So, you think you can write a novel?


Have you got a novel in you? It seems like most of us have, or think we have. Novel writing, like marathon running, used to be an elite pursuit, undertaken by a dedicated few. Now it seems there’s an endless list of would-be writers signing up for courses and writers’ groups and gearing up for the annual November literary sprint that is NaNoWriMo. Creative writing courses are no longer confined to adult education in drafty colleges, or MA programmes – you can now sign up to learn your craft at courses run by prestigious publishers and literary agents, with prize-winning guest lecturers and the promise of having your work read by a real-life agent at the end.

And it seems to be working – a glance at the best-seller lists over the past couple of years will tell you these courses produce work people are actually buying. Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, written during a novel writing course run by Curtis Brown Creative, a creative writing school set up by one of the UK’s leading literary agencies (they represent David Mitchell, John leCarre and Margaret Atwood amongst others), went on to start a bidding war at the London Book Fair and sell over a million copies worldwide. It’s now being adapted for a BBC television series.

But why would a literary agency want to offer writing courses and how does that affect the way writers and the industry interact? We decided to find out. Rufus Purdy is the Editor of Curtis Brown Creative.

Here’s what we discovered…

Arb: Does everyone have a novel in them? If so, do they need to go on a writing course to get it out?

RP: I’m not sure that everyone has a novel in them. Writing a full draft of a book is an incredible achievement and – just like those who are able to complete a marathon or swim the Channel – I’m personally in awe of anyone who can do it. Perhaps we should say that everyone who’s prepared to devote themselves to months of gruelling work and inevitable crushing crises of confidence has a novel in them.

And, no, I don’t believe you have to go on a writing course to get a novel out. But I do think a novel comes much more easily when you have the support of a tutor and coursemates, and the structure of weekly meetings with like-minded people to keep you going through the tricky times.

Arb: Why have agents and publishers stepped into the teaching market? Has the way writers engage with the industry changed as a result?

RP: I can’t speak for publishers but – for us – it’s about working with talented writers while their novels are still in progress. With the slush-pile model, it takes a brave literary agent to devote time to a writer with potential and work with them to shape their novel. But we’re in the wonderful position of being able to select authors for our courses who show promise in their writing, or who have an excellent and original story to tell – and, through a combination of expert teaching and workshopping, we can help them produce novels that people want to read.

Arb: Two things I read on the Curtis Brown Creative website stood out: ‘no course can teach someone how to write’ and ‘it’s essential aspiring authors understand the industry they want to be a part of’. How do your courses balance developing the writing with developing the writer (and why are both aspects so important in the modern literary landscape)?

RP: No course can teach somebody to write – though we can certainly help writers improve their prose by encouraging them to focus on what they’re good at and not to labour away at what they think a writer should be producing. Cutting back on the sort of florid prose that many amateur writers seem to believe shows literary merit is one way of doing that; encouraging writers to develop their own original voice is another. Much as a coach does at a Premier League football team, we aim push and challenge those who have talent, and drive them to improve it so they can succeed at the highest level.

We’re lucky to be running our courses from inside one of the UK’s busiest literary agencies, and we have incredible support from our colleagues at Curtis Brown and C+W. I believe it’s essential for aspiring authors to have a sense of the publishing industry they’re keen to move into – they do, after all, have to know how to attract the attention of literary agents, publishers and the reading public if they’re to succeed – and we work hard to provide our students with an insight into the book market. On each of our London-based novel-writing courses, our literary agent colleagues will come in to talk to the students in special dedicated sessions, bringing either an author or a publisher with them; while on our online novel-writing courses, the literary agents will go online for special Agent Q&A days and to provide feedback on students’ covering letters.

Arb: How do courses like CBC differ from more traditional creative writing MA courses?

RP: We’re industry-focused. We’re not interested in providing people with qualifications – we just want to help them write books that have a good chance of succeeding in the market.

Arb: What can a writer expect from one of your courses (and does that differ from what new students or applicants do expect e.g. do some people come with a ‘finished’ work and simply want the course to get them an agent)?

RP: Writers coming onto a Curtis Brown Creative three- or six-month novel-writing course can expect expert teaching from published authors, a supportive and talented group of fellow writers, focus on the novel they’re writing and the opportunity to meet literary agents. Obviously some people come to us with different expectations, but we can generally spot those who are looking to come onto the course purely to try and secure an agent. We want to work with writers who see their novels as a work in progress, not as something that can’t possibly be improved.

Arb: How well do online courses serve the needs of fiction students? Isn’t a face-to-face workshop better?

RP: There are pros and cons to both – and it totally depends on what the student needs. Not everyone can get to our London offices (though we have had students from as far afield as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland commuting in each week), and we started running our online courses as we wanted to reach out further than just London and the Home Counties. For former online students such as Jane Harper (author of The Dry) and Nicholas Searle (author of The Good Liar), who were based in Australia and northeast England respectively, the London course just wasn’t an option for them. But they still got the teaching, support of fellow students and agent interaction they’d have had in our offices.

Arb: Your courses generally focus on novel writing. Is that because there’s no real commercial market for short fiction, or are there simply more aspiring novelists than short story writers?

RP: Writing short fiction is a very different discipline to novel-writing – as is journalism, poetry, memoir, etc. At the moment, we’re focused on the novel because that’s what we know. My colleague Anna Davis, who set up Curtis Brown Creative in 2011, is a five-time novelist and former literary agent. And, obviously, we’re surrounded by literary agents who deal mainly in fiction. That’s set our agenda – so far…

Curtis Brown Creative runs creative writing courses in London and online, please visit the website for more information. Images courtesy of Alun Callender.