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Could this unlock the door to your new writing life?
on 12 July 2015
Reviewed for Rosie Amber's Book Review Team
There are two distinct schools of thought concerning creative writing courses and 'how to' books: those who consider writing a skill that can be taught, and those who think that the ability to write compellingly is an innate talent that you either have or you don't; yes, your craft can be improved upon, but if you don't have what it takes to keep readers turning the pages, no amount of diligent study will make that much difference. I stand, arms folded, in the latter camp and, thus, approached this review choice with cynicism. I am delighted to report that I now bow to Bridget Whelan's expertise!
Back To Creative Writing School is a charming and inspiring book that encourages the reader to discover the rhythm and beauty of words. At first I thought it was just a basic beginner's guide for the student who has never tried to write so much as a descriptive paragraph; some of the instruction goes right back to the things you learn at school (hence the title, I'm guessing), like the difference between similies and metaphors. Many of the exercises, though, are so clever and unusual that they might help undiscovered talent to bloom—which is, I think, the book's strength.
By the time I was half way through I'd found myself thinking, 'hmm, yes, that's a good point' several times, to the extent that I'd recommend any fellow 'old hands' to give this a read, too. I'll be the first to agree that writing is a constant learning process, and it's good to remind oneself of the basics. I nodded my head in agreement at the examples of the unrealistic, information heavy dialogue often found in debut novels, the explanation about unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, the warning against the dreaded clichés and 'telling not showing', the use of onomatopoeia and alliteration. The only section I was not so keen on was the one about humour—I reckon that writing 'funny' is something for which you really do need to have an in built knack. The ability to analyse why something does or doesn't work doesn't necessarily provide the fine skill necessary for effective comic timing.
A few 'thank yous' to Ms Whelan: 1) for the excerpt of James Joyce's 'The Dead'—I have not read 'The Dubliners' since 'A' Level and had forgotten how much I loved it; 2) for making me laugh: I have about 200 superfluous occurrences of the word 'just' in all my first drafts, too!! And 3) I am one of the 3% of people who have the condition synaesthesia (a sensory mix-up in which you see see letters, words and music as colours), and this was a reminder of what a gift it is to a writer.
In short: the innovative exercises in this book won't teach you how to produce a spellbinding novel, but if you do have the talent they could well unlock the door to a creative new world.