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The Independent Culture
Britain is awash with writing courses for wannabe, likely-to-be and not-a-chance-in-hell-they-will-be writers. The unpublished can learn How To from hundreds of professional writers unselfish - or skint - enough to share the secrets of their publi shing successes. The thousands of hopefuls who join writers' groups or subscribe to national writers' magazines like Acclaim can try everthing from inexpensive local adult evening institute courses to, say, a week of sun, sand and Sue Townsend on the Gre ek island of Skyros.

I'm a sucker for these courses, even though I know they can't show you how to write in any fundamental way. I have learned some mantras: screenwriting is structure, a novel is change, don't forget the backstory, remember to plant your seeds early. And I've been offered sound practical advice. Of a dizzy Victorian adventure set in a Grand Guignol Venice that I wrote, the tutor remarked: "If your hero has his hand cut off early in the book, you must remember later. When you have him attempt to escape under cover of darkness down the Grand Canal in a rowing boat won't the villains find him at dawn rowing in circles?"

The abundance of courses can make all but the most steadfast fickle. If you were to haunt, as I have, Fen Farm, the Norfolk writers' centre - whose 1995 courses are run by the likes of Barry Hines, Simon Brett, David Nobbs and Johnny Speight - you would end up dithering between novel, screenplay, radio drama and television comedy, between belles lettres and bestsellers, art and artifice, the theories of Aristotle and Al "Writing the Blockbuster Novel" Zuckerman.

The hardest thing for participants to learn is to take criticism about their precious work in a positive way. Creative writing courses are great for enthusing writers, for allowing them to be unselfconsciously indulgent in talking with like-minded peopl e about their writing, and even for getting a little writing done.

But some teachers don't mince words. Johnny Speight, for example, has been known to sit without a smile through his students' best shots at comic sketches, then remark quite seriously: "You do want to be comedy writers do you?"