Today we welcome RNA members Cathie Hartigan and Margaret James. Why did they decide to write The Creative Writing Student’s Handbook?
Margaret is a British writer of historical and contemporary fiction. She is also a journalist working for the UK’s Writing Magazine and she teaches creative writing for the London School of Journalism. She was born in Hereford, but now lives in Devon at the seaside, which is great because it means when she is stuck for a plot she can always go for a walk along the beach and be inspired!
Her latest novel is a contemporary romantic comedy, The Wedding Diary.
Cathie teaches the piano and creative writing. Although her professional training was in music, a decade ago she swapped one keyboard for another in order to take her life-long love of writing more seriously. Since then, she has won several prizes for her short stories, was a finalist in the annual Woman and Home short story competition three times and was thrilled to be included in the digital edition of Truly, Madly Deeply.
Cathie lectured in creative writing for nine years at Exeter College before leaving to found CreativeWritingMatters, which offers a range of writing services and administers The Exeter Novel Prize. Becoming a published novelist remains Cathie’s primary ambition.
When not writing, Cathie sings in a small vocal ensemble. The beautiful Devon coastline also provides plenty of distraction but on a rainy day if there’s an opera or theatre screening at the cinema, she’ll be there.
‘Collectively, Margaret and I have clocked up over three decades of teaching experience,’ says Cathie, who taught creative writing at Exeter College for many years and is now CEO of CreativeWritingMatters, an Exeter-based initiative which organises writing competitions, offers mentoring and provides a range of other services to writers. ‘We both realised long ago that the students who are likely to do well are good learners: who are willing to listen to their teachers but who don’t expect these teachers to lay down a set of infallible rules that will automatically lead to success. The students who succeed are those who think for themselves.’
‘So this new handbook is designed to show creative writing students how to learn,’ adds Margaret, who teaches creative writing for the London School of Journalism and contributes to every issue of Writing Magazine. ‘We hope our readers will engage with us – will think about what we say and will also do the exercises at the ends of the chapters. We’re always happy to hear from readers, who can contact us through the CreativeWritingMatters website: http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk/contact-us.html.’
‘When we first started to plan the handbook, we did wonder if our writing styles would mesh well enough to offer a smooth read,’ says Cathie. ‘The last thing we wanted was for readers to be able to say: this is by Cathie, but that’s by Margaret. As it turned out, however, the way we worked meant this wasn’t a problem.
‘After an initial meeting during which we decided what the overall content of the book should be, we agreed to write alternate chapters. Once these were written, we sent them backwards and forwards several times, tweaking, adding examples, adding exercises, rewriting when we thought we sounded too bossy (Margaret) or too sloppy (me).
‘We leaned on our writer friends to read and proof the book, spent a day preparing then photographing the cover image, grappled with Kindle Publishing Direct, and then – hey presto – it was done!
‘We believe creative writing students can benefit hugely from this book. Perhaps it will help teachers of creative writing too, for during the writing process both Margaret and I have learned a lot from each other. This brings me very neatly to our:
Ten Top Tips for the Creative Writing Student
1 – Don’t go on your writing journey alone. You can go it alone, but a fresh pair of eyes will always see things you won’t, even if you look at your work a hundred times. Join a group.
2 – Face the fear. You will have setbacks: getting nowhere in a competition, receiving ‘not suitable for our list’ emails from agents and publishers, or getting no response at all. Later in your career, you might have to deal with falling sales figures and/or not getting a contract renewed. Cry, beat a pillow or two and then start planning and plotting again.
3 – Do your research. Most authors don’t stint on their research for the books or stories themselves. But, once a book or short story is written, what then? If you already have an agent or publisher, then of course you’ll ping the manuscript to them. If you don’t, it’s essential to research the best place to send it. Don’t set yourself up for failure by sending your darling to an inappropriate competition, agent or publisher.
4 – Keep reading widely, relentlessly and with an enquiring mind. When a story impresses you, ask yourself: how did the author do that?
5 – When times are bad, don’t listen to the saboteur in your head telling you that your writing is a load of rubbish. Go on writing anyway.
6 – Don’t forget to write the story. It’s not enough to write just the back-story and the set-up. Don’t laugh – we see this kind of thing in competition entries all the time. There’s back-story, there’s set-up, but the writing doesn’t go anywhere.
7 – What happens and what happens in the end are two different questions with two different answers.
8 – If you’re entering competitions or have deadlines, always leave enough time for the redraft. And the second redraft. And the third…
9 – Research publishing options carefully: commercial or self-publishing? Big publisher or smaller independent?
10 – Keep the faith and believe in yourself.
Our thanks to both Cathie and Margaret for joining us today
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