Exclusive Q&A with OU tutor Derek Neale by Tina Williams


Derek Neale OU image (2)

Bee Creative @BeeCreativePS:

Can I ask (knowing editors cuts!) was there a piece of advice in the course books you wished you had given?

In the best of possible worlds we would have separate modules for each of the genres – a short story course, a poetry course, a film writing course and so on. That is a regret of sorts, but it is the reality of OU teaching design: modules have to be big and multi-genred by necessity. And in fact that format offers some considerable strengths, it means that poetry and fiction can be taught alongside film writing and life writing. For those who don’t know, I’m talking about Creative writing  (A215 http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/modules/a215  )  and Advanced creative writing (A363 –  http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/modules/a363  ). As they stand, there are one or two things that are already in the modules that I wish were emphasised a little more – one of these being: writing arises from reading; if you read little, you might produce something of merit but it is less likely. This is a piece of advice that is especially important for new writers – so we’ve made it prominent in the new Start Writing Fiction MOOC, which many will know is based on the old A174 and has been a roaring success in its recent first run (so successful in fact that there will be a second presentation in October https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/start-writing-fiction-2 )

Reading prompts writing – and, of course, in the OU creative writing course books we give many readings, but these are often extracts, we don’t have space or time on the modules to include whole texts as readings. But student-writers gain much from going on from these extracts and looking at the rest of the novels or collections or anthologies or scripts, or more work by those particular authors. That is how reading works – following your own hunches and inclinations, meticulously and thoroughly – and that it is also how writing works.

We did have several stories that were originally set for inclusion in A215 that eventually didn’t make the final cut for various reasons. Many, if not most, students write short stories during the two modules, so it would have been good to give more examples of the form (there are already a few) – there was no room, as I recall, but handily there are plenty of short stories out there in the world, available as ‘further reading’. The recommendation to go off and do further reading – that advice could be repeated a few times in the course books.

Another piece of advice, which is part of the modules’ teaching but perhaps not prominent enough in the course books – read and review the work-in-progress of fellow writers whenever you can. This can’t be said loudly enough. This practice of close editorial scrutiny feeds back into your own writing, sometimes invisibly but invariably fruitfully. It’s a practice that is resisted by some writers but it accelerates writing development and is, I think, one of the crucial benefits to be gained from creative writing study. It’s so rare to find readers and writers with a reciprocal interest in feeding back on work – I would press on students even more than we already do the importance of making the most of it while you can.

Roger White @rogerlwhite:

What’s the situation on a possible OU MA in Creative Writing?

Some very good news on this front – as you may be aware, we have been pressing to make a Creative Writing MA at the OU for some years but have previously hit various obstacles. But we now have the go ahead and are starting the development. It will be an online-only MA to be studied over 2 years, consisting of an initial 60pt module and a subsequent 120pt module. The present plans are for it to launch in the autumn of 2016. I’m quietly optimistic we’ll meet the deadlines and launch on time, but module production can hit unforeseen problems, so it’s best to keep checking the relevant OU websites for confirmation of the start date (there won’t be any further information available yet, but early details of the MA should start to appear on the OU courses and qualifications websites at some time in 2015).

L.D.Lapinski @ldlapinski:

What do you think of the prevalence given to literary over genre-specific fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, crime, etc) at writing events?

At the bigger literary events there is an apparent predominance of so-called literary novels and novelists under discussion – but this is relative. Writers such as Ian Rankin and P.D. James, for instance, would always headline such events, and they are actually crime writers. Increasingly literary novels are influenced by – and in turn perhaps influence – genre fiction. I am thinking, for example, of Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters in relation to historical fiction here. And writers such as Iain Banks, sadly no longer with us, have traditionally played to both the literary and science fiction audiences (if you’re interested – and haven’t seen it before – here is an archive interview with him from the Cheltenham Literature Festival c.2011 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nAwVkQ-0_u0 ). And, of course, many genres now have dedicated festivals and events of their own – such as the Harrogate crime writing festival – http://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/crime/   – and at Harrogate interestingly the so-called literature festival seems to have more BBC newsreaders and general ‘celebrities who have written a book’ on the bill than literary novelists.


What do you think are the most common mistakes Creative Writing students make?

Overwriting and not paying enough attention to structure.  Because of the pressure of deadlines many students don’t allow enough time for the final edit – time to pause and leave the work alone, then come back to it. In those final reviews and redrafts an ‘okay’ piece can become exceptional – it’s there that you can really reflect objectively on what space has been left for the reader to collaborate in the invention of the work, and it’s in those final reflections that you can better see the overall architecture of a story, script or poem, to see if the structure works. This is why stories by Hemingway and Carver are often used as exemplars in creative writing study; however much you like or dislike that style of writing, they epitomise a tight, strong structure, without excess and with impeccable editing.


Do you believe Creative Writing courses can create great writers, or is writing talent innate?

One thing that creative writing courses can do is accelerate writing development – there is concrete evidence of that from all universities that teach the subject, including the OU, and it is exemplified by the quality and quantity of writers and writing outputs that have come out of creative writing courses. UEA’s famous MA in creative writing, for instance, has seen several former students win the Booker prize, the most prestigious fiction prize in the UK. This must say something.  Similarly the biggest and most longstanding and prestigious creative writing MFA programme in the US at Iowa boasts many Pulitzer prize winning authors and has an astounding number of successful writers associated with it. And to bring it back to the OU, I wonder if you heard Carys Bray, once an A174, A215 and A363 student reading from and talking about her new novel on Radio 4’s Front Row a couple of weeks ago?

Such successes depend on many factors, not just creative writing courses – but the courses do play their part, I think. Craft and technique can certainly be taught. And writers talking to each other about their work, scrutinising drafts and offering editorial comment – that all accelerates writers’ development. Besides these factors, creative writing courses potentially give student-writers the space, focus and license to call themselves writers – this is a great legitimising gift.

I don’t think any creative writing course would claim to create great writers (from scratch) but all the evidence suggests that through some or all of the above such courses allow writers’ natural talent, ability and determination to prosper and grow. And, of course, it shouldn’t be forgotten that whatever the level of success of writers’ outputs or the value of ‘greatness’ or otherwise placed on that work, such courses also endow students with impressive levels of literacy, literary awareness, writing, reading, critical discussion and editorial skills, all of which can be used in many different contexts and types of employment. The modern day writer often has to have a portfolio of occupations and creative writing courses are incredibly effective at delivering those skills.

Marie Andrews:

Do you keep a daily diary?

Yes, though it’s not a diary as such but more of a writer’s notebook. Sometimes I write in it in diary-like fashion, but often in a less ordered or regular way: ideas and observations, reflections on reading – all sorts. Sometimes these notebooks are filled fast and furiously, and sometimes less rapidly. I’m quite superstitious about them – I have to use unlined paper. I use small, A5 black hardbound sketch books. It seems to me that I am more or less sketching my perceptions of the world in them, and I do actually draw in them sometimes – and I read back over them and use them, or parts of them, again and again. There is no time limit on when something from a notebook might be used, or might occur to be relevant. As I’m writing this I’m sitting by a shelf of 50 or so of them, many with post-its sticking out in unruly fashion at odd angles – I find myself reading over them to reference my own intentions, to recall an idea, or sometimes it seems more fundamental – to remind myself that I write and have written, to re-enter those imaginative avenues. I also frequently use them for automatic writing – and when I use them in that way it can be on a daily basis, but it feels then that they are even more like dream diaries rather than conventional diaries.


Which books inspired you as a child, and why?

I recall reading Black Beauty, the Famous Five and Mary Poppins books early on, and a teacher introduced a particular collection – The Book of a Thousand Poems – which I loved revisiting (I suppose the habit of re-reading started then). It contained Hiawatha’s Childhood, a real favourite  – of course, I thought it was the whole poem, only to discover several years later that it was just a fraction of the whole. Teenage years brought Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four which were real inspirations.  And in terms of writing – after the 11-plus had been taken in January and the school year seemed to have no point, our teacher divided us into groups to write collaborative novels. That was certainly an inspiration. Our table won the Mars bars, as I recall, with a tale of the South Seas, shipwrecks, mutinies, stowaways and romance – oh, and an erupting volcano.

Pippa Wilson @CrackerHackerJM:

How do you think fiction will progress in the age of digital publishing?

Interesting question – things are in a state of flux, but my guess is that the relationship between writer and her or his audience will become more diverse; there will be different ways of publishing work. This is already increasingly the case. Writers’ incomes are currently plummeting by all accounts. The old relationships between writers and agents and publishers are breaking up, or at least they’re presently in a state of flux. Potentially the situation is becoming more egalitarian, more in favour of the writer, but the writer isn’t quite benefiting yet and it is hard to tell how this will end up – it might be a case of writers having to self-publish more. Also, short fiction – and I mean really short – has taken off, with flash and micro fiction. There are more places and competitions for the short short story now. A few years ago some well-known Hemingway and Carver stories were considered to be Flash or Sudden fictions, now they appear quite long. Some might see this as the internet effect and to do with modern-day attention spans. And it might have a knock-on effect on the novel form  – or at least potentially, though you wouldn’t think so looking at Hilary Mantel. But it would be interesting to look at the statistics for lengths of novels to see if there have been more novellas. There are one or two new prizes for novellas.

Mutuo Mbiilla:

Firstly, how many short stories do you think is ideal for a book aimed at teenagers? Secondly, should a writer submit their work to more than one publisher to increase their odds of publication?

 I know little about the teenage market, sorry. The key thing is to identify a publisher, one who publishes short stories for the teenage readership; research them and find out how many stories and of what length are usually contained in each collection.  With regards sending to more than one publisher at a time: traditionally it was not good practice to send to more than one publisher at a time, but I know agents send out to multiple publishers at the same time, and I’m also aware (from experience) that publishers can sit on decisions for a considerable amount of time. You could find yourself waiting 6 months for a response from a publisher – and at that rate, if you just send to one at a time, it could take you 5 years to send to 10 publishers. Hopefully it wouldn’t take that many – but it’s more than possible. I think the climate has changed, especially with electronic submission (check the publisher), and many people do submit to more than one publisher at a time nowadays.

Magda Phili:

What do you think is the best approach for a fictional story idea based on a real person? The person I have in mind has done things which provide perfect material for my story. Should I create a new character instead with a new name and blend my own ideas with real facts, in effect concealing this person existed and inventing a new one?

There isn’t one ‘best approach’ in these circumstances. You should fictionalise if there is any issue at all with the material – if the person doesn’t want to be written about, if the content is controversial in any way. And you have to ensure that you have fully and imaginatively digested the material when you fictionalise. The less you fictionalise, the more you would have to consult with the ‘real person’ and in effect seek permission. Otherwise you could face law suits. And even if you fictionalise, there can be problems if your story reveals characters and/or events that are too near real life. See, for instance, the case of the recent French novel involving a Scarlett Johansson double – http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jul/04/scarlett-johansson-wins-french-defamation-case


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