11/02/2010

Teaching Sf

I've been a bit hesitant over talking about this, but I've been playing fairly seriously with the idea of teaching science fiction writing. The idea got started in my head when I started doing paid critiques of people's unpublished novels and realised the very great majority of them were making the most fundamental errors in their writing over and over and over again. A lot of what I learned about writing came from observation (ie reading lots of sf and paying attention), study (often from those thousands of books on writing you can get) and informed criticism (either internal or through things like the local sf writer's critique workshop). The idea got a boost when I realised critiquing other people's novels in this way - which also includes telling the author what I think would make their novel better/more salable - was making my own writing better; thinking more about what made other people's fiction work made me think more about what made my own fiction work (or not work, depending on where you stand). The critiquing's worked out pretty well, with some writers returning to ask me to help them with other things they've written.

That naturally evolved into something along the lines of 'I wonder if I could teach writing?' That's a harder question to answer because I haven't done it. But I often hear stories about people taking part in some writing class which turned out to be taught by someone with little more experience than the people they're teaching.

Since I got back to the UK in March, I made some enquiries. I contacted a couple of local colleges - tentatively - asking them if they thought this was something they might be interested in. I got knocked back, but politely. Then I recently found out a local university is in fact running evening classes on writing sf, fantasy and horror - and taught by someone who, so far as I can tell, hasn't ever written a word of sf.

Now, to be fair, judging by this person's website, they're not a bad writer. They have talent. It could be this person is a phenomenal teacher, with a wide interest in the fields of sf, fantasy and horror to inform them - although that would be an assumption on my part, since there's zero evidence to support that assumption anywhere on their personal website.

So it would be a mistake to assume too much; nonetheless, a brief discussion with another pro sf writer of my acquaintance who also works in a University - and also teaches sf writing - went some way towards confirming my suspicion that a great number of those teaching creative writing are often little qualified to do so (and in case you protest this, please remember this is what I have been told by different sources, some of whom have been very unhappy at spending their money on classes that proved of so little worth to them they wished they'd spent the money on how-to books written by people they'd heard of. If you know or think otherwise, do let me know in the comments). My own experience of paid writing classes way back in the day was, I'm afraid, overwhelmingly negative.

So finding out someone who doesn't write sf is running a local paid class on writing sf spurred me to think really, really hard about why I wasn't doing the same damn thing. Well, there's various thoughts on that. One is: I couldn't possibly do any worse than some of the people I've heard about. Another is: after five novels published and another three due in the next couple of years, I think I just might be qualified, in experience if nothing else. I wouldn't be the first pro sf writer to try their hand at teaching. I might even have something useful to say about fantasy and horror as well. A lot of it by necessity wouldn't just be about sf - it would be about writing in general, and how to get better at it.

If I did do this, it would likely not be something spread over several weeks. It might instead by a very intensive two-day thing spread over a weekend. It's hard for people to commit to something week-in, week-out, if you've got any kind of a life or commitments. So here's my question to you: if you're reading this blog, there's a decent chance you've thought about writing yourself. Have you ever thought about attending a paid writing workshop, say over a weekend? Does it make any difference to you if the person teaching it is a pro, with a history of publication and novels?

Also, if you've had any positive or negative experiences attending paid writing classes, I'd like to hear about them.

11 comments:

antihippy said...

Hi Gary,

I did a months creative writing course over this summer at Edinburgh University - instead of going on holiday. I really enjoyed it. I am not certain what I got out of it, in terms of learning about writing, but it certainly opened my eyes to a few things.
I wasn't surprised that there's a lot of sniffiness aimed at SF. It appears it's not really escaped the label of Pulp Fiction as far as a lot of academics are concerned. I had a chat with a prominent lecturer on feminism, who was very interested in Iain Banks SF but had no inclination to read it. That was one of the more perplexing discussions I had. She was supposed to email me about it but never did. She also expressed surprise when I corrected her by pointing out that SF had a long history of examining sexual politics and was not just about rockets and rayguns (and damsels in distress).
Academics are also clearly obsessed with post modern writing; frequently meaning obsessively pretentiously written [or obsessed over] rather than good storytelling. That was an aspect I thought was missing. Though I would say that this wasn't universally true.
So you see there's a lot of ignorance to be overcome. Probably in both directions.
I am also not surprised to find out you have found someone teaching a SF/Fantast/Horror course without having written (published) it. I have to ask whether you think that is the only requirement a teacher should have? Or whether, perhaps, this course is an entry level "here's how you write fiction", something that just about anyone with a good understanding of English could do? Do you know whether they read it - rather than write it? I ask this because you've pointed out that they appear to be a good author in their own right.
I think it would be a great idea for you to teach. Why not? You are published, you love the craft, you clearly enjoy talking about it. So why not?

I have to ask how much critiquing you're doing? And, eh, how to contact you about that?

PS. I am not all that interested in the formal learning of feminism in post modern literature. The lecture was interesting (even if the book under discussion wasn't). It was part of the course.

Blarkon said...

As most writers have their own unique process, I'm not sure that having been published makes one qualified to teach writing.

The value in these courses tends to be primarily of an "apply arse to chair" type thing- the structure of a course forces you to regularly write and submit something for review.

A good editor can teach one a lot about their writing and a lot of editors aren't published authors either.

gary gibson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gary gibson said...

Blarkon - being published does admittedly not automatically make one qualified to teach if one has no talent at teaching, granted. But a person with a much smaller publishing history - say a few poems, one or two stories in anthologies - is even less qualified by the same measures. According to what I'm hearing from people I know, including professionals in the field, it's precisely such people who are teaching many of these courses. If they have any qualification it's having completed a degree course in creative writing, and everything I've heard about such courses from others who've either done them or have some other experience of them is that they're mostly pretty useless. At the best they buy you a year or two to write - something you can do without having to pay a tuition fee.

What pro writers do have is experience slogging at the coal-face of writing, day in, day out, and that does count for something. I'd also counter your comment about editors by pointing out that although they may not write novels, they are nonetheless professionals who deal with writing and writers every day of their working lives. It's hardly surprising they would know something about writing novels without necessarily choosing to write them themselves.

'Apply arse to chair' is indeed one facet of many writing courses, but what I would argue is that many would-be writers would greatly benefit from some of the things people such as myself have learned from writing nearly a million words, most of it professionally published. If you know what you're doing wrong and somebody tells you how to do it better, then you save a lot of time and effort involved in figuring it out for yourself. And the writing process employed by different authors makes little difference to the fundamental facts of how to write a good story. A good story is a good story, whatever process you used to create it; part of good teaching should be helping you to find what works for you as an individual.

Put it this way - who would you rather taught a course, someone with no experience of publishing the type of fiction the course is about, or someone with a lot of experience?

Antihippy - I'm glad to hear you had a good experience. I'm afraid my knowledge of the course in question is limited beyond what I've already described, but my opinion is based both on prior experience and the typically depressing testimonial of people I know who've been on other courses. As for teaching myself, there's something in the air, but it's not landed yet. I'm waiting to see if it will. If it doesn't I might consider striking out on my own, but whenever you do something like that you have to think seriously about just how much time it's going to take out of your own writing if you have to organize everything yourself.

And about critiquing - well, you've got a couple of options. 1: contact writersworkshop.co.uk and ask them to get me to critique your novel for you - but be aware it's going to cost you. 2: workshop your novel at the Glasgow SF Writer's Workshop and I *might* be able to take time to critique it, at least in part. That has the advantage of being free, and you won't just hear my opinion. 3 - and this is assuming you're based in Edinburgh - there's a fairly advanced writer's group in Edinburgh which counts Charlie Stross and Hannu Rajaniemi amongst its members. They might be a closed shop, but it might be worth making an enquiry.

antihippy said...

Hi Gary,

As I said I really enjoyed the course but it's not clear to me what I got out of it. I got the experience (which was great), made new friends (always great), got a couple of contacts but I really don't think I learned much new about the writing craft.
I was also lucky in that I had a couple of published authors in my group so I was able to get some sensible advice back.
On critiquing. Don't worry Gary I am not ready to have an author looking over my work. I was asking out of curiosity because I couldn't find the links. Thanks for the information!

On everything else:
All I have to say is that this is why I am looking for a writers group. I've been playing with the idea of coming through to the Glasgow group, but as I am already in contact with Writers Bloc I'll see how that pans out first.

Blarkon said...

Put it this way - who would you rather taught a course, someone with no experience of publishing the type of fiction the course is about, or someone with a lot of experience?

If the choice is binary, the one with a lot of experience ;-)

If other factors come into play - lets say someone who professionally edited 20 SF books by various authors versus someone who wrote 20 SF books, the answer might be different ;-)

The skills aren't mutually exclusive - but I suspect that a writing class taught by an excellent editor could be as valuable, if not more so, for new writers (the target of such classes), than a writing class taught by an excellent writer (perhaps because the people who could get the most out of a class held by an excellent writer are further along the path than the sort of people that enroll in this type of course. Excellent writer = Masterclass).

gary gibson said...

Out of curiousity, AH, what exactly did the course comprise, if you're not sure what you got out of it? Was it mostly about the history of the genre, rather than how to write it? Do you mean there was a lack of practical 'how-to' advice concerning prose, plotting etc?

antihippy said...

The course consisted of 2 1/2 - 3 weeks weeks of lectures, tutorials and sundry events. It was pretty busy. There was also a large academic component on modern literature.

In the morning you would go to a lecture on a book, then attend a 1hr tutorial where you would either do a writer class (landscape, plot, time - whatever) or workshop something. In the afternoons you would attend a seminar hosted by someone well known (Neil Gaiman did it last year, the most notable this year was Michael Rosen).

And we spent a lot of time at the Book festival.

What I thought I was going to get when I signed-up was access to other people who wanted to write and we would spend the majority of our time work-shopping pieces. Something like Clarion. What I found was that it was mostly American kids over here for a holiday earning extra credit for the their High School courses.

Did it help me improve my writing? I am not sure it did. I felt it was pitched a little lower than my level (or does that sound arrogant?). I don't think that an hour a day looking at a topic was enough - even though our tutor was pretty good.
Did it help me get published? No not so far, though the chat I had with Jenny Brown was interesting.
Did I find it enjoyable as a holiday themed around literature - without a doubt yes.

In terms of experience of professionals I think Michael Rosen was great. He's an absolutely fascinating guy and has a lot to say about how he approaches his life. The other professional writers that I met were also good. For me this was the best part as I got to here the individual authors discussing their experiences and recommending how you could progress within their field. Having said that nothing really stood out as helping me move in the direction I would like to go in.

Personally I would have preferred to have spent more time on looking at the actual aspects of the writing craft or just critiquing.

Taylor said...

Hi Gary,

My experience with creative writing classes has been quite positive. I would agree that while being an established author doesn't necessarily qualify one to teach, it certainly adds a degree of credibility. The first university level CW course I ever took was taught by John Kessel, an SF writer, and it was such a good experience I decided to shift my concentration in English to CW and am now pursuing a masters in this area. Most of the authors I've worked with are what I would consider established and have had lots of good critical advice. I'm currently attending the University of Southern Maine, which offers a masters in Creative Writing, focused on Popular Fiction. This includes, among other genres, SF. I've been working with David Anthony Durham (author of Acacia) this past semester and I've got a workshop next semester led by James Patrick Kelly. Lots of writers teach, and I think having a few books under your belt definitely adds weight to what you have to teach. If teaching's your thing you should definitely pursue it. There are lots of people interested in writing SF out there, and unfortunately, not that many good teachers. I can understand how some people have had negative experiences, but I can quite confidently say mine has been very good. There are good teachers, they just have to be sought out. Thanks for posting this.

Ginger Turtle said...

Hi Gary,

As it happens, I have, on more than one occasion, wanted to write to you and ask if you would consider hosting a weekend writing workshop, for a small number of people. And what did I just read on your blog page today? I must confess to being a bit excited that you might just consider such a thing.
I have spoken to Richard Morgan in the past, asking him if he would ever consider hosting a writers workshop (knowing that he was an English teacher previously). He loved the idea in principle but admitted his free-time wouldn’t stretch that far; Joe Haldeman said the same thing - commitments and deadlines. I’m fairly sure it would be a first in this country for a published UK sf author to start a writers workshop. Amazing really. America has Orson Scott Card to host various workshops, Dan Simmons teaches gifted children how to write, Joe Haldeman teaches writing but only at MIT (lucky sods), and for sure there will be others. It’s what they do over there. As for the UK, I really can’t see Peter F Hamilton setting up a classroom anytime soon. I haven’t heard any of the other brilliant writers this country is blessed with making noises along these lines. It would be a generous author indeed who took time out of a busy schedule to help others learn some of the craft.
The other day I finished Orson Scott Card’s fabulous book, Characters and Viewpoint. Since then I’ve been practicing his techniques until it actually hurt my mind. My coffee table is strewn with open sf books so I can quickly compare the different narrative viewpoints. I spend hours disassembling the structures of opening pages, I literally spend days re-modelling a vignette so it looks right…and then, I sit back and think what I’ve written is a load of crap - the words are all out of place. Yoda appears regularly on my pages.
My learning style is purely visual. That usually allows me to grasp concepts fairly quickly, certainly those ones in the physical world - I restore old houses for a living. But writing well? Trying to emulate the ‘easy style’ like that of Joe Haldeman. It makes my brain ache. I’m sure there’s formulae and disciplines to getting it right but they escape me right now.
Ninety percent of the books I read are science fiction, but the story I want to write is more of an adventure story using a conceptual science as the focus (hope that comes under the workshop remit).
I am completely aware of the limitations of a workshop environment. I’m not after miracles, I’m after those revelations you can get when in the company of someone whose work you respect, something always rubs off. And that’s not forgetting the many benefits you get from sharing time with like-minded people.
As an aside, my wife did a tarot card reading for me last week…and the gist of it was ’I must reach out and seek help’. Don’t laugh, it was in context to the question that I was asking - and hey, look what I’m doing now!


Regards Grant

fmcola said...

I'm 61 and I've read a wide variety of styles and genres and, because I've just retired, I'm exploring the possibility of doing some serious writing. By that I mean I want to be published. As I'm learning about what it takes for that to happen, I'm beginning to doubt that I'll live long enough to see that accomplished. Be that as it may, I'm seriously thinking about attending some kind of physical workshop (in spite of all the free and paid "stuff" there seems to be on the net).

IF I did decide to try a workshop, I would only pick a teacher who I was able to read first. In my mind, he would have to have the style that appeals to ME, something I could emulate. Sure I could assimilate much of that information by reading (and re-reading) his "output" but I would be very interested in internalizing HOW he does it. What's his schematic, his process... What's going on in his head while he is writing?

I personally don't care if someone is more technically capable or knows how to edit someone else's work. There are authors who "turn me on" when I read their stories and THAT is what I want to learn. That's no guarantee that that person is capable of transferring what he knows, but at least he has the "product" I want.