In which I think about writing and mentoring and money

It’s not easy to become a published author. It’s even less easy to become a bestseller. Statistically the odds are stacked against anyone starting out with the dream of writing a novel and then selling enough of that novel – or even of multiple novels – to make a living from being a career author.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. It does happen, and the authors who work hard and write the best book they are able shorten the odds of it happening to them. Unfortunately, some of the other things that shorten the odds have very little to do with the talent or work ethic of an individual writer.

Sometimes it’s just bad luck – your book might be brilliant but the agent you’re querying might have signed an author with a similar voice or subject matter just before your manuscript hits their desk. Or an agent might love your book but have struggled to sell something similar recently and not feel confident that they could get a better result with your novel. Or your dark gothic epic might hit their desk in a week when editor after editor has told them they’re desperate for something fun and escapist. And there’s very little you can do about any of those things.

Some of the ‘odds shorteners’ are more than luck though – they’re privilege. Publishing is not immune from homophily – that’s the tendency that people have to make positive associations around people who are apparently similar to them. In recruitment it’s part of the reason that, for example, male dominated workplaces can fail to recruit more women even when there are qualified women applicants and a stated intention to even the gender balance. There is a tendency to feel more confident and comfortable with that which seems familiar, with that which seems ‘like us.’ In publishing that can mean that there is a (possibly unconscious) bias towards authors who look like what we think an author looks or sounds like based on our past experience. That can potentially disadvantage, for example, disabled, BAME, transgender and working class authors, who have historically been underrepresented.

And there are also privileges that come from income or relative wealth. If you can afford it you can go on writing courses, attend conferences, and pay for editorial and tutoring services before you get anywhere near submitting a book to an agent or publisher. Now I could write a whole other ranty post about the quality of some of those services for writers, but there are lots of reputable tutors, editorial advisers and writing mentors around. I consider myself to be one of them. But our advice is often a privilege available to people who are able to pay for it and I worry more and more that that creates an even more unlevel field when people come to make submissions. A writer who has been able to pay for one-to-one support or for numerous writing courses, or even for a professional edit on their manuscript, before they submit has a lot of advantage in trying to produce and present a professional, well-structured manuscript to potential agents and editors.

I don’t have a magic fix to that whole problem so instead I’m going to do one small thing… From January 2020 I will be offering 1 FREE mentoring place for a writer who isn’t be able to afford one-to-one support. My one-to-one mentoring service is completely tailored to the individual client so precisely how things work will depend on the successful applicant but, as an indication of what to expect, I do most of my one-to-one work by video chat (Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp) and normally talk to clients roughly once every couple of weeks, although it could be more or less than that depending where you’re up to in your project. The free place will be for six months from January 2020. Full details and how to apply here.

In which I think about teaching

I’ve been a bit of a lax bloggificator of late. I had a good run back there in October/November of posting every week, but I think, if we’re honest, we all knew that wasn’t going to last didn’t we? At some point, it was really inevitable that I’d become distracted by cheese or an interesting stain on my pyjama top or something twitter reckoned and I’d forget to do blogging. So sorry about that. I’m back now though, and feeling like I’ve already missed the window for doing the traditional start of year resolution post. If you feel you’re missing out then just read last year’s or the year before.

I don’t want to diss the whole resolution notion, which I am generally a huge fan of, but my resolutions really are basically exactly the same – lose weight, get over the driving terror, read more, write more/better. So there we go – 2016; in terms of good intentions it’s really very much like 2015.

However, I do have one further more general resolution. In 2016 I shall do more stuff that makes me happy. It’s ridiculously easy to while away time in the modern world by automatically picking up one’s phone and scrolling through some random bits of internet. And sometimes a random bit of internet can be jolly. I very much hope that you’re enjoying this random bit of internet, for example, but overall trying to keep up with everything that is reckoned on the internet is a real time suck. So less of that in 2016 and more actually doing stuff, like making cake, or reading a proper book, or learning how to thread my sewing machine without swearing a lot.*

I’m also resolved to try really hard in 2016 to build up my creative writing tutoring. There are good and sensible reasons for doing this. It involves getting paid, which is a rare and beautiful thing in a writer’s life. It also involves making use of some bits of my ridiculously overlong education. But mainly I want to do more tutoring because I absolutely bloody love it.

There are very few activities more fun than talking to developing writers about writing and helping them work out what sort of writer they want to be. The moment where you see a student realise something, or understand an idea for the first time, is just ridiculously good fun. So I’m aiming to spend a fair amount of 2016 doing just that. I’ve got four courses in the schedule already, including two weekend retreats with my regular co-conspirator, Janet Gover, and I’m, as always, open to offers to come and run workshops with writing groups. All I need now are some students… Roll up! Roll up! I promise to send you home inspired, invigorated, and probably slightly knackered.

 

* This may not be possible. I suspect the swearing is actually an integral part of the process without which the little foot thingy won’t click down properly and the needle bit won’t bob.

In which I wonder whether you can teach someone how to write a novel

I spent the weekend here:

The Fish Hotel

That’s part of the Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds where I had the pleasure of leading a tutored novel writing retreat, with the awesome Janet Gover (my co-tutor and photo taker) and the lovely writers pictured hard at work below. It was a fantastic weekend. I love tutoring novel-writing – increasingly I find that I think of myself as a tutor who writes, rather than a writer who teaches. Either way, I’m stonkingly fortunate that I get to do both.

Farncombe 2015 students

And as a writing tutor, it irks me somewhat when I hear people saying ‘Well you can’t teach someone to be a writer’ or other words to that effect.

So that’s my question for the day? Can you teach novel writing?

Well yes. Of course you can.

Hmm… on reflection, this is turning out to be a really short blog post. I’m going to have to expand my thoughts a little, aren’t I?

Right then. Here we go.

The idea that writing is a special ethereal thing that springs forth from the great spiritual well and can not be taught be tawdry human means irks me, as a teacher, because I think it belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching is.

Too often we think of a teacher as somebody who stands at the front of a room and imparts definitive knowledge. There is one right way to wire a plug. There is one right answer to 2+2. Those things can obviously be taught. There isn’t one universal right way to write a novel, so that’s just something people have to work out for themselves. Right? Wrong. Because standing at the front and saying ‘Do this. Do only this and always this,’ is a very tiny slither of what teaching can, and should, be.

Another way of approaching the question ‘Can x be taught?’ is to, instead, ask ‘Can x be learnt?’ Essentially if something involves skill or knowledge then those things have to be be learnt, and a good teacher can help a receptive student learn them more quickly or more effectively, because learning is a process. It’s a process of trying things, recognising successes and failures, revising your approach, and trying again. A large part of teaching is about suggesting what to try, identifying success and failure and helping the student revise their approach. All those things can be done more effectively with somebody, who understands both the process of learning and something about the thing you are trying to learn, holding your metaphorical hand or kicking your metaphorical butt.

What you can’t teach is passion. You can’t make somebody want to write a novel, but if somebody has decided on that path, then a good creative writing tutor can absolutely help them to get there. I was helped massively on my journey to publication by two incredible tutors – Deb Catesby, who is now a visual artist, and Julie Cohen. There are, however, a lot of not so good creative writing tutors out there, so here are my tips for finding a good tutor and the right course for you.

  1. Work out what you want to learn. Are you writing for personal pleasure or for publication? Are you interested in exploring your creativity, or developing a skills to write in a specific form or genre? Different writing courses are different – some focus strongly on writing for publication, some give exercises in lots of different forms and genre to explore different types of writing. If you know what you want, then don’t be afraid to ask whether the course suits your needs.
  2. Ask about the tutor’s writing experience. We’ve all heard stories about tutors running ‘masterclasses’ in genres they’ve never written or published. Find out what the tutor’s experience in the subject they’re teaching is.
  3. Ask about the tutor’s teaching experience. Teaching is a specialist skill. Writing a bestseller or a Booker Prize winner doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher. If you’re handing over money for a course then there’s nothing wrong with asking the tutor what they’ve taught before, or even asking if they have feedback from past students that you can look at.
  4. Be wary of tutors who promise to impart the secret to writing a novel/play/shopping list or who offer definitive rules on what you must and must not do to get published. There is no secret. The only rules are ‘write the sodding book’ and ‘make the sodding thing work’ and I’ve just given you those for nothing.

So there you go. There are my thoughts on tutoring writing and creativity. If you’re interested in hearing about courses I’ve got in the pipeline, including next year’s tutored retreat, then head over to the Contact Me page and drop me a message with your details to join my courses mailing list.

In which six is the magic number

My publisher, Choc Lit, is six years old today, which is lovely. Well, it’s lovely up to a point. Beyond that, having a publisher who doesn’t want to discuss your edits because they had too much ice cream before they went on the swings and so now they feel sicky is less than ideal. Despite those reservations, a birthday is still a thing to be celebrated, so in the spirit of ‘sixiness’ here are six things I’m thinking about right this second…

1. Turning to crime

Not actual crime. That would be bad. Being bad is generally considered to be one of the defining characteristics of actual crime, but I am thinking about fictional crime. Yesterday I went to see a panel of frankly awesome crime writers talk at the Worcestershire LitFest. The panel was made up of CL Taylor, Sarah Hilary, Clare Mackintosh and Alex Marwood, all of whom are bestsellers and utterly brilliant writers. A couple of things really stood out – both CL Taylor and Alex Marwood started their writing careers writing books that were marketed as chick lit before turning to crime, and Clare Mackintosh actually turned down a potential offer to publish an earlier book before her astounding breakout debut hit, I Let You Go. All of which made me think a lot about writing and publishing as a career and how easy or difficult it is to switch genres or to write in multiple genres and hmmm… well… thoughts.

 

2. I bloody love teaching

I’ve been properly snowed under with work recently. I’m marking a lot at the moment, promoting one book, trying to finish writing another and I’ve recently joined the committee of the RNA, which is brilliant but also time-consuming. And then on Saturday afternoon I had an afternoon off. Well not actually ‘off’ – I had an afternoon standing at the front of a class with a flipchart talking about plot and character and trying to help five developing authors get to grips with their own works in progress, and it was immense fun, so much fun that, compared with the days and day of bum-on-seat time I’ve had recently, it almost felt like an afternoon off. Brilliant students, an excellent worked example of a character arc interacting with an external plot (courtesy of Terry Pratchett and Guards! Guards!) and a generally all round lovely afternoon.

 

3. My new book baby is out there in the world

Midsummer Dreams was published on Friday. You probably didn’t know that. I barely bang on about it at all. The early reviews have been lovely and positive though, which is always a huge relief. Until the first reviews appear there’s always a possibility that nobody else on the planet will understand what on earth you were trying to do with a novel, but fortunately at least some people seem to love this one. Happy dances all around! If you’d like to download a copy for yourself this is the place.

 

4. The Labour leadership contest is getting me down

So it’s fairly well documented that I’m a bit of a lefty, well ok, quite a lot of a lefty, so I should be following the Labour leadership contest with great interest. Unfortunately all I’ve been able to muster so far is great disillusionment. I can’t even bring myself to type a proper rant about how disappointing the candidates all are. That’s how disillusioning the whole thing is. *sigh*

 

5. Fatness and cake

I’m currently on attempt 728 to get my weight under control. My current system involves good old fashioned bribery as the incentive, as EngineerBoy has been persuaded to sponsor me £1 for every 1lb I lose. So far I’ve made £4. Yeah baby!

The current biggest downside of the weight loss plan is that it really curtails the amount of baking I can justify doing. I love baking – it’s like magic for people who don’t have sufficient attention span to actually learn how to cut a lady in half, or, if you prefer, it’s like science for people who only have eggs, butter and flour to experiment with. Baking is awesome, but it very often leads to cake, and cake, very often, leads to fatitude. Again *sigh*

 

6. And finally, I am thinking about Christmas

Because my current work-in-progress is the third (and possibly final, but never say never) Christmas Kisses book, so for the third year in a row May and June have been soundtracked by White Christmas and Band Aid. No spoilers about the book other than to say it will be Christmassy and there will probably be some kissing.

 

So there you go. There are six things that are on my mind right now. What’s everyone else thinking about?

In which I muse on London Book Fair

Last week was London Book Fair, the UK’s annual gathering of the publishing industry where agents, publishers, and booksellers come together and do vast amounts of publishing industry type stuff. Essentially LBF is a massive trade fair, where agents and publishers tout their wares. Rights sales are the main order of business, and it’s a thoroughly busy and buzzy place to be, but the wisdom in times of yore was that LBF was most definitely for business not for actual writers.

Recently, however, the good people behind LBF have been making a concerted effort to lure more authors along, setting up a section of the show headed ‘Author HQ’ with specific events aimed at writers rather than publishers or agents. This year, for the first time, I bought a ticket and headed to the Big City to see what it’s all about.

So was it worth it? Well, yes and no. I had a fun time. I went out for lunch with my publisher and editor, and a fab group of authors who either write for Choc Lit as well or are chums through the Romantic Novelists’ Association. It’s always nice to go out for lunch, and it was particularly nice to meet my editor, who, despite have worked on for four separate books, I’d never actually met in real-not-on-the-internet-life.

I also went to a Dragon’s Den style pitch-the-agent event where ten very brave authors pitched their books to a panel of agents and editors in front of a live audience. It was interesting to see the sort of feedback the agents gave, and also hugely impressive to see the authors involved lay themselves and their book-babies out for criticism so publicly. However, I’ve been to a number of talks by agents and editors, and I follow quite a few industry blogs (Lizzy Kremer’s Publishing for Humans is my current favourite) so there wasn’t a huge amount in the feedback that was unexpected.

Apart from that the Author HQ talks I saw were fine, but at a fairly introductory level. There would probably be some interesting stuff for new writers trying to decide whether to pursue a traditional publishing route or self-publish, but for as an already published author looking for progress my career further still, I didn’t find a huge amount at Author HQ for me. So my personal conclusion on LBF for writers: go if you think the price of the ticket is worth it for the buzz alone, but it’s probably not the best place to pick up information and ideas for developing your writing or writing career. Personally, I think I’d probably only be tempted to go again, as an author, if I had a specific must-see event to go to, or specific people I needed to meet. Of course that’s just my opinion- here’s an alternate view from Liz Fenwick.

So that’s London Book Fair. ‘What other interesting events for writers are coming up?’ I hear you ask. Well, it’s jolly funny you should ask that, because I myself am in the process of plotting an awesome event for developing writers. This October, I’m teaming up with Janet Gover to tutor a weekend writing retreat at the beautiful Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds. There’ll be lots of writing time, one-to-one tutorials, group workshops, and the price also includes your accommodation and plenty of lovely yummy food. The full cost of the retreat is £350, but if you book in before the end of May we’re offering a 10% early booking discount, so you pay just £315. All the details and the retreat booking form are here. It would be lovely to see some of you there.

In which I randomly assert that writers are not special

I have two jobs. I have one job where I sit just exactly here on my rapidly expanding bottom and type words into documents that I hope one day people will want to read. In my other job I try to help people learn stuff. Sometimes I help them learn how to understand the welfare benefits system. Sometimes I help them learn how to write books. In the past I’ve helped people learn good interview skills, presentations skills, employment law, IT skills and various other things besides. It’s never crossed my mind that there might be some careers that you can’t learn to do. But some people think that my first job – the bottom sitting one – is just such a thing.

Back in March, Hanif Kureishi termed creative writing courses a ‘waste of time’. This caused a heightened level of eyebrow raising because Kureishi is a professor teaching in various areas of writing at Kingston University. It’s always good to see a tutor who’s confident in the quality of their own work, isn’t it? Having said that, other writers agreed with Kureishi about the limitations of creative writing courses, and he wasn’t the first to express reservations. Ray Bradbury, for example, told the Paris Review that college was a ‘very bad place for writers.

It seems to me that there are two things going on here. Firstly, there’s an unjustified leap in logic between identifying a bad course or poor teacher, and concluding that something can’t be taught. I’ve never been to one of Professor Kureishi’s lectures or tutorials, but if you find that a high percentage of your students are failing to learn the thing you’re supposed to be teaching, you’ve got to wonder if the problem is you rather than them. Many of Bradbury’s criticisms centre on the problem of tutors teaching based on their own preferences and likes/dislikes – that’s not a sign that’s something’s unteachable. That’s just a crappy teacher. There are lousy courses out there in plumbing, maths, crocheting, engineering and Japanese – it doesn’t mean that any of those things can’t be taught and learnt either.

And that brings me to the second thing I suspect is going on here. Us writers do sometimes have a slightly unattractive tendency to think that we’re special. Again, that’s not something that’s exclusive to writers – we all like to think that we are special unique snowflakes sometimes, but I think that sometimes as writers we tell ourselves that what we do is somehow different from other jobs. And in some ways it is – there’s a lot more pajama wearing than the average, for example. But we’re part of a whole raft of creative careers – from writing to fine art to theatre to engineering to graphic design etc. Any job that involves a moment where somebody says ‘What if we do…’ and the next thing that comes out of their mouth is an idea that wasn’t there before is creative. Creativity is brilliant, and precious, and, if you take a minute to look, absolutely bleeding everywhere.

I share my living quarters with EngineerBoy, and people often assume that we must have little or nothing in common in terms of how we work and how our brains work. But actually we talk about work all the time.* Designing engineering solutions and writing a book have a lot in common. Both start with an idea of what you’re trying to get to. Both suffer from the fact that that idea will, inevitably, change part way through the process. Both work best when you keep things simple. Both are marked by a bit about a third of the way in where you’re absolutely 100% certain that what you’re working on is a massive pile of poo that will never work. And then another bit like that about two thirds of the way through. And then another one just around the time you have to hit send and deliver the thing to your customer/publisher.

Writing a lesson plan is another act of creativity with lots in common with writing a story. A good lesson has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a point that you hope the student will take away, and is has a great unknown quality that is beyond your control – for a lesson, that’s the student; for a story, it’s the reader. Both are going to take whatever you offer and respond to it, hopefully in the ways that you anticipated, sometimes in a completely different way, and sometimes, if you’re really lucky, in a way that makes the whole thing better, and richer and more successful than you ever thought.

Lots of jobs are like writing – some in small ways, some in much bigger ones, and generally we have very little problem with the notion that you can learn to do all those other jobs, but somehow we want writing to be innate. It’s not innate – at least not beyond the level at which human beings have a shared instinct to communicate and storytell. It’s something you can develop and improve. You can learn to be more creative, and you can learn to channel that creativity in specific ways. You can learn the skills of plotting and characterisation and editing and point of view.

And yes, part of the reason I’m saying this is because I’m a creative writing tutor and I have an upcoming workshop (spaces still available – click the link for details, go on, you know you want to) to promote. But it’s more than that. Telling people that certain skills can’t be taught is an example of people who’ve already achieved success adopting a mindset that keeps those who are still trying firmly in their place. It’s about saying ‘Well, I made it without any help. Why can’t you?’ And that’s just a bit of a miserable, divisive way of being. So bah humbug to that. Jolly good.

* Sounds dull, I know, but look. We’ve been married a really really long time. Any conversation beyond ‘What’s for tea?’ is frankly a marvel to be cherished at this stage.

In which I weigh into the debate on qualified and unqualified teachers

The coalition have had a little falling out recently over education, specifically over the rules regarding unqualified teachers. Currently free schools and academies are permitted to appoint teachers who don’t hold qualified teacher status, and in September 2012 the rules on teacher qualification for all state maintained schools were slightly relaxed. As yet, it’s not clear how big an effect this most recent change has had, but there’s some more information on numbers of unqualified teachers in free schools here.

I’ll pin my colours to the mast upfront, and say that I am a qualified teacher. I’ve never taught in school, and specialise in teaching adults in the workplace and community. However, I still have a bit of a bee in my bonnet over the perceived professionalism of teaching.

The idea of allowing, or encouraging, schools to appoint individuals without a teaching qualification seems to be an attempt to get more inspirational individuals from different professional backgrounds into schools. On face value, that’s laudable. A big part of education is about engaging and inspiring students, and having direct contact with people who’ve achieved success in different professions is one good way of doing that. It’s also a way of bringing up to date expertise into the classroom, and it’s perfectly possible that some of those individuals will be charismatic classroom teachers. Others won’t – in-depth knowledge and the ability to communicate that knowledge are not necessarily overlapping skills.

However, subject expertise and charisma aren’t the be all and end all of good teaching. You need to be able to do behaviour management, lesson planning, formative assessment, summative assessment, designing learning outcomes, designing learning activities and resources, differentiating within your lesson for different abilities and learning speeds, adapting your lesson plan to the realities of the class in front of you – and all of those things are skills that need to be thought about and developed.

That doesn’t mean that someone who joins a school without a teaching qualification can’t learn those skills, but I do think it demonstrates that teaching qualifications have value. It also suggests to me that politicians in the department of education don’t really understand the complexity of a teacher’s role. It appears that they equate good teaching with simply knowing about your subject and being able to talk about it. Both those things are important, but they’re not everything. A teaching qualification demonstrates that you’ve spent time gaining an understanding of the theories and practice that underpin good teaching and effective learning.

Michael Gove (oh come on – you knew I’d get to him eventually, didn’t you?) has been vocal about GCSE and A’Level ‘grade inflation,’ and spoke last week, defending his preference for more rigorous testing of children. He said:

“Imagine that you had a choice not of schools, but of airlines. There is Test Airlines, very rigorous, and there is Warm and Fuzzy Airlines. What’s the difference between the two? In Test Airlines they actually insist that the pilots have passed a test so that they can fly a plane. How old-fashioned can you get?

“At Warm and Fuzzy Airlines, they don’t bother with these tests to see if pilots can fly. They just concentrate on all of the pilots giving the customers a warm and fuzzy feeling as soon as they get on board. Which would you fly with?”

Well yes. Quite. What I simply don’t understand is why you would apply that logic in one case and decide that tougher qualifications are good for children, but, at the same time, conclude that formal qualifications in teaching aren’t necessary for their teachers? Either qualifications matter and tell us something about a person’s skills and expertise, or they don’t. The bottom line here, I suspect, is that Gove simply doesn’t see teaching as a complex, expert profession; he sees it as something that anyone who knows a bit about a subject can probably have a jolly good stab at. And conversely, that attitude is probably exactly the one that will discourage the most expert and highest achieving individuals in different fields from considering teaching as a career. Rather than opening up teaching, it lowers the status of the profession, and discourages both current and potential teachers. You wouldn’t want an unqualified doctor, dentist, pilot, solicitor, or electrician. So why would you value your child’s (or your own) education less highly than your fusebox?