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 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.