Tag Archives: Prompts

Are creative writing courses a waste of time?

Or more to the point, is writing a skill that can be taught, or a talent that some have and most don’t?

Hanif Kureishi, a creative writing professor, contends that 99.9% of his students are throwing away their time and their money in his class and others like it.

In terms of college classes I paid for, I have taken one creative writing course. It was a fairly easy course to pass, involving writing two stories over the span of the quarter, and peer reviewing everybody else’s story. My main takeaways from the course were the excellent book Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, and the impression that most people think a depressing story is a profound story (I was the first to write something even remotely funny).

I think input from other writers, or aspiring writers anyway, is valuable and can get you to think about things you might not otherwise have noticed. But all input should be taken with a grain of salt, with discernment, and it’s this discernment about the craft and how you tell a story that is one of the inherent skills of writing. The first time you hear what somebody says you should do to your story, listen to it without dismissing it, and still decide against it, you’re a writer or at least thinking like one. The key is not to be stubborn, but to know what you want to do.

I think writing exercises (prompts) can stretch your thinking and force you to consider ideas outside of your comfortable genre. The recent writing contest I entered was excellent for this.

And both of these are things you can obtain without paying any money (or at least not much), through forums like the blog, and a few excellent books.

Personally I think I’ve been taking a self-taught course in creative writing since I was about 3 years old, reading good books, and some books about the craft, and most importantly writing and putting that writing out there. I don’t want to put other people down in this situation, I think everybody has a story they can tell, they just might not have the right tools to tell it. If anything is inherent  (unable to be taught) I think it’s less the tools and more the attitude, the personality.

Writing is a solitary, introverted, frustrating and time consuming discipline. It can be wonderful, creative, imaginative, with words literally dancing off your fingers. And other days it’s a slog, and you have to be able to deal with both kinds of days.

If it takes a creative writing course to discover if this is for you, then that’s not bad in my bo0k. Frankly I recall my course being a welcome distraction from dozens of engineering courses. We all could use a tug into different lines of thinking. Maybe the course can’t really do anything to make you a writer, or maybe even a better one. But it at least can give you a taste of what it might be like to be a writer, and then let you decide for yourself.

What do you guys think? Taken any writing courses? Think your writing is God given talent?

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Side Stories

I’m not a fan of deleted scenes, or “unrated” cuts of films. Both in movies and in books, being able to cut away the chaff is a necessary skill, one that is an art-form in its own right. Most of the “outrageous” scenes are not more raunchy or more interesting, they are just different, and they were cut for a reason.

But I do like side stories. Animated films do this a lot. You’ll watch a main film, but there will also be a short with the characters from the film in a completely different circumstance. Over the Hedge has a particularly funny short where a family of porcupines play with a boomerang.

What’s the writing equivalent to this? The short story.

Recently I did a scene piece for the blog called “Dust” which features a character in an upcoming (maybe 2 years?) novel of mine. This little story takes place many years before the narrative of my main story, but provides an additional insight on some of the origins and feelings of one of the central characters.

This is something that short pieces can do that novels cannot. The short story allows us to experiment, to cut snippets in time rather than proceed down a linear progression. Taken as a whole we can sometimes get an even more complete glimpse at our character. If nothing else we gain some new insight on how they react in a new situation, and that can always inform us in drafting or perfecting our novel.

Try this for a writing exercise. Take two characters from your novel and put them in a completely different situation. Maybe if they’re in an action book, have them casually sharing a coffee or walking through the park. Maybe if your book is a romantic one throw them in the middle of some gun play. Or explore a moment before they even met each other, a moment where they almost but did not quite meet, and explore how things would be different if they had met at that moment.

I’m sure most who are married have thought about whether we would have liked our spouse (and vice versa) if we had met them at a different moment in our lives. For your characters the timing of the moment they come into contact is just as important as it is in real life, and exploring alternative meetings can lead to new interactions.

The point is, side stories give us a chance to get outside our narrative. Scenes that you cut provide insight as well, but in the end they are often strides along the same path as the rest of a novel. Short pieces outside the framework of the novel, or even the novel’s universe, can allow characters to shine in a whole new way.


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