Wednesday, November 18, 2009

In defence of writing courses

Last week I finished RMIT's Professional Writing and Editing diploma. I did it full time for two years in 2007 and 2008, and part time for 2009. During this time I worked on six novels, finished one and plan to finish three of the other five; many short stories; countless essays and articles; been paid to freelance; had many reviews published; expanded my reading comfort zones in many directions; interned with a publishing house; worked in publishing for two years come February; and got an agent. I also Found My Niche, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. Oh, and I started this blog. I also inspired my mother, who also loves to write, to sign up for a similar course, and I take credit for my father beginning to write a sci-fi novel. Now if only he'd finish it. (Of course, to their faces I hollered "Get out of my goddamn niche! Find your own hobby!" Terrible, ungrateful child that I am.)

My writing credits before I started the course were a lot of academic essays and reports, a failed Mills & Boon, several abortive attempts at novels, a handful of short stories and some fan-fiction, lost out there on the great swamp of words that is the internet, never to surface again. I hope. I was also a waitress and depressed at the idea that an Honours in Psychology would lead me to a life working with stroke and car-crash victims. As an undergrad, behavioural neuropsych sounded fabulous, until last semester rolled around and Reality Set In. What? You mean I won't be sitting in a cozy lecture theatre forever more? I'll be in a clinic? No thank you!

If I hadn't completed this course, I wouldn't be here today. I don't mean I'd be dead. I mean writing this blog. I also wouldn't have the job I do and I seriously doubt I'd have an agent.

My writing before I started this course? Pretty atrocious. I could string sentences together and write an interesting scene or two, but I had no idea how to revise or edit or plot, or the million other little things that are important when writing novel-length fiction. I had this weird idea that once I'd written something down it was as good as set in stone; that if it didn't come out brilliant the first time, it was always going to be rubbish.

But worst of all, I was afraid. Afraid of people reading my work. Afraid of anyone even knowing I was writing. A key part of the course, especially the novel writing subjects, is work-shopping: reading out your thousand words or so to the twenty other people in class and then having them critique it. On paper and out loud. The first time I work-shopped I was a wreck. Even the act itself was an eye-opener: passages that seemed like Shakespeare only the night before turned to drivel before my eyes as I read them aloud. The pages came back with adverbs circled, clumsy metaphors questioned, passages dotted with question marks and tactful "I can see what you're trying for here, but..."

I went home and I rewrote. And I came back to class a few weeks later with something about a million times better. By the end of the year I had twenty thousand words of a novel that had petered out into nothing, but they were good words and I was proud of them. I still remember fondly the day I made everyone fall about with laughter at something I'd written. It was the first time that had happened, and it's just the best feeling.

Now, after three years of critiquing and being critiqued, I am well on my way to what I believe is the Holy Grail of writing: being able to put into words exactly what I set out to say. This is my litmus test when I write: is this what I intended? Is this how things look and feel when I see them in my head? I'm still working on this skill and sometimes my characters go off and do things seemingly of their own accord--but when they do this I'm pleased to find that they are right and I am wrong; they sound pissed off because they are pissed off, and not ready to get on that horse or go to sleep or forgive their best friend thankyouverymuch.

Along with critiquing my own work I got to critique others. This is an invaluable experience. When you read novels you're reading the end product of years of work. Mistakes and inconsistencies (hopefully) have been ironed out, and there's only so much you can learn from them. Being able to pin-point why something isn't working is invaluable, and is best learned by reading other people's unpolished work. It also teaches you tact and respect, and how much work the unsung heroes of the writing world--editors--actually do.

There were all sorts of other skills, contacts and opportunities I gleaned during my years at RMIT, but these are the most important. Especially losing my fear. It was worth it just for that.

But then there are the cons. I learned so much from the lovely people in my course, but not all of them were as lovely as I could have hoped. Some were pretentious. Some were loud. And some were downright crazy. You can't choose who is in your class, and you're stuck with them for a whole year. Worst of all, the pretentious, loud, crazy people give advice along with the forthright, calm, sane ones. Sometimes they can be very persuasive. They can get into your head and make a mess of all the good things you've learned. And they're not immediately identifiable, these insidious creatures. But one way to spot them is to ask their opinion of one or two of your favourite writers, especially if you model yourself on them, and see how they react. If they spout a whole lot of crazy, feel free to politely ignore their advice for the rest of the year. Also, even your non-crazy classmates won't get what you're writing if they're not familiar with the genre. Weed them out too. This last year in Writing for Young Adults, the critiquers I trusted were reduced to about three individuals as everyone else read contemporary realism. The class was free of pretentious crazies, however, and everyone was loads of fun, which leads me to believe that people who write for children are far more palatable than those who don't.

In addition to the crazies, watch out for complacency. Once you're in a writing course it's easy to feel like the pressure's off: just being in class is enough. Your masterpiece will practically write itself. When I actually started to write everyday like I was supposed to, I realised how lazy I had been until then. Lazy and complacent.

Stephen King has a dig at writing courses in On Writing, especially at the crappy advice that comes out of work-shopping and the complacency they cause. But that's really a case of User Beware: if you're on your guard, you'll be impenetrable to bad advice. King didn't have a nice thing to say about these courses, which was a shame. I hope I've persuaded you otherwise if you were of a similar mind.

One more thing: In Australia we have creative writing courses at university and at TAFE. TAFE is perceived as the blue-collar, cheaper, inferior version of university, but don't be too swift to judge. TAFE is ideal for learning a trade, and writing is a trade.


  1. Excellent post. I find my critique group to be invaluable. We mostly do developmental critique, so after the first draft, I'm on my own. Now on my fourth edit, I'm toying with the idea of reading them the finished product--if I ever consider it finished. Your agent has a stunning reputation. I met her at the Pacific Northwest Writer's Assoc Conference. You could not do better. How exciting. Congrats.

  2. Thanks Melanie! I'm sure your group would oblige you by reading the final product. Are you nearly ready to begin querying?

  3. Congratulations on finishing your Diploma Rhiannon.

    I agree that fear of failure, and your work not appreciated or respected is a writers' greatest enemy.

    The second enemy is lack of focus, or in your case (as well as mine) finding a genre you fit into. I am still in that stage kind of, because I love the Horror, Dark/High Fantasy and Superhero genre equally, and don't want to have to choose!

    I have also gone back and read past stories only to cringe as well, but I believe that is a positive thing because it means you are learning from your mistakes and becoming a better writer.

  4. Totally agree with your last comment Rhiannon - I know I've said it a thousand times, but I wish I hadn't had University tunnel vision when it came time to apply for a writing course. From everything I've since heard, the RMIT Tafe course you did sounds infinitely better than the identically-named Deakin uni course I did...TAFE is not just for hairdressing apprenticeships!

  5. I totally had uni tunnel vision too, Nick! We just had something to prove, I think, coming from a school where uni attendance was so low.

    Gabriel, you don't have to choose--write them all, one after another ;) My plans go something like fantasy, urban fantasy, then sci-fi.

  6. I hope to start the query process by the end of December (if I don't chicken out). The worst part is trying to decide my genre. It is difficult to pigeonhole creativity.

  7. For some reason I think there is a lot of misplaced snobbery surrounding writing courses - there's a view, maybe, that you should just "know" how to write, and shouldn't have to be taught? But getting over that fear of writing is such a valuable skill; I finally completed my WIP this year, but I'm STILL a bit shy about telling people it's done.

    I did a couple of creative writing classes at uni, and can definitely sympathise with having to put up with the pretentious loudmouths in class. Blech.

  8. This is an awesome post - you're making me feel like I should go out and sign up for a writing course right now. I've actually never taken a writing class in my life. Which is weird, because I love to write.

  9. You sound a lot like me when I was going through my writing courses. What I learned was invaluable and it's the reason I edit and review the way I do know. But like you said, you need to weed out the bad advice from the applicable stuff. My professor HATED genre fiction. Hated it (he really wasn't pretentious, though, and he's actually very cool). So I stuff to his technical advice which, again, was invaluable. I'm lucky he was so laid back. Once you get into Master's level writing, you have professors that'll beat the genre out of you if you even attempt to bring it into their classrooms. Again, they offer great technical advice but if you write genre, you need something to fall back on, like critique groups.

    But those can be just as detrimental to your writing as they can be helpful. If you surrounded by people that just pander or tear apart things without any kind of basis for the judgment, they're not going to help you. Your best bet is to take a writing class at a local community college or equivalent and learn the basics. Once you have those down, you'll have a better understanding of what works and what doesn't with your own writing and you'll be able to function better in critique groups and you'll be able to judge whether they're more helpful or harmful to you better.

    But I highly recommend writing classes. I can tell you right now I wouldn't be the writer that I am without them. I'm just lazy! At least I admit it. It's the first step to recovery.

  10. Hi Rhiannon!

    I know it's not likely on your radar at the moment, but will you please finish the book you first workshopped in YA - with the high school girls who do ballet? I loved that one!


  11. Wow. Now I wish I was in Australia instead of California, where creative writing classes are few and far between -- unless you're interested in screenwriting. We got loads of those here.

    I guess I haven't looked hard enough, but I will say that this post gave me some insight into what I ought to look for. It also brought back memories of my time in college when I did take multiple writing courses. Some were all about fiction and subjectivity and fun... and others were about exploring the darker parts of ourselves and translating it onto paper for some kind of literary high-brow consumption. It stretched my writing muscle, I'll tell you that.