There aren’t many acclaimed novelists who’ve sold half a million records, appeared on the front cover of NME and had their songs covered by Elvis Costello, but Louise Wener, author of five books and tutor on our forthcoming Six-Month Creative-Writing Course, certainly has. Lead singer and songwriter in the hugely successful Britpop band Sleeper, Louise turned to novel-writing after the group called it a day in 1998 and began teaching shortly afterwards. She begins working with Curtis Brown Creative on 4 February; applications for the course close at midnight on Sunday 12 January.
Many people will remember you as a pop star. How did you go from appearing on Top of the Pops to being a novelist?
I’d always wanted to write a book. When my band split up at the end of the 1990s, I took some time out and wrote two half-novels, both of which I junked. It was only when I started on a third that I thought I might be onto something and plucked up the courage to send it to an agent. As a lyricist, I’d always loved words and creative writing, but it takes time to learn how to write something as substantial as a novel. There are people who say you can’t learn to write, but I don’t agree. I think the creative impulse is difficult to teach – but, once you have it, you need to learn the accompanying craft like any other. I wish I’d gone on a course like the one I’m about to teach when I was starting out. It would have saved a lot of time.
And how did you make the move into teaching creative writing?
I’ve been teaching creative writing for about eight years. After my second novel was published, a friend asked me to run a week-long residential course for The Arvon Foundation. It was quite intense, but I found it hugely enjoyable. I’ve done several more of those and have also taught summer schools at the University of Sussex. I run regular evening and weekend writing workshops.
Do you ever get nervous standing in front of a class?
Everyone gets a bit nervous the first time they meet a new group of people. It’s the same for students who are being asked to share their writing in front of a class. I try to create a relaxed atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable and confident enough to contribute equally. Nerves soon vanish once you know what you’re dealing with.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching?
I see it as a privilege. It takes courage to share your work with other people, especially when it’s at an early stage. So I feel lucky to be let into that process. The rewarding part is seeing a student grow in confidence and ability. Writers work in isolation 90 per cent of the time, so it’s good to share what you know. I find I learn from each course I teach.
How did you get involved with Curtis Brown Creative?
I’ve been represented by the Curtis Brown literary agency for more than 10 years and I knew they’d put together an outstanding course. The Six-Month Novel-Writing Course I’m tutoring gives students access to industry expertise and offers masterclasses with a wide range of successful authors in various genres. That kind of input is invaluable. I was excited to be asked to teach on it.
On past courses, we’ve had students writing everything from historical fiction and chicklit to crime thrillers and high literary fiction. How is it possible for a tutor to teach across all these genres?
I think the rules – if you want to call them that – of good writing apply across all genres. I’m as happy reading crime thrillers as I am reading romances or literary fiction, so long as they’re good.
What are the most common mistakes inexperienced students make?
There’s a tendency for new writers to be overambitious. Often they juggle too many characters or the plot is too complicated for them to manage. Sometimes new writers don’t take enough time to plan and they find their story becomes unmanageable. Before you know it, you’re having to write in a new character just to solve a plot problem. Self-editing is an important skill. Half the battle is knowing what to leave out. Another common problem is for new writers to use language that’s flowery or self-consciously literary when it doesn’t need to be. Keep it simple. Say what you mean. Have your characters speak with an authentic voice that comes from you, not with a voice you’ve copied from somewhere else.
What excites you about teaching the CBC Six-Month Novel-Writing Course?
Most often I teach week-long courses or summer schools. Even though you often see writers do amazing things in that time, it’s exciting to be able to follow a new group of writers over a period of six months and see how they progress. I’m expecting great things!
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our 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.