ideally don’t talk so much that it’s hard for others to get their two penn’orth in, and on the other hand, do make sure you pipe up at some point. Your tutor should, of course, have a firm hand on the tiller to ensure the class runs smoothly, but it’s something to be aware of. If you talk all the time, you’re probably not listening. And if you don’t talk at all, your thoughts and ideas never enter into the discussion. And, by the way, this applies to online courses too…
  • Write Write Write: Sounds really obvious but do lots of writing while you’re on the course. There’s likely to be other coursework to complete too so set aside as much time as you can to just keep moving that novel forward. A wobbly workshop can make you lose confidence and freeze, but fight that and keep on going. You might have revelations about your work that mean a massive rethink or even starting again during the course – if so, don’t hold back, just crack straight on with it.
  • Read Read Read: Read books that inspire you, books that are in your genre, books that are newly published, books that your tutors and your student group are talking about, books you’d never normally pick up… If you find you’re reading something that’s causing you problems with your writing or giving you the anxiety of influence, set it aside but be sure to start something else. Read voraciously and read as a writer – ie, always try to figure out how the author works their conjuring tricks and what you can learn from them.
  • Choose the right course: When you’re choosing a creative-writing course, think carefully about what your needs are, as well as what you can reasonably afford. Read the small print so you know how much teaching you’ll be getting and can be clear about the course components. Think about your objectives and check to see if this course will help you to realise them – but don’t do a course at all if you’re not ready to be challenged and to make real changes to your work-in-progress. Consider how much work you will need to produce and what deadlines you’ll have. Ensure the tutor is a published author with appropriate experience to be able to give you good help with your writing. Look at the ethos of the creative-writing school/department and see if it makes good sense to you.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).

We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).

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