Unthank School of Writing Blog

3 May 2016

What can you expect from an Unthank introductory level course?

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Sarah Bower talks about our evening class An Introduction to Writing Fiction 

People come to creative writing classes for all sorts of reasons. They may be looking to develop a hobby, or for social interaction with the like-minded. They may have something particular they want to say but don’t know how to go about it, or they may have an ambition to become a professional writer and see a class as the first rung on the ladder.

The face-to-face introductory level courses I run for the Unthank School aim to cater for all kinds of objectives and levels of competence. The group size is small — never more than twelve participants — and the atmosphere informal. Any creative process involves laying oneself on the line in an intensely personal way; even if your story is about six-headed Martians or miniature dragons, at its heart it remains your own, personal story and it can be daunting to share it with other people. So I aim to establish a supportive atmosphere in which students learn, not just about writing but about how to read well and give constructive feedback to fellow group members. I hope participants will not only learn but also have fun.

What can you expect from an Unthank introductory level course? You will learn the basics of story writing: how to create strong, believable characters; how to develop a plot and write to a theme; how to set a scene and create a fictional world that readers will believe in and want to spend time in. The emphasis is on practical exercises rather than theory. Classes last for two hours a week, usually in the early evening to accommodate people who have work and family commitments, and there is also a small amount of homework, mainly focused on the requirement to produce a short story of around 1000 words by the end of the ten week course.

I also expect students to read. Gabriel Garcia Marques famously likened writing to carpentry — a craft rather than an academic discipline. Just as a carpenter can’t build anything without tools, a writer can’t write successfully without reading. Reading critically, in a way that enables you to think about how other writers achieve the effects they do, is essential to learning to write. It’s also useful to read outside your personal comfort zone; if George R. R. Martin is your regular bag, try Jane Austen; if you get your kicks out of Dickens, try spending a few hours in the company of Virginia Woolf. By all means watch movies and televisations — there’s a lot to be learned about structure from film and TV — but don’t mistake these for the real thing. My writing classes are also, in some degree, book groups where we talk about other people’s writing as well as our own.

Learning to write, and read, isn’t difficult. On one level, it utilises basic skills we all learn at primary school. If you have pen and paper and books, you have everything you need to begin. But this facility can also be deceptive. If you take up a hobby like sculpture or stock car racing, you have to invest in a certain amount of specialised kit and this in itself cultivates a sense of commitment. Because writing is so ‘easy’, and involves no special skills, you can underestimate the level of discipline and application needed to succeed. So here are five tips for the beginning writer:

  • Carry a notebook with you everywhere (or use the notes facility on your phone) and be alert to story opportunities. You’d be surprised what you overhear in the supermarket queue or observe in the gym if you’re attuned. Write everything down.
  • Make time and space for writing in your life. To begin with it can be as little as 15 minutes a day, maybe early in the morning before other people get up, or in your lunch hour, or sitting on the train. If you start with something small and manageable, you’ll quickly find the time building up, and you’ll be gratified by what you can achieve simply by writing something every day.
  • Use a technique such as morning pages to write intuitively, free of the obligation to impose sense or structure on your words. Learn that the first draft of anything can be utter rubbish. No-one sees it but you. Give yourself permission to write anything, because once you have words on the page, you can edit them, and editing existing words is much less daunting than confronting the blank page.
  • Read anything and everything, from Cervantes to the cereal packet.
  • Find a group of likeminded people with whom you can share work. A writing group is a great first step to getting your work out to a readership, and no story really comes to life until it has not just a writer but also readers. The Unthank School has a strong tradition of forging relationships between groups of students who then go on to meet and share work long after their courses have ended.

So why not make your starting point the Unthank Introduction to Writing Fiction?

Sarah Bower is the author of three novels The Needle in the Blood, winner of the the Susan Hill Award 2007, The Book of Love and Erosion, written under the penname S. A. Hemmings. She has taught creative writing at UEA, Lingnan University in Hong Kong and the Open University as well as for the Unthank School. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia.

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If you would like to sign up for An Introduction to Writing Fiction with Sarah Bower, starting September 26th, we are taking registrations now.