Should you pay to write?

In 2014, Hanif Kureishi, gave an interview to ‘The Guardian’ in which he stated that creative writing courses were a “waste of time”. This might seem a bit ironic considering that Mr Kureishi, who wrote ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’, teaches creative writing at Kingston University but the question is; does he have a point?  Now, this isn’t the first time that I’ve heard someone say that creative writing courses are a waste of time and money but if you ask me, they’re only a waste of time and money if you just don’t have the talent. I mean, I can sing a bit and I can hold a note reasonably well but I doubt very much that a singing masterclass is going to turn me into Aretha Franklin.

Kureishi went on to say that “a lot of my students just can’t tell a story” whilst Matt Haig, who also contributed to the article, said that “Creative writing lessons can be useful, just like music lessons can be useful.”  I don’t believe that you can teach someone how to write. You can’t teach a person how to use their imagination and create a story but a writing course can teach someone who has the talent for writing to learn how to craft a story.

In September 2016, after winning a crime writing competition, I started a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at City University. The course allows you to focus on either Literary Novels or Crime Thriller Writing. Those who know me will not be surprised to learn that I have chosen Crime Thriller Writing. Over the course of two years, I will be experimenting with writing styles, applying the fundamentals of fiction to my work and finally completing a novel. Now, you may be wondering why I’ve enrolled on this course when I’ve already written and published a book (The Sisters) and contributed to an anthology (No Way Home)? Without blowing my own trumpet, I can clearly write but I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with going on a course to improve your skills and to elevate your writing.  When I’m not writing, I’m a practising criminal defence solicitor and every year the Solicitors Regulation Authority require me to identify any learning and development needs and complete any necessary courses. It’s all about improving your skills and a creative writing course should be utilised in the same way.

So far, I have enjoyed every minute of my course. I usually write contemporary fiction but I knew that writing crime fiction required a different skill set or tool box. I have learnt to take risks with my writing and have also been forced out of my comfort zone. In addition, I have also had the luck of meeting a few of my crime writing idols and have been exposed to the reality of the publishing world.

If you go on Amazon, there a ridiculous number of ‘How to write’ books but unless you have an experienced creative writing teacher who can show you how to apply those writing techniques to your writing and provide you constructive feedback, then those ‘How to Books’, and any creative writing course, will be as useful as an inflatable dartboard. I love a good quote and I think that the familiar quote of “All the gear but no idea” is most apt. A creative writing course is only useful if it can provide you with the correct tools that will enable you to tell a compelling story. The tutors on the course need to show the students how to use the tools, otherwise, there simply is no point.

 

This post is brought to you by Nadine Matheson

 

Who has the answer?

In 2016, the statement that there should be more diversity in publishing is still ringing loudly.  But what does that actually mean? Does that mean more diversity amongst the writers that are being published or more diversity within the writing itself e.g. characters, locations etc? According to the ongoing debate there is still a lack of diversity amongst the writers who are being traditionally published and that something needs to be done to resolve this issues.

I’ve said it often enough but I hate being reduced to an acronym but as a black woman who happens to write, I would be placed neatly in the BAME box (black, Asian and minority ethnics) and Penguin Random House (PRH) have launched a campaign just for me. OK, maybe the campaign isn’t just for me but PRH are looking to mentor and publish new writers from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds, writers with a disability and BAME and LGBT writers. PRH’s call to arms is obviously a reaction to the fact that writers from these groups are underrepresented in the publishing industry, however, I find myself asking the question if this scheme (and others that are popping up) is the right answer to this ongoing problem.

The problem does not lie with a lack of diverse writers. It would be ridiculous to think that a BAME or LGBT writer or a writer surviving on benefits was afraid to pick up a pen or open up their laptop and write a book. Recent history will show you that there are, and I will call them ‘acronym writers’, that have even won a prize or two and routinely top the best sellers list (Marlon James, Zadie Smith, AM Homes, Marjorie Blackman, JK Rowling, Dorothy Koomson, Mike Gayle) but this is a miniscule number in comparison to the number of books that are being published or remain locked away on a desktop folder.

Why do the acronym writers struggle for representation? Why are they struggling to be seen?  Self-publishing should make it easier for these writers to ‘breakout’ but if socio-economic factors prevent writers from being published traditionally than those same socio-economic factors are going to stop the same writers from self-publishing because after all, regardless of how accessible self-publishing it is, editors, proof-readers, cover artists and marketing costs money.  We live in a digital world where people refuse to be hidden. We all have blogs, Facebook pages, YouTube channels and we’re loud and clear on Twitter and Instagram. These writers are no longer hard to find.

There are talented writers are out there but the problem lies solely with the guardians standing at the gate of the publishing industry, for example, the agents, editors, publicists and even the intern who can afford to work for free wading their way through the slush pile in a windowless room on the tenth floor in another non-descript room in the city.

Perhaps employing editors, agents etc who represent the acronym writers will enable the industry to move away from the old boy’s network but what about talent? Surely, if you’re talented, your writing will shine through. You would think so, but the fact that the question of diversity is still out there shows that the curtains in the windows of the publishers’ offices are still firmly closed.

I don’t think that a mentoring programme or any other acronym specific ‘one-time only’ competitions is the answer. What happens when the scheme, mentorship programme is over or the competition deadline passes? Does that mean that all of the efforts to make the publishing industry more diverse come to an immediate stop?  The publishing industry has to do more than a once in a blue moon high profile campaign and find a more permanent solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to the problem of a lack of diversity in the publishing industry but I do think that a good place to start would perhaps be for publishers and agents to move away from the misguided belief that ‘acronym writers’ do not sell books.

 

This post was brought to you by Nadine Matheson.