In December 2014 I saw an advertisement for an Online Writing for Children’s Course with Curtis Brown Creative, a literary agent led writing school based in London, England. In essence, this is simply the same as any other writing course only it was done through an online platform to facilitate writers who didn’t live in London or couldn’t get there, which really worked for me since I’m from Ireland. In total, there were fifteen students (I think CBC expected about 75 submissions but I’m not certain) and one tutor, Catherine Johnson, award-winning writer of Sawbones. Catherine has a huge amount of teaching experience behind her and it really showed because she didn’t mess about. Her goal was to make our work as close to publishable as possible so at times she could be quite blunt. And I can tell you for a fact that it is far better to have someone tell you exactly what is wrong with your work rather than say everything is perfect when you both know full well it isn’t.
For submission to the course, we had to provide the first three thousand words of the book we were working on and a synopsis. It’s important to note that we had to be working on a novel in some shape or form during the course. Some worked on theirs for years, I think the longest being five. Others worked on theirs for not very long at all.
I finished my exams on the nineteenth or the twentieth of December and came back home and started working on my novel on the twenty-second. I wasn’t planning on writing anything until the summer because it was my final year of college and I knew I’d get swamped with work at certain points during the last semester. Despite knowing that, this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Luckily, I’m someone who spends more time in my own head than I am in the real world so I had an idea. It was something I had been thinking of for a while and I felt it could make for an exciting fantasy fiction book for Middle Grade, i.e. 8-12 year olds. I made a rough plan for what I was going to write then stopped for a while.
Something really cool happening at the time was that my cousins had come over from Australia for the holidays. It was their first time in Ireland for eight years and spending time with them naturally meant that I had to take a break from writing for a week or so. I think I finally got back to it just after the beginning of January. It was funny in a way because my cousins were still around and I was half-working, half-running into the kitchen apologising about not being able to talk to them for long.
The submission deadline was January twelfth so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to turn out something worthy of getting me onto the course as well as a synopsis that would excite them. I took another one or two days to map out the idea that little bit more and then wrote the chapter. I finished it surprisingly quickly, and edited it and had everything submitted with days to spare.
I got accepted onto the course, which started in early February and ran until mid-May. I had very high expectations and usually when I have high expectations, I end up disappointed. Not this time. This time my expectations were smashed to pieces as the course drove through them like a freight train and far exceeded them.
The course was broken down as follows:
Every week tutorials were put up on an online platform. They would be submitted to us in the form of videos and as written notes (this is a really good idea because we all learn differently and this gave everyone a fair chance) on some part of the writing process, characterization, dialogue world building etc. Each student had to submit two pieces, up to 3,000 words, of his or her work at different points during the course. There were three submissions in total per week meaning we were reading up to 9,000 words each week and giving feedback on them. Thus, each student would get fifteen different pieces of feedback, one from Catherine and one from each of their fellow students. Furthermore, we each had two one-to-one tutorials with Catherine, which could either be done on the phone or via Skype. (I chose to do mine via Skype because that was the easiest thing for me.)
If you are wondering what the benefits is of reading someone else’s work are then let me tell you, they are numerous. The biggest thing is that you can see your own mistakes in another piece of writing. I know for a lot of people, myself included, it can sometimes be difficult to spot where a chapter starts to let you down or why it isn’t working the way you want it too but when reading another work with the same problem, it becomes almost trivial to spot. Also, it’s a great way to bounce around ideas and have a discussion with your classmates.
But that wasn’t the end of the course. Towards the final couple of weeks some really exciting things started to happen. The first was that we had a Q&A session with agents Stephanie Thwaites, Lauren Pearson, Alice Dill and Anna Davis, all of whom work with Curtis Brown and Anna also happens to be the director of Curtis Brown Creative. The next great event was our synopsis submissions. We had to post these up and two of the agents, Stephanie, Lauren, Anna or Sue Armstrong of Conville&Walsh would respond with their comments and thoughts on how we could fix them and make them better. Finally, at the end of course we submitted a synopsis and three thousand words from the start of our book in an informal submission to the agents of Curtis Brown.
So what does one get out of a course like this? Confidence is huge. I’m much more confident in my writing. I now have the tools to write properly, all I have to do is put them to good use. It gives you a community of writers to share your work with which is vitally important because there might be a time in the future when you want someone to read a chapter or more of your books and you’re safe knowing that you have a network of people who can provide quality feedback.
Another hugely important aspect of this course is that it allows you to work with professionals in the industry and it gives you contacts. Anna is extremely passionate about books and writing and more than happy to help ex-CBC students in any way she can. So when I eventually submit my work I won’t feel so “up a creek without a paddle”.
And of course, there’s the name. Having completed a course with CBC is not something to be sniffed at. I don’t say that in an oh-look-at-me-I’m-so-great sort of way, I mean to show that CBC have built up a fantastic reputation in a short period. At the time of writing, they have a total of sixteen ex-students either having already been published or with publishing deals. They’ve only been in business since May 2011!!! That is very impressive and I’m guessing, or at least I’m hoping, that when I submit to agents having CBC down as writing experience might just catch their eye.
Cost. Cost is a deterrent and to be honest, that’s not a bad thing. And perhaps here I should point out that the Online Writing for Children’s Course is just one of many courses they run so whether you are writing for children, YA or adults, there’s something there for almost everyone. (I don’t think they have a course aimed for an audience of under eight…not yet anyway!) Back to price, the course is expensive but this helps to achieve a couple of things. The first is to ensure only writers passionate about writing and getting published will apply. The second is so that they can continue to provide the highest level of teaching and service. Is it worth it? Without a doubt. The experience was invaluable and the information will stay with me forever.
A word on my fellow students. A course is usually only as good as the students taking part because no matter how good Catherine was, if we were uncooperative and unwilling to learn, then the course would have been a disaster. The good news is that didn’t happen. Some of the people on the course had wonderful attitudes and ideas and writing styles. I really do expect one or two of them, if not more, to get their books published at some point in the future.
As for me, time will tell. I’ve just started an MA in Classics so that will take up a lot of my time. But, when it does come to submitting I’ll let you know how I get on and if CBC has managed to help me turn my rickety oxcart of an idea into a Ferrari.
The final thing I want to say is if you’re having trouble attracting the attention of agents when you submit or just having difficulty writing as it is, do a writing course. Yes there are some incredibly talented authors that do it all by themselves. They have an innate talent and ability and can produce a quality, well-received piece of work that will set the literary world on fire. But I see no shame in saying that I’m not one of them. Sometimes we can get quite proud as a species and not want to admit our shortcomings and if that’s what is keeping you from going out and seeking help with your writing then swallow it and take a class. Whether it is with CBC or another group, I’m sure it will be beneficial.