The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Given the kind of mega-advances some young, first-time writers are getting, you often wonder whether imagination is not more important than knowledge. So, imagine this. You have never written before but you know that a successful novel needs plot, character, dialogue and a setting with which you are familiar. You pick up a couple of How-to-Write books to help you along and start writing a novel. Two years later, you’ve finished it and you send a couple of chapters along with a synopsis to a literary agent who sends it to a publisher. Within a few weeks you are sitting on a spectacular advance and are talking about film rights, translations, sequels. It sounds like a fairy tale but this is exactly how some writers have made it into big league.

But here is some bad news: the entire English speaking world, is teeming with writers like you. Writing classes and courses are proliferating and those self-help books are far too many to make an easy choice — from Jacques Barzun’s Writing, Editing and Publishing to Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose and virtually hundreds of writing guides, memoirs and the like.

The second piece of bad news is a quote from the American essayist, Susan Sontag: “Literature is not an equal opportunity employer” which means not everyone in the market has equal chances. To get accepted, you have to be different from the run-of-the-mill stuff in language, style and subject matter. So what does a beginner learn from these guides or creative writing courses '

The answer is quite a bit. Such books spray ideas at you and are stuffed with sensible guidelines which do not tell you what to do, and certainly do not come with any guarantees, but suggest some areas to focus on, and some pitfalls to avoid. More important, it reminds repeatedly that writing, from the first idea to the final draft, is a process of making choices and nobody can make them for you.

Some books provide rules and recipes but these don’t really help. To work, a book must contain elements unique to each individual. This being the case, the goals of these books must be limited. But they give you questions you have to ask of your characters, the demands you must make of your story material. It is you, not the author of the “How-to”, who is writing the book. Books may help but do they teach creative writing' Up to a point certainly. There is no straightforward technique which will bring recognition, a huge advance and bestseller lists.

A tailored course or book cannot set out to teach a style and a voice; it can only focus on mechanisms and techniques, foster an awareness of the potential reader and provide some criticism on what to look out for. In fact, what these guides really teach is not what needs to be put in but what you can no longer take out.

If you are bent on “learning” creative writing, look for three things. First, the space and time in which to write. Second, remember that although there are no rules, there are sensible guidelines on basics of beginnings, character, structure and dialogue. Third, get some constructive criticism. Above all, read a lot and honestly ask yourself whether you have things in your head that you want to bring out. Writing proceeds from thinking; it is an intellectual activity, not a bundle of skills.

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