All revolutions start with five people meeting in an upstairs room
It will be raining outside and early in the week as well as the year. Christmas decorations will have not long been put back in their boxes. One of the lights won’t be working. One of the windows will rattle. Some of the assembled are caught up in a grand dream already, and some only here to explore the possibilities. Some are old hands, some novices. Everyone has something that they want to contribute. Everyone has something to say and something to share.
This was the atmosphere that surrounded the first ever Unthank School of Writing workshop, which took place in January 2011 at the York Tavern in Norwich. And like all revolutions, this one has produced a book.
The book that you hold in your hands contains stories that brim with the storytelling verve, imagination and talent of writers we have supported during the first seven years of the Unthank School. All are the product of hard work and commitment and all will tell you something about what we are about and what we cultivate.
A brief history of the Unthank School
The Unthank School was founded both as an accompaniment to Unthank Books, and as a direct response to the cutting of community creative writing after the 2008 crash.
Several of us had been working as associate lecturers in creative writing for many years. As austerity swept its scythe through the system, the university departments that had provided us with employment disbanded around us (without any warning in some cases). Creative writing in the community was becoming a thing of the past. Believing that writing is for everyone, we didn’t want to let this happen.
We started by offering an Introduction to Writing Fiction to provide new writers with a basic grounding in terms, techniques and practice, and an Advanced Fiction Workshop for writers with work in progress, both of which have been taught by Sarah Bower and myself. We did initially offer screenwriting and poetry courses, and even ran one term of poetry, but it soon became obvious that fiction was our thing, no doubt because we were connected to a fiction publisher. As such, we added a twenty-five week Writing the Novel course. However, we didn’t abandon other forms of writing altogether. Later we were joined by Lilie Ferrari, who ran an introduction and workshops in writing for TV drama, soaps and serials. In 2015, Stephen Carver became part of the team and took us online with the How to Write a Novel course. The online version of the evening, face-to-face workshop in Norwich, the Online Fiction Workshop, taught myself, found an international as well as a British constituency. Our latest recruit is the extremely experienced writer and tutor, Tom Vowler, who has added an online course specifically for short story writers to the school. It’s frequently fed back to us that no one teaches creative writing like Unthank.
The long game of becoming a better writer
Although we had all benefited from teaching creative writing for universities and art schools – and many of us still do – we were able, outside of the institutional setting, to ditch elements of university teaching that we felt served little purpose or inhibited writers, namely grading, tickbox assessments, self-reflective appraisals, and too much emphasis on close-reading and line-editing. Close-reading and editing are important, obviously, but with new writers or writers working on a first draft, excessive comma patrol and quibbling about usage can suck the life out of a promising story that’s not yet found its flow. There’s no point chopping off fingers that are still groping towards the light. Instead, in workshops at least, we focus on storytelling and listening to the writer discuss what he or she intends for the story and helping to shape an unfolding narrative.
It is interesting, in this light, that most Unthank School tutors have had some, or lots, of experience working for The Literary Consultancy, under the feathers of the late, irreplaceable Rebecca Swift and now Aki Schilz. Here, we have worked with full-length manuscripts and with every type of writer and novel, from the most brutally boilerplate thrillers to 900 page experimental tracts written backwards in the lost language of cranes. The scope of this editorial work has allowed us to develop a practical and flexible approach to teaching writing, one that isn’t about the syllabus or the canon or the network, but what pitfalls wait the unwary writer who pushes ahead without input or feedback.
Unthank’s cure is very much a talking cure and uses the example of the writer’s own work to teach from. We pride ourselves on being eclectic and responsive. We prompt and pre-empt. We try to make things work for the writers, so their stories realise themselves on their own terms.
Another advantage we found we have is that we spend far more time with our students, especially online, and more time in terms of weekly contact hours. It becomes far, far easier to build a rapport with our students. Conversations often range widely, attacking a subject by digression, going off-piste only to come back to the point with a new and surprising possibility. These workshops are terrifically entertaining and can be the most fun anyone has when he or she is talking about their writing. The workshops are rolling and run three times a year. This means that we do see novels grow from idea to finished draft. With students who stay for the long haul, we get to see these novels through the drafting process. At the moment, we are seeing quite a few students start a second book. Some of our students, like Catharine Barter and Annie Beaumont have had books published with mainstream publishers or via the self-publishing route.
We have become proud of the work that the school produces, impressed by the wit, doggedness and inventiveness of our students. It is this that inspired us to put out a call for submissions for Unveiled. We received writing from over fifty former and current students. The fifteen stories here are the ones we felt are the most realised, the stories with the most authoritative voices, that demanded that we include them.
For many of the writers here, this is their first brush with printer’s ink. For some it is the first time they have submitted a story to a publisher. For others, it’s the first time they have been accepted by a publisher. Most of the stories here are novel extracts, which means that they need a little contextualising if they’re not first chapters, so a little precis precedes where necessary. The stories range from Berlin to Australia to the British street and beyond. Here, there are introverts and psychopaths, frustrated housewives and perplexed old men. There are time-slips and childhood trauma, historical fictions, speculative fictions and slices of life, an abundance of stories. No creative writing school can guarantee success for its students and certainly not in all the forms that publishing success can take. For some, though, this may be the first in a long line of publications. What we have in Unveiled is a profusion of beautiful sparks, glinting fragments, wonderful suggestions. Each of these tasters and samples hints at something greater to follow.
If you would like to order a copy of Unveiled, either the paperback or an e-book, click here.