Creative writing courses – do they help?

The subtitle of this post is “do they help?” rather than “do they work?”. The latter subtitle suggests a process that will, by itself, reliably churn out successful creative writers. I haven’t seen one, and I’m not going to argue that they exist or are possible. But, as a consumer of creative writing education over the past six years, I’m going to argue that it can help immensely.
The topic is timely in Australia, because the new fee regimes for TAFE education mean that enrolling in a course is likely to cost a lot more than it once did, especially for mid-life changers like me who already have qualifications. What do you get for your money?”
Well, if you are one of those mid-life changers, or indeed anyone with skills in a job or hobby, ask yourself: what does it take for someone new to my area to become proficient? I suggest that the answer is going to include instruction, practice and feedback. And these in turn require discipline – to study, to put in the hard yards and to accept criticism.
A good creative writing course will give you all of these. There are other ways to get them, of course. You can read, practice alone or in a group, find a mentor, submit work for publication and take note of the feedback.The creative writing course is just one means to that end. But for many of us, it’s the most convenient,and the assessment system imposes a discipline. Sure, it’d be nice not to need the discipline to be impose externally, but most of us do.
On the downside, it’s back to school, with its fixed hours, rules for interaction, public criticism and those assessments. For some of us that’s going to be a turn-off. Many men, in particular, of my age, had experiences at school that they may not want to revisit. Personally, I didn’t enjoy most of my schooling, but my recent studies have felt like a second chance.
Do I need to say that enrolling in a course and earning the qualification won’t guarantee publication or production? Writing fiction is a tough game – think tennis, golf and acting. We don’t expect everyone who studies these disciplines to achieve their dreams, or even making a living from them. And that’s when we start talking about talent, previous experience, and the amount of work you’re prepared to do. IN my observation, the last of these is one least often blamed for failure but the most common reason. You can pass a course with WAY less than the 10,000 hours experience widely quoted as the benchmark for proficiency in a field. I’m not criticizing here – many of us struggle to find time for our writing in a life that includes family, friends, leisure – and a full-time job.
But enrolling in a course is a start…
At a personal level, my Professional Screenwriting and Professional Writing and Editing studies at RMIT in Melbourne have connected me with like-minded people who have become valued collaborators and good friends, and with the production and publishing industries. They’ve made me do things I wouldn’t have done if I’d designed my own learning program – and that stretching has been to my benefit. And my fellow students have given me examples of what to do and what not to.
Recently I’ve had some success with my novel, The Rosie Project and the associated screenplay. But if I had not, I would still have regarded my investment in creative writing as one of the best I’ve made.

Wrong! Disagreement and dysfunction

Commenting on a recent hard-fought byelection, The Age economics writer Tim Colebatch made a plea for some cooperation, observing , “in reality, most of us agree on most things.”

It’s a commonplace: that the things that unite us are stronger than the things that divide us. (Stay with me, I’m going to get practical shortly, but I want to tell a story first).

Four years ago, I facilitated the “Rural Industries and Communities” strand at the Australia 2020 Summit – one hundred leaders, activists and prominent “thinkers” in an area where there is substantial potential for conflict around development, conservation, the role of government, etc. Twenty working groups each presented one or two ideas to the plenary session, and, rather than invite discussion, I asked each participant to rate the idea on a scale of 1-5 (strongly disagree through strongly agree). At the end of the day, we analyzed the responses. As I recall, not one idea had more than 10 people disagreeing or strongly disagreeing – i.e. at least 90 of the 100 participants agreed or were at least neutral.  In most cases the support was higher.

BUT… the next morning, the session co-chair, former Nationals leader and Deputy PM Tim Fischer, invited discussion on the ideas in a “town hall meeting” format. There was passionate debate, and the distinct impression was that each of the topics was highly controversial and subject to substantial disagreement. It teased out the issues and problems all right, but you’d never have guessed the broad level of support.

It’s the nature of politics, the media and the legal system to emphasize disagreements. And in writing: as Syd Field says, without conflict there is no drama; without drama there is no story…

Which brings me to being practical. In all aspects of my work, I encounter disagreements. In facilitation, a disagreement is often the reason for the workshop or meeting. In my advanced consulting skills classes, most case studies brought by participants focus on a disagreement. Right now, I’m watching the (extended) correspondence between two data modeling experts on choice of conventions. And when my editor sends me “suggestions” she’s saying, implicitly, “I disagree with the way you’ve done this.”

Great. Debate teases out the issues. But most of us seem to be better at fueling disagreement than resolving it. There comes a point where we need to move forward and we are not so good at this. The debate goes on “beyond the tag”, progress is stymied, relationships are damaged, and the will to cooperate on implementation is sapped.

My advice is pretty basic and hardly original: Constantly remind yourselves of the things you agree on. Play them back. Write them down. Recognize that you will be working together to do these things going forward if you can get over the things you disagree on.

Yes, it’s simple, but not as simplistic as what one of my screenwriting teachers used to call, inelegantly, the ‘shit sandwich’: Say something positive, deliver the tough message, say something positive again. What I’m proposing is not about platitudes or formulas – it’s about genuinely recognizing the common ground. If I believe my editor genuinely loves the story and the main character, then I’ll be receptive to her suggestions as to how to make them stronger on the page. But if the suggestions come without the common starting point, then I’ll just see them as an attempt to impose her own vision.

Basic stuff? Maybe. But I make a living out of coming into situations where it hasn’t been done. Feel free to call it basic if you do it all the time. Otherwise it’s time to get the basics in place.

And, in contrast to the usual warning – DO try this at home.

What makes a good whatever?

Once again, issues from different aspects of my work highlighting a common theme:

1. Feedback from my editor on The Rosie Project novel.

2. Mike Sager’s post on data model quality – on which I commented – at

The common theme is: how do we measure the quality of a creative product? Bryan Lawson, who, you may notice, I reference often on design issues, states that “Design inevitably involves subjective value judgment.”

In data modeling my single most useful tool is a one-page list of “quality dimensions” (you’ll find them in the first chapter of Data Modeling Essentials) as a framework for discussion, especially when trying to decide which is the “better” or “best” among alternative designs.  The list helps us to break down the assessment into different dimensions and understand the tradeoff: this model is more flexible, but this will be easier to code against; this embodies more rules but this one is more stable in the face of change etc. The dimensions give us a language for argument and discussion.

In screenwriting, it might be “the scene is funnier this way but the joke works against the character arc or this approach tells us a lot about the character but makes the first act too long.”

The level of subjectivity varies from one dimension to another.  I see a continuum:

At one end is the “right or wrong” rule – things that are so widely agreed that any violation will need special pleading. In a book, grammar. In a genre screenplay, length. In a data model “will it work?”

Then there are the principles that will have wide, but not necessarily unanimous agreement, at least amongst the experts. Introduce your hero early. Don’t go “beyond the tag” in a scene. Don’t build unstable structures into the data model.

And at the other end are purely subjective choices. Should I call my character Lorraine or Claudia? (Even here, there will be principles we can apply – unusual names may be easier to remember, names carry connotations of origin, class, age – but within these there will be many choices). What should I name this entity? Ditto!

So the message: In whatever discipline you’re working, knowing the dimensions of quality, and the level of subjectivity in assessing them,  is a huge advantage, especially when reviewing, advising, editing, conciliating, arbitrating.





Writing Fast

My last post on planning proposed that if you get the plan right, you can write a draft very fast. How fast? Well, when I’m on a reasonable roll (that is to say I’m fired up but not clinically hypo-manic) I can churn out about 800 reasonably clean words of prose per hour. My partner Simone Sinna can do 1,000 and from what I’ve seen, Danny in my Novel class can do about 2,000 – I’m not sure I can even type that fast. I reckon my 800 is probably about average, and I do do a bit of reworking within that, I’m not just pouring it out. I’m actually trying to write as well as I can without straining at it.

Simple maths – I’m going to write an 80,000 word draft in 100 hours at that pace. Call it twelve big days of about 7,000 words a day. Can I really write for eight or nine  hours a day? And churn out a couple of 3,500-word chapters? Sure. And I can sustain it. Simone, who can be a little competitive as we sit opposite each other in the ‘no interruptions’ country shack can do 20,000 in two days. I’m guessing many writers can, with a bit of practice, if they’ve done the hard yards in the planning – see previous post – and recognise that there will be plenty of editing to come – see “Work in Progress” post.

Is this a sensible way to work? It is, at least for some. Simone wrote two novels at a page a day for a year, and prefers this way. First draft quality is much the same – what’s lost in reflection time is picked up in continuity and having her head in the space. Oddly, it’s sometimes easier to find big blocks of time (cancel that day out or that weekend away) than to consistently find an hour a day.

The huge payoff is the psychological return on getting the damn thing drafted. After that, it’s only re-writing. Or editing…


Why aren’t you writing?

In the spirit of drawing together different aspects of my life, the title of this post was inspired by a well-known characterization of a (bad) approach to information systems design – “Why isn’t somebody coding?” I’m going to argue that the advice given to writers to write every day is similarly misconceived. More practically, I want to offer some thoughts on the problem of getting a novel written.

In my last post I wrote about re-writing, or improving a design, be it a database or a screenplay – or a novel. Re-working and improving is almost always easier than the initial job of covering the blank page. Since February, I’ve been enrolled in an introductory novel-writing class, a class full of people struggling to get that first novel drafted. But show them a few thousand words of someone else’s work and they can almost always get to work improving it. Productively. At any time of day and without a drink or a preliminary yoga session. I’ve never heard of editors’ block.

The challenge is getting that first draft done. Once you’ve done it you can re-work it, get feedback from others, send it to an editor, send it to a publisher… And you’ll be over a huge psychological barrier, especially if it’s your first book. I speak from experience.

Now that I have a little bit of cred – a prize and a publishing contract – I want to share the single most important thing I know about getting a first draft written: WRITE A PLAN. (And creating that plan will require effort. And time – probably more time than drafting the novel. Yep.)
OK, some people (claim to) write without a plan. And they may (implicitly or explicitly) recommend that course to others. (Three caveats: it’s sexier to say you write without a plan; some people who say they don’t have plans just don’t have written plans; and you may want to confirm that the expert’s ‘let it flow’ technique is actually working for them.)

Best-selling author Tess Gerristen, speaking in Melbourne a little while ago, said she just goes where her characters take her (on the same panel Lynda La Plante swore by having a plan). Ms Gerristen, if you’re reading this, read no further. Likewise if you work that way, and it’s working for you, get back to writing. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. But if you’re struggling, if you’re re-writing that first chapter over and over, if you don’t think you’ll have it finished in the next year, if you sit down and the words don’t come, AND you don’t have a written, chapter by chapter plan, it’s time to try making a plan. And try it before you mess around with “unblocking” and creativity techniques.

My partner (erotic fiction writer Simone Sinna) and I never start a novel until we have a chapter-by-chapter outline. My outline for The Candle’s thirty-one chapters was 1500 words. (The outline for our joint project – Walk to the Stars, nineteen chapters, is 5000 words.)
Fifty words per chapter for The Candle was not much, but it told me essentially what happened in each chapter. I also had character profiles and a timeline. I had a STORY. And I talked that story through, discussed it with “Simone”, with friends and with a member of my writers’ group, until it was clear in my head. I was comfortable with the logic, the character arcs, the turning points. I knew what the dramatic questions were and how they would be resolved. And in thinking and talking it through, I had a lot of ideas for fleshing it out, most of which were not on paper.

It took me four and a half months – elapsed – to finalise that 1500-word outline for The Candle. There was a lot of thinking involved. And gaps while ideas germinated. But I didn’t have to think about language, style, dialogue – just the story. And I didn’t have to write much at all.
Because I DID want to think about style, and write (!) I wrote a short story, Savoir Faire, using the characters. With a story and style settled and some encouraging feedback (Highly Commended in the Stringybark Short-Story award and published in the collection The Road Home), I was ready to write.

And it was so (relatively) easy, because I knew where I was going. It took me seventeen days to write the draft, most of it on three intense weekends. (And I worked and studied and had a life too). You can write fast when you know where you’re going. I changed chapter breaks, I changed the ending, but I got it done. And it was a creative process. A fifty or two hundred and fifty word outline is not restrictive at all. The result was a first draft. Hemingway famously said that the first draft of anything is shit, but this one was the basis of a publishable novel. Indeed my publisher (Text) was happy enough with the synopsis (easy to write when you’ve drafted the whole book) and the first chapters, after a couple of weeks of my reworking, to give me a contract.

On the other hand…
Several of my fellow students write faster – way faster – than I do. And, dare I say, better. Give them something to write about, and they cover a page in short order. And that’s the issue, I think. Having something to write about. In class, the teacher is giving you that. In real life, when you want your work to have cohesion, that’s what the outline gives you.

So, The Candle took 130 days planning, 17 days writing the first draft, with maybe 18 months elapsed of re-writing and editing to come as I work on other projects. Not quite the proportions you were expecting? Similar relativities for The Rosie Project. Four years planning (see previous post), nineteen days writing the first draft, thirty days re-writing to get to the manuscript that won the Premier’s award, a few months with my editor at Text as we head for publication in March 2013. Partner Simone Sinna drafted Exclusive, her latest novel (Siren Bookstrand), in three weeks.

So why don’t people do outlines, or not do them seriously? It may be because they discount the importance of story. My screenwriting studies, if anything, over-emphasised story and structure at the expense of learning to write good scenes. But perhaps this was wise. Most students could write – and fix – scenes. The big picture, structure, was the challenge. Or maybe there’s a (to my mind snobbish) view that story is unimportant, that the reader will keep turning the page just to enjoy the beauty of the prose. Sure, but why not fit it into a story? Especially if you’d like the rude public to read it.

Maybe planning is too hard. In programming, we grew out of WISC – Why Isn’t Somebody Coding? – decades ago, and learned the importance of planning. Almost all designers think and plan, typically top down, before they build. But the oft-given advice to writers to write every day at the same time etc etc may pull us away from planning. I don’t write every day. I don’t write MOST days. But the days that I do write, I write with purpose and energy, because I know where I’m going. I’ve done the planning and that’s writing work too.