Guest post by Harry Bingham:
Most authors exploring a book marketing website won’t be thinking about the merits of a creative writing course. Aren’t you beyond all that? If your book is in its tenth draft, if you’ve got your cover design chosen, your blurb written, your marketing under development – aren’t you beyond learning the ABCs of writing?
Well, maybe. I used to think so. I should say that I’m a working writer myself. I’ve been published by HarperCollins, Random House, Bloomsbury and others. I’ve had novels become bestsellers and others make prize-shortlists. I’ve been published most places that matter between Japan and New York – so I’ve been around the block. I’m not a newbie any more.
But the notion of a creative writing course isn’t so foolish, all the same. For one thing, most writers just charge in to their first novel. I did. Bash your first draft out on a laptop convinced you’re Dan Stephen King / Nora Roberts / Jonathan Franzen. Mess around with it, trying to get the darn thing into some kind of shape. Send it off to a literary agent. Hope you get lucky. (And I did.)
Yet somewhere along the way, you realise that although you might have got one published, you never actually learned how to write a novel. Your first book worked, if it did, through inspiration, but that rush of creativity won’t always be there. And one day – quite likely some day soon – you’ll run into a creative problem that you don’t know how to solve.
At that point, you need technique. You actually need to know the ABCs of writing. If a plot isn’t quite working out, you need a set of tools that will help you analyse the problem, identify the core issue and fix it. Sure, inspiration is an indispensible ingredient of any great writing, but technique is there to support, not replace, that original creative impulse.
Or take another issue: prose style. I’ll bet that you still write today in more or less the same way as you did when you first picked up a pen. You’ll have tightened up, got better at avoiding clichÃ©, been more economical with your words – but I’ll bet you still sound the same. That might be because you just happened on a great style when you first started writing. Or it might be because you cling, like a limpet to a rock, to the very first thing you got to work. You want to guess which of those two options is the more common?
And those really are the two reasons why existing writers might want to think about learning, from scratch, how to write a novel. You do it to build technique, to give you a set of tools that will halve the time it takes you to get your work right. Measured out over, quite possibly, an entire career of writing, that saving of effort could be enormous.
And the second reason is that a course offers you a â€˜safe play’ area. You can try stuff on a course you wouldn’t have the nerve to do for real. Try different styles. Push yourself. Experiment. Imitate. Mix things up. You wouldn’t want to start a whole novel like that, but if you scribble out a short story on a course that really excites you â€¦ well, that excitement could possibly be the start of something big.
In terms of which course to pick, I’m a massive fan of online writing courses. They slot into your ordinary life and your ordinary working rhythms without having to disrupt a thing. If you need plenty of time for a particular exercise, working online will give you more freedom to take that time than you’d have if you were sat in a classroom. And naturally, the quality of a writing course depends a lot on its students. If a class fills its places by choosing from a narrow geographic location, you’re at risk of not being sufficiently challenged and extended by those you’re with.
Like countless authors, I’ve ended up running my career backwards. Launching myself with my first novel, taking time to figure out that I didn’t know what I was doing, picking stuff up piecemeal along the way. And life doesn’t have to be like that. You could actually choose to do things in the right order. Get your skills, launch your career, build from there. It’s funny how much simpler that would be.
Harry Bingham runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers a variety of online creative writing courses, including a how to write a novel course.