Such creatures
All sorts of things from all sorts of places

Courses for horses

Over on the always-interesting Strictly Writing blog, crime writer Helen Black has been discussing writing courses. I'll leave her to tell her story – I'll just say that only course she tried wasn't right for her at all. Many of the commenters agree: why not just write? Another describes herself as a serial course-doer, and wonders about it. And it got me thinking about writing courses, because on the one hand I've heard worrying things from aspiring writers about what their writing teacher said they must 'never', or 'always', do. And agents beef about the shortcomings of the MA novel, and I know one or two aspiring writers for whom the experience was really damaging. But, on the other hand, the first novel I wouldn't be ashamed to show you was written after I came home from my first-ever course, and The Mathematics of Love was the product of my second. I teach them too; most lately, I'm very pleased to have been taken on as an Associate Lecturer with the Open University. But this isn't about why you should take a course. I don't think they're right for everyone, and I really, really don't think they're right for ever stage of your development as a writer.

So what's going on when a writer decides to do a course? And why is it sometimes life-changing, sometimes a dead end, and sometimes positively damaging? I think the first thing is to decide why you want to do one.

To overcome the terror of the blank page: you want to write, but you've no idea where to start.

To make sure you write every week.

To meet other people who suffer from this OCD called writing.

To find out if you could become a writer.

To find out which kind of writer you are.

To give you technique to write what you already want to write, only better.

To help you go beyond your current limits.

To make your novel better.

To make your writing better.

To polish up the last bits before you send the novel out. Really. Yes, this time you will.

To support you while you write the novel you already want to write.

To re-find the joy you once had in writing, till you started trying to get published.

To push your writing from 13 to 14 of Slushkiller's rejection list.

To get published.

To get published and make some money.

To become an author.

To give you technique to sustain your writing, because up till now you've been operating on instinct, and now that novel's out with agents, and you realise how much you don't know/can't do with writing.

To discover how on earth you write the second novel so it's just the same and also completely different.

To give you technique to sustain your writing, because up till now you've been operating on instinct, but your publishers want your second novel in six months' time. And your third in eighteen months.

So which reason is yours? Of course, just about any of those reasons could, if it suited you better, be fulfilled by a how-to book, a writers' circle in the flesh or online, a forum, an editorial report, a mentor, a really helpful and editorially-minded agent or even an editor. I would certainly suggest that it's worth thinking about what kind of person you are – how you like learning – in other contexts. Though if you're anything like me, one of the defining features of your writerly nature is that it's nothing like the rest of your character. So I'm not going to tell you whether you should or shouldn't do a course. I'll just say three things. One, there is very little correlation between crude publishing 'success' and whether a writer is a good teacher (I know someone who nearly pulled out of a course because the teacher's fiction had some duff reviews on Amazon – well haven't we all!), but I do think you should be being taught by a published writer. Two, thanks to theschizophrenic nature of what we do, be prepared to accept, adapt, ignore, while recognising that the aspect of the course which makes you most uncomfortable and/or resistant may be the thing you most need to do. You need to be simultaneously arrogant and humble, because teacher doesn't always know best, but neither do you. And, three, don't be shy about trying to find out more about the course – down to what kind of things the class will be about, who will be in it, and who's teaching it. There's nothing worse than being in a class of Sunday writers when you're driving towards your second publishing contract, except being in a class which is obsessing about how to attract an agent's attention when what you want is what a writing-teacher friend calls 'yoga for writers'. To change the metaphor, you have to know what kind of horse you are, before you can find the right course. Apologies for not doing proper links and italics and things - Typepad's having one of those days: Strictly Writing: Open University Creative Writing: