So. Cardiff book festival. It’s astonishing that the capital of Wales hasn’t had its own literary festival until this year but, now it’s got one, it’s a really good one. An interesting mix of writers were invited to speak in venues throughout the city – the Central Library, the Old Library, the Angel Hotel – and it all ran like a dream. Cardiff’s an easy city to walk around so there were no issues with getting from one venue to another and it was great to see a bit of the place, rather than to have the festival held in one central venue and be cooped up there.
I trotted along to the central library on Saturday morning to see a couple of debut novelists – a fellow Freight author, Laura Powell, whose book The Unforgotten is a kind of crime book by mistake and Dan Tyte whose book Half Plus Seven I’ve not read but which sounds as hilarious as it is scurrilous.
It was interesting to listen to Laura and Dan’s path to publication. Both had been on creative writing courses which they credited with getting their first novel written and both were very positive about the experience.
I didn’t take a creative writing course – partly because, at the point when it would have been helpful to do one (in the early ‘90s) they were about as common as feminist farmers in the 1970s and because those that did exist were really only intended for serious literary writers, not purveyors of mystery and crime. But also – in the interests, as they say, of full disclosure – because I thought I could work out this writing lark for myself. I’m a natural auto-didact and I HATE a) being watched/overseen while I work and b) having my work scrutinised and commented on before I think it’s as good as I can possibly make it. I may not be alone amongst writers in this…
It’s a live issue, this one of learning to write. Lots of people ask me whether I think writing courses are a good thing or whether wannabe writers are just getting fleeced. And my answer is: probably both. Good courses will teach people with native talent to be better. But, if you have no talent, there is probably no course you can go on, no number you can submit yourself to, which will make you into a publishable writer.
So, if I were starting out now, would I go on a creative writing course? I don’t know. See above. But it would be a much more difficult decision, knowing what I do after the experience of getting published, both this time and last. Because, whilst it is possible to learn ‘on the job’, plugging away on your own does not get you plugged in to the writing scene; polishing your technique in your garret while you starve and have no social life doesn’t present you with tricks of the trade; and, crucially, your work isn’t seen by people who can give you sensible advice/be your agent/offer to publish you. It’s like trying to make it as a classical musician without going to one of the conservatoires or to make it as an artist without going to art school. It can be done, it’s just a lot harder.
Ah yes, people will say (have said, actually, in my hearing) but surely you can either do it or you can’t? Not true. I refer you to the art school/conservatoire comparison above. Nobody bats an eye about those career routes or accuses people who take them of somehow cheating or getting in with minimal talent. Obviously, it’s helpful to be able to string some words together credibly, but you can learn to string them together an awful lot more credibly by listening to somebody who knows what they’re talking about. I did it by osmosis – by doing an English degree then reading and reading and reading and letting the rules and structures of my chosen genre/s sink in to the bit of my brain where they needed to be. Somewhere subconscious. I might’ve got on more quickly if I’d done a course. Alternatively, I might have been a more self-conscious, less instinctive writer.
Either way, here I am.
In other news, I got the first look at cover art for None So Blind this week and I love what the designer has done. I’m not going to show you yet because the typeface and things have to be tweaked but I hope to have a final version to post here and on my website soon.