You know what? Creative writing courses have a lot in common with asylum seekers. They continue to pop up everywhere. Now I’ll readily admit to not knowing too much about world politics, but what I do know about creative writing courses is that most of them are a complete waste of time and a huge drain on your hard earned finances.  Indeed if they were a requisite to embarking on a great writing career then they would surely have been around to launch the stellar careers of Steinbeck, Sinclair, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wilde, Dickens et al and all of the other writing stars that light up the literary firmament.  Years ago the great American author Upton Sinclair  opined that a creative writing course was akin to attending a cookery class to learn how to change the oil in your car.   

Now I don’t blame the plethora of Universities, colleges and other establishments that quickly set up these courses in order to fleece the unsuspecting Ernest Hemmingway’s and JK Rowling’s, but literature has been flourishing and blossoming for hundreds of years without them. And I would go so far to suggest that if racing hamsters led to a fruitful career you can bet your life that the nation’s universities would be falling over themselves to offer a BA in it?

Personally I blame the students who are swayed by the alluring blurb of how to become a writer. Convinced by the small print baloney that creative writing is a skill which can only be taught. Nowadays the promise offered by these courses is selling hope. All you need to do is find the requisite thousands it will cost you to enroll. But teaching someone the skill to make a story go from simple sentences to a story that will enthrall and captivate the reader isn’t something which can be taught no more than you could teach Lionel Messi to do a rabona. It reminds me of those fitness magazines where you see some photograph of a fat bloke, and then the picture of him six weeks later looking like a rippling brick shithouse. It’s all nonsense of course because believe me it ain’t possible. 

Now, I’ll grant you, you do need structure in any book and it goes without saying that punctuation or the lack thereof can signal the death knell of any manuscript. There are writers out there who think that a semi-colon is what’s left of your anal passage after surgery! But great stories are not about structure, but about the writer’s imagination. Readers don’t give a toss about the structure and so many courses focus on this to the detriment of emphasising that it is the story that really matters. That people will read a story not because it is well structured but to find out what happens to the hero next.

And another problem with these courses is that there are far too many teachers on them, and most are going to teach you stuff that is a waste of time for you. Sitting in a room without air-con in high summer, listening to the ululating sound of some student’s hearing aid, while you all ‘workshop’ passages from his or her totally boring opening chapters for three hours or so is a sure path to homicide.  You’d be far better off spending this dead time by rereading ‘Of Mice and Men’ or firing off a few submissions.  But you could also better spend your time by bouncing ideas off of family and friends, getting in touch with writers and asking for their advice or visiting a library! You should read and write more and the internet will tell you all you need to find out about where to put a comma, indentation and double-spacing manuscripts. And moreover it’s free!!

However, no writing course can substitute the dedication and hours which you have to put in to succeed because as Hemingway himself succinctly put it. ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ Yet this hasn’t stopped an entire industry from building up to extract money out of people’s desire to be Pulitzer Prize winners. We live in impatient times. We all want what we want as soon as we can get it, and the promise of getting to be a writer via the shortcut of a hopeless ten week writing course for a few hundred quid is attractive to our sense of urgency. But you’re wasting your time.  Great novels and great writers are rarely the product of a classroom. They are the product of an unbounded imagination and the ability to translate that imagination into a language that pulls us in to a story, and leaves us wanting more at the end of every page. There will never be a course that can achieve that. But if you insist on stumping up a grand to learn where to put a full stop. Well, It’s your dosh. 


14th September 2016.



So you fancy yourself as a writer eh? You’re another one of the ‘I have a book inside me dying to get out’ brigade? Not only that but you’ve just finished your ten week creative writing course at the Academy of Wherever, that cost you twenty thousand pounds! You know all there is to know about paragraphs, quotation marks and abbreviated sentences. So naturally the next step is to show off your skills to an unsuspecting panel of writing experts ……and I use the term ‘experts’ extremely lightly.

But before you send your amazing  short story off to the panel of judges one thing you have to appreciate about most panels, as most sensible adults know, is that ninety-nine per cent of any panel is populated by the clueless.

Unfortunately such panels get things ninety-nine percent of the time. There are too many examples to mention here but let’s just take one. The Oscars. Oh yes, the panel of all panels where talent has feck all to do with the eventual winner. Did you know that the following acting giants have NEVER received a gong for some of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid: Edward G Robinson, Cincinatti Kid, Steve McQueen, Papillion, Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now, Gary Oldman, Syd & Nancy. The list is endless. By the way. Sylvester Stallone has an Oscar which basically fecking sums it all up for me. I won’t even mention the Mercury Music Prize, but you get the picture.

Anyway, similar to creative writing courses, see my blog, savvy educational establishments have long been aware that far more money can be made out of people who want to write novels than out of people who want to read them. And an astonishing number of individuals who want to do the former will confess to never doing the latter.  Once I told people that I had just had my first novel published I was met with a steady stream of people would come up to me at the bar or wherever who would say to me that they’ve been thinking of writing a book for years and ‘tell me what you think of this idea’ etc. But as soon as I asked them what they liked to read I was invariably met with the following reply. ‘I don’t have time to read. I’m just concentrating on my writing.’

Personally I have never had the inclination to enter a writing competition ever since I managed to prove to myself and a few friends how pointless they were. To prove my point I actually submitted a short story entitled ’The Swimmer’ by Pulitzer Prize winner John Cheevers. This short story is rightly regarded as a masterpiece.  I changed the name of the characters and the title to the ‘The Long Swim Home.’ Laughably, my entry, or should I say John’s, didn’t get anywhere. I didn’t receive any feedback but wrote a very pleasant letter to the panel requesting same. Two weeks later I received a feedback note stating that while the story had its merits the premise of the narrative wasn’t believable and not relevant to what readers were looking for today. It remains a sad regret that I didn’t keep that note but then again the lady who signed it is sadly no longer with us.  The eventual winner of this particular competition was won by a very nice lady who penned a short story about a day in the life of an anorexic! Needless to say I have heard neither sight nor sound of her since.

The point of all of this of course is that to try and scrutinize the actions of any member of a panel of a writing contest is impossible. All writing is subjective. A judge attempts to say, “This story is good,” or, “This story is bad,” but really, they are just choosing based on their own idiosyncratic taste. Winning comes down to luck. Or God. Or whatever the judge ate for lunch that day. Just like the Oscars. In addition to the legitimacy of a literary contest, there’s another question you may want to consider, namely is it actually worth your while to enter? Many writers think that entering and winning contests is a way to build a writing CV and in some very limited cases this may be true, particularly if the contest is prestigious which, I have to tell you, 99% of them are not.  And this is before we get to the plethora of fake competitions that charge you for the privilege of entering. Winning a writing contest run by an obscure magazine or a local writers’ group or an Internet contest mill won’t cut any ice with agents, editors, or readers–not just because they probably won’t have heard of the contest, but because they may will be aware that such contests are much less likely to have professional judging standards.  And if you do win you’ll get a cheque for a few hundred quid and a grainy photograph in the local gazette but little else. Many judges on these panels hardly ever request to see more work from the winner. If there was a real prize, then entering just might be worthwhile. Next time you’re scanning the internet’s twelve thousand pages of literary contests, count how many of them come with a publishing contract for the winner. I’ll tell you now that you’ll probably need only one finger.

Moreover, not winning could cause you to assume that there’s something wrong with your writing, which may be untrue. Not much wrong with the writing of John Cheevers? Anyway, you wouldn’t be any the wiser because these contests rarely, if ever, offer the writer any feedback. You may have come close to winning or being long/shortlisted or thrown into the waste-paper basket and never know. On top this there is the fact that some of these competitions are little more than popularity contests, as the entrants get their friends and family and work colleagues etc to vote for them. So even if you are still committed to entering a writing contest at the very least you should pay attention to the scoring system or ask about it if it’s not published.

And if you’re entering contests for unpublished work, consider whether your time and energy might not be better spent actually submitting for publication. After all if you’re a serious writer, then isn’t getting your work published the real prize??


20th September 2016