Saturday 23 August 2014

On the shoulders of giants

Phew. Just finished the creative writing summer school I teach at Pembroke and King's Colleges in Cambridge each year. It's always very sad to see the lovely students heading home, as I love those manic eight weeks that come along just as everyone else is planning to wind down and go on holiday.

The format of the course is simple. There are two of us teaching it; my partner in crime is children's author Brian Keaney. Every week, there is an evening lecture (with wine), sometimes with a guest lecturer, but more often just our double-act. And the rest of the week, the students write, and each have an hour-long, one-to-one supervision (=tutorial, outside Cambridge) on their work.

But of course it's not just us two. We have lots more guest teachers, many of them dead. Each year, we drag many other writers into the lectures - sometimes as reference points, sometimes as illustrations or examples, sometimes for proper discussion and sometimes just mentioned in passing. Of course, none of the students will have read all those we refer to (they aren't old enough, they haven't had time yet) but many will have read a lot and all will have read some. The range is huge - last week's 'mentions' stretch (in time) from Aesop to The Hunger Games, taking in Sophocles, Euripides, Hamlet, Macbeth, Shelley, Pride and Prejudice, Matthew Arnold, Christina Rosetti, Edgar Allan Poe, Dubliners, Ulysses, Stephen King, Raymond Chandler and Anne Lamott amongst others. During the course, there have been many, many more.

Previous writers are our currency of debate as well as our models. We don't want the students to write in the style of Jane Austen or Matthew Arnold - they would never sell anything. But we do want them to learn from the structures, the intensity, the insights into human psychology, the depiction and development of character and all the other universal aspects of their predecessors' writing.

So as they all go off into the world, back to Yale and Cornell and Berkeley and all the other places they came from, and ask us what they should to do improve their writing, we tell them to keep reading. To read the type of books they want to write and the types of books they don't want to write. To read recent books and to read books by people long dead. To read books they like and books they don't.

The course is not about writing literary fiction - we are as happy with them if they write a decent fantasy or sci-fi story - and it has a commercial aspect: how to write books that will sell (if they want to make a living as a writer). We tell them there is no shame and a lot to be gained by writing (and selling) books of many types and that reading widely will help with all of it. One of the questions we ask them to come back to when they are reading contemporary books is 'why was this published?' There is always a reason. If there is a book they hate, we encourage them to work out why they hate it, and not stop reading it until they know. Of course, no one has to carry on reading a book they don't like, but if you haven't worked out what you don't like, your work with it is not done. And then they have to decide whether it is a badly written book (and how) or a well-written book that is not to their taste. We don't have to like things to recognise their qualities. There are plenty of good books I don't like.

And so to all our students, just past and longer past, and to everyone - just keep reading, and read thoughtfully and critically. You don't need a living tutor - there are plenty of dead ones that will let you climb onto their shoulders and see far into the distance.

PS - and these two came out last week when I wasn't looking.
Both from Arctuturus, both adult/teen books. All types of writing - it's what you need to do to make a living.


  1. Personally, I'd much rather read speculative fction than most of the literary novels that are receiving huge prizes for being obscure and dull, but have nothing to recommend them but "beautiful writing". For me, beautiful writing is about characters I can care about and a story I love. Sorry, but there's something slightly patronising about "SF and fantasy are okay because they're commercial and we need to make a living." Don't forget that there are plenty of people who have the same attitude to children's books. "Oh, well, at least they're reading" and "when are you going to write a real(adult)book?"

    Glad you had a good time at your writing course, though. It must be exciting to meet the writers whose names you'll see on book covers in the future and say,"Hey, he/she came to my summer school!"

    I have recently edited a wonderful magazine of spec fic and presided over six first sales.

    1. Er, I said "we are as happy with them if they write a decent fantasy or sci-fi story" - how's that patronising? It is a course with a view to the commercial realities of writing, but that doesn't mean we consider SF and fantasy to be only good for making money! It's very convenient if, as a writer, what you like to write is also something you can make money from. Both Brian and I write speculative fiction, so we are hardly going to be patronising about it! In fact, I write almost anything *except* literary fiction. If a writer wants to make a living, they are relatively unlikely to do so through writing literary fiction, so versatility is a good thing commercially as well as in terms of extending your skill set.

      There is, though, often an expectation amongst people who sign up for a creative writing course that they will only be writing literary fiction and we need to treat that expectation with tact. I spend the first four weeks getting them to write other genres before giving them more freedom to choose.

  2. Love the idea of all the dead teachers. Very gothic!

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