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Can you learn to write?

Can you learn to write?
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First Published: Fri, Apr 30 2010. 07 24 PM IST

By the book: (Left) Eyjafjallajokull’s eruption forced the cancellation of Swedish author Hakan Nesser’s series of writing workshops in India. Photo: Lena Koller. (Right) Chandler enrolled in a writin
By the book: (Left) Eyjafjallajokull’s eruption forced the cancellation of Swedish author Hakan Nesser’s series of writing workshops in India. Photo: Lena Koller. (Right) Chandler enrolled in a writin
Updated: Fri, Apr 30 2010. 07 24 PM IST
Is it possible to learn to write page-turners? Did writing workshops play a role in the Swedish crime fiction boom?
To begin with, Europe and the US do have a long tradition of writing workshops, and unless they’d shown results, they wouldn’t still be around.
Consider this: When Raymond Chandler decided to give writing a shot, he enrolled in a course called Short Story Writing 52AB. He debuted with a story in a pulp magazine in 1933 and became, a decade later, one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood. Chandler may have succeeded without those evening classes, but in a competitive market such as the American entertainment industry, he cannot be faulted for having done that bit of preparation—think of it like a carpenter taking woodwork classes before building a cupboard in which to hide away skeletons.
In the US today, you can choose from a plethora of writing workshops costing anything from hundreds to thousands of dollars. I sometimes get the feeling that there are more courses teaching hopeful wannabes, than there are writers earning their bread from writing. Teaching writing is a great way of making money because if despite a workshop a student fails, he or she can consult a “script doctor” for $65 (around Rs2,890) or rent an editor to rewrite the failed manuscript for $85 per hour.
By the book: (Left) Eyjafjallajokull’s eruption forced the cancellation of Swedish author Hakan Nesser’s series of writing workshops in India. Photo: Lena Koller. (Right) Chandler enrolled in a writing course to get started. Photo: The Kobal Collection/AFP
Sweden, too, has a small industry built up around writing courses—and in tune with the crime fiction boom there are specialized courses in crime writing that you can do online, as evening classes, or as more exclusive kinds of workshops for which you’re flown to an exotic resort in the Mediterranean.
In a publishing economy that’s impatient with reaping its rewards, publishers obviously can’t play the same talent-nurturing role they may have done in the old days when an editor packed the writer and a week’s supply of tinned food into his car and drove to some isolated cottage to hammer out a book. In those days, an author might publish 30 non-best-sellers before striking gold with the 31st. These days, if a first novel fails, the debutant has to look for another publisher. It’s logical then that the system of writing workshops has taken over much of the job that used to rest with the publisher. A good workshop is a greenhouse in which a budding writer is subjected to powerful fertilizers in the form of stimulating ideas about the craft by mentors (senior writers). An amount of pesticide is applied, too, to weed out misconceptions and clichéd ideas. Workshops tweak the mind and teach you to think like a pro; edit stuff before submitting; hunt down darlings to kill; detect weaknesses and improve the strong points.
In India too, you’ll find serious writing courses such as the one offered to BA/MA English students at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. It’s been taught for the past six years by Crossword Book Award-shortlisted author Rimi Chatterjee, and although the curriculum doesn’t explicitly focus on detective fiction, it is up to students to select genre, and some exercises do involve the use of mysteries as plot elements. Click here to check it out.
There is, naturally, criticism against these workshops. Some senior Swedish male writers I’ve asked say things such as “I’d never in my life enlist in a writing course”. But interestingly, several best-selling female writers have acknowledged how workshops got them started: Åsa Larsson, whose crime novels are available in Indian bookshops, the pulp star Camilla Läckberg, or the queen of horror crime, Carina Rydberg.
The most common criticism that workshops streamline writers into producing over-sanitized, boring prose by taking out their rough edges, is really not a valid objection. If the writer is good enough, he or she will withstand the cookie cutter. Only writers with weak self-awareness run the risk of losing their originality.
A far greater problem is that workshops get addictive. You’ll come across wannabe writers who faff about the masterpiece they’re planning, but at the end of the day, before the unrelenting computer (or blank page, as that may be), they have no words left. Rather than facing the truth, workshop junkies enlist for yet another workshop. Those who run these workshops wouldn’t be inclined to kick them out, because it is the tutoring that brings in the cash.
And that’s why the question we started out with would have to be answered with both a “yes” and a “no”.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based writer of crime fiction, whose forthcoming novel
Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan is releasing later this month.
Write to Zac at criminalmind@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 30 2010. 07 24 PM IST