Ruck’s Nutshell Series on Creative Writing.

So, what qualifies me to write a few tips on how to write creatively?

Well, my own stuff has been known to sell a bit, so I suppose I must be doing something right. Humble scribbler I may be, but I reckon I’m entitled to have an idea or two on how to write a novel.

Having said this, the best creative writing tutor of all is a book, and plenty of ’em.

There’s no harm of course, in receiving some pointers, suggestions etc from those who have written books, but I fail to see why any aspiring writer should have to pay thousands of pounds for the privilege of being told ‘how to write’.

In my view, you either can or you can’t and that’s that.

There are of course some successful writers who began their careers in a lecture theatre, but I would argue that the talent was already there in the first place. It just needed a bit of fine tuning. A great tenor has to have a fine voice to begin with. Not all the training in the world is going to make it great, if it isn’t already there. You get my point.

The above notwithstanding, the only way you are going to learn your craft is by actually doing it.

Like everything else in life, experience is everything.

So, save a few bob and read the following:-

1 Read as much as you can – I went through the classics and can’t say I really enjoyed them. They were simply a means to an end,in my case a legal end, if you can work that one out! On the other hand, I enjoyed Dickens and Hardy, who were both out-and-out story tellers, so there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I’ve also read a great deal of commercial fiction. Pulp, crap, popular, literary. Who cares, it’s the story that counts – that’s if you want an audience. If you’re writing for yourself, good luck to you.

Tell a story. A beginning, middle and end.

2 Live a bit. A novel is supposed to be a commentary on life. How can one write about it if you haven’t lived it?

3 Don’t try and show how clever you are with words. You might understand what you’re on about but the reader won’t. Most of the classics wouldn’t last five minutes in the modern reading world. Pages and pages of smart arse description and esoteric self-analysis will simply bore your average reader to death.

The literary is all very well, but it doesn’t sell. I wonder why?

4 Listen to the experiences of published writers. How do they work? How do they do it?

5 Dump all the technical nonsense. Many writers, including me, haven’t a clue about characterisation, structure blah de blah.Write for the reader if you want to get published, not for yourself. There’s nothing worse than self-piteous reams of woe is me or ‘literary excellence’ that is unreadable – I am reminded here of D H Lawrence’s constant bleatings about sunrises and sunsets.

And by the way, since when has writing ever operated by a rule book??

6 Get your hands dirty. Offend, insult and throw your story in people’s faces. Remember, we wouldn’t have a democracy if it wasn’t for outspoken truth alchemists.

7 Forget inspiration. Mine starts at 8am and finishes at 4pm, four days a week.

8 Make sure your narrative moves, don’t hang about and if you can, lead the reader down a merry old garden path then hit ’em with an ending that they just haven’t seen coming. Works wonders!

9 Don’t take your writing too seriously. Life really is too short, and for God’s sake don’t be precious and self-important about it – there’s enough of that deluded and self-serving garbage around as it is. Like me, you’re nothing to write home about, so if you write a duff ‘un, get over it and start again.

Well, there’s some hints, it’s up to you. Just write and keep on writing until you achieve your goals is my advice. Practise is the name of the game. Frankly, I reckon it takes two or three novels in order to hone one’s craft and find a style that one is confident with. But that’s just me. Thank God, every writer is different!

And here’s a funny thing, I haven’t read any fiction myself for years, commercial or otherwise (and yes I know, it probably shows!). Non-fiction books line my study walls – with a smattering of the classics just to show visitors how clever and learned I am.

So, hope you have enjoyed the above and just think, it hasn’t cost you a penny!

To conclude, disce ut vivas (my old school motto and I can’t say it did me any harm either!), with plenty of books to help you along the way.

NB In my view, all these creative writing courses do, is exploit the vulnerable and the naive aspirations of the uninitiated and ever hopeful. A book, whether it be print or electronic, can serve the aspiring writer just as well, and libraries serve up shelves upon shelves of these at no cost to the reader!

Further and perhaps more to the point, a great many ‘Creative Writing’ tutors, have little if any experience of the harsh realities of the publishing game, so God knows what qualifies them to teach the subject? And as for the cosy tax-payer subsidised lot, well words fail me………….once again, money for old rope if you ask me.


PS You have to laugh. On Monday night, the extremely successful Ken Follett was on the box as one of Wales’ ‘Greats’. And quite right too, he tells a damn good yarn. An unapologetic commercial fiction writer and proud of it (and no, he’s not a Welsh language speaker!), he’s never been on a creative writing course in his life, has never nobbled the tax-payer and doesn’t live in Wales.

And yet our Lleucu Shenkin, the Chief Executive of Literature Wales no less, recently hailed Follett as a salutary example of the flourishing Welsh publishing industry?

The man has never been anywhere near a Welsh publisher either!

5 thoughts on “Ruck’s Nutshell Series on Creative Writing.

  1. “Further and perhaps more to the point, a great many ‘Creative Writing’ tutors, have little if any experience of the harsh realities of the publishing game, so God knows what qualifies them to teach the subject?” – Brings to mind the age old adage.. “Those who can.. Do, those that can’t.. Teach”

  2. Good afternoon Julian!

    I’ve been following you blog for some time, agreeing and disagreeing in equal measure the arguments you so passionately make. With your latest critique of creative writing courses however, I find rather less to agree with you on.

    Nowadays, to a large extent, all academic courses are part of an industry that markets, sells and profits from both the realistic aspirations and hopelessly naive dreams of students. Creative writing is not some special case, indeed, most creative writing tutors I know are at pains to emphasize to their students how difficult it is to get published, let alone make a living from writing. Creative writing courses attract a wide range of applicants, some quite mediocre, some already publishable or published. It’s open to debate whether such courses are value for money, but here’s what you typically get for a one year course:

    1. 50 hours of peer based workshopping or one-on-one tuition where you work is presented and robustly critiqued according to a wide range of criteria such as plotting, pace, characterisation, use of ‘show’ as opposed to ‘tell’, consistency of point of view, and voice to name but a few. If you write literary fiction it will be critiqued as such, if you write horror it’ll be critued as such and so on. This simulates what an editor might do to your manuscript – the red ink can be very sobering and enlightening. Nobody can fail to come out of such a process unimproved.

    2. Tutorials from staff and guest writers from a variety of traditions and genres all of whom are published and well respected, offering writing tips and advice on how to navigate the industry. Where else can you get on a Monday afternoon a two hour session with an aclaimed documentary maker, followed the next Wednesday by an internationally recognised poet and so on….

    3. Access to a wide pool of contacts.

    4. Exposure to a wide range of literature – often out of your comfort zone – which you can explore and discuss with similarly minded people to come to some of your own conclusions about what works and what doesn’t and what kind of writer you wish to be.

    5. A new pool of interesting friends with interesting and often inspirational life stories – which is often why they want to write.

    Also, many creative writing courses have excellent success rates. Typically, each cohort will generate a few published writer’s within a few years of completion. The best, like East Anglia churn them out e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan etc. Their web site lists hundreds of authors and thousands of novels . Even the unglamourous Pontypridd Poly of old produced Dan Rhodes. Look at the quality of other courses local to you too – Aber, Swansea, Trinity St David.

    regards and best wishes,

    Lord Granchester III.

    • My Lord (sorry I couldn’t resist, a sense of humour is everything even in the writing game, God forbid!),

      You do of course, raise some perfectly valid points in defense of creative writing tuition etc.

      I must also express my gratitude for expressing a contrary view to my own, without having to denigrate me personally or indeed my own modest efforts with a keyboard – it makes a refreshing change, believe me!

      As you would no doubt expect, I do not necessarily agree with you on some of the points you raise but nevertheless, thank you for taking the time to express a balanced and fair argument.

      As I say, it makes a change.

      With respect however, even a Law Lord has to divulge his/her true identity before sitting in the Supreme Court and passing an opinion. Your observations would certainly demand a more worthy credibilty, were you to do a Wedgie Benn as it were, and renounce your title?

      I note you refer to Aberystwyth, Swansea Universities etc. I am aware of the tutors who deliver the creative writing courses at these institutions and forgive me, but their experience of the real commmercial publishing world is, shall I say er……limited, as indeed it must be said, is their experience of ‘creative writing’ per se. Most have been wrapped up in the parochial niceties of Taffy academia and the anodyne surrealism of tax-payer funding for their modest publications (and sadly less than modest sales, as evidenced by Nielsen Book Data), which are published by, once again, tax-payer reliant Welsh publishers.

      You have to admit, hardly impressive is it?

      I am happy to provide verifiable evidence of the above should you so wish.

      Finally, I feel obliged to draw your attention to the fact that I have had a number of interns working with me from these very same institutions, who had studied on their creative writing courses. The general consensus of opinion? And I quote, ‘ I’ve learnt more from you Julian in two weeks, than a whole year at the University.’

      My apologies,but there it is.

      Best regards,


      PS And yes I know, ‘learning’ from me is probably pushing it a bit!

      PPS I am more than happy to come along to your institution and give a talk on the subject, from a genuine horse’s mouth (not arse!)if you like, free of charge too. Save the tax-payer some bucks for once, albeit that I’m private sector through and through.

      In other words, if my books don’t sell, forget supper and a warm bed!

      Somehow though, I rather think my offer will be ignored. Once again no disrespect intended, but we can’t have someone turning over the cosy little, tax-payer funded Welsh literati applecart now, can we?

  3. Well said by both of you, such a shame that the Cardiff Dribblers can’t take their craniums out of their tax payer funded derriere’s for long enough to engage in civilised discussion.

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