Arde readsI am at a pre-Christmas drinks party, just about to mention Chalk the Sun to an arty acquaintance when I hear her say, “I’ve just booked a creative writing course at Remainder & Vanity, you know the publishers?”  “Amazing,” intones her bespectacled, beardie pal, “So have I! And only £200 for a whole day!”  I loiter over the anchovy vol-au-vents, eavesdropping.  Arty woman adopts a hushed tone, “You actually get to sit in their offices.”  “And you get to meet Aggie Pee, the author.” Beardie says the last bit with the reverence a novice nun might reserve for tea and crumpets with the Pope. “You get lunch too.”
At this point I nearly have a paroxysm and choke on a Twiglet.  As the purveyor of six-session creative writing workshops in cosy Balham Bowls Club with tea and biscuits thrown in for a mere 150 quid, I cannot believe the audacity, the sheer greed, of Remainder & Vanity (I changed their name to protect the grasping) in encroaching on the territory of qualified, experienced course providers.  But of course Publishing is in crisis, beset by e-books, internet freebies, rumours that the printed book is dead. The accountants have advised diversification and so London’s publishing houses have hit on a nice little earner – trade on your name, wheel out a B-list author, cut up a quiche and you have a Creative Writing Seminar, a snip at two hundred smackers.  A well-known literary agent is actually charging £2,800 for a novel writing course on which one of the lecturers is Jeffery Archer – I rest my case, your honour.
Of course, we live in an age of celebrity and people will pay through the nose for a brush with fame (or notoriety in Jeffery’s case).  It may be fun to name-drop at parties but will it make you a better writer? I’ve picked up interesting snippets, the odd useful tip, from authors and agents at publisher’s creative writing events but that’s as far as it goes.  You are very unlikely to get individual feedback, detailed critiques, personal support on your journey as a writer from any of these high-profile courses. Plus writers don’t necessarily make good teachers just as English teachers don’t necessarily write scintillating fiction; creative writing tutors need both skills. Writers can be an introverted, self-absorbed bunch, and many will mingle with the wannabes only because their publisher insists that they up their public profile.
Often writers don’t make good editors either; it’s a specific talent.  Look at Chalk’s own Jonathan Wolfman, CBBC script-editor/producer who has outstanding success bringing the very best out of writers on his award-winning series yet only a modest number of writing credits to his name.  Robert McKee, author of Storia, doyen of Hollywood how-to, has no movie credits.
So before you decide that hanging out in Bloomsbury or sharing a buffet lunch with a second-rate chick-lit author will propel you towards a Pullitzer, think again.  There are no shortcuts. Write, get feedback, rewrite, and one day you might find yourself imparting your bon-mots to a hushed classroom of budding authors with fat wallets.
Ardella Jones
Chalk the Sun’s Get Started, Keep Going course, a snip at £149, starts 15 January – 18 February.