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Posts Tagged critique groups. Morley College
I’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com
I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?
You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.
I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.
None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).
Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.
Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.
Last word on courses
Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.
What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.
Again – which course?
Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.
It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.
Should you try to work in book publishing?
Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).
Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.
We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.
Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.
What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!
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I’ve just finished writing my first novel. I want to get published but I can’t pay for an editor. What can I do? Edith
Every week I get emails from writers who want help but can’t afford the cost of an editor. And I can see why. Good editors cost a big chunk of money and the job can’t be done cheaply. I don’t think seriously committed writers assume anything otherwise.
But sometimes, the writing world can seem like those schools where rich parents hothouse their kids by hiring personal tutors. If you don’t have the spare dollars, will you be left behind?
Not necessarily. Many of the writers I know never hired editors, yet we earned our spurs somehow. And you can still learn the way we did. It still works.
I probably sound like I’m doing myself out of a job here. Certainly a good editor will zoom in on your individual weaknesses (and strengths), and will improve all the novels you write, not just the one they assess. Also I’ll state that I’ve learned heaps from the agents and editors I’ve worked with. But the bulk of my learning came from elsewhere.
It wasn’t all free, but it was considerably cheaper than hiring an editor.
1 Find a good evening class
For two years I went to a novel-writing course at an adult education college. This was fantastic – an intensive two hours each week in which we’d critique a couple of works in progress, guided by a tutor who was also a literary agent. In case you’re in London, it was Morley College in Waterloo. Almost any well-populated area should have adult education facilities, and you can probably access them online too.
Intensive weekend courses are also useful (in the UK Arvon is well regarded), though the cost is getting on for the price of an editor, but there’s definitely something to be said for a regular dose of writing tuition every week to realign your awareness. Writing minds are trained gradually, so hothousing doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage.
Cost: Evening classes at Morley College about £130 per term
2 Find a critique group
Your evening class might fulfil this function, as mine did. But if it doesn’t, find a critique group or a clan of beta readers you can trust with your WIP. They may not be as expert as tutor-level critics, but can still be very valuable as they will react to your work as real readers.
Make sure you pick people who read your type of book (I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ after last week’s discussion 🙂 ) and who come together with the intent to help each other improve. You don’t want a mutual stroking society, you want people who’ll stop you making mistakes.
How expert do they have to be? Almost anybody can tell you the places where the book bored them, interested them, confused them, stretched their credibility or kept them up well past their bedtime. If they give you solutions as well, ignore them (diplomatically) unless they have reason to know what they’re doing. You find your solutions from your other experts.
A word of caution: although the participants don’t have to be expert, you need to make sure the group is moderated by someone with nous who can recognise when personality clashes or personal issues are interfering with the group’s criticism.
If you can’t find a group in the corporeal world, there’s nothing to stop you assembling a brief email list of trusted early readers.
Cost: Wine, cake and other standard bribes
3 Read craft books
For years I mainlined writing craft books. I gobbled up so many I can’t remember all the titles, and I gave loads away to friends, but the ones I still have are by Robert McKee, Jordan Rosenfeld, Stephen King, Dianne Doubtfire , James Wood, David Lodge, Bob Shaw, Syd Field and Blake Snyder.
And of course, I’m now adding to the writers’ reading burden with tomes of my own, distilled into practical tutorials based on the advice I regularly give when I critique. Hence the characters book.
Cost: the price of a book (or several)
4 Read like a writer
This is what I have always done. Each time I read something that impresses me, I stop and examine how it was done. This means I dither through books, often trapped by a sentence, a description or a wrenching twist. This extreme predisposition to wonder is what made me write in the first place and it’s what inspires and teaches me still.
Cost: what price can you put on pleasure?
The long and the short
It can’t be denied that an editor is a fast track to proficiency. But some of the necessary lessons can’t be learned in a hurry. We need time for unfamiliar concepts to become habit, to make the knowledge our own and to put it to full imaginative use. That isn’t bought with money. It’s earned with time and dedication.
Thanks for the money-burning pic Jurvetson Just for the record, the lady in the pic is not a financially challenged – or blessed – writer, but an entrepreneur making a point about energy wastage. But we’re both talking about money that may not need to be spent 🙂
Where are you in your writing journey? How did you learn and how are you learning still? Is there anything you’d tell Edith?
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