So you want to write like Ian McEwan?

Britain's newest literary star, Diana Evans, is yet another graduate of East Anglia's famous writers' school. Russell Celyn Jones explains its magic formula
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The Independent Culture

With Diana Evans' nomination to the Orange Award for New Writers, a ray of the spotlight might well spill on to the creative writing course she attended. Would she have succeeded had she not attended the University of East Anglia's writing programme?

The argument about whether creative writing can be taught has more or less been won. The techniques of fiction can be imparted, as can the techniques of acting, music and painting. Talent cannot be induced but where it already exists, it can be accelerated and focused. The past 10 years has seen more than half of British universities offer such courses. Universities will become responsible eventually for saturating an already overcrowded market with bland fiction.

They employ published writers to teach the courses, who run as far awayas possible, when not teaching, to write their own books. I direct an MA programme in London, and if I thought I was aiding a literary dystopia, I'd resign today. But I admit there is a tension in me. On good days I know that a creative writing course is a new way of teaching literature. Writers help make literature a live subject. Students are taught how to become close and discerning readers. Reading is an art form too. This wider view of the literary culture encouraged by the academy compliments the more intimate style of the workshop itself, which is designed to find fault in a students' work. A central part of any writing course, the workshop can't be substituted by self-help books. Novels or short stories in progress engender the discussion and teachers should not be systematic about what constitutes "proper" fiction. They should respond to whether a manuscript works on its own terms and suggest strategies for how it can improve if it doesn't.

On my bad days I suspect my views are very divergent from many students' expectations. Despite all I say, they still want to write a best-seller. They'd like to win the Booker prize too, if possible, maybe even the Nobel ... I fight those expectations all the time.

The late Malcolm Bradbury who set up the MA at the University of East Anglia in 1970 warned against these fantasies. While we all would like to publish a best-seller, figures released by the Society of Authors, say that 85 per cent of writers earn less than £15,000 per book. Writing is nice work but not lucrative.

It might be useful to compare one day the number of graduates from MA creative writing programmes who make a career in writing, with graduates of art, music and drama schools. About 80 per cent of creative writing graduates do not become published authors. Just think if that was the statistic for medical schools.

Among the students I taught over a two-year period a decade ago who have been published are Richard Beard, Toby Litt, Richard Skinner, Julia Bell, Jeremy Sheldon, Phil Whittaker, Helen Cross and Janette Jenkins. None are household names, but each has carved out a corner in the world of letters.

Fees for the courses can be as high as £6,000 and students see themselves more and more as customers who demand a return. Some students have already threatened litigation against universities for failing them.

If you want to write a novel you'll need talent, graft and endurance. Writers become writers despite everyone telling them not to, which might sound the reverse of what writing programmes offer. But if you are thinking about attending a programme, you may as well know the criteria for entry. Admissions tutors are not in the introductions business, setting up "networking opportunities" for would-be writers and agents and publishers. A text has to sell itself. What they are looking for is sentences that from the very first paragraph have a truth to them, contain interesting ideas and straightforward elegance. Sentences can swing into life on a single active verb; they should also have rhythm and a pulse. Characters should not be self-absorbed, but observers of their world and that world should build into something compelling. If it is a known world (World War Two, for example), take a fresh and unique angle. Characters are best executed through the work they perform and should be emotionally authentic. Don't try to imitate recent successes, as the market constantly changes. Writers create the market and not the other way round.

Russell Celyn Jones is professor of creative writing at Birkbeck College, London University. His new novel, Ten Seconds from the Sun is published in June by Little, Brown.

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