Saturday, 22 October 2011

Teach writing? Nah....

Whether or not creative writing can be taught is a much debated question. My own view - and I've had creative writing students - is that creative writing courses can impart techniques and help students develop skills they have, but if they have no native talent the course is a waste of time and money. Some courses are a waste of time and money anyway, because of the way they are taught or the people who teach them, but that's a different matter. But this post isn't about courses - it's about the individual, one-to-one help that an experienced writer sometimes gives an emerging or novice writer. We have all been asked by new writers to read their work. Some of us do it for money. Some of use do it out of generosity, or guilt, or because we feel obliged or coerced. Some of us just say no. I say no, but that doesn't mean I won't help...

I have a new friend. I'll call him Adrian. Hello, Adrian - I'm sure you will recognise yourself, even with this different name. Adrian has written a long novel which he has been working on for much of this year. He has had feedback from several readers, some with publishing industry experience, so their comments are more likely to be useful than those of random friends and family. He has taken on board all their comments and made changes to his novel. I have not read his novel, nor do I intend to until it is published. I have read and commented on the synopsis and the first page - that's all. So can I be any use to Adrian in helping him develop his novel? I think so. Because I don't think I can teach him to write, but I might be able to help him to learn to write.

There are lots of guidelines - which lots of people treat as immutable laws - like 'show don't tell' and 'don't use 'was'' and so on. There are lots of distractions, like 'use 12 pt Times Roman' (I have never submitted a MS in 12pt Times Roman, and I have never had one rejected because it was in the wrong font). If I tell Adrian how I write, he might think that's my prescription for successful writing. It's not. It's possibly a very bad way to write - for other people. But it works for me. He will have his own way of writing that works for him. So much for the activity of writing - I'm not going to say 'you have to have a detailed plan' or 'never write a detailed plan'. But what I want to get Adrian to do, when I talk to him about his novel, is to understand what he is writing and how it works or could work. So I ask him questions like 'who is the narrator?' It is an omniscient narrator. 'Does this narrator have a character? Is he/she reliable? How do you switch between points of view? What are your main character's flaws? Which of his opinions do you share and which not? How does he change during the course of the book? Why?' And so on.

These are questions you can ask of any book. You can only answer them if you know the book, and if you are prepared to think about it. I'll let you into a secret. When you do an English degree at Cambridge, your supervisor lets you choose the texts you study (or did in my day). There is no limit. This doesn't mean the supervisor has read everything. It means the supervisor can give a supervision on a book they haven't read, just as I can help Adrian improve a novel I haven't seen. It's all about asking questions that get the writer/student to think intelligently about the book so that they make discoveries and increase their understanding. I have occasionally given Cambridge supervisions on books I haven't read. Once I gave a supervision on a book I hadn't read (all of), written in a language I didn't understand (very well). Because learning is not something that must be imparted by a teacher, but something that can come from within, possibly prompted by a helpful prodding person.

You wrote the book - you know it better than I do, or some other would-be helpful writerly or publishing type. You tell me about it - telling me about it is how you work out what you know and what you don't know. Then you can work out how to plug the gaps. This is rather how I work as an RLF fellow. If a student has written a doctoral thesis, or a novel, I'm not going to read all of it. I will read a bit and talk to them about the structure and any problems I can see in the sample I've read. Yes, I might explain to them how to use commas or why they need to write in shorter sentences, but the most useful bit, often, is getting them to explain why they have written something in the way they have and defend their choice. If they can't defend it, they realise it's probably wrong. The next stage is to work out how to fix it. But I want them to do that, not me. It's their book/thesis. And I'm lazy.

Of course, there is a role for the person who reads the book and says 'your pacing is all wrong' or 'the voice is inconsitent'. But if you have someone saying - 'tell me what happens in the first three chapters. Do you think that moves quickly enough to keep someone interested?' - you might be able to fix the pacing before you show it to someone else.  I could write a list of questions to ask about your novel. But that's not the same. You really need a person who will keep pushing, with one question leading into another that depends on the answer you gave. Perhaps I should offer an editorial service that does not involve reading your book, but is basically £50 for an hour of being badgered remorselessly. Stroppy Author's Lazy Consultancy.


  1. Excellent stuff and all true. The best editors I've ever had have been the ones who have asked lots of questions rather than telling me what I should be doing. It's only in finding the answers that you know what you should be doing. It's exactly the same with the development of a new play. You get to that first read-through of what you thought was a finished script and the director and actors fire questions at you (badger remorselessly is about right) and then you go away and rewrite...I'm going to tell a lot of people to read this post!

  2. Very, very good points, Stroppy. Knowing what questions to ask is enormously more than a start. It can be all a writer needs to improve. Well, as long as they can answer them!

  3. I think writers can help each other enormously when it comes to blindness — the things you see (or don't see) in Adrian's writing that he can't quite see for himself. In that sense, we're all here to tweak one another's near misses. Where no-one can help is when there is nothing at all to tweak, nothing potentially 'showable'.