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Can anyone write?

creative-writingIt’s an odd thing. When I mention at a party, or some other gathering, that I occasionally teach creative writing courses, people quite often put a sceptical smile on their faces and ask me whether creative writing can really be taught. Now, I’ve never heard anyone ask whether science can be taught, or dancing, or yoga, or French.

Of course creative writing can be taught. What can’t be guaranteed is that someone enrolling in a creative writing course will become a successful novelist, poet or playwright. Just as taking science or French at school, or even at university, doesn’t mean you are going to become a nuclear physicist or a translator at the UN. As far as I know nobody in my weekly yoga class is aspiring to becoming a Hatha guru. And even though Anne Widdecombe was (eventually) able to master a few dance moves in Strictly, nobody seemed to expect her (or indeed any of the other contestants) to be the next Flavia Cacace.

So what is it that makes people treat creative writing differently? There seem to be two somewhat contradictory attitudes. First is the commonly held belief that almost anyone could write if they only put their mind to it. Several writers I know have complained of people who say things like ‘I’d write a novel if I had the time.’ The second is that the ability to write is somehow innate and no amount of classes or lectures is going to make any difference.

There may be an element of truth in both these positions. It’s a difficult one to prove either way. But I feel that if someone is drawn towards creativity, (just as some people prefer Maths to English,) that interest/talent should be nurtured. It would be a poor art teacher who, finding a child able to represent a 3D figure instead of a stick picture, just said, ‘oh there you go, you obviously know how to do it,’ and then leave them to their own devices. That cavalier approach might work for the child prodigy, but most of us would expect any self respecting teacher to give some advice on form, style, appropriate media etc.

As far as I can see it is pretty much the same with creative writing. Yes, some people may have more natural ability than others, but that doesn’t mean they can’t benefit from some understanding of how to handle story structure, characterisation, tension, imagery etc. Some writers, especially the ones who are also prolific and analytical readers, may glean these skills from other people’s books. But for others a creative writing course, or a good ‘how to’ book would at the very least save some potentially time wasting trial and error, and perhaps some disappointment too. Not everyone is going to win an Oscar for best screenplay, but in my view a few handy building blocks and a bit of helpful advice never goes amiss in any venture.

Five tell-tale signs of a novice novelist

Kindle and its friends have opened up new opportunities for writers. No longer do wannabe novelists (or any kind of novelists come to that) have to go through the frustrating rigours of trying to find an agent and publisher. Nor do they have to expose themselves to the resultant weeks of silence, or to the eventual soul destroying rejection slips sent out by the brutal, clearly blind-to talent, self appointed guardians of the ‘real’ publishing world! No, they can bypass all that nonsense and within a few days of completing their manuscript they can pop it up on-line and it can be available for sale to the world’s readers. 

But there is a catch. The world’s readers may not be quite as picky or fussy as agents and publishers but they are still going to be quite picky and fussy. In the good old days publishers were prepared to work with authors to polish their books to a ‘professional’ standard. But times have changed, and all authors, especially self published authors, now have to do the polishing themselves or find a good editor to do it for them. Readers don’t particularly care how a novel is published but they will care if it fails to live up to their expectation of what a ‘good’ novel should be (even if they can’t quite pin down why). 

Here are five of the tell-tale signs of an ‘un-polished’ novel by a novice novelist. 

1. Lack of Story Structure – (different from plot, a good story structure provides a sense of pace and progression that makes a story really work.)

2. Insufficiently rounded characters – (novice writers tend to make their characters too good or too bad. Nobody likes a goody-goody, and baddies become less sinister if they are just caricatures of evil.)

3. Muddled Point of View – (it’s hard for the reader to engage with a character if the writer allows the viewpoint to jump from one character to another every other sentence.)

4. Dialogue being used for exposition – (when characters start telling each other back-story or other things they both already know the reader starts yawning.)

5. Too many typos, grammatical errors, and continuity mistakes. (Some will creep in inevitably, but allowing too many gives a bad impression.) 

Lots of the self-published novels on Kindle are great, virtually indistinguishable from ‘traditionally’ published novels. But many of the others carry at least some of those tell-tale signs of a novice writer (and lack of editor). That’s not to say they are not enjoyable. But I would suggest that writers should try to iron out at least some of the issues above before either approaching an agent, or publishing their own work. In the competitive market in which we now find ourselves, the more professional a writer seems, the better chance they will have of achieving the acclaim and readership they deserve.

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