Annabelle Thorpe, who studied with us back in 2011, is a leading travel journalist whose debut novel, The People We Were Before, has just been published by Quercus. Originally a sceptic about creative writing courses, she tells us how Curtis Brown Creative changed her mind.
I’ve always been suspicious of writing courses. Over the years, when I’d moan to friends or family about my endless struggles trying to finish my novel, or find an agent, or even know if what I was writing was any good, they’d occasionally suggest I think about taking a creative writing course. To which my response would always be the same; you can’t teach someone how to write – in such appalled tones they’d immediately start talking about the weather.
Fortunately, (so that I don’t feel a complete idiot), I’m not alone in having preconceptions about this type of course. I’d imagined a roomful of competitive, slightly pretentious people, all of whom would make me feel untalented, unimaginative and unlikely to ever get published (and frankly I was doing pretty well at feeling those things on my own). How could you maintain your own unique voice, I thought, if you were taught in the same way as a roomful of other people? And how could there possibly be a right or a wrong way to write? Wasn’t that what was so fantastic about writing fiction – the utter freedom to write however you wanted, about whatever you wanted?
But slowly, as the rejections letters kept coming, it dawned on me I wasn’t getting published. I was nowhere near getting published. Something wasn’t working, and if I wanted to find out what it was, perhaps it was time to put myself in the hands of professionals. I applied to the Curtis Brown Creative course of Autumn 2011. To my joy, I got a place.
Right from the off, it was nothing like I suspected. To my surprise, everyone else in my group seemed to be just like me; nervous, a bit unsure, but hugely passionate about their writing. I remember going home after the first night and feeling like I’d become a member of a new club, full of people like me – driven by an inexplicable passion and determined to write a novel. And none of them seemed remotely competitive.
As the course unfolded, I realised just how far my writing was from being publishable. Simple exercises – focusing in on character’s small quirks, using unexpected metaphors, cranking up my dialogue so I was ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ – made huge differences. It wasn’t always easy – sometimes the criticism could be a little bruising, a little brisk – but it bought results. And there was always the promise of a glass of wine in the pub later with my fellow writers, all of whom were on the same rollercoaster ride as me.
Fast-forward almost (gulp) five years and I’ve (finally) just become a published author. Did the course make a difference? In all honesty, I don’t think I would be here if I hadn’t done it. I’d still be filling pages with exposition, adding in unnecessary adjectives and skimping on dialogue. Still wondering why no agent was picking up my book. And the biggest loss of all; I wouldn’t have a group of people in my life, all brilliant writers, who have become my compadres in the new, sometimes scary world of fiction. I still think I was right in some ways. You can’t teach someone how to write from scratch. But you can teach them how to write better. And that, in my personal experience, makes the difference between a novel on the shelves in Waterstones, and just another rejection email, popping up unwantedly in your inbox.
Annabelle’s debut novel, The People We Were Before is available now.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).