Poacher Turned Gamekeeper?

When I became a published fantasy author, I didn’t really plan on developing a sideline as a creative writing tutor. The first time I ran seminars was at a convention, when the writer scheduled to do them had no choice but to pull out at the last minute. Well, I’d done some training in my past life working in Human Resources, and I have an Oxford degree that required a lot of studying literature. So I answered the call for anyone able to help out. Everyone involved had fun and seemed to get plenty out of the sessions, though I went away idly thinking how I might do rather better with more time to prepare.

That was obviously tempting fate. As word got round, I was asked to run a full-scale creative writing workshop, this time for a library. Which would give me an opportunity to try out my revised approach. I had to see how that worked, didn’t I? I’m pleased to say it went very well. Since then I’ve run half and full-day courses, for conventions, libraries, literary festivals and creative writing organisations, both focusing on SF&F and for more general novel writing. This year I’ll be running my first full week’s residential SF&F course, at the Castle of Park in Scotland. I’m really looking forward to that.

But why do I do this? I joke that I’m afraid of karmic backlash. That it’ll knock me off my feet if I don’t repay the cosmic favour of all the advice and support I had from established authors when I was an aspiring writer. Joking aside, helping aspiring writers is just what writers do, in my experience at least.

I’ve found running workshops and courses is a usefully structured way for me to communicate what I’ve learned, and what I continue to learn. Just because I stand up in rooms full of people now with my flipchart and marker pens, I don’t imagine that I know it all. I still go to hear writers talk whenever I can and always come away with some new insight into the creative process or the practicalities of this job. I also keep my eyes and ears open for any and all information on publishing and bookselling, since I know from my own experience how crucial this is. Insights that I gained from working for Ottakar’s played a significant part in placing my first published novel. (Please note that wasn’t the first one I wrote).

An informed, realistic approach is vital for any aspiring writer. I hope if I can get that necessity across, I’ll be saving some from false-starts and heartbreak, as well as sparing a few agents and editors some of the hopeless submissions that pile up around them on a daily basis. If I can do that, a few trees might be spared the paper mill to do their bit to combat global warming.

Working as a creative writing tutor also gives me a reasonable answer to that question all writers get asked: “Will you read my book?” I blush to think I once asked a famous author that, when I didn’t know any better. Because now I work full time on producing a book a year with some short fiction, with all the ancillary demands on my day that I just never knew existed. Now I understand how professional writers struggle to find time to read the things they need or want to read, never mind critiquing scripts by aspiring hopefuls.

So now my answer is this. If you come on one of my day courses, when you’ve heard what I have to say, I’ll read a 5000 word submission, with a synopsis if it’s a novel. I’ll give you feedback without fear or favour, one time only. I’m not going to be your script doctor, your agent or your editor, but you will get an honest assessment in the light of everything I know about the industry. You’d be surprised how many people don’t take me up on that, when they’ve heard everything I have to say about the complexity of writing character, atmosphere and dialogue, and constructing a robust plot. What I have to say is a distillation of excellent advice that I’ve gleaned from many, many famous writers and proved though my own experience.

These sessions aren’t all me talking though. A substantial element of every course is working as a group. People bounce ideas off each other, testing them, twisting them, shaking them to see what falls out of their pockets. I’ve never believed that cliché about the writer’s life being a lonely one as all my work benefits enormously from other people’s input. My role in these collective exercises is ringmaster, devil’s advocate and professional nit-picker. Since no one is defending their own pet project, it’s an excellent environment for learning the values of constructive criticism and lateral thinking to solve problems.

Reading those submissions that I do get after a course has taught me a great deal. I now know that agents and editors are right when they say you can tell if a book has what it takes in under a few hundred words. That when you see sample after sample, you see the same reasons to turn them down over and over again. That recurrent errors of spelling and punctuation make you want to bin the sinner’s pages and move on. There really are too many books and too little time.

I see too many plots that proceed by convenient coincidence, where two-dimensional characters react to events rather than initiate them. I encounter too many vague syntheses of fantasy fiction backdrops. I stumble over stilted dialogue where I completely lose track of who’s saying what. I am overloaded with irrelevant detail and clunky exposition. As an aspiring writer I know I was guilty of all these mistakes and more. As a published author, I remain constantly on my guard against repeating them. As a tutor, it’s my responsibility to point out such fatal flaws. Failing to do so does no one any favours.

I also see far too many attempts to rewrite favourite fantasy themes without offering any original insights. Even with satisfying characters and vivid settings, these novels are going nowhere. I’ve been there and tried that and that’s a lesson I can pass on. One rejection letter for my first, unpublished (and unpublishable) novel said bluntly, ‘There’s nothing to distinguish this from the six other competent fantasy novels that have crossed my desk this week.’ Now I understand that’s the useful kind of rejection slip; one you can learn from.

I also meet intriguing characters facing compelling challenges. I come across sparkling dialogue, quirky originality in outlook together with unexpected perspectives on genre ideas. These are the ingredients for something potentially very tasty, if they can be combined in the correct proportions, in the right sequence and successfully brought to the boil. As with cooking, accomplished writing relies on many varied skills. Talent without craft is a mass of raw ingredients. Since I’ve been working in this kitchen for a while now, I can suggest ways to hone the techniques necessary to turn those ingredients into a gourmet dish rather than a fast-food snack. I can also point out how it takes practise and repetition to perfect those skills. Such as using a metaphor, and knowing just how far you can stretch it before moving on.

Those are the submissions that remind me never to become complacent about my own work. They tell me I must never be content with writing that’s ‘good enough’ rather than ‘as good as I can make it’. So believe me, working as a creative writing tutor certainly isn’t something I do to boost my ego.

This article first appeared in Focus, the BSFA’s magazine for writers in 2006

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