Hello, hello and thanks for tuning in! Today I’m here with a special Q&A to spotlight two very exciting writing courses that are kicking off with City University London. Sophia Bennett (@sophiabennett on Twitter) is heading up the Children’s Fiction Workshop and Caroline Green (@carolinesgreen on Twitter) is taking the reins of the Writing for Children course.
Both courses run for ten weeks and you can book yourself onto the October, January or April course, depending which best suits your schedule. The course information, booking details and recommended reading lists for each course can be found by clicking on the links above, so if you’re just starting your writing journey or are looking to motivate yourself to get that project finished, there’s something to suit your experience level.
To shine the spotlight on these two fantastic courses, I’ve got a great Q&A with both Sophia and Caroline, who kindly agreed to answer some of my burning questions all about writing courses and what you can expect if you sign up.
So, let’s get to it, shall we?
1. Hi Sophia and Caroline – thank you so much for stopping by! To kick things off, could you tell me a little more about the courses you’ll both be running?
Caroline: I’ll be taking the Writing for Children course that was run by Tamsyn Murray until very recently. Before that it was run by Keren David. So I’m stepping into some impressive shoes here! It is aimed at anyone interested in writing books or stories for readers aged 3-16. The first half of the term is all about laying the groundwork for strong writing; so we will cover topics like how to create good characters and settings, how to plot and how to make your dialogue sparkle. The second half will focus on specific texts, looking at what we can learn from successful writers in these fields.
Sophia: I’m running a brand new course called the Children’s Fiction Workshop. It’s aimed at anyone who’s already writing children’s fiction – be it a full novel, short stories or even just the occasional extract – and wants to know more. We’ll look at broadly similar topics to the Writing For Children course, such as creating characters and plotting, but we’ll spend the second half of each session sharing and critiquing a few pieces of work. It’s always scary to share what you’ve done, and it won’t be obligatory, but there’s much to learn from listening to other people’s writing, and your own, and it can be surprisingly clear what works and what doesn’t. In the first half of the session, we’ll also look at some great contemporary writers – from picture books to YA – and see what makes them stand out.
2. How do you think creative writing courses can help a writer improve their skills?
Sophia: The biggest thing any creative writing course can do is simply get you to write. Sometimes it can be hard to find the motivation, or the inspiration. But when you’re on a course, and taking the time out of a busy week to attend, then suddenly the motivation to work is there. And I hope that the topics we discuss will encourage our students to be inspired to try new things, focus on new approaches, and be a bit experimental.
One thing that put me off applying to such a course myself years ago (although I eventually did a screenwriting course and loved it) was the idea of being taught rules, and never finding my own voice. I think as soon as any good writer hears a rule, their first instinct is to break it. So even though we’ll look at various technical aspects of writing, and the specific expectations that publishers have these days, we’ll also look at a variety of ways of approaching them and I hope each student will find what works best for him or her.
Finding your voice, not having one imposed on you, is so important – but it’s good to recognise weaknesses too. Are you good at handling back story? Are you making the most of your connections for research? Do you know how to sell your idea through a great synopsis? Are you aware of some of the stand-out writers in your field? Do you know about the many writers’ groups out there for mutual support, and where to look for professional editing advice, if you’re reaching that stage in your work in progress? There’s lots to talk about!
Caroline: As Sophia says, the simple act of getting down to writing can be daunting. A blank page can be a terrifying thing, which is why I seldom put ‘Chapter One’ at the start of a new project! Too much pressure to write a whole book. Having a set time every week when you sit down, forget about the cares of the day and let your imagination roam can be highly enjoyable as much as anything else. It’s very important that my students enjoy their writing time. But also, I want to help people learn some of the tools that I came about the hard way! There were years of rejection before I was published and I think I learned so much from the experience, hard as it was. I slavishly studied the craft of writing, trying to find out ‘how to do it’. There is no magic answer, unfortunately. But there are things we can learn that will help make our writing stronger and ultimately more engaging. You can’t hand someone talent, but you can give them a toolbox that will make them better writers.
3. What advice would you give to somebody who’s looking to sign up for a course but has never shared their work before and is nervous about workshopping?
Caroline: Oh gosh, I absolutely know how it feels to be stung by editorial suggestions! But I can’t stress enough what a valuable tool it is to read your work out loud. I always tell my school students that reading aloud helps you understand punctuation better than anything else because it is simply where you pause and breathe. (I can’t understand why teachers don’t stress this more, actually). But you also hear the rhythm of your words, you spot repetition, and you learn where you might cut or expand a little. It’s also good for your confidence. Not many people write solely for themselves. Maybe you aren’t looking to be published but your aim is to write a story for your child or grandchild? But even then it will involve sharing your story with another person. So it’s really useful to get used to reading aloud. I want the atmosphere to be one of mutual support and encouragement too, so hopefully it will feel like a ‘safe place’.
Sophia: Of course you’re nervous about sharing what you’ve written! We all are. Come along anyway, watch other people do it, and see what you think.
At some stage, if you’re going to write professionally, you will need to work with an editor, so this is a small step on the path of working collaboratively. You might not be ready to do it yet, and that’s OK. But you can still learn so much from listening to other people share, and realising what does and doesn’t work – what’s inspiring, and what needs to be tightened, or lost, or flipped around. Maybe you’ll find that one day you want to share some of what you’ve written and get ideas from the group.
Like all writers I know, I’m still stung by editorial suggestions (even though I love my editor to bits and couldn’t do it without her) and I know how fragile a writer’s ego is, so we will go gently. But my experience of running workshops before is that there’s a quantum difference between simply describing a technique, and listening to people read out examples of it, then working on them together. Big note: you don’t have to agree with what everyone says (and you won’t). You don’t have to follow their advice. But hopefully they’ll give you some things to think about.
4. The recommended reading list for your course had me adding plenty of titles to my wishlist! How did you decide which books to include?
Sophia: Creating the reading list was the hardest part! I started off with about thirty ‘essential’ titles across the different age groups. Narrowing it down took ages, and there are still so many contemporary classics and quirky stand-outs I’d love to include. In the end, I went for books that shone with originality, like ‘I Want My Hat Back’ by Jon Klassen. Or books that are currently making waves in the publishing market, like ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ – a detective story by Robin Stevens. Or books that will tear your heart out, like the Carnegie-winning ‘Buffalo Soldier’ by Tanya Landman. I hope the students are impressed by just how good the children’s fiction market is right now. Because it’s fantastic.
Caroline: As Sophia said, there are some incredible books out there to choose from right now. I think the lists represents the very best of the current market. There will be lots of other gems popping up during the sessions too in the latter half of the course.
5. What three things do you hope those enrolling on the courses will take away with them after the final session?
Sophia: That’s such a great question, Carly!
Caroline: Yes, brilliant!
Sophia: These are my three things:
1. A solid group of writer friends to support each other through those difficult work-in-progress days. And the knowledge of where to find more ..
2. A great understanding of what publishers are looking for in children’s fiction right now, and what makes a good book stand out.
3. Some tools and tips to help with the practicalities of researching, planning, writing and ultimately selling an amazing book.
Caroline: I can’t really improve on that list! But if we could be cheeky and persuade you to allow four, I would add: having a real boost of energy and passion for writing. It can be hard at times and doesn’t always come easy, but it can also be the best thing in the world!
6. What is your number one piece of writing advice?
Sophia: The age-old one. The first piece of advice I was ever given. The one that still works …
Write. A lot or a little, but every day. It will be hard at times, but hey, John Green finds it hard, and he wrote The Fault in Our Stars. Do it because you must. Some people say it takes half a million words of practice before you get good at it and I’m pretty sure I did more than that before I got published. Would-be authors imagine what it would be like to be published. Writers write.
Caroline: Similar, but mine is to read. Read a wide range of books. Don’t worry about analysing them too much ( I never can if I am caught up in the story). Just immerse yourself in fiction. I firmly believe some sort of weird osmosis happens when writers read and that some of the good stuff sinks in. Or something like that! It’s absolutely crucial though. I have been on courses myself where people claim not to read books in the market they are trying to break into. That’s crazy. It’s such an important thing to do. Writers must be readers first and foremost, in my opinion.
7. I’m pretty sure everybody reading this is going to feel inspired to work on their own writing, so where can people register for your courses if they’re interested?
Sophia: Why, here, Carly. http://www.city.ac.uk/courses/short-courses/childrens-fiction-workshop#course-detail=0 Thank you for asking!
8. And to finish, let’s go for something fun – what three things would you pack in your bag for your first session on a creative writing course?
Sophia: A Twirl. (Always the chocolate bar of choice when writing.)
My yellow Moleskine notebook and a PaperMate fibretip pen.
Beer money for the down-the-pub-with-the-lecturer trip afterwards.
Caroline: Definitely a nice notebook! I’m also a Moleskine fan. Beer money and chocolate sound good too! It’s a bit hard to top that answer!
Thanks so much for having us, Carly!