Some believe that you can’t teach someone to become a writer. This seemed to me a deterministic outlook, as if we’re born with all we’ll ever have and, as soon as something looks difficult, we cannot grow to meet it. It’s an outlook I try not to indulge in; it doesn’t lead anywhere good, I’m sure you’ll agree. Thus, I choose to believe that creative writing classes are not a waste of time for aspiring writers.
Now, don’t get me wrong: there are probably some who enter into such classes with unrealistic expectations as to how far they’ll progress to their goal. While no one should believe they will finish the class as a nationally bestselling author, the experience can help you work on the abilities you need if you hope to be published. One lesson it can definitely teach you is how to handle criticism of your work. Stories you write from the heart will be very special to you, and you may want to ignore criticism that is challenging your piece. Don’t. It is extremely unlikely that you will get it perfect in the first run, so criticism will help you shore up any weaknesses and teach you to recognize them in the future.
Furthermore, it is essential that a writer learn to adapt to problems. If I may use an example from my experience, heeding one criticism I received would have meant reordering and sometimes rewriting some of my chapters. At first, I thought, “This is going to be a pain.” However, even though it took a bit of time and imagination, I found a way to play out the scenes in more appealing ways.
My first draft had the main character, after utilizing his newfound telepathic powers to hurt a bully, encounter a strange girl while running away from the scene. She tried to get him to come with her, but he ran away instead. I planned to have him meet her again in a later chapter. The class all agreed that they, as readers, wanted to see him go with the girl. Some reordering was necessary, as I’ve said, but the new chapter I ended up writing had the girl giving him lessons on how to use his powers and hinted at the larger arc of the story. In short, it let me establish the “rules” of the telepathic powers earlier than I previously had.
Looking at this revision, I had to acknowledge that my class had made a good criticism. Making my main character go with the girl and explaining the rules earlier ended up helping the story flow. I also had to admit that this flow might make the story more apt to be accepted by publishers who want the necessary information laid out early.
So, while the revision was by no means easy, the experience of having to rewrite my work taught me how to adapt to challenges in my writing and find different ways of having the scenes play out. Reworking your piece—and being willing to rework it—is an important ability for writers.
In addition, some creative writing classes go beyond just sharing and critiquing, beyond even telling you about local creative writing contests. Sometimes they actually let you practice seeking out a publisher. To those who are entirely new to the publication process like I was when I took my first creative writing class, this could be a welcome preparation. Practicing what to put in a cover letter and what to emphasize in it is, of course, better than just writing one because you have just learned you need to write a letter to promote your work.
The class may even give you the chance to research companies who publish your type of work, so it could offer you a head start. For my part, I was writing a science fiction novel in my last class, so I looked for publishers in that genre. I ended up doing research into DAW Books and found a description on their website that said they were “strongly committed to discovering and nurturing new talent.” I figured, hey, maybe that could be me.
More than that, though, I found an interview from one of their editors that gave me a picture as to how they ran their read-through process and how they accepted unsolicited manuscripts. This last fact really struck me; I thought it was a great opportunity to offer aspiring writers who, for whatever reason, did not yet have an agent. He said that you have to be very good to get published and that the market had become extremely competitive (the number of manuscripts fit for publication he shared was one in a few thousand, a number that made my optimism curl up into a ball for a few minutes), but he tempered this by adding that some published works have come from the slush pile (I admit, I found that name disarmingly funny) and that he generally didn’t see much of a difference in quality between those with or without agents. Honest. Honest to the point of sharing hard truths, but not in a way that discouraged.
The whole feel of the interview made me see the company as helpful and wanting to grant opportunity, and I strongly considered that if I ever finished the novel I was working on for the class, I would try sending it to them. I figured if a publisher accepted my book, I was going to have a relationship with them, so I’d best find someone I like. I felt like I got a head start in this aspect of the writing process because I took that class. I believe anyone who takes a class that offers this time to research would also be able to have my same experience, to find publishers that work in their genre and are appealing to them.
So, I think that taking a class in creative writing is in no way a pointless attempt to grasp the craft. Does taking such a class guarantee that you will leave and immediately write a Pulitzer prize-winner? Probably not. However, if you are open to the experience and the practice it offers, it may help you along your journey to becoming a writer.