Or can you be taught to write? Not much doubt in the mind of published author Hanif Kureishi, the creator of The Buddha of Suburbia plus the Oscar nominated My Beautiful Laundrette. Writing in today’s edition of UK newspaper The Independent, he rubbishes creative writing courses “as a waste of time”. This is all the more surprising given Kureishi teaches his own pupils how to write novels, screenplays and plays at Kingston University where he was made a Professor last October. Speaking of his own students he says “Its probably 99.9% who are not talented and the little bit that is left is talent”. He continues by explaining “A lot of my students just cant tell a story. They can write sentences but they don’t know how to make a story go from there all the way through to the end without people dying of boredom in between. It’s a difficult thing to do. Can you teach that? I don’t think you can”.
You know what? I have a sneaking suspicion he is right and it is the 0.1% that he refers to that really interests me. I believe the best writers have a gift, a talent and no amount of teaching and training can provide that. In the same way that some people seem to be gifted musically or artistically, I think it is the same with writing. Anybody can be taught to write as they can with any skill but does that mean they will go on to become great writers? Of course not. I learnt to swim and ride a bike but never went on to become an Olympian or even an accomplished athlete. I didn’t put in the time or indeed have the time, I didn’t feel the calling, I was not inspired and certainly did not have the gift. So can you just turn up on a writing course and leave as an accomplished writer? Even after attending university for three years? Absolutely not!
Ok then haven’t some people analysed best-sellers and created a formula we can all follow? Yes this has happened. I recall two books in the 1970s that both went on to become best-sellers, indeed both became movies. One was about exploring a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt ( Sphinx) and the other was about a doctor killing his patients under surgery to steal their organs ( Coma) Both written by Dr Robin Cook, I seem to recall they were written to a formula.
I have just completed reading a fascinating blog by Peter Winkler writing in the Huffington Post – How To Write A Bestseller – According To The Formula.
“In the ’90s, 53-year-old carpenter and struggling writer John Baldwin determined to write a bestselling medical thriller. He spent several years analyzing the best examples of the genre, consulted with some Hollywood writers and agents, and created a 10-step formula for creating a hit thriller:
- The hero is an expert.
2. The villain is an expert.
3. You must watch all of the villainy over the shoulder of the villain.
4. The hero has a team of experts in various fields behind him, etc.
5. Two or more on the team must fall in love.
6. Two or more on the team must die.
7. The villain must turn his attentions from his initial goal to the team.
8. The villain and the hero must live to do battle again in the sequel.
9. All deaths must proceed from the individual to the group: i.e., never say that the bomb exploded and 15,000 people were killed. Start with “Jamie and Suzy were walking in the park with their grandmother when the earth opened up.”
10. If you get bogged down, just kill somebody.
Baldwin then teamed up with epidemiologist John Marr. Their thriller, The Eleventh Plague: A Novel of Medical Terror, netted them nearly a $2 million advance from HarperCollins and a movie rights sale. Though HarperCollins spent $200,000 promoting The Eleventh Plague, it never cracked the top 10 in The New York Times bestseller list, and is out of print”
Winkler also details a more up to date formula created by a writing professor and novelist…..
“Creative writing professor and novelist James W. Hall tries his hand at teasing out the magical, alchemical recipe for creating a bestseller in his new book, Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers.
Hit Lit grew from a university course Hall began teaching years ago about about popular fiction, inspired by a collection of year-by-year lists of bestsellers he found in his university’s library. “For that initial class I chose ten books that were the best-selling novels of their decade,” he writes. “These books were big. Bigger than a big.” Hall calls them “mega-bestsellers”– books that sell in the multiple millions and often keep selling for years.
For his book, Hall analyzed Gone With the Wind, Peyton Place, To Kill a Mockingbird, Valley of the Dolls, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws, The Dead Zone, The Hunt for Red October, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County and The Da Vinci Code. Though Hall admits, “these twelve novels have radically different settings, different characters, very different plots,” he says they all share 12 common features to the point where they are “permutations of one book, written again and again for each new generation of readers.”
These “write-a-best-seller” formulas remind me a little of those formulas claiming to teach you how to win those old “Spot the Ball” newspaper competitions and even how to “increase your chances of winning the Lottery” or “How to win at Roulette”. I didn’t believe in them either.
So if you cannot be taught to write and even following a well devised formula wont work how do you become a great or even good writer? Let us go back to Professor Kuneishi and his 0.1%. What do they have? Well that is the $64,000 question is it not? I don’t pretend to have the answers but I am going to hazard a few well educated guesses.
- You need to have served some sort of apprenticeship and already been involved with some forms of writing, likely writing for an audience
- You need to be an avid reader across various genres and still be reading today
- It wont hurt if you have studied English Literature at school, college or university
- You need to have a good reason or impulse to write
- You must have a good story and know how to plot and build characters
- You must be highly literate and articulate and know how to tell a tale
- You must know your market, know what readers are looking for and write about something you know well
- You must know how to get your work published and see the process through to the end.
Of these I think the absolute most important is having a good story. Setting out with some formula to write a best seller yet having no actual idea of what your story will be about will only lead to failure. I think the best writers find inspiration within themselves, the words come to them easily. They can write from experience but also have wonderful imaginations. Either you can or cannot write a best seller or even a good book. No amount of courses and formulas is going to change that.
Hanif Kureishi made his comments whilst attending the Independent Bath Literature Festival at an event supported by the creative writing department of Bath Spa University.
This blog is brought to you by aspiring writer and researcher Mike Sheridan who is now close to completing the first draft of his first book…….
Weblink to Peter Winkler’s blog..