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.