I've spent the week writing an essay on the influence of daguerreotypes on Emily Dickinson, which appealed to the gramophone-obsessed vintage lover in me. I've also been hard at work at what I hope will be the very last round of edits. I'm still working on Imaginarium's batch of suggestions. It's taken a bit longer than I expected, as I've been juggling two essays a week alongside it, but I think I can do it tonight. I think. (As usual, I say that with great optimism)
This week I'm going to be talking about Creative Writing as a field of study. But first, a few updates on The Bone Season.
THE BONE SEASON UPDATES
Thank you so much to all of you for your kind comments on last week's Big News. I'm so excited to have been able to share it with you at last!
The next Big News will most likely be the cover reveal. Bloomsbury USA and UK have finally agreed on one global design, which they showed me last week. At first I was shocked by the changes they'd made – the colour palette is now very different – but after looking at it for a few hours, I've decided I love it even more than the first design. It's perfect. I hope you like it as much as I do!
I'm happy to report that I've almost finished the edits. Melissa asked if this round has been primarily structural, or whether it's been mainly changing small words. It's definitely been structural. I've made some changes to the ending again – endings are always tricky – and made more of the relationship between the main characters, creating a slightly different tone. If I finish tonight I'll be thrilled.
Onto this week's topic, prompted by Zac. I'm going to chat about writing being taught as a professional subject, and whether it's worth taking a course.
Other than your current studies, have you studied a writing course and what are your views on them? (Zac Newnham)
This is the classic nature-nurture question. Creative Writing was first introduced to the UK in 1970, as a Master's degree at the University of East Anglia (UEA). Clearly there were writers before 1970 who received no professional instruction – but as the market grows more competitive, do modern writers benefit from it?
I've never taken a professional class in CW. Most are very expensive, competitive and often time-consuming, and as a student I simply wasn't able to afford it. I was considering taking an MSt in Creative Writing before I got the Bloomsbury deal, as they'd just introduced the course to Oxford and I was interested in staying on for grad study, but it was mainly because I was lacking confidence after Aurora was rejected. I needed someone to tell me that my writing was good, or publishable. I wanted an experienced eye to pick out my mistakes. In the end I realised it was the awkward perspective and underdeveloped characters that had affected Aurora, not my style.
In my first year at uni I wrote a short essay on the study of English Literature. I was curious about why we are 'taught' to read, but not to write. It seemed to me that more emphasis was placed on the critical side of English than the creative. There's quite a lot of academic snobbery around Creative Writing, and confusion about whether it's a craft or a discipline, like geography or maths. You can certainly be taught the basics of making sentences flow: syntax, punctuation, that sort of thing. But that's just writing. This is creative writing.
I see writing as a subjective craft. It is absolutely unique to each person and each reader. Some people think Ulysses is a classic; others can't make sense of it. The written word is personal in a way that fact-based disciplines are not. There is no right or wrong answer. But couldn't we say the same thing about art or dance, both of which are taught at GCSE and A-Level? If we can teach someone to paint or sing, why can't we teach them to write?
I think writing courses work for some and not for others. Kazuo Ishiguro (who wrote the beautiful Never Let Me Go and also shares my birthday, fun fact) and Ian McEwan are both creative writing graduates from the UEA course, which has had a great success rate for published alumni. Academic courses will most likely help you avert basic mistakes, and will encourage you to experiment with multiple styles and perspectives. Being introduced to the wider world of writing will mean you're well-informed when you choose what you want to write. Short stories? Novels? Second-person? Unreliable narrator? You can also choose to specialise in poetry or prose, which is useful if you know you want to be a novelist.
UEA claims that their programmes are "best seen as an opportunity to explore and develop literary intentions in relation to the wider social and literary context, to work under the pressure of deadlines, and to share the experience of writing with colleagues in a critical and creative atmosphere". I agree that this would be the best environment for a course: exploratory, friendly and structured to deadlines, with equal emphasis on writing and subjective feedback. I say feedback, not instruction. No teacher should say "no, you shouldn't write like that", but they might suggest doing something differently. Discussion reaps constructive criticism, and if you're comfortable sharing your ideas with other people, you might find feedback invaluable. I popped into a local writing group in Ruislip Library for a few sessions when I was still working on Aurora, and the exercises they gave were always thought-provoking. The group's organiser would encourage us to experiment with unreliable narrators, multiple perspectives and so on. You might find, in doing these exercises, that you find a style you want to develop.
Be wary of courses that tell you 'how to write', especially if they charge you excessively for the privilege. Everyone has a style, and in my opinion that can't be taught – it has to be discovered and developed by the writer. Professor Celyn Jones believes "
– they might just inspire you to look at your work from a different angle – but always trust your gut, and never let anyone force you to write what they want. If there was one correct way to tell stories, all books would be written by machines.
Have any of you taken Creative Writing? How did you find it?