Creative Writing Distance Learning: Is it right for you?

OK, so this is your problem: You want to write but you have a life / a job / two small children / a needy cat / are currently stranded on a small iceberg off the Isles of Spitzbergen. So what do you do?

Here are some options and some suggestions.

1. Remember that writing is never likely to be a career for you.
Although writing can make for a career – I have quite a nice one, thank you – new writers do need to realise that the odds against making a financial success of their new ‘career’ are alarmingly high. Most people who start a novel don’t finish it. Of those that do, maybe only in 1000 find an agent. Of those who find an agent, no more than 1 in 2 will find a publisher. Of those who find publishers, many will find that their advances are low or their careers short.

We are not saying any of that to put you off. On the contrary: we love writing and, money aside, it’s one of the absolute best things you can do with your life. Just . . . don’t forget to make sensible financial arrangements while you’re thinking about your writing. Get a job that you can combine with writing. Find a nice millionaire(ss) to marry while the going’s good. Oh, and you probably want to get yourself off that Spitzbergian iceberg soonish.

Any good writing courses around here?

2. Remember that you don’t have to do any form of distance learning at all.
I wrote my first book while I was at home looking after my wife who was at that point very sick. I didn’t take a course. I didn’t read any how to books. I just got on with it.

Now, to be sure, I had many of the attributes needed to make this approach work. I had always wanted to be a writer. I’d always read a lot. I was willing to work damn hard. And I had a damn good idea for that first book.

If those things are, give or take, true of you too, then you can do as I did. You may go screechingly off-track at some point, but if you do, that’s no great cause to worry. You can either right yourself through your own effort, or you can come to an outfit like ours for top-notch editorial guidance. Either way, you don’t have to take any kind of writing course upfront.

3. Publishers and agents don’t give a damn about your credentials.
This may be obvious, but publishers don’t give a damn about how many MAs you do, or what your creative writing teachers say about your work. They care about one thing and one thing only: have you written an awesome and saleable piece of work? If the answer to that is yes, it truy doesn’t matter if you’ve just graduated magna cum laude from the University of Spitzbergen or if you’re arc-welding in a Coventry steelyard. Indeed, of the two options, they’d prefer the latter.

(Oh, and by the way, your friends will think the same way. If you pass a course, well, that’s great for you – but people graduate from courses all the time. If you actually get a book deal, your friends and family will be blown away. You’ll be, in a small way, a celebrity, and quite right too!)

I’ll fix this metaphor if it kills me . . .

4. Be careful about that “creative writing” moniker.
What are you really after? Do you want to express yourself in novel, interesting, challenging & experimental ways? Or do you want a book deal from a top publisher . . . and then another, and then another?

Those two ambitions are not equivalent. There is nothing wrong, artistically speaking, with wanting to push the boundaries of art. You may genuinely be more fulfilled writing poems and short stories and exotically-structured novellas than by bashing out more commercial pieces of work . . . but (give or take the occasional real genius) those things are not going to be picked up by regular publishers. You won’t make money. Yes, there is a circuit of poetry-readings and literary slams and that kind of thing, but that’s quite different from having the kind of career that successful novelists can have.

It’s my strong personal view that nearly all budding writers are better off writing for the market. I don’t mean you should write work that you aren’t passionate about – but the literary market is very broad and very varied, and you should simply find somewhere in its hills and dales where you are happy to set up shop. If you agree with me, then be very careful about any kind of distance learning course which is creatively led rather than publisher-led. Are your tutors people with successful multi-book deals behind them? And are those book deals from major publishers, or folk you’ve never heard of? If you find that your prospective tutor has written various collections of verse, a few anthologised short stories and an experimental piece commissioned by York Cathedral . . . well, that’s all fine, but that does tell you something meaningful about the emphasis of your course.

5. Start writing! Stop reading this damn blog post and start writing your novel!
I mean it. The single best way to learn about writing a novel is to start writing the damn thing.

Yes, of course, you’ll cock up horrendously. My first novel was 180,000 words long and, when I got to the end of it, I realised that I’d grown a lot better as a writer in the course of writing. In fact, I reckoned the first third of the novel just wasn’t up to the necessary standard. So I deleted the lot and rewrote it. And yes, perhaps if I’d taken a course upfront, I’d have got better faster. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I would have done . . . and my second novel – which was a car-crash – would never have been as bad as it was.

But still. The best training for running is running. The best training for writing is writing. There is nothing at all which will help you learn better than simply sketching out a novel and getting stuck in. (Key resources: my book on How To Write ain’t too bad, and if you sign up to our mailing list you can download our really useful short guide on How to write a novel.)

My second novel.

6. Think about short courses in preference to more committing ones.
If you’re reading this post, then you are probably already 90% decided to take a course of some sort. In which case great, but start gently! It’s much better to do something part-time and relatively short-term to get a feel for what’s involved. If you absolutely love the experience and really, really want to do a longer course, then you can – but with much less risk of wasting your time and money on something that isn’t really right for you.

We run some absolutely excellent shorter distance learning courses that will nevertheless give you a really strong grounding in the discipline. The main courses that may be of interest to you are:

  • Creative writing flying start. Short, cheap, and not at all scary. This is a real first toe-in-the-water type course.
  • How to write a novel (6 week course). A terrific, simple introduction to the task in hand.
  • How to write a novel (10 week course). The same thing but longer, and more immersive. Obviously, because it’s us running these things, you can be certain that you’ll be learning to write the kind of novels that pubishers actually want to buy – and your tutor will have an impressive publication record of their own.
  • The complete novel writing course. This is really impressive: it’s basically one-to-one mentoring with a guy who was shortlisted for the Guardian Best First Novel and was outright winner of the Nestle Prize. You won’t find anything of this quality at anything like this price elsewhere.

Those courses are ranked in order of increasing commitment / cost / seriousness, but they’re all excellent and all get superb feedback from our students. You can’t really go wrong!

7. If you want to go for the full MA, then do your research properly first
Some options that we can wholeheartedly recommend include:

  • The various UEA creative writing courses. UEA is, no question, not aiming at commercial success. It’s artistically-led all the way, and though their alumni include many well-known names, you will want to be sure that the art-first approach is right for you.
  • The Open University. A terrific set of courses that probably set the standard for distance learning in the UK . . . as long as you’re up for a relatively long commitment and relatively dear prices.
  • The University of Lancaster, perhaps surprisingly, offers some good distance learning options. Worth investigating and better than you might think!
  • City University, London. A thoroughly modern and publisher-led approach. We like the commercialism of these courses. It’s not really about creative writing but about building published novelists – that is, if you want our biased opinion, a much better approach.

8. If you want to meet industry types, you don’t need to do that via a creative writing course
It can be very helpful if budding writers meet agents and publishers and start to get a feel for how those good folks see the world. Good creative writing courses will find ways to put writers together with agents & editors . . . and though that’s harder where true distance learning is concerned it’s still not impossible.

But don’t forget that meeting industry types is easy enough and doesn’t have to be done via a formal course. Our own events calendar is full of opportunities to meet and interact with agents. Not just that, but if you happen to have a saleable manuscript in your back pocket, you may even walk away with an offer of representation. It happens quite a lot, y’know.
Those are my thoughts on these subjects – but what about you? What are your aims, what have you tried, what would you recommend to others?

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