19 March 2014

Curtis Brown Creative at 3 years old

Interview with Anna Davis
by Anna Davis Our Courses

This May, Curtis Brown Creative will reach its third birthday. We’ve come a long way since the first 3-month creative-writing course for 15 students, taught by Jake Arnott and me. That first group was very vibrant and talented – 3 of them now have publishing deals and a 4th has been offered representation this week. But the class of Spring 2011 wasn’t a one-off – there have been 6 further publishing deals for our students and I heard of yet another just yesterday (not finalised so I can’t shout about it yet).

Three years in, we continue to run 3-month novel-writing courses in our offices, and have hosted some fabulous guest speakers including Jojo MoyesJeffrey ArcherRosamund LuptonDavid Nicholls – and on our next course, now open for applicationsHoward Jacobson. I believe 3 months with us is sufficient for talented novelists to figure out how to play to their strengths and to gain some useful insights into the publishing industry. But, from early on, many writers told us they wanted a longer course to give them more time working on their novels with us – so last year we launched our first 6-month course to offer students more time to hone their work with support from our tutors, agents and guest speakers, and including ‘mini courses’ taught by some great guest tutors, such as Tony ParsonsLiz Jensen, and M J Hyland. We’re running the second 6-month course at the moment.

The novel-writing courses in our offices, supported by our agents, have continued to be at the heart of our offering as a creative-writing school. We’ve grown our team of tutors very slowly to be sure of recruiting people who are not just published novelists with strong track records, but also great teachers with a good understanding of our priorities and ethos. Our head tutor, Chris Wakling, has now taught 6 courses with us; Nikita Lalwani and Louise Wener have become key members of our teaching team over the last few months, and our next 3-month novel-writing course will be taught by the wonderful Erin Kelly.

From the word go, we received queries from people who live far from London and still wanted to be able to take our courses. The obvious solution was to develop an online course – but this is easier said than done. For two years we worked on possible ways forward, tested various platforms, got utterly bogged down with questions about how to recreate the dynamic of our writing workshops in the online environment (how many hours and days did I spend playing around with different video conferencing formats before it dawned on me that I was wasting my time because of the different time zones our students might come from and because people who choose online courses often want flexible scheduling!).

What I’ve come to understand is that you can offer a course with the same quality and values online – you should still provide strong tutors who give substantive feedback to students in the group space, plus one-to-one tutorial time and teaching on key topics. It’s still important for the agents to be involved with the course, and you still need to build a strong group of students who are useful critics and editors for each other – but you need to deliver the course very differently to make it work. We were finally ready to launch our first online course in Autumn 2013. A second course is now in progress, and our next three-month online course – with Nikita Lalwani is still open for applications. While I’m banging on about online courses, I’d like to take this opportunity to emphasise one of the things that makes us different – we deliver our online courses ourselves – direct from the Curtis Brown Creative team. I know that sounds like a non-statement, but, actually, if you look carefully at the online courses offered by some of our main competitors, you’ll discover that they are delivered by third-party contractors. You think you’re signing up to an online course with the school of your choice but behind the website your course is actually delivered by another organisation altogether…

We’ve been busy, across our three years, and we’re growing – but not so fast as to lose our focus. Our popular Writing for Children courses with Tony Bradman and Stephanie Thwaites (currently on maternity leave) have led to two students gaining publishing deals. Our two Discovery Days with Foyles have seen hundreds of writers pitching their novels to our full team of agents from Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh. We’ve run ‘free’ scholarship places on some of our courses for students with limited means, sponsored by Kobo Writing Life. Last year we ran our first overseas course at the Singapore Writers’ Festival, in partnership with the National Arts Council of Singapore (don’t get me started on the fab food…). And on April 11th we’re running the London Writers’ Fair – a day of writing classes and panel events at Foyles, Charing Cross Road, in partnership with the London Book Fair.

I’m really proud of what we’re doing at Curtis Brown Creative. Over the next 3 years, I want to continue to:

  • Find and nurture new writing talent.
  • Help writers to get the best out of their work and educate them in the ways of today’s publishing industry.
  • Provide well-planned courses with a practical approach that respond to the individual aims and needs of the students, taught by published authors with good teaching experience working with the Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh literary agents.
  • Take a selective approach to admissions in order to create peer groups of talented writers able to work at a high level – places are offered to applicants based on their proven writing ability.
  • Bring in great visiting speakers to our courses, including major authors and top publishers.
  • Ensure all of our courses are true to our core values and are delivered to our students by the Curtis Brown Creative team, not by third-party organisations.

That’s not to say we can’t get better. We ask our students for feedback on our courses, and we’re working to find ways to improve them, as well as to develop new courses and events. Drop us an email at cbccourses@curtisbrown.co.uk if you have an idea you’d like to share with us.

And do explore our courses currently open for applications – online or in our offices.

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