Pay as you go
First published Mslexia Summer 2015
A while ago an author of my acquaintance told me a story. Her books sit healthily in the middle of the commercial fiction market and sell enough to sustain a living as a full-time novelist. But that upsets some with literary aspirations: ‘A friend has a brother-in-law who has always been a bit sniffy with me about the fact that I make a living as a writer,’ she says wearily. ‘A while ago, the friend said, “You’ll never guess: James is teaching a university creative writing course.” “Gosh,” I replied. “Has he had something published when I wasn’t looking?” “No,” she told me. “But he did the course last year and got the highest mark they’d ever awarded.”’
It’s a salutary lesson about the way that creative writing courses have mushroomed over the past 10 years without much effort, and it seems, much regulation about who teaches on them. With fees of £6,000 a year and more, it’s easy to see the appeal to cash strapped English departments under pressure to deliver student numbers – and successes – to university funding bodies. Especially, there is no shortage of aspiring authors: pollster YouGov found that 60 per cent of us regard ‘author’ as our dream job – regardless of whether we write or read.
A quick Google search for ‘Creative Writing Courses UK’ gives some indication of demand for courses: over 11 million results were returned. So, with margins squeezed by Amazon, it should not come as a surprise that book publishers and agents have moved into a market first exploited by the Guardian 10 years ago. Over the past eight years, Faber, Bloomsbury, Penguin Random House, Curtis Brown and The Literary Consultancy have entered the market.
Anna Davis, who in 2011 founded Curtis Brown Creative the educational wing of the literary agency, is adamant that the move by book trade professionals into teaching is not all about the money. ‘I taught on what was then the Manchester University Novel Writing MA,’ she explains. ‘I really enjoyed that experience, but felt frustrated with teaching creative writing in a university context.’ Davis is not disparaging about academic courses – ‘there is some extraordinary good courses’ she concedes – but she wanted to create something more practical, with a goal of getting published on offer to students. For Davis, Curtis Brown Creative is about creating flow: of more talent into the agency and of skills from its agents and clients into the hands of untutored promising writers.
Of course, the money involved is considerable: the highest priced courses charge as much as a university but without a qualification at the end. Faber launched its Academy led by Richard Skinner in 2008, its flagship six month long novel writing course costs £4,000 – turning over £100,000 for one course alone if every place is filled. And they usually are: in fact the course has been so successful that Skinner has been joined by Joanna Briscoe, and intake expanded to 27 students, all of whom go through an application process as rigorous as that for a university. According to Ian Ellard, who heads the Academy, the course is over-subscribed – no doubt helped by a track record that includes S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, Laline Powell’s Bailey’s shortlisted The Bees and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
Spurred on by this success, the Academy has expanded its London-based courses to 16, ranging from one-day courses on starting out or finding your genre through one week short story courses and 12 week poetry courses. The longest is the novel course. Day courses are usually £100 each, with longer courses, such as Anthony McGowan’s writing for children course priced at £1,000. The Academy has also moved online with six courses, cheaper in price (£1,400 will buy you 28 weeks to get your first 15,000 words written), and again limited in student numbers – 30 on the Writing A Novel: the first 15,000 words.
Of course for money-spinning the pioneer of non-academic courses is the Guardian. Its Masterclasses, of which creative writing is just one strand, have become a significant income generator for the newspaper – though I could find no breakout figures in its financial results. Here I should declare an interest: I teach a pitching your book workshop for the series and am a ‘curator’ – a fancy word for programmer – on the creative writing side. These courses are not cheap: though £49 will buy a three-hour evening workshop, if it sells out, you’ll be with 100 others; £129 lets you sit with 300 rivals to find out how to write a bestseller from Sebastian Faulkes and Matt Haig. One day and two day workshops are more intimate, but at a price – £249 for a one day workshop with a maximum capacity of 18; £449 for a two day workshop (max capacity 16). Longer courses, provided in collaboration with University of East Anglia, have a price tag that reflects the time: £4,000 for six months, £7,000 for nine-months for 12 students. As with Faber’s longer courses, you must apply for a place, but at completion you walk away with a certificate from the UEA.
With turnover from a one-day course approaching £5,000, it is easy to see the attraction to publishers and literary agents. Fixed cost (building etc) are high for companies, if they can rent out the space at weekends, they are making a difference to their central overheads. In the past couple of years Bloomsbury has started to offer workshops at £149 a pop under its Writers & Artists Yearbook brand. Random House has launched the Writers Academy, which offers face-to-face courses (an early bird ticket for the intermediate creative writing course – with a ‘Penguin Random House Editor’ will save you £250 on the £1,500 full price) – and online courses (fees for which are just shy of £500). TLC – the Literary Consultancy editorial agency – has also offered courses (Your Novel Inside out is priced at £405 for three sessions). Catherine Johnson’s three month Writing for Children, offered online through Curtis Brown Creative will set you back £1,600 as one of 15 students.
Faber’s Ian Ellard baulks at the suggestion that these are money-spinners. ‘We justify the fee in part by making them brilliant,’ he says. By this he means that course administrators and tutors take seriously feedback, especially about value for money, and by being ‘very upfront’ about what the money buys. Regarding the value to Faber’s bottom line, he challenges cynics and adds: ‘It is a reasonable revenue stream that washes its face, but the money we make goes towards advances and so on, so we see it as a virtuous circle.’
At Curtis Brown, Anna Davis says courses are expensive to run and it would hard to price them for less. ‘We have massive overheads, among which is my salary and the cost of tutors, plus we pay our interns. We also have an expensive website and the costs of the course include 20 per cent VAT,’ she adds. ‘I honestly don’t think we could run them for less.’
Many in the literary world are less convinced about the booming creative writing educational sector. In fact the rapid growth of the sector has raised alarm bells in some quarters – though no one will go on the record with their criticism such is the understanding that they provide a vital living for midlist writers whose incomes have plummeted in recent years. ‘I might have to go back to it one day,’ one famous name mutters when I ask if I could name her.
But some are happy to be quoted. Carole Blake comments pithily: ‘We’ve never run courses like this. I prefer to send money to authors, rather than take it off them.’ The founder of the Blake Friedman Literary Agency and author of From Pitch To Publication is not averse to opening the doors to talent outside the loop of publishing. She is a regular at events aimed at unpublished and unconnected authors and is also updating her book to incorporate the digital revolution. Her disquiet is tied to the credentials of teachers. ‘One rule of thumb for choosing a course, would be to make sure that the person teaching has been successful at the subject themselves.’ She adds sniffily: ‘Not all that I’ve seen teaching, seem to be able to do it themselves.’
This is a point taken up by a bestselling novelist who refused to be named. ‘From a professional and financial point of view it’s a great big pyramid scheme,’ says the author who has topped global book charts as well as won several major prizes. ‘Authors who can make a living writing don’t teach these courses. So you have professional authors who can’t make a living from writing, teaching people who will never make a living from it either.’
But just because someone has published a string of prize-winners or bestsellers does not mean that they are well qualified to teach, as the disgruntled alumnus of one of the most expensive course tells me. Though he says he gained from his course, he maintains it was despite the teaching and not because of it. ‘I read the creative writing texts that were set then turned up to lessons and realised that if I hadn’t read the books beforehand, I wouldn’t have learned anything from the class,’ he says bitterly. ‘People in my class had given up their jobs or got into debt to take the course, but it became apparent that what we were learning was because of the contribution we were making, despite the teacher.’
The teacher in his case is a well-known novelist who is still in print, but, the tutor proved unwilling or unable to offer constructive criticism of students’ work beyond bland generalisations about what was good. When a student complained, the tutor appeared to ignore them for the rest of the course. ‘It seemed very obvious what was happening and no one else felt they were able to say anything in case they were cold shouldered too,’ says my source.
This is at variance with one of the advantages of these courses, as the former head of an academic creative writing course says: ‘An upside of these trade-backed courses is that they’re ruthless. They can say things to students that we’d get sacked for at a university.’ However, the writer and academic, who asked not to be named as she teaches on a number of book business-run courses, is suspicious also of the teaching credentials of some lecturers offered at exorbitant fees. ‘You get Jeffrey Archer to lecture you at Curtis Brown. I’d hardly call that useful. There is no quality control of the lecturers and tutors, so too often the authors are hired for ego and pester factor not teaching talent.’ She adds another issue: ‘Course organisers are generally not skilled so workshops can be a bloodbath of highly competitive big egos.’
Although all those offering courses have feedback forms and operate an open door policy to nip problems in the bud, students can feel disempowered about complaining because, as one dissatisfied student says, ‘you don’t want to piss off a potential agent or publisher. These people are the industry and who are we? No one. They all know each other, we need them.’
This raises a primary attraction of creative writing courses from literary agents and publishers: access. Publishing is regarded as inaccessible, getting a literary agent as an insurmountable block to those with no connection to the literary world. On every course I have taught students have reiterated the myth that agents and publishers are not interested in finding new talent. After they have met an agent brought in at the end of my event, they look positively shocked to hear: ‘When your manuscript is ready, send it to me and mention that you met me at Danuta’s class.’
The general consensus among course providers is that they are opening up the industry to those who wouldn’t otherwise get a look in and they are doing it in a way that exposes students directly to the people who will get them a book deal. Of course, you may read this and mutter ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ But I think it is a valid point. A criticism about the literary world has been that it is a closed shop, open only to those with Oxbridge or family connections or with a celebrity CV. These courses enable writers with talent to find a way in, wherever they live.
And the trade has responded well to these shop windows. Faber boasts not only the successes mentioned above, but that the number of students who have found representation as a result of the presentation to agents it holds at the end of course is well into double figures. Curtis Brown has also produced some stellar sellers, Jessie Burton who wrote The Miniaturist was an alumnus, as was Janet Ellis, whose The Butcher’s Hook was published to claim early in 2016. Again, a significant number of its students go on to be represented by either CB or other agencies.
In part commercial success may represent not just access, but the fact that these courses do not discriminate on grounds of genre, as Anna Davis points out. ‘We don’t value “literary” above commercial writing, we just want good stories,’ she explains. With as many as 150 people at a time applying for CBC’s courses, she has the pick of the crop. ‘I will sometimes take on someone on a course thinking it’s a nuts idea, but the writing is good and they will benefit.’
But the money is the ultimate arbiter of who can do a creative writing course with an industry player or university. The fact that all creative writing courses are expensive raises issues about access and whether they are creating yet another barrier for more diverse talent from a broader socio-economic group. It is a point acknowledged by Julia Bell, director of the creative writing MA at Birkbeck, part of the University of London, and aimed at distance and part-time learning. She describes the ending of maintenance grants for poorer students and the rise of loans for education as an ‘absolute travesty’. ‘Poorer students are absolutely put off,’ she adds. ‘At Birkbeck we have some money given us by children’s author Kit de Waal to set up a bursary for a student who is not able to do the course because of the money. I am hoping that will be the beginning of a larger pot of cash to tackle this problem.’
It is an issue of which Arvon has long been aware and has actively tried to address. Its courses recently came top in a survey for diversity undertaken for the Writing The Future report on diversity, compiled by myself and Mel Larsen. ‘At Arvon we have actively tried to push that these are experiences open to everyone and have tried to attract people from more diverse backgrounds, be they BAME, the less well off or disabled,’ explains George Palmer, head of communications. As a result it has grants that cover up to 100 per cent of a students’ fees.
What Arvon does not offer is the direct relationship with a publisher or literary agent. In fact, Palmer would say that Arvon courses are pitched at an earlier stage of development for a writer. He acknowledges this, but adds that students attend Arvon for different reasons than just to get published. ‘We are deliberately trying to be as open as possible.’ There are signs that the supply of unpublished writers may be limited: the rise of industry courses did seem to have an impact on the residential school two years ago and some courses were cancelled due to lack of numbers, however, this year has seen a recovery in student numbers, suggesting we are not quite at Peak Creative Writing yet.
But maybe there is something to be said about these courses that isn’t to do with the students or the money made by publishers and agents. Maybe, as Julia Bell points out, we should be happy they exist for another reason: they subsidise writing careers of talented novelists who don’t have the sales of a Dan Brown or E L James. ‘I have two full time jobs,’ says the YA author. ‘I work as an academic and write my novels. I wouldn’t be able to do the one without the other. And I think in general, our culture should be grateful that the universities have created creative writing courses not just for the students, but because they act as a haven for authors and without the shelter of teaching, many good writers wouldn’t be able to continue working because the market is so polarised between those who earn a lot and those who earn a pittance.’•
How to choose a course:
If you are considering a creative writing course there are a number of factors you need to consider before handing over your cash:
- What do you want? Write a list of exactly what you wish to gain from the course. Do you want an academic understanding of the subject? Do you have practical goals – such as to write the first three chapters of your novel? Do you want to meet agents and publishers? Or do you simply want to unlock your creativity? Check exactly what is on offer and how it matches your list.
- How much can you commit? A good course will demand extra0-curricular work from you, whether preparing for a one-day workshop or writing pieces to workshop in each class. They may also demand extra reading. Consider exactly how much time you can realistically commit. And ask the course coordinators exactly how much time students are expected to give the course outside of sessions.
- What is the course track record? Look at alumni from the course and how they match your ambitions and also style or genre of writing. It may be pointless doing a very literary course if you want to write a commercial crime fiction or romance. Ask, will this course stretch my writing or destroy my confidence?
- Who are the tutors? This ties in with the above. How qualified to teach are the tutors? There are courses where the writers have published either nothing or only one book that sold poorly. Are they really qualified to help you improve?
- What do alumni say? Here social media is your fiend. Ask around. How helpful did previous students find the course? Did they regard it as value for money? How well did they think the course was run? How did the promises of the organisers match students’ outcomes?
Never be afraid to ask questions before you hand money over. You are buying a service, and you are buying time to write, you need to know that you are spending your money in a way that will liberate you and not quash your ambition or confidence.
Can Creative writing be taught?
A couple of years ago trade journalist Liz Thomson wrote a snippy piece for the Times condemning creative writing courses, claiming they exploited the unpublished and unpublishable. But was she right to claim creative writing cannot be taught? Here are the reasons I think she was wrong:
- Talent: no one would presume that you could fulfil your potential as a blacksmith if you didn’t get some training in the skills to unleash your talent. Writing a novel is similar. You may have wonderful talent to write, but to write a novel you need skills that can be taught.
- Skill: the skills you need to write a novel can range from finding time and writing without fear to how to show not tell and how to create serial characters.
- Time: Creative writing courses buy students the discipline to make time and commit to their writing.
- Mentors: everyone needs mentors to help them improve, se where they are doing well and what they need to improve, and how.
- Perspective: it’s all very well having friends and family love your work, but a good creative writing course will give you professional feedback that isn’t about making you feel good but is about making you better.