Reason #5 : “I’m not qualified.”
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
— Richard Bach
Can I let you in on a secret? My knowledge of English grammar isn’t great. Or rather, my knowledge of grammatical terms and definitions. I can tell you the difference between nouns and verbs, (just), I’m less certain about adverbs and adjectives, and when it comes to gerunds, indicatives, conjunctions and predicates … oh, forget about it.
Does that mean I’m not qualified to be a writer?
The hell it does!
I can correct grammar. If you give me a sentence that reads Who’s sweater is that? I’ll correct it to Whose sweater is that? Because … because … the first one looks wrong, okay? I have a good feel for language. I know what sounds right and makes sense, I just can’t tell you all the whys and wherefores.
This can be embarrassing. I’ve had foreign friends ask, “Is this pronoun indefinite or intensive?” to which my reply is invariably, “Um … what’s a pronoun again?”
“But I thought you have written much books?”
“You mean, ‘I thought you have written many books.’”
“Why is that better?”
“Er … Um … It just is, damn it!”
I grandly think of myself as the writerly equivalent of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix or Elvis Presley, none of whom could read music. Paul McCartney once said, “I’ve never practised scales in my life”, and do you know what the only class that Elvis failed in high school was? Yep, music.
Yet this idea that you have to have some sort of qualification in order to do practically anything is pervasive. I know of one award-winning author with decades of experience and a dozen novels under her belt who was eased out of teaching writing at a university level because she didn’t have a tertiary qualification. (She was replaced by a graduate with no experience, almost nothing published, but with that vital piece of paper – earned, in part, from the displaced tutor’s teaching!)
Another (unqualified) writer I know was told by a graduate of a well-known international creative writing course – jokingly, he assured me – that he was “practising without a licence”. Yes, yes, very amusing. But it’s a bit like racist jokes based on clever word-play; there’s still an undertone of disapproval there and a hint of elitism.
Here, in my view, is a thorough, comprehensive and exhaustive list of all the qualities and qualifications you need to become a writer:
Be a reader.
“Is that it?” I hear you ask.
“You mean reading critical analyses, of course. Discourses on the creative process. The classics. F R Leavis’s The Great Tradition and–”
“Nope. Just read whatever turns your crank.”
Seriously. The best, most comprehensive education you can get about writing is reading stuff. (I assume it’s how I’ve assimilated the rules of grammar.) Not only is it wildly enjoyable, but it’s free. There are no lesson plans or lectures, no study requirements, no assignments. When you’re ready to begin writing, you can do so in your own time, at your own pace. And the very best thing is that you can write what you love. Science fiction? Not a problem. Romances? Go right ahead. Kinky sex romps involving werewolves and vampires? Be my guest. A serious novel contrasting the human situation in the early twenty-first century with Puritan settlers in the New World? Fantastic!
You may genuinely crave some sort of writing qualification, but unless it has a real-world value – say, you need it to teach writing – examine your motives carefully. One of the most common excuses I hear is to do with the discipline involved: “I shall have to work on my novel. It’s a course requirement.” But what about afterwards once the course is finished and no one’s looking over your shoulder? When it comes to writing, discipline – as I hope you’re discovering – is something that comes from within. You have to make the time amidst many other competing interests.
Another reason people give for seeking qualifications is that they’ll learn about X, Y and Z – as if libraries didn’t exist or there was no such thing as internet search.
One good thing about qualification programmes – and it applies to writing classes and workshops too – is the collegial atmosphere, meeting and mingling with like-minded people. That can be valuable, but it’s still not writing.
If you want to do a writing degree, good for you. Go for it. But ask yourself if you really need it. Or is it just another excuse for putting off making a start on that book you’ve had in the back of your mind for years?
Another perspective: imagine that instead of doing the course you took a year off anyway and just wrote. How much could you get done in the time you’d spend in class and working on assignments? How many books?
In a 1980 Playboy interview, John Lennon said, “None of us could read music. None of us can write it. But as pure musicians, as inspired humans to make the noise, they [George, Paul and Ringo] are as good as anybody.”
If you’re a reader, then I bet you can be a writer too.
Writing classes (and other forms of lobotomy)
I’ve done a few writing classes over the years. Evening sessions; once a week, two hours after work, for six or eight weeks. A better term for them might be writers’ support groups because it’s doubtful you’ll learn anything of value. The singular advantage of them is they’ll make you work, producing a short story or a few descriptive paragraphs for next week’s session. It’s possible to go on doing classes for years, kidding yourself they’re providing you with an incentive to write regularly and thus form good habits …
They’re not, of course. Quite the reverse. Writing regularly means writing every day, not a couple of hundred words on a subject that doesn’t interest you. It’s invariably short-form stuff too. Short stories or even flash fiction. It has to be if you’re to get any sort of feedback. For this, the worst classes will often have each person standing up in turn, reading their deathless prose out loud to their classmates for critique and comments, forgetting that, as a species, writers tend to be more introverted than their peers.
Even in society at large, most people fear speaking in public. I once saw a survey titled Your Greatest Fears that rated public speaking slightly ahead of death! If your turn’s coming up, your heart’s likely to be beating so hard in anticipation that you can’t hear properly, and if you’ve just been, relief will be washing through your body. In the end, it all comes down to how well it’s delivered. I’ve heard beautiful passages murdered by poor speakers and utter drivel made engaging by good ones.
Writing classes teach other bad habits too. If you’re a studious student, you’ll work on your 200-300 word assignment all week, finding your Muse and agonising over every fullstop and comma when you really should be bashing it out. (I’ll have more to say on this in Reason #8.) Then comes the rewriting and rewriting and rewriting – known in the business as “turd polishing”. It might be shiny, but it’s still shit.
The most insidious lesson, however, is the unspoken one. From the first night you’ll gauge, often subconsciously, the general interest of the class and end up writing for that audience when you should really be writing for yourself. Let’s say the class as a whole is interested in literary short-form fiction but you love rollicking space operas. Oops, bad fit. Even General Fiction types tend to frown on fantasy and romance writers. So you grit your teeth, bury your real voice and try to please the group.
The other nonsense you’ll get is little packages of rules presented as ironclad Dos and Don’ts. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard “Only write what you know!” which is clearly rubbish because it immediately precludes using your imagination – surely the whole point of creative writing.
In truth, there are no rules. Publishers don’t have adverb police hunting down repeat offenders, and you’re unlikely to get a visit from the split infinitive patrol if you boldly go on writing the way you do. There are guidelines, certainly, but they’re just that: guidelines. Take the ones you think relevant and discard the rest.
Rules? You want rules …?
Back in 1979, New York Times columnist William Safire came up with what he called the Fumblerules of Grammar. Here are the top ten:
1. Remember to never split an infinitive.
2. A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.
3. The passive voice should never be used.
4. Avoid run-on sentences they are hard to read.
5. Don’t use no double negatives.
6. Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn’t.
7. Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.
8. Do not put statements in the negative form.
9. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
10. No sentence fragments.
While my experience of writing classes has been poor to mediocre at best, writing workshops are another thing entirely. But that’s because they’re more targeted and generally take place over a weekend or a series of consecutive days. They’re often over-subscribed so can be selective about who they accept, and the better ones will ensure all participants are at about the same level and have similar interests. They’ll also present a range of speakers so you don’t just get one viewpoint. One of the most valuable aspects of them is what happens out of class, during breaks and mealtimes. You’ll get a chance to socialise with other writers and share experiences, tips and woes – something that doesn’t generally happen in weekly writing classes. Don’t underestimate the value of this informal social networking. The participants of one of the three-day workshops I attended some time ago continued to meet regularly for more than two years afterwards.
Not everyone lives in main centres where workshops are typically held, and travel and accommodation can be expensive. Another type of workshop has emerged along with the internet; online ones, often international. At best, they’re fantastic. Professionally run by experienced people and targeted to specific areas you’d like to improve. At worst, they can be cons or money-making ventures with exorbitant fees that just regurgitate stuff you’ll find online or in your local library. Many have giveaway titles like “Write a Novel in a Weekend!” or “The Secret of Writing Bestsellers” (penned by someone whose name has never appeared on any bestseller list), and guarantee results in ridiculously short periods of time. There are no secrets to writing, and if there were, if someone stumbled on something truly magical, do you really think they’d sell it? If I discovered some esoteric incantation to guarantee my books became bestsellers, I’d use it to make myself the next J K Rowling or Lee Child. To hell with you lot!
Whether you’re looking at a class, a workshop or an online course, here’s a few things to keep in mind before parting with your dough:
- What do you want out of it? Be specific. If your weakness is characters or dialogue, it’s no good doing a scene-setting class.
- Is it relevant? There’s little point doing a short story workshop if you really want to focus on longer fiction, or vice versa.
- Who’s running it? Forget their qualifications, what’s their writing history? Look up some of their stories or browse their books. Is their writing your sort of writing? On a more general note, would you take a class on Getting Published by someone who’s never been published and never worked in the publishing industry?
- Be wary of rash promises and guarantees. “Learn this secret, and you’ll write 50,000 words in a weekend!” That sort of thing.
- Look at class sizes. A weekly class of 6-10 people is likely to be more useful than one containing 20-30 people.
- What do others say about it? Google it (and the tutor). Ask around on social networks.
What sort of workshops are available?
The choice online is huge. Here’s what a quick internet search turned up — and this list is by no means exhaustive.
– Advanced Character and Dialogue
– Author Voice
– Business of Writing, The
– Character Development
– Depth in Writing
– How to Edit Your Own Work
– Pacing Your Novel
– Point of View
– Teams in Fiction
– Writing and Selling Short Stories
– Writing Fantasy
– Writing Fiction Sales Copy
– Writing Mysteries
– Writing Secondary Plot Lines
The key thing to remember if you do decide to do a course or class is to make sure it addresses a specific need or weakness. It’s easy to fool yourself by saying, “It might be useful later.” Time away from your desk is time away from writing, and, as you know, only writing is writing.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ The main qualification a writer needs is to be a reader.
♦ Consider what you stand to gain by taking a particular class, course or workshop.
♦ Would you be better off writing than spending all that time in class?
 Playboy’s John Lennon interview: http://www.beatlesinterviews.org/db1980.jlpb.beatles.html. [return]