Once upon a time (ie, last week), a teacher of creative writing thought it’d be a good idea to tell newspapers such courses were a waste of time and his pupils were ‘not talented’. A debate ensued in which authors, literary agents and writing tutors all weighed in, and Curtis Brown Creative director Anna Davis – who’s all three – wrote a piece for The Guardian on the subject. But as anyone with access to a laptop or tablet was able to add their comments to the bottom of her article, this threw up some interesting questions and opinions – as well as the usual mildly deranged mud-slinging. And Anna couldn’t resist replying to many of these. Here are a few of our favourites:
I took an evening course in creative writing, wrote a book and within a year had an agent and a publishing deal. The book won awards and since then I have written four more. I would recommend a similar course to anyone, as a place to try new things, find out what excites you, and get feedback and inspiration. I am less sure of courses that are tied into publishing companies or literary agents, and charge unpublished writers huge amounts. For example, the Guardian Masterclass on how to finish a work of fiction, which costs £7,000 and is therefore pretty much only helping rich people to get published:
We would not charge anything like that much for our courses, by the way (and actually the course you mention is not run by a literary agency or publishing company). And we offer scholarship places whenever we’re able to do so.
I’ve worked in publishing too long not to be cynical. CBC is not a writing school. It doesn’t teach anyone to write. By Anna Davis’s own admission, it selects already talented but unpublished writers, then charges them a considerable amount of money to have that work assessed and critiqued by literary agents. It also gives Curtis Brown first dibs on representing those they want, but there’s no guarantee that after a writer has paid over all that money, there will be a deal at the end of it.
It would be interesting to know how many of the nine authors who ‘graduated’ from CBC earned back the money they paid Curtis Brown with their first advance, or whether the agency just made money off a book twice.
As creative-writing courses proliferate like mould on bread, do your research before you part with your money.
The same applies to literary agents. The best ones won’t charge you anything to read your work or represent you. They’ll make their money by selling your book.
Hi jae426. Some comments on the points you’ve made about Curtis Brown and Curtis Brown Creative:
* Curtis Brown Creative runs courses for writers. All our courses are taught by published authors with input from the literary agents, plus guest visits from publishers and other authors. I’m not sure why we shouldn’t use the word ‘school’ – we’re not misrepresenting what we offer and don’t offer, and I’m very clear that we are not about qualifications. We pack a heck of a lot of teaching and workshopping into our three- and six-month courses (I think the teaching hours compare very favourably with competitors and many university MAs). Clearly we’re not for everyone, but I think we have a strong offering for writers who want to learn about the industry AS WELL AS receiving teaching and workshopping on their novels in progress. We can’t offer our courses for free because they cost a lot to run, but we try also to run free and subsidised days and events wherever possible (eg, our Discovery Days with Foyles, and our London Writers’ Fair in partnership with the London Book Fair). Plus we offer free (paid for by a sponsor) places on our courses whenever we’re in a position to do so.
* Curtis Brown does not charge money for reading or assessing manuscripts submitted to the agency by people in search of representation. That is free and will remain so. The agency welcomes submissions from writers looking for agents. Curtis Brown makes no upfront charges for representation. All reputable agents work on a commission basis and Curtis Brown is no exception to that.
* Curtis Brown does not have ‘first dibs’ on representing the people who come to as us as students. The students are free to submit their novels wherever they want to (and indeed we often include visiting speakers who are successful self-published authors). I’m happy to hear from them when they’re ready to send their work to agents and to make suggestions to them about good agents outside the agency as well as to talk to them about the agents at Curtis Brown and our sister agency Conville & Walsh.
* Not all of the nine authors who have publishing deals are represented by Curtis Brown. Those who are with the agency seem pretty happy with the way things have worked out for them. It would not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on the advances they have been paid by their publishers other than to say again that they are pretty happy – and, indeed, some of them have deals which received considerable press.
I’ve found myself on the CBC mailing list, and I’m sure it’s a valuable new revenue stream for the agency, but the idea it’s some kind of philanthropic endeavour that can compete with a decent MA course (or even the courses offered through the Guardian) is laughable. Their tutors are of the calibre of ex-Sleeper frontwoman and current second-rate novelist Louise Wener, for God’s sake.
We’re not trying to compete with MA courses (or those offered by The Guardian) – what we’re offering is different. We’ve never said it’s a ‘philanthropic endeavour’, but I can assure you it’s not a revenue stream that Curtis Brown in any way needs.
Louise Wener is the author of four commercially published and bestselling novels, and is an experienced writing tutor who is extremely popular with our students.
Anna, what advice can you give about what support is out there to help identify good courses – websites to point us to, etc?
It absolutely depends what you want out of a course. I agree with those who are mentioning the Arvon Foundation as a very good organisation offering great residential courses with really good tutors – most of the courses run for a few days. Some of their courses are aimed at all-comers who are writing for pleasure, some are more targeted. Ty Newydd in Wales is also very good, offering a similar idea.
I don’t know of a website which ranks courses. But if you’re looking at MA courses or other courses aimed at people who are taking their writing seriously and perhaps want to publish, I would say:
* Look at what teaching hours you’ll get.
* What’s the fee for those hours?
* Does it focus on what you want? Make sure you don’t end up on a course where you have to write fiction if you want to focus on poetry, etc.
* Make sure you won’t get mired in lots of extraneous work that doesn’t relate to your writing.
* Who are the tutors? If there is a big name or a writer you love there, will you personally get teaching from them (or from someone more junior)? Google the tutors.
* Make sure that anyone teaching you is a writer with relevant publications (eg, if you’re going to be taught novel-writing, you need to hear from a novelist, not a biographer).
* Find out how long the course has been running and how many published writers it has produced (if relevant) in that time.
* See if the course is supported by any publishers or agents, and whether it includes visits from authors and industry professionals (this may not be important to you – but if it is, check it).
* Phone up or email and ask all your questions, and make sure you’re satisfied with the answers you get.
I hope that helps.
I’ve never believed creative-writing courses can teach you to write if you have no talent. Bang on. They just fleece the unwitting. But literary agencies play their part in stoking this business – that’s how you earn your money. I bet you take manuscripts from writers from particular courses that you know and where you know the people running them before anything unsolicited. If anybody wants to write, write, don’t pay some fool a bucket load to ‘teach’ you, get a good editor (not a literary agent, preferably just someone who likes reading – agents just suck the life out of other people’s work) and look at self-publishing or alternative publishing methods (Unbound, for example).
I think the rise of self-publishing and other new ways to publish is a brilliant thing. Choice is a brilliant thing and should really keep literary agents and publishers on their toes, too.
But on the other point, we don’t privilege people from creative writing courses over other writers sending in their material
I’m not expert. So here is a niet-culturni’s perspective anyway:
Schools are very good at teaching technique.
So writing schools are essential for journalism, technical writing, encyclopedists and those writing IKEA instructions (in principle).
Writing a story is non-technical and no school can teach anyone to write a story. The best they can do is polish what is there, by fixing up technique.
There are enough examples of successful writers whose technique is all over the place, such as JK Rowling. And writers who are miles away from anything in any way technically good, such as Raymond Chandler.
So writing schools can’t make writers, I’m guessing. They can only make writers write a little more correctly which, in some cases, will in fact break the writing.
I would say that a good creative-writing school would give the writer an opportunity to identify their strengths as a writer and help them to play to those strengths. It’s not about ‘correct’ or incorrect.
Good books surely deserve the widest possible audience: with nine major publishing already secured, I’d love to know the titles and be able to read the results of this and other creative-writing courses. Shouldn’t all suppliers of creative-writing wisdom be using details of their publishing wins: course starters percentage as the best possible proof of their teaching? What is there to hide?
All our nine writers who now have publishing deals are now waiting for their books to come out. The first three come out over the next few months, and then the others are all to be published next year. We have lots of blog pieces about them and their books on our website, but the first four, shortly to be published, are:
After The Silence by Jake Woodhouse (Michael Joseph) – that one’s out next month.
Barbarians by Tim Glencross (John Murray) – May.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Picador) – June.
Plague Land by SD Sykes (Hodder & Stoughton) – October
This final comment is from one of the students currently studying on our Six-Month Novel-Writing Course…
I stumbled across the Curtis Brown course and started this year. The whole approach is different to my previous experiences of creative-writing courses. So far, it’s better in every way – the criticism is constructive and, finally, I am starting to see how much better my work can be, because it is demanded of me by the people on the course as well as the tutors. If you’re reading this and you get annoyed about the ‘waste’ of my time and money, you may be right. But I suppose instead I could just sit at home in front of the telly and then die thinking I had a bestseller in me – I just didn’t stop for long enough to find the best way to write it.