A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I once met a writer who said that they felt they had moved beyond needing to go on writing workshops, and now needed a more professional, more intense writing class. I knew what they meant- at different stages of writing you need different kind of support and encouragement. But I think they were wrong that it necessarily works in a linear way. Maybe I can only speak for myself. Maybe there are writers who don’t need any other human input at all. Certainly, there is an ongoing debate (which will be ongoing forever, I think) about whether or not writing can be ‘taught’. I believe that it can be taught, and learnt, and that it’s not something we’re ever done with as writers. Here’s the actor Javier Bardem talking about why he goes back to the same acting class every year, even though he’s now a successful professional actor.
I don’t think there will be a time when I feel I can’t improve or learn something as a writer. So, with that in mind, here are some thoughts about courses which have helped me.
I’ve done lots and lots of one-off writing workshops. Sometimes they’ve been with writers I’ve admired like Kate and Joan Newman, and Damian Gorman.
Left hand photo credit – https://sarasireland.wordpress.com
Sometimes they’ve been with people who I never knew and never saw again. One of the very first ones I did, around 25 years ago, was taken by someone whose name and face I have now completely forgotten. But I still remember that workshop- the advice they gave, and even what I wrote on the day. Writing workshops, taken over a couple of hours, a day or a weekend, can be wonderfully inspiring for writers who are starting out. They are normally safe spaces where you can share work with friendly people who will be encouraging and warm. But they can also be refreshing courses for those writers who have been writing for some time and need to get out of their routine and shake themselves up a bit. I have never stop doing short courses/workshops for this reason. If you get a really good facilitator they can integrate what beginners and more advanced writers need into a session which everyone can find enjoyable. I’ve had moments in writing classes which sparked an idea for a whole novel, and I’ve moments which just lifted me out of a writing rut for a time so that I could see things in a different way.
I only have a small amount of experience with this. As part of a project he was conducting I was able to have a short amount of time with the writer Damian Gorman:
He read a piece from a novel I was about to submit and offered some really helpful advice which I remember to this day and still return to when I’m struggling with a scene. Damian is one of those rare teachers who can take your work apart and tell you in the most direct way what’s wrong with it, and leave you feeling encouraged and excited about going forward. I mention it because mentoring can be a tough experience for people. You don’t have a group of peers who you can sound things out with, and it can feel brutal to have an in-depth critique of your work. Our egos are fragile- of course they are- we lay them on the line every time we write. But sometimes we need the tough love of someone who really gets our work and knows how to help us weed out the crap and shine a light in the right places. It can be invaluable. My advice is to do it when you’re ready, and to find someone who gets your work. If you write fantasy don’t approach an author/mentor who hates reading fantasy. That kind of thing.
Masters in Creative Writing
There seems to be a lot of controversy about MA’s in Creative Writing. Every so often you’ll get an article in a broadsheet newspaper about whether or not they’re just courses to harvest cash from desperate writers, or whether they produce horrifically boring, samey texts and there’s no real art in the world any more and nothing is radical and publishers actually hate books etc etc. I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, of course, and I would entirely recommend that anyone thinking of parting with their money should do some research beforehand (I contacted the tutors and asked them if they could put me in touch with some past students who I could ask about the course), but I enjoyed my MA and I felt challenged by it creatively.
One of the main things I’d advise would be to find the course that’s right for you. You can do an MA in Creative Writing in Belfast but I chose to do mine online with Manchester Metropolitan University because I wanted a course which specialised in writing for children and young adults, and working part-time/ online suited me really well.
One of the reasons I wanted to do the MA was that I felt I had come to a point in my writing where I just couldn’t have gone any further without some serious professional input. I knew I was lacking something, but I didn’t really know what. I knew where I wanted to be and had a good idea of where I was, but I didn’t know how to make a bridge from one place to the next.
Doing an MA isn’t the only way to get this kind of input, however. You could also do a course with Arvon; something which many writers have benefitted from. Or these days lots of writers offer masterclasses with them personally, or mentoring services. Find out what would suit you personally. All of these things cost a lot of money so it is worth doing some research before you make an investment. For me, I also wanted the professional academic qualification, because I knew it would enhance my teaching CV, and I also enjoy academic study and the course I chose had an academic element (not all writing MA’s do).
Was it worth the money? For me, yes. I learnt, concretely, how to bridge the gap, and subsequently have had books published. This doesn’t happen for everyone who does an MA, but for me it was always going to be worth the money if my writing improved significantly. If publication is your only goal then think carefully about it- there are groups and other shorter courses designed with this as the main focus.
Another huge benefit of the MA for me was meeting my writing group. We are still in touch years later, although we don’t pass work around so regularly now. Having said that, they are the first people I turn to when I need an opinion on ‘does this just sound ridiculous?’ or ‘OMG can anyone read a thing at extremely short notice for me because I’ve just finished it and think it’s the worst piece of crud anyone’s even typed into a word document and I’m meant to submit it in three days?’ Their support has been really important to me since meeting them and even though we are mostly in touch online we have met together In Real Life several times as well. Sometimes it’s just good to share a coffee with someone who has been through it all with you.
For the least expensive professional writing courses, I’d recommend the following books about writing, which have helped me enormously over the years:
On Writing- Stephen King
Telling Lies For Fun and Profit- Lawrence Block
Bird by Bird- Anne Lamott
The Creative Writing Coursework- Julia Bell and Paul Magrs
I will be continuing my studies by referring back to these books and reading the ones I got for Christmas this year:
Big Magic- Elizabeth Gilbert
Save The Cat (The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need)- Blake Synder
Shirley-Anne McMillan is a writer of contemporary fiction for Young Adults. She lives in rural Co. Down with her family and also works at Shimna Integrated College as the Alternative Chaplain, running a high school Gay Straight Alliance and a Peace and Integration initiative.
In 2013 Shirley-Anne won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ‘Undiscovered Voices’ competition with an extract from her novel, A Good Hiding.
A Good Hiding was published by Atom in 2016. The Irish Independent called it ‘A brisk and breezy novel that, despite the heavy subject matter, had me laughing aloud more than once’. Her second novel, The Unknowns, was published by Atom in December 2017.