It could be a two-hour creative writing seminar at the local Library or it could be a multi-month, full-blown University or Correspondance course on writing the next great novel. The question is, are they useful?
I guess that depends on what you’re trying to get out of the course.
If your goal is to shortcut the whole writing process and instantly become the next JK Rowling, then no, they aren’t terribly useful. The only thing that will help you with that is a genie and a magic lamp. A Leprechaun might work too.
But if your intention is to learn something new about writing, practice your writing skills and start your writing momentum, then maybe, just maybe this is the way to go. Oh yeah, and you might consider that whole networking within the writing community too. You may not get all of the above in every case, but chances are, you will walk away with some of them.
And what exactly would lead you to the decision to enroll in such an activity?
In my own case, I was struggling with my writing. I had read a dozen books on writing; some were by well-known authors, some by editors and publishers and some by people who probably didn’t know much about the subject at all. It wasn’t helping.
If anything, the books were hindering me. Every one of them talked about the importance of a good first chapter. Every one of them talked about hooking the reader. None of them gave me the means to do it myself. Exercises and techniques are great, but they can only get you so far.
What to do? At the time, I didn’t know any writers. I had tried to meet some, going to a local writer’s group once. All I found was a chaotic mass of people, none of whom knew much more than me.
It took me a while, but I finally decided to take a writing course. The one I chose looked good. It was out of Ottawa and was done by correspondance. The only problem I faced was the hefty fee they charged. At the time, I wasn’t exactly flush with cash (come to think of it, I’m still not). Signing up represented a major investment.
But, it was important and with my wife’s blessing I plunged forward and registered for the course. I eagerly awaited the course materials.
When they arrived, I ripped into the materials and started going through my first lesson. My heart sank. This was going to be a LOT of work. I guess I had been expecting the magic bullet.
And the bigger disappointment: I wasn’t going to be working on my first chapter yet. In fact, that wasn’t scheduled to happen until I was almost half-way through the course. I wanted the good stuff now! Why should I have to mess about with learning how long chapters should be and paragraph sizes and grammer and…
Well you get the picture.
The course was grueling to start with. I had to make time in my busy life to complete exercises that really weren’t much fun. I had to (pardon me for stealing your line, Aaron) exercise my writing muscles.
And like physical exercise, it’s really tough to stay motivated at the beginning. But the longer you stick to it, the better it goes and the more fun it becomes. The course was exactly like that.
And by the time I got to the point where I was going to start writing my first chapter (again), I had worked out the plot of the story and most of the mechanics of it too. It didn’t make that iteration of the first chapter any easier to finish, but by then I knew that a “Perfect” first chapter wouldn’t just come out of the blue. I would have to write something and make it perfect later.
And the great thing was, my tutor/writing coach/cheerleader from the course was giving me constant tips on how to improve the story. It was fantastic! I could hardly wait to get my submissions back from him to see what his comments were that month.
Long story short, the course got me writing with purpose (finally). It taught me to fight through the tough times that happen to all writers. It taught me that the perfect story doesn’t just happen, it’s crafted to be perfect. Just like a piece of sculpture or a fine painting, a good story needs time and attention to detail.
It also taught me that writing is hard work. Work that I am still driven to do.
Would I have finished my book without the course? I’d like to think that I would have… eventually. But it wouldn’t be as good as it is today. And it might have been my first and last story. I’d have finished it without learning all that it had to teach me.
Did the course show me the road to success?
Yup, there’s two actually. Hard work and persistance. A writing course may just be the map you need.