Thank you, Sharon, for letting me stop at your excellent Write Stuff column on my blog tour for my psychological thriller, The Perfect Neighbours.
When I first thought about taking up writing as a hobby, there was an awful lot of dithering before I got round to putting pen to paper. The event that finally kick-started my scribbling was a two-hour workshop at the inaugural Shrewsbury Literature Festival. We had to write a paragraph on a theme set by crime writer David Armstrong, the course leader. When I read out my piece, everyone was surprisingly positive. On the way home, I bought a copy of Writing Magazine and saw an advert for the annual crime short story competition. Buoyed up by the experience of David’s workshop, I expanded my one paragraph into a fifteen-hundred-word story. Somehow the story – my first ever attempt at a competition – won and I went to the magazine’s award ceremony in Harrogate. Without that two-hour workshop, the story wouldn’t have happened.
Firmly bitten by the writing bug, I signed on to various writing courses and workshops at my local adult education centre. As well as being great fun and in the company of like-minded hobby writers, courses taught me a lot about technique and I built up a bank of short writing pieces that developed my creativity. Eventually I decided to turn my winning crime story into a novel. At this point I stopped doing courses because I needed to focus my thoughts on my longer project rather than on writing exercises.
I had a run of good luck when the novel found a publisher and I was placed or shortlisted in various short story competitions. But after that my success waned. I felt that my writing needed an injection of something fresh so I took the big decision to take an MA in Creative Writing by distance learning at Lancaster University.
The course was built around working on drafts that would form a final portfolio of thirty thousand words of fiction. I worked on an outline that I already had for The Perfect Neighbours.
The course required us to submit five thousand words each month and comment on the work of four other people. Time and again, this quartet of students gave me the most enlightening feedback I’ve ever had. We have become writing friends for life and continue to share work regularly. My final portfolio scored good marks and I gained a master’s degree.
However, an academic dissertation isn’t a publishable mainstream novel. So, after the course, I spent six months rewriting before I submitted the first three chapters and a synopsis to agents. Marilia Savvides of Peters, Fraser and Dunlop requested the full manuscript and offered me representation. She pitched the novel to major publishers and I was thrilled when Finn Cotton of HarperCollins took it on their Killer Reads list.
There are drawbacks to taking a formal course – cost, time, the need to write academically as well as creatively – but the benefits are many:
- Meet like-minded people who will give you genuine advice. You will probably keep in touch long after the course has finished.
- Receive expert feedback on technique from qualified, experienced tutors.
- Develop the discipline to write every day to a clearly defined goal. (You have to if you’re going to get assignments in on time.)
- Enjoy the privilege of critiquing other students’ work and improve your own technique in the process.
- Get used to listening to criticism and editing your work accordingly. (Now it’s serious and I’m working with a professional agent, editor and copy editor, I’m able to work through their editing requirements quickly, a skill I leant in my MA.)
- Broaden your reading tastes as you get recommendations from tutors and other students.
- Get a recognised qualification.
- Improve as a writer so you have a better chance of securing an agent and a mainstream publisher.
If you’d like to hear more about my reading choices and my writing news, you can connect with me at:
Facebook: Rachel Sargeant author
Behind the shutters lies a devastating secret…
When Helen moves abroad with her loving husband Gary, she can’t wait to meet her fellow expat teachers from the local International School. But her new start is about to become her worst nightmare…
As soon as the charming family across the way welcome Helen into their home, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Then Gary starts to behave strangely and a child goes missing, vanished without a trace.
When violence and tragedy strike, cracks appear in the community, and Helen realises her perfect neighbours are capable of almost anything…