Ask An Industry Expert: Anna Davis
6 October 2021
Today, we’re delighted to welcome Anna Davis, founder and Managing Director of Curtis Brown Creative (CBC), the first and only creative writing school to be run by a literary agency. CBC hosted a giveaway last month with the Romantic Novelists’ Association, providing one lucky member with a free space on their Writing a Romance Novel course with Jenny Colgan.
Anna, what kind of author would benefit most from taking a course with Curtis Brown Creative (CBC), specifically the Writing a Romance Novel course?
Our course is aimed at any and all authors who want to write an irresistible love story. Jenny has created course materials that offer lots of useful advice for those who are just starting to write romance. But the course is also rich with insider tips, and features Jenny’s personal experiences and her individual take on the genre – and I’d suggest this means it also suits those who are further along with their writing journey.
What kind of feedback can authors get on their work during a CBC course?
It varies from course to course, so do check the individual course descriptions on our website. To summarise: On our ‘selective applications’ three-and-six month Writing Your Novel courses (both London and online), you get loads of feedback on extracts of your work and on synopsis and pitch letter – the feedback coming variously from the author-tutor and from literary agents and editors, as well as from fellow students.
Our shorter six or four-week online courses – such as the Writing a Romance Novel course – have a lower price-point, and consequently offer less individual feedback. However, you do get feedback from the course editor (a published writer with teaching experience) on one of the weekly written tasks that happen during the course – plus weekly feedback from your course mates in our secure online forum. You also have the option to purchase an end-of-course report on an extract from your work, plus a one-to-one Zoom tutorial, both from one of our published author-tutors.
I’d also add: The value of peer-to-peer feedback shouldn’t be under-estimated. I think one of the most important things we do is to connect our students with a group of fellow writers, many of whom go on to become their trusted readers long-term. There are loads of our former students who still meet up with their course-groups many years after the courses finish.
One thing I love about the Writing a Romance Novel course is that it’s completely online, so students who live outside the London area can enrol. What would you say to students who are worried they’ll “miss out” by not having access to the in-person classroom experience?
We’ve worked really hard to create online courses that offer a rich learning experience and meaningful peer-groups, and I reckon they’re just as good as our London-based courses. We’re all used to connecting with each other remotely these days, particularly post-lockdown – and the big advantage of online is the flexibility it offers for everyone taking part. Having said all that, we are thrilled that some of our London courses are now back – and we hope to bring more of them back in the future. And there is obviously a big appetite to meet up face to face – particularly from students who have already studied with us online and are keen to meet their course-mates in person. In the past, many of our online students have travelled to London to take part in our alumni summer schools and other shorter courses, even from as far away as Australia!
After an author completes the Writing a Romance Novel course, are there any “next steps” they can take with CBC?
Absolutely. In the first instance there’s the option I’ve mentioned of getting a report and tutorial on the work-in-progress. After that, for those who want more, there are various CBC avenues:
For those who want to study with us for longer and who are after the bigger CBC experience, you can apply for a place on one of our three-month or six-month courses. These are highly competitive, so not everybody will be successful – but lots of the students who study on our shorter courses do get places, and we’ve now had lots of success stories of students who’ve moved from our shorter courses to the longer ones and gone on to get publishing deals.
Alternatively, we have further six-week online courses that anyone can enrol for – and I’m really proud of their content. For example, there are three courses, written and presented by me, that take you all the way through the novel-writing process from first idea to final pitch: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel. There’s also some exciting new stuff coming up, which I’ll get into detail about below …
I’ll also mention The Breakthrough Writers’ Programme, offering free mentoring, courses and scholarships for under-represented writers. For those with low incomes who can’t afford our course fees – and/or who face other barriers when it comes to joining our courses and pitching their work to the publishing industry – I’d strongly recommend you take a look at the opportunities being offered through our programme (funded by Curtis Brown Literary Agency and other sponsors). If you join our mailing list via the website, you’ll hear news of new opportunities as they arise.
And finally, we offer a lot of free resources via our website – ranging from articles and interviews in our very substantial blog – to free courses and writing workouts. Plus we have a monthly Twitter writing competition called #WriteCBC (taking place on @cbcreative on the first Thursday of every month). It’s really fun and friendly, for those on Twitter – you can win free places on our courses, and virtual writing groups have formed from among the regular contributors.
If an author wants to move forward with the CBC three- or six-month Writing Your Novel course, do you have any advice for potential applicants since they’re both selective programs?
We ask writers to send in the first 3,000 words of the novel they want to focus on during the course plus a one-page synopsis with their application form. It is very selective to get on to our three- and six-month courses, so it’s worth taking time to get the material as good as you can (and drawing on all of the very good advice that Jenny gives on the Writing a Romance Novel course!). The material is read by a group of us from the CBC team, who then discuss all of the applications to make our selection. Here are a few tips:
- Make sure your first page introduces your protagonist, shows us when and where the story is set, and makes something happen. It doesn’t have to be a BIG thing that happens, but we like to see the story get going straight away. Don’t just give us a page of scenery and weather or philosophical pontificating. If you have a strong hook, try to get it across on the first page.
- Make sure your material has plenty of dialogue on it. Dialogue helps bring us into the moment and lets your characters’ voices be heard. I don’t think I’ve ever offered a course place to someone with no dialogue in their first 3,000 words.
- Read over your work and polish it as much as you can before you send it off to us. Spell-check it and try to get it really singing off the page, line by line.
- Format your work in such a way as to make it welcoming to the reader. By this I mean, choose an easy-to-read font that’s not too big and not too small, such as Times Roman 12 point. And leave 1.5 or double spacing between your lines and good-sized margins. Sounds trivial but I can’t tell you how offputting it is to encounter an application with tiny font absolutely crammed onto the page when you’re reading over 100 people’s material.
- This goes for the synopsis too. The temptation is to squeeze as much onto a page as you can – but it’s better to give us clear broad strokes about your story and not too much detail. We have a blog with tips on how to write a good synopsis. Also though, not everyone can write a great synopsis for a novel they’re still working on. We understand this – for the purpose of course selection we just want to know where the novel is headed.
CBC’s success stories are astounding. Have you noticed anything in particular the over 130 CBC alumni who’ve gone on to sign major book deals have had in common?
Hmm, that’s tricky because there have been such a huge variety of books and of people who’ve taken our courses who’ve ended up getting commercially published. I’d like to say I can always spot the people who will end up with deals, but actually that’s not quite true – and actually I enjoy being surprised! Everyone who gets a place on our courses has writing talent – but so much depends on what you do once you’re on the course. It’s the writers who really want to work hard to get the best out of their writing; who listen well and who are willing to dig deep and rethink – they’re the writers who end up getting the deals. So yes – it’s about what you do while you’re on the course, and how you act on the advice you’re given that makes the difference. Also there’s a great generosity of spirit amongst the writers on our courses – but that goes for both the published and the unpublished students.
Many RNA authors are considering their options for higher education: an MA program, a creative writing school like CBC, or self-educating with craft books. How can an author better decide which pathway would be right for them?
I’d say think very carefully about what you want, and also about how much money you can afford to spend. How-to books are of course the most cost-effective way to progress – but they won’t get you expert feedback on your work or a peer group to work with. (No harm though in reading how-to books whether you’re going to take a course or not). If you’re thinking of taking a course, be clear about what you want and study the information about the course to ensure you’ll get it. Do you want something that’s full-time or part-time to fit around other work? Do you want an academic qualification or is that not really what you’re looking for? Make sure you know who’ll be teaching you, how much of your work they’ll read, what introductions the course can give you, etc. If you have questions, make sure that you ask them and that you’re satisfied with the answers you get. Look at successes from the course; see what you can find out about the experiences of other people who’ve taken it, etc. Nobody should feel they have to take a course in order to get published – but if you want to take part in a course, make sure it’s a good one that will suit you.
Many of our New Writers’ Scheme members have gotten their reader
reports back, giving them feedback on their manuscripts-in-progress. Any advice for them? What’s important to remember when receiving feedback on your work?
My main bit of advice is not to act on feedback straight away. Sit with it, ruminate on it. We can easily go to one of the extremes of either trying to implement all recommendations immediately or rejecting the feedback completely. If the feedback chimes very precisely with what you already know in your heart of hearts – then yes, you’re likely to want to take it on board completely. But there’s something to be said for giving careful thought to criticisms and suggestions, and then finding your own solutions. I’d also say that sometimes it’s the feedback we’re most resistant to that turns out to be the most useful after you’ve reflected on it for a while.
What can we look forward to from CBC in the future? Are there any exciting new course offerings coming up?
Oh we have lots of new stuff in the pipeline – in particular, I’d like to tell you about two new courses for October: We’re launching a new line of ‘deep dive’ online courses. These four-week courses focus in-depth on a particular aspect of novel-writing, using teaching videos, forums for discussion on our learning platform, and expert editors to give feedback, and should hopefully be as useful to old-hands as to people new to the form. The first of these courses, Character Development – The Deep Dive (written and presented by me), starts for the first time on 21 October.
We also have a brand new six-week online course on Writing Crime Fiction, with award-winning author Vaseem Khan, starting on 7th October.
If these dates are too soon for you, don’t worry – both courses run again in the new year. And if you missed Jenny Colgan’s Writing a Romance Novel course the first time around, that runs again on 28th October, with a special £20 discount available for RNA members (use code RNA20 to redeem).
Thank you so much for telling us all about CBC, Anna! We’re looking forward to enrolling in some courses soon!
For more on CBC see:
Facebook: Curtis Brown Creative
Anna was talking to Victoria Chatfield.
Victoria Chatfield originally hails from New York where she worked as a social media manager in the fashion industry. While she started out as a ghostwriter for magazine editors, she’s now a member of the NWS, writing romantic suspense and psychological thrillers. (She loves the really bad boys.) Find her on Facebook and Twitter at @vavazquezwrites.