Just over a year ago I signed up for an evening course in Writing for Children at City University. I mentioned it to someone the other day and her lip curled. ‘I’m not sure how worthwhile these courses are,’ she said. ‘After all JK Rowling never did a course in writing for children, did she?’
Well, no, maybe not. But for me the course was life-changing. I invested £140 and two and a half hours every Monday evening for ten weeks, then another £140 for the follow up course of another ten Mondays. I ended up with three agents wanting to represent me and a two book publishing deal.
Some people – JK for example - can sit on their own and dream up a whole new world, along with intricate twisting plots. Perhaps I might be able to do that one day. Other writers keep their work completely private until they have polished the final version. But I’m not really someone who likes complete freedom and total solitude. I like working with a team, and I need deadlines and feedback. That’s why I thrive in newspaper offices. That’s why I’d never got going with writing fiction. I knew how to write. I knew how to edit. But I didn’t know how to write a book.
The evening class gave me colleagues and tasks. It helped me think about what I wanted to write and how to go about it. It meant that I looked at other people’s work and thought about how it could improve. It turned me from someone who thought that writing fiction was something I’d like to do one day into someone who sat down and just did it..
Amanda Swift, our tutor was just the best person possible to learn from. Amanda’s written several warm and funny books for 9-12 year olds - The Boys’ Club, Big Bones and Anna/Bella. She’s got an incredibly light touch as a teacher - no pressure, no heavy criticism but unfailing enthusiasm and encouragement and a way of making one little comment that completely turns your head around and makes you see exactly where you’re going wrong - even if it means rewriting 15 chapters.
When I Was Joe came directly from an plot-planning exercise in class. We each had to think of a character for a contemporary teenage novel. I’d been thinking vaguely about witness protection – how interesting it would be to write about someone who had to lie about every aspect of their identity because they were telling the truth. We got into pairs and had to weave our characters together into a story. I happened to be paired with Amanda. Her character was a disabled athlete. We put the two characters together and made a story outline. I liked the story. Even more, I liked the fact that there was a story. I began to see how a novel could be planned. I asked Amanda if she’d mind me hijacking her character and working on the plot and having a go at writing it. She generously agreed.
By the end of the first Writing for Children course I’d written a first chapter. I would probably have then lost momentum, worried about plotting and research if Amanda had not persuaded City to let her put on a level 2 course. I took the 10 workshop sessions as a series of deadlines and started writing. By the end of course 2 I had 60,000 words. My classmates were fantastically supportive as I flooded them with multiple chapters. Their comments were insightful and helpful. I had a first draft of my novel finished a month after the course ended.
I still have my deadlines and colleagues. We set up a writing group after the course, and we meet in the library opposite City University. It’s great to work with all these talented people, to feel that we can contribute to each other’s work. It’s bridged the gap for me between the teamwork and immediacy of journalism and the solitude of novel-writing.
Sadly, the government doesn’t seem to value evening classes. Funding has been slashed and many courses have been cut. Never mind that courses like these are accessible, affordable and helpful to all sorts of people - from those who want to change their careers and get published - I'm not the only one - to those who want to be more creative and get out in the evening. Happily the Writing for Children course at City University has been saved, although it was threatened for a while. And hopefully someone will rethink the policy on evening classes and restore the subsidy that they deserve.