Creative Writing – survival of the fittest

[Ivan’s note – I found this post sitting in draft state. It had lain dormant since early 2012. I post it because I am always slightly bemused, often plain embarrassed, and occasionally delighted, by things I used to think / feel / say. An awful lot of *stuff* has happened since, not least another child, and three of my classmates being published. Which in itself casts a different light/shadow/pall/nappy-changing routine over these words].

It’s been over a month now since I finished the second creative writing course run by Curtis Brown (Curtis Brown Creative).

Some background:

I have always wanted to be a writer. This is partly because it is something I have always been told I’m good at, and partly because it is something I enjoy doing. These two things are inextricably linked. However, as the world and his dog on the internet (with his iBone or Woofberry, no doubt) will tell you, it is one thing to amuse your friends, it is quite another to get them to buy you a drink. I’m sorry, that should have read ‘it is quite another to persuade another human bean to give you money in exchange for words wot you have ritten’.

Things, not least my self-discipline and self-confidence, kept getting in the way. Bathos, that’s another thing. Ooh, and baths. Or more strictly, alcohol. Baths of booze. But that’s another story.

My last formal employer had an education fund. This was very wise of them. All my other formal employers have had Personal Development sessions with life coaches and all sorts (not the licorice kind, alas, the fancy business card’n bullshit brigade). This has made me – indirectly – leave my then employer because I felt so Personally Developed that I could do Better Things. Anyway, the education fund meant I got to go on an Arvon course.

If you’ve never been on one and you want to be a writer, book yourself on one at once. Please stop reading this self-justifying drivel and do it. Their brochure is here. It changed my life. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who wanted to write. And cows. The cows didn’t want to write. I suspect that is why we may have eaten one of them. I digress. It was brilliant. Fun, cosy, morning pages, evening readings, knit your own yoghurt and laugh at skipping the visiting lecturer’s Taking It All A Bit Seriously With The Hippy Shit Talk.

It gave me a push. I left full-time work. I wrote most of Tom’s Universe by being chained to a desk and going places with no internet. The bollocking internet is now creeping everywhere, even the wilds of Devon. I digress again.

I finished the novel and sent it off to friends. Then I committed an absolute cardinal sin. I queried agents. I’ve been buying The Writer’s Handbook or Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook every year since about 1990. I call it my tax on ambition. I was desperate to use it in anger.

Two weeks later two form rejections came back. Six months later the agent I wanted eventually sent it back. By then I’d read it, and read all my friends’ criticisms. I was mortified. Bits of it were ok. But bits of it – most of it – was utter bilge. And it simply did not hang together as a story. The plot wandered all over the place, characters repeated themselves ad nauseam, the leads were unlikeable, the denouement too hollywood…. In short, it was a first novel. Self-indulgent twaddle. Like this blog post.

I started to attend the London Writers’ Club Live events, where an author/agent/publisher (and if you were unlucky publicist (kidding!)) comes to give a speech about ‘the biz’. I started to appreciate the sheer scale of the unfathomable unlikelihood of Tom’s Universe ever being published. I won some kind of twatter contest for one of their courses, and did a telephone-based thing with four deathly silent types and a chatty girl from Oz. I realised, shock horror, that what I thought was entirely mainstream was in fact literary. I didn’t read literary fiction. I had stopped reading almost all genres except crime.

So, I did something about it. I bought or read all the recent Desmond Elliot Prize winners. I subscribed to Granta (sigh). I tried very hard to like some beautifully written but deathly dull books. I (shock) didn’t finish every book I started – a cardinal sin in my world. I slowly begun to change what I was writing, and dreamt up The God of Onions. It opened with a bit of kitchen sink drama. Literally.

At the same time, there was a new kid in the creative writing school town. Curtis Brown Creative – the first course to be run by a literary agency, and with the promise of commercial feedback on your work. I had always wanted to work with them, or rather Jonny Geller, because he represented my favourite author – Michael Marshall Smith. (As it happens, this is no longer the case, but it did lead me to contacting Michael and having a brief email correspondence with him, which was A Big Fucking Deal to me). I digress.

I applied. I failed to make the cut – I was told I was down to the last 20, they would take 15. I was, as they say, sick as a parrot. I thought about giving up completely.

Then they announced they were running it again. Hurrah! Now I could write something, get accepted and then turn THEM down. Hurrah! I decided that if I was going to write another book, it was at least going to be a book I would enjoy writing. I’ve always wanted to be the next Douglas Adams (how many have fallen at this hurdle?). So I wrote some old nonsense on the day the course deadline expired.

Unexpectedly, I was offered a place. Completely to everyone’s expectations, my earlier enthusiasm to thumb my nose at them disappeared. Fired up, I wrote 35k words before the course started.

The course itself? Bloody hard work. It coincided with the birth of my first child, root canal surgery, the near-fatal collapse of my freelance business and well, crises of every possible angsty type. I made next to no ‘real’ progress with the word count – constantly having to return to the start to prepare submissions to tutorials, or for workshops, or the submission package for the critique at the end of the course. It was incredibly frustrating – a constant process of two steps forward and N steps back, where N was always a higher number than you wanted it to be.

Three things made/make this course unique:

  • the peer group workshops. By the end of the course I had critiqued 28 pieces of work and had mine critiqued twice. It’s very hard not to learn something from the process.
  • the industry seminars. From the eye-popping speech from Jeffrey Archer, to the potty mouth of Jojo Moyes (kidding!) through the stars – sung and unsung – of Curtis Brown itself and some of their industry contacts. The basic message was relentless. It’s tough out there. Toughen up, work harder, work smarter.
  • the pastoral role of the workshop leaders. In many respects there isn’t a lot to learn about creative writing. You risk turning it into woodwork, rather than craft. But the care and focus of Anna and Chris was exemplary. And often brutal.

I was expecting to add a fourth here. The agent critique was what had sold the course to many of us. Curtis Brown can’t take us all on. In just two cohorts of students, it will have seen more prospective debut authors than it takes on in the normal course of events over several years. We were assigned an agent reader at random, with some happier with their choices than others. I was very happy with mine. And before I go any further, I was very happy with my readthrough, in the Ronseal sense. But what effectively happened is I got a 45 minute rejection ‘talk’, instead of a form rejection letter. Think back to the last time someone broke off a relationship with you – 45 minutes is an awful long time

Fellow student Sarah’s reflections are on her blog.

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