The final sessions of the Curtis Brown Creative Six-Month Creative-Writing Course have just taken place, and in this honest and at times unflinching piece – which we’ve taken from the author’s How Very Lovely blog – Colette Browne looks back at her half-year on the course.
January 2014. It is dark, dank and a week after I’ve applied to the Curtis Brown Creative Six-Month Novel-Writing Course. I’ve been writing for just under two years – it’s the cocaine of my generation – and, now I’ve reached my fifties, I spend a lot of my time thinking about writing courses, agents and writing competitions.
I get an email from someone who sounds like a singer – Rufus – I am in! Hooray. But wait. The fee isn’t cheap. There’s the train into London (£25) the parking (£4) – twice a week – cover for the kids’ endless taxi requirements. Then I decide I don’t want to continue with the book I’ve been trying to write. I want to write about shooting people who groom children instead. Who doesn’t?
I get a phone call from Anna, the Curtis Brown Creative boss, and we discuss what I hope to get out of the course. We agree I will stick to my existing novel in progress – she believes it’s worth it. Someone believes that what I’m trying to do is worth continuing. And I’d given her an out – a way of saying to me – ‘Write anything else, darling. Please’. For the first time someone who knows the publishing industry has said ‘continue’. That is what every writer wants.
On the first night at the Curtis Brown offices, I meet our tutor – someone who was once big in the music industry – and my classmates: a varied mix of lovelies, all hiding their fierce ambition with polite smiles and self-deprecating comments. We do a round robin of our ideas in progress. An amazing buffet. Most people say they are at 3,000–6,000 words. I’ve already been on the rollercoaster of having my manuscript called in and rejected three times, and I’m envious of those starting out. (I now know my work wasn’t ready to see daylight.) We all begin the course on a level playing field, but it’s clear some see this as a competition. Maybe I should have stayed at home. I was never good at sport.
I get home and go on Youtube. I still don’t recognise the music of our tutor, nor have I read her books. I decide I won’t – for fear of fettering my opinion of her. We all have to submit our writing to her, as well as the group – so we can critique each other’s work. I set up a template with an opening, ‘I may not be your target audience; if I offend you in any way, please let me know – it is not my intention.’ The first submissions arrive for us to read – they are good. Very good. I write my views, trying to help. I vocalise my opinion in class. It is clear some people are offended. I wonder what they want me to say. It is perfect? All brilliant? When it is my turn, I get a completely Marmite reaction. The people whose work I loved generally love mine, and those I didn’t like so much hate it.
I am offended by some of the comments but thrilled by others. It’s a big lesson and an excellent example of cognitive dissonance – we are all influenced by our opinion of the person who wrote it. Two weeks later I re-read the comments – I see some differently. I cut some out and make a rude poem, which I hang in the downstairs loo. It makes me smile.
The course carries on and, just as I’m starting to get bored by the group discussion, Curtis Brown Creative pulls what is a stroke of genius in the form of four sessions with MJ Hyland. OMFG. I read the first chapter of her book Carry Me Down. Wow, she can write – even if she is writing about teaching a child to drown puppies. I should have worked out what was coming. She is lively, clever and shit-scary in a way that few men are. She is intimidating yet attentive. Comparing her to our tutor is like comparing Guns ’n’ Roses to Otis Redding.
As the course continues, groups of common interest are formed. I speak to a few of the people regularly. Prejudices become difficult to hide. Someone complains about my feedback – I look at it – it seems fair to me. I have a one-to-one tutorial with the tutor; it is a good moment, when certain things are explained from her point of view. Stern encouragement. My second submission is rubbish. I get home, lick my wounds and check Twitter for what Jonny Geller is up to today – his words are always like Ovaltine for wannabe writers. ‘It’s a good thing to make people want to cry,’ he says.
The volume of the cognitive dissonance is turned up high by the time we get to the middle of the course. Tom Rob Smith who wrote The Farm is brought in to chat, as is Nathan Filer who wrote The Shock of the Fall (it took him 11 years to write). I read both books. Both reflect their personalities – that was worrying. But, then again, I am writing a book about an obsessive stalker who hears voices but appears sane – it is what it is.
Curtis Brown Creative switches gears again by bringing in Tobias Jones, author of The Salati Case. If he were a song he’d be ‘Can’t Hold Us’ by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. My notebook was spinning with ideas by the time he left. He probably had about three sources for any question you asked, plus another two of his own opinion. I loved him.
I was beginning to ask myself, ‘Do I fit into this world of really clever people ? Could I ever write anything that they would read?’ I already know the answer – no – but I want to write stories both my cleaner and my son’s history teacher would be happy to buy. And, to be fair, most of the people on the course had the same ambition: commercial, middle-ground books that are well written.
July 2014. We have our last session, most of the minor upsets by harsh critiques are placed to one side, and everyone speaks of their contentment with the course. My family have a mini celebration now I’m not going to be trekking into London twice a week. I finish the second draft of my manuscript. A much improved and more honed version than I one I started with six months ago. Not perfect – but definitely getting there. The grand finale is a drinks do at which literary agents and writers mingle. A few of the hardcore (yes, I was one) finished up on doubles in the pub. As we hugged at the train station, one wiped away a tear. ‘I’m going to miss you guys.’
Jonny Geller would have been proud.