Enabler or Gatekeeper? Choosing a Good Writing Course

Sometimes it seems that people who run writing courses are more like bouncers than ushers, taking your money and keeping you out of the club whilst claiming to ‘show you the way in’*. Some courses seem to promise much but leave you with little more than an overwhelming impression of how hard it all is.

(*this reminds me of an idea I once had. I used to suffer a lot from spam emails so I devised a special place in hell for spammers where every day someone comes along claiming to show them the way out of hell. They are compelled to believe these people but every one of them is a scammer.)

I don’t entirely blame them; it’s hard to make money from writing alone and you gotta do something. On the other hand if all you’re doing is taking people’s money and telling them how impossible it is to get where you are, that’s called ‘pulling the ladder up behind you’ and you’re doing them a disservice.

I do run the odd poetry workshop in which I try to help people release their creativity; however I don’t offer workshops oriented at success. This is for two reasons – 1, not having been ‘successful’ to any great degree myself, why would anyone take me seriously? and 2, it’s not what I’m good at (see point 1). What I’d like to do is offer more workshops on releasing and exploring creativity. But do people want that? I have a horrible suspicion that I’d give them my best stuff and then a voice would pipe up saying plaintively ‘this is all very well, but can you tell us how to get published?’ Such is the society we live in.

So here’s my advice when choosing writing courses:

1.Look for as many free courses as you can find. Free doesn’t necessarily mean worthless and you may pick up some valuable stuff as well as making contacts.

2. If you’re being asked to shell out money, check out the profile of the person organising it. If they’re offering a route to success but haven’t achieved much themselves, does that add up?

3. Does the course seem to offer a lot? Might it be offering too much? Check out user reviews from previous courses.

4. Is this what you really need right now? Call me arrogant but in terms of finding my voice I’ve always thought I was my own best teacher. There’s no substitute for reading as widely as possible and just writing as much as you can. No amount of courses can compensate for the lack of a writing habit. Equally, if you’re not at the publishing stage yet you don’t need a course on how to get an agent.

If you’re unsure what’s out there I recommend signing up to writers’ groups and websites. The Insecure Writers Support Group has a presence on Facebook and Writers Write gives daily writing prompts as well as running courses. You can also subscribe to the email lists of publishers and magazines without having to buy anything (I subscribe to the newsletters of Room magazine, the Royal Society of Literature – which produces the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – and other local literary fora.) These will tell you of upcoming competitions and submission opportunities. And if you’re a woman there’s no better magazine to subscribe to than Mslexia: as well as offering opportunities within the magazine there are comprehensive listings in the back. I’m also subscribed to Granta magazine, if it ever arrives…but that’s more for reading than submitting to.

It’s amazing what you can get for free, but whatever course you go on there’s no substitute for a good writing habit.

Now, apropos of which, here’s my upcoming course on ‘Developing a Good Writing Habit.’

LOL. Though actually I could totally do that…

Kirk out

Bumper and Grind

‘All that Jizz’ has now flown off in the direction of Mslexia Towers (that’s what they call it, though I suspect it’s an office in a little back-street somewhere) though it is no longer called by that offensive title but had a re-fit and a new front bumper added and is now called ‘What the Heron Saw’.  It has become a story about migrants, which makes it much better I think.

And so it’s back to the novel, which at the moment is feeling like a bit of a grind.

Whenever I use the word ‘grind’ I think it sounds like a posh way of saying ‘ground’.  I once had a book on how to ‘move upper-class’.  It was called ‘High Taw Tawk Propah-leah’ and it advised verbal exercises such as grimacing continually so as to sound (and presumably look) like Prince Phillip (Preenz Feelp).

I’ve just blogged the title and I’ve found my own post, reblogged by someone else.  Which was nice..


So here’s a link to the reblog so we can all go round in circles…

Last week was fun: we went to Foxton Locks for a day.  If you haven’t been there it’s a quite staggering feat of engineering getting canal-boats from the top of the hill to the bottom via a seriously steep lock-staircase.  There’s a cafe at the top (what was once the lock-keeper’s cottage) and no fewer than three pubs at the bottom.  We rejected two of these as being too posh and touristy, and entered the third, Bridge 61.  This was a proper pub, patronised by proper people and although the grub wasn’t brilliant the company was good.  I struck up a conversation with an old guy who looked the epitome of a narrow-boatman (which he was) but who surprised me by saying that before he retired he’d been a doctor!  He was into holistic therapies and we had a really interesting chat: he said as he finished his cider that he’d recently been thinking about going back into medicine but had decided he might be a tad old at 76!

I love canal-life.  I realise that in the heyday of canal-traffic it was a hard life, and for some who live all year round on unheated boats (like Chris, who comes to Drink and Think) it still is, but I’d really like to experience that.  It’s a way of life with its own traditions and its own people and according to our doctor friend, they all know each other.

So after lunch I went walking and picked some more elderberries, and now I have enough for my next batch of wine.  The blackberries are already simmering in the demijohn.

Anyway, here’s Foxton Locks:



Kirk out

Another Day, Another Story

Yep, I’ve gone and written another story.  Sometimes I just get stuck in and dash one off; and today when my new copy of Mslexia magazine came through the door and I scanned it for ideas, I came across an article about writing for women’s magazines.  Of course Woman’s Own et al are not the only type of publication for women, but they do pay quite well and you don’t need to agonise over every word and phrase as I seem to do with my literary fiction.  Not that they are exactly ‘easy’ to write for; you need to capture the tone and voice and tell a story in an ‘easy to read’ fashion without being facile.  But I’ve found the ideal topic: Mark’s madness – or Mandyness, if you prefer, told from my point of view.  It was actually very therapeutic to turn it all into fiction and by the time I’d finished I felt as if I’d got a load off my chest.

Mslexia is a whole compendium of writing for women, as well as being a publisher in itself, as a large proportion of it is written by readers.

And that was today.

Kirk out

Ah, Yes – I Remember It Well

I’m writing a memoir at the moment.  It’s not something I ever thought of doing until recently; I don’t know why.  Maybe I thought my life would be dull, I don’t know.  But now I’ve started I’ve found so much to say that it’s already getting up to the requisite 50,000 words – and it’s only Wednesday.

LOL.  I actually started it a few months ago and it’s going in for a Mslexia competition in September.  It was my aim to write 5000 words a week and I’ve surpassed that by quite a bit – just as well as there will be a fair bit of revision to do.

Oh!  We interrupt this broadcast to point out that I am in the Mercury again.  Actually it’s quite hard to spot me as I’m little more than a blur in the background of a picture featuring Kenneth Cranham, Joe Orton’s sister and other people who took part in the Joe Orton day on Sunday.  Here it is:


I’m in the top left hand corner looking fed up (I wasn’t – it was a great day).

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand – we’re back.  The memoir started off as an ironic twist on the whole genre as it was about memory loss.  It’s called ‘I am the Anti-Proust’ as it does the opposite of what Proust did.  Proust remembered everything; I forgot everything, and that’s the story.

I started a new poem this morning which was a sort of opposite of the poem ‘The Sick Rose’.  It’s about a flourishing rose – the one in my garden in fact which has done brilliantly since I pruned it.


What else have I done?  Worked on the novel which is about as far from being finished as it ever was; and then started a review of the Alan Bennett book I bought with my birthday book token.  It’s called ‘Four Stories’ and it features ‘The Clothes they Stood up In’ (originally a play) ‘Father! Father! Burning Bright!’ (also originally a play) and ‘The Lady in the Van’ which is strictly speaking memoir and not fiction.  Still, it’s all good and all worth reading.

And that was today.  I am now awaiting a Sainsbury’s order.

Kirk out

So farewell then…

Michael Foot.  He was a man of principle, a man you couldn’t help respecting, even if you disagreed with him (which I didn’t).  He grew up in the age of public debates and was reportedly an excellent orator, though no good at all on TV, and no match for Thatcher in a head-to-head.  He once said about her that she had no imagination, and therefore no compassion – a very pertinent comment, I thought.

Watched “The Truman Show” last night.  A great film – a unique film, I think.  I won’t tell you the story in case you haven’t seen it – but it totally stunned me the first time I saw it.  Jim Carrey is excellent as a quiet, unassuming character who conquers his fears to find his real self.  I am thinking of using it with my students to illustrate maya.*

Got on quite well yesterday: the novel is taking shape.  Almost finished “the God Illusion” as well.

Posting some work to “Mslexia” today – a short story and a flash fiction piece.

Kirk out.

*the idea that the physical world is an illusion and the spirit is the true reality.  Interestingly, Dawkins turns this on its head and says the exact opposite.  In “The God Delusion” he dismisses the “experience” argument for God (ie that people believe in god because they have religious experiences) – but those experiences he cites are of the “hearing voices and seeing visions” type, whereas I think the more important experiences are of the “transforming lives and overcoming obstacles” kind.  More of this anon… or possibly not.

And God chose for me…

… thus Mark, this morning, when his earphones fell out just as the sports report was coming on.  We are not great sports fans, except that I am a Wimbledon Wimp ie I watch tennis for 2 weeks a year.  It’s not that I’m exactly uninterested the rest of the time, it’s just that Wimbledon on the BBC is an event which ties together all my summers, going back to when I was a child.  I’ve only missed a couple of years, when I was in Spain – and one year when I was employed in Leigh, Lancashire.

What’s the Worst Job You Ever ‘ad?

Remember this?  It’s Derek and Clive – alias Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.  I used to like Dud, before he went the same way as Rod Stewart ie decided he was sexy and went off to the States.  Peter Cook, however, remained funny.


Just so you know, at the moment the link is blue – but I know that the moment I click “Publish” it will turn to a dull orange and refuse to work.


Tossed off a quick review of Proust yesterday and sent it on spec to Mslexia.  Thanks to this blog, I’ve got quite practised at writing reviews.  So we shall see.  The great thing is to keep sending stuff off.

Oh!  Yes, for some reason I was thinking about the worst job I ever had, which was selling double glazing.  Actually, technically it wasn’t selling but canvassing, since your job was to be a bridgehead for the stronger and nastier salesmen who would wade in and close the deal.

There were three days of “training” – which I don’t remember much about – and then we were off, three of us newbies, all very awkward and probably ashamed of being there – and the salesman.  He drove off from the centre of Manchester: after about half an hour I asked where we were going.

“I can go anywhere”, he said.

It wasn’t exactly an answer.  After another half hour, I tried another tack:

“Looking for anywhere in particular?”

“Smart housing estates.  Cheshire.” he said.

It turned out he was paying for his own petrol, not very clever as he was likely to be out of pocket by the end of the evening.  Finally we pitched up at an estate of new-looking houses.  It was clear that this guy didn’t have a clue what he was doing: it was equally clear that I knew it.  He dropped us all at different points to knock on doors.  At this point I started to get worried.  What if he never came back?  I had no money (reason I was doing this in the first place) and no idea where I was.  I knocked on the first door: no answer.  I breathed a sigh of relief, moved on to the next.  Those who answered were, predictably, not interested.  In their place, I wouldn’t have been either.  Hell, I wasn’t interested in selling this stuff.  The whole thing was a huge mistake.  By the time the guy came back though, I had managed to interest an old couple in taking it further, so he went in for the kill.  Twenty minutes later, he came out, fuming, not having managed to make a sale.  He spent the whole journey back abusing them, me, life, the universe and everything.  He scared me: I got him to drop me a mile from my house.  Didn’t want him knowing where I lived.

Never went back again.

And that was the worst job I ever had.

Happy Saturday!  Tomatoes this morning.  I’m not too hungry after last night.  Dinner with Peter at Mirch Marsala.  Thali.  Good.

Kirk out.

Bonjour mes petits brioches

– et comment ca va?  Il fait froid ici en Angleterre.  Vraiment froid!  Les rues sont comme une patine; j’ai failli tomber hier.

Wow!  That was hard.  It’s really difficult to post in another language if you’re not used to it.  Don’t worry I didn’t say anything significant – just that it’s cold here and the roads are like an ice rink.

Here’s a rough translation of the Dr Who (Bill Bailey) thing:

the Doctor – Who!

He travels in the Tardis.

The fantastic space box

the inside is much bigger than the outside

but that is the mystery of Doctor Who.

the enemy of the Doctor is Davros

he wants to rule the universe, always rule the universe!

But he never rules the universe

he is not very realistic

the daleks cannot climb the stairs

(I’m doing this from memory as the library computer won’t let me hear it unless I fork out £1.50 for headphones.)

Written another story today called “Never Explain” about a woman who starts off very unassertive and becomes a politician.  It’s a study in passive aggression.  So, this month I will be sending off two stories to the BBC (Radio 4) and two to a Mslexia competition (the one I mentioned before, judged by Tracy Chevalier.)

Not much else to report here.

Wrap up and keep warm

Kirk out