Four weeks ago, the Six-Month Creative-Writing Course I started in February with Curtis Brown Creative came to its close. It wasn’t the first novel writing course I’d been on, but it presented the writing process in a unique way. Whereas you might find a course run by a university to be more about exploring your own creative process in depth and experimenting, a course run by a literary agency is a new type of beast altogether. Which was why I wanted to come on it.
Having spent a few years struggling through a first draft whilst going through a divorce, bringing up two children on my own and retraining to become a finance professional, I knew I needed help if I was to have a hope of turning that half-formed, rough draft into something that someone might possibly want to represent, sell or, God forbid, even purchase in a shop one day.
One of the really challenging things about any creative-writing course is learning how to critique works-in-progress by fellow students. There is a skill to being able to see past the general and subjective – ‘I didn’t find this interesting’ or ‘I loved this’ – and find ways to analyse in an objective and specific way what works and doesn’t, and more importantly, why. It requires time and energy to give this kind of feedback – you can expect to spend 45 minutes minimum on a 3,000-word submission. And you’ve got three of these per week. As my coursemate Ian Kirkpatrick said in his excellent blog about the end of our course, do the math. However, one of the things that does come out of all this time spent is that not only do you become a far more detailed and sensitive reader of other’s work, but – surprise, surprise – your understanding of and ability to read your own work critically increases tenfold.
Another thing you will learn from a good creative-writing course is that this investment of time gives you an inkling of the scale of work required to take your idea from just that, a lovely idea, to something that hangs together as a work of fiction, coherent and entire.
Plenty of people think they have a book in them, and some will attempt to externalise that book onto the page. To achieve even a first draft is no small feat. And yet still the vast desert between the draft and what you imagine the book could be stretches glittering and endless in front of you. Exhausted and defeated, you might wonder if there is a magic bullet or quick-fix pill you can use to get you to the other side.
The thing you will discover if you are paying attention to your tutor – and, in the case of Curtis Brown Creative, guest tutors and visiting speakers, too – is all writers have one thing in common. They have had to spend years and years learning their trade. Not just finding their ‘voice’, but working out a way master the hard, unglamorous slog of writing draft after draft of a book. Six, 12, even 20 drafts were some of the figures we heard from these agents, editors and writers, as being totally standard for any novel to go through.
This makes the idea of spending 45 minutes on a 3,000-word submission seem paltry, but it does teach you something invaluable. That there is no magic bullet – and the time we spent learning how to critique our fellow students’ work was in fact time we were learning how to read our own work critically. And that we are going to have to do that over and over and over again, if we ever hope to have a half-decent novel of our own.
At the end of this course I am happy to say I have learnt huge amounts about the industry; I have learnt about character and openings, plot structure and endings; I have learnt how to reduce my novel to a one-line elevator pitch. But most importantly, and uniquely, after completing the Curtis Brown Creative course, I have come away equipped with my very own road map to guide me across the wilderness that lies ahead.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.