Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Are writing courses really worth the investment?

If you’ve ever gotten serious about the idea of making a living from your writing, you’ve probably also considered the option of taking one of the many writing courses that are available. Are they worth the investment of time and funds? You may feel you know all you need to about grammar and style after years of honing your craft. Friends and relatives may always be enthusiastic with their praise and compliments when they read your work. But the advice and support of a writing tutor who knows the business can prove invaluable when starting out on writing as a career.
Your writing tutor will be frank about any bad habits you may have slipped into without realising. They will assess your submissions in a supportive fashion, but you can be sure they’ll also be honest about the publication chances of any piece you send them. Their advice will help you develop your talent in its proper direction. But in my opinion this is secondary to the main benefits of investing in a writing course.
Writing for a living is a lonely business. And, if you’re new to it, it can also be very confusing and intimidating. Investing in a writing course plugs you into a community that will offer you advice and guidelines on all kinds of practical matters. It will suggest markets for your work and update these suggestions regularly. It will provide information on all kinds of areas you’ve probably never even considered; how to research publications, how to write outlines and submission letters, what legal terms like ‘copyright’ and ‘first British serial rights’ actually mean. Of course you could research these yourself but unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, you may well miss something important.
Personally I’ve found the investment in a writing course to be very well worth it. Each month I’ve received suggestions about new markets that I would have been unlikely to discover by myself. I’ve had work published as a result; not, as yet, for any great financial reward, but each success is enormously encouraging in itself. And complimentary comments from tutors and editors also fire my determination to continue doing something that I love.
I’m not writing this as an advertisement for any particular course, so I’m not naming any names. But I suggest that you investigate what’s available and choose a course that you think will be appropriate for you. Yes, you are paying for their help and support, but it really can prove invaluable as you set out on the path to becoming a successful freelance writer.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Writing the scenes you really don't want to write

I am supposed to be writing a ghost story. It isn’t a genre I’ve written in before, so it’s something of a challenge. I have a basic idea of where I want to go, but I am struggling, because this is something I shrink from putting down on paper. I just know my imagination will conjure this to terrify me in the middle of the night; I’ll wake, needing the bathroom, and I won’t dare leave my bed in case I encounter my own creation on the stairs.
This discomfort with my own creativity is something I’ve encountered before. Not often but it does happen. My stories grow from all kinds of sources; an idea for a character, a place, some overheard chat in a cafĂ©. Perhaps something will happen to me - nothing particularly tragic or exciting, just an everyday event – and then weeks later, I’ll realise it’s the basis for a tale. After that point it goes where it chooses. I know some writers work with detailed plans, but I’m sadly not that organised; my story picks its own path. And sometimes it takes me to places I’d rather avoid, and I find myself needing to write a scene that makes me uncomfortable.
Of course I inevitably stall at this point. Writer’s block can occur for many reasons, and I know I’m lucky that I don’t often run into a lack of ideas. Mostly it’s sheer laziness that interferes with progress; the effort of getting started can seem Herculean.  The frustrated writer staring at a blank page may be a clichĂ©, but that doesn’t make it less accurate. But when I’m faced with writing a scene that bothers me, for whatever reason, I will come up with any excuse to avoid it.
So I need to make myself ignore the idea of those night terrors and scribble my ghost down on paper. Once the story has germinated, I can’t pretend it isn’t there. I can leave it unwritten or unfinished for months, but I know it’s not going to go away. And hopefully, as has happened in the past, my sense of accomplishment at negotiating this obstacle will prove stronger than my discomfort. And chase away the ghost on my stairs.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mary Lovell and Ian Mortimer: when history writing 'rocks'

Historians need a scrupulous approach to research and the ability to muster a coherent argument. But if they want to produce one of those books that congregate in tempting, multi-coloured piles in Waterstones, they need to be more than historians; they need to be talented writers too, able to turn both the research and the argument into something lively and entertaining.
I confess I am addicted to the history pile in Waterstones. I visit it regularly, and I never come away with just one. Those three-for-two offers are just irresistible. So I have a lot of history books. But probably eighty percent of them languish, half-read, on my shelves, because the story-telling falls short and I lose interest.
Currently, though, I'm reading two that are superb. I’d like to share my enjoyment of them with you. I’d also like to look briefly at why I think these succeed where others fail. The books in question are ‘Bess of Hardwick, First Lady of Chatsworth’ by Mary S. Lovell http://www.lovellbiographies.com/ and 1415, Henry V’s Year of Glory’ by Ian Mortimer  http://www.ianmortimer.com/
Both authors have researched the driest of primary sources -  letters, account books and other financial records, court rolls, parliamentary proceedings, and so on – to ensure the bones of their stories are as sturdy as possible. But they have put flesh on those bones with fascinating insights into the central characters, creating heroes and villains who wouldn’t be out of place in a novel. Similarly they both bring the setting and the wider story to vivid life. They are written as history books, not fiction, and they both stand up to examination as such, but they have adopted many of the characteristics of a novel; interesting and/or sympathetic protagonists, an exciting plot-line, beautifully painted settings.
Will the Council at Constance ever be able to force the dastardly Pope John XXIII to stand down? What will happen to poor Jan Hus, languishing in his dungeon? Will the French see through Henry’s machinations before his preparations for war are complete? Even though I know the answers, it’s still like reading a thriller. And Bess of Hardwick ‘s story is a beautifully told domestic saga, set against a background of high drama, political intrigue and treason. Despite her fourth marriage to the Earl of Shrewsbury clearly being a love match, is it doomed to disaster by Shrewsbury’s stewardship of the captive Queen of Scots? I like Bess so much, I’m finding it  particularly painful to read about this part of her life.
So, please, buy these two books, or borrow them from your local library. You won’t be disappointed. This is how history should be written but very seldom is.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Is it really better to travel than to arrive?

Or is it actually better not to travel at all but to stay right where you are and just imagine your destination? Is it possible to be an armchair travel writer? Instead of writing about our actual experiences and impressions, we could write about what we think we might see or encounter. Most of us have somewhere we’ve always longed to visit. Or even several somewheres. My own list seems to get longer every year; I’ve managed to get to some of them – Stonehenge, the Acropolis, Rome, Petra – but I keep finding new ones to add. And sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the expectation, and I almost wish I’d stayed in my armchair.
I always imagined riding up to Petra on horseback in the very early morning, across dunes stained with the sunrise. I didn’t picture my companions specifically, but they were always convivial; possibly even poetic and romantic; a desert sheik who only existed between the pages of E.M. Hull’s classic novel, perhaps. We’d ride into a narrow and shadowy ravine, our horses’ hooves clattering on the stone. Then, after several minutes of growing anticipation, we’d emerge back into the sunlight to see the spectacular Treasury rearing up in front of us.
As it happened, Petra was a huge disappointment. I was too hot, too ill and too bad-tempered to appreciate it. My main concern was the whereabouts of the nearest loo, which naturally took any pleasure out of the experience. And I was taken aback to discover it wasn’t out in the wilderness but part of a busy tourist village that had mainly grown up on the back of people’s Petran expectations. The history was fascinating, but I was too grumpy to enjoy it. And the guides and hawkers were all unfailingly charming and hospitable, but I was too grumpy to appreciate them either. I still wish Petra had stayed the poetic rose-red city of my imagination.
So perhaps we can invent a new genre? Armchair travelling stories. Post me your imaginary journeys to the places you dream of visiting. Or tell me how the reality fell short of them. Perhaps even how it eclipsed them. When I visited Rome, it was nothing like the quiet, reverential shrine to long-dead Caesars that I’d pictured. But it entranced and enraptured me just the same. 
I look forward to hearing from you.

Friday, 4 February 2011

When Do I Have Time to Write?

“Leave me alone, I’m writing.”
 I imagine those are familiar words to many writers, especially if they have families, jobs, commitments. I know I’ve been heard to mutter them on numerous occasions, sometimes in exasperation, occasionally even despairingly. Fitting in time to write, around all the other expectations we have to fulfil, can be one of the hardest tasks we face, and we can find ourselves feeling selfish and inconsiderate if we insist on it. Or worn-out and frazzled because the only space we can find is at two o’clock in the morning and we really need more sleep than that if we’re to cope with everything else.
Read any ‘how-to’ writing guide, writing magazine, or the words of any successful writer, and they all tell us at some point that we need to write every day if we want to make any progress. Stephen King even goes so far as to say, ‘ If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.’ If we want to write journalistic pieces, we have to research our markets, research our topics, come up with new ideas. If we’ve embarked on a novel, we still need to know who we’re writing for and ensure our detail is accurate and convincing. And, as King says, the best way to develop your own writing style, is to study other people’s.
 For those who are fortunate enough to be able to write full-time, it’s still a demanding timetable. For those who are snatching any seconds they can from their busy schedules to scribble a few words here and there, well, all I can say is, ‘ I salute you.

You might also like to read what author Jody Hedlund has to say about writer's guilt