The saying goes that everyone has a novel in them. But actually having that spark of a great idea, the inspiration and the determination to sit and write something that transports an engrossed reader to a different world takes something special.
At the University of Wolverhampton, a degree course is helping students to nurture their passion for writing and also earn a living from their talent.
The BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing degree offers a stimulating programme in which budding authors can create, analyse and interpret different forms and styles of writing.
The aim is for students to develop a range of specific and transferable skills to enable them to enter a wide range of professions, including journalism, public relations, advertising, copywriting, teaching and even fiction writing.
The publishing industry is a notoriously difficult nut to crack, and the road to publication can be littered by rejection letters.
The University course is taught by published authors who know the challenges, pitfalls and the hard work needed to succeed.
Senior Lecturer Dr Paul McDonald runs the Creative and Professional Writing programme and is also a comic novelist and poet. His first novel, Surviving Sting (2001), draws on his experiences working as a saddlemaker.
His second novel, Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle (2004) is a comic mystery set in Walsall, while his third, Do I Love You? (2008), takes Northern Soul as its theme.
His humour research gained international media attention when he identified the oldest joke in the world.
Senior Lecturer Candi Miller’s first novel, Salt and Honey, is set in southern Africa during Apartheid and focuses on a young girl’s displacement from her Kalahari desert-tribe. Candi spent time in the Kalahari to research the book, and is drawing on those experiences again to write the as-yet untitled sequel, due out in September 2011.
They agree that the hardest thing about writing is the actual sitting there and doing it, for hours on end, pushing the narrative along inch by inch. It can be a lonely process, and that is one of the appeals of a University course.
Candi explains: “You don’t have to come to University to become a writer but one reason why you might do so is the sense of community – it is very appealing and comforting because writing is such a lonely business. Our students flourish when they are with people doing the same thing.
“The reason the University of Wolverhampton course is impressive I believe is that it is practical, allowing you to merge your skills so you can earn a living while closing in on your creative enterprise. It combines the professional side with the creative.”
Paul adds: “What a creative writing course does is offer a context in which to develop creative skills with that all important critical feedback from people who have read a lot. That’s invaluable. It’s very difficult to get objective feedback outside the context of a creative writing course.” So what do our students write about? According to Candi and Paul it is an eclectic and enjoyable mix.
“Our students come from a diverse range of backgrounds and different continents and their experiences are amazing, from the supposed ordinariness of a peaceful Black Country childhood to reformed addicts to people from oppressive regimes in Eastern Europe. Students think their lives have not been interesting but every single one of them has found the minutiae of their lives can be fascinating,” Candi says.
Paul agrees: “I’m constantly learning – it’s an absolute joy to read students’ work. They have interesting things to say about themselves and their world.”
Inspiration can come from all sorts of places. For Candi, it is a perceived injustice, but she admits this is different for every writer. Paul, meanwhile, says it is looking for things he finds funny in everyday life and exaggerating them. However neither believes in the concept of writers’ block, with Candi arguing this is inevitably about something else that is going on in a writer’s life.
“One thing I will always say to people is never wait for inspiration – you have to go out and find something to write about and when you find it, keep writing about it. Inspiration won’t seek you out – you have to go out and find something to write about and when you find it, keep writing about it. Inspiration won’t seek you out – you have to be proactive if you want to be a writer,” Paul advises.
There can be an element of false expectation among people seeking a career in creative and professional writing, drawn in by the fairytale stories of what happened to authors such as Harry Potter creator J.K Rowling.
Candi explains that it is crucial for budding writers to be ferocious readers, to read widely and understand the building blocks of words.
Paul says: “You have to strike a balance by encouraging people to be realistic and letting them know it’s not an easy thing to do. Many are called but few are chosen when it comes to being a celebrity writer. But on the other hand, people do make money out of writing and publishers are looking for writers to publish, so there’s nothing wrong with optimism.”
Candi continues: “You have to write with an audience and market in mind. That does not mean you have to compromise your creativity but you have to write realistically. Not all writing has to be shared, but if you do decide to share it, it should be entertaining, informative and meet some demand.”
So what advice would they offer to tomorrow’s novelists and professional writers?
Paul and Candi’s recommendations are simple – write and also read as much as possible. “Writers are the ones who go out and find ideas actively, look for ideas, feed on ideas and then put the work into developing those ideas into something,” Paul says.
Candi adds: “Write and don’t send your work off prematurely. You need feedback desperately, and that is the time to find a writers’ network and if you can get on to a University course so much the better. At University, the tutors come to know you over the course of your degree so they can see your possibilities more than you can.
“We want you to be the best writer you can be, whether that is as a professional or creative writer.”