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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Finding the plot

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

Everyone has a book inside them - and now we all want to see it published. Creative writing courses, bloggers and writing groups... how did we become a nation of writers?

What's that tap-tap tapping sound in the middle of the night? It's the din of millions of wannabe writers across the land, drafting their irresistible novel, punching out the last lines of a killer screenplay or hammering home their own editorials in a blog.

Eleanor Thom
Eleanor Thom has won a prize for her work-in-progress novel
We've turned into a nation of writers. And this week saw the awarding of a literary prize that taps into the vast lake of unpublished writing - the New Writing Ventures Awards.

This talent-spotting award is specifically for people who have an idea that they want to develop into a published book, with the prize including a year-long writing course as well as 5,000 cash. And it gives agents and publishers a chance to check out the upcoming literary stars.

What does a winning idea look like? This year's fiction category has been won by 27-year-old Eleanor Thom, who entered a chapter from her work-in-progress novel, called Burns. Praised by the judges for being "at once natural and impeccably honed", it's about the experience of travellers who settled in Scotland in the 1950s.

Even if she wasn't going to be published, she says she would still need to write.

"It's a way of expressing what I couldn't say out loud," she says. And the creative process of writing, she describes as "like playing music, you go into a different zone".

Anyone struggling for a first line can look at how this author hits the ground running with the word "heelabalow". [Link opens in Word format.]

Explain your life

By winning this competition, and getting signed up by an agent, Ms Thom has already pulled away from the pursuing pack of would-be writers.

Booker shortlist
Most authors' work is never going to see the inside of a bookshop
Many of these authors, such as the ubiquitous bloggers, self-publish without any expectation of getting into the best-seller lists. So what is fuelling this passion for penmanship?

"There's no better way of making sense of your own life than by writing - and that's where the grassroots explosion has come from," says Chris Gribble, chief executive of the New Writing Partnership, which runs the Arts Council-supported awards.

People are trying to write the story that explains their life - and whereas before they might have been bashful about a couple of confessional poems stuffed in a drawer, now they're upfront about their ambitions.

"There's the X Factor idea of getting up and having a go - with people becoming much more comfortable about the idea of being creative, rather than seeing it as an odd and rather unBritish thing to do," he says.

"The whole process of being a writer is much more realistic for many more people," he says.

Chic shockers

But if you want to see your book in print, what are the cliches to avoid? At present, Chris Gribble says that plots are being packed with twists and turns based on unintended e-mails and discovered text messages.

University students
There are now more than 600 full-time creative writing degree courses

And there are fashions in the type of novels that people want to write. Currently, literary young guns are slavishly imitating the stylishly provocative French writer Michel Houellebecq and Belgian, Amelie Nothomb.

Anyone wanting to imitate such voguish writers should be cautious. One literary agent said he'd like to hire a double-decker bus to drive around London with an advert warning serious young men: "Please don't send me novels influenced by Houellebecq. I can't take any more."

Agencies get hundreds of unsolicited submissions each week, says Camilla Hornby, at literary agency Curtis Brown.

Not all of these will leap from the page demanding to be published, she says. Those doomed not to see the bookshop window can include copycat novels (does the world need more Dan Brown-style code-cracking?) or self-indulgent stories which are really only of interest to their authors.

There can be other predictable patterns - fortysomething women writing romances about affairs or the serious literary volume overwritten to an inch of its life.

Creative accountants

Swelling the ranks of would-be novelists, says Ms Hornby, are the growing number of creative writing courses.

Bloggers have opened up a new world of self-publishing

There are now more than 600 full-time degree courses in creative writing - with some universities offering more than 20 different types of creative writing degree.

These can be creative works in themselves - with combinations including creative writing and archaeology (University of Chester), creative writing with accountancy (University of Bolton) and the much more plausible creative writing and public relations (College of St Mark and St John, Plymouth).

Publishers are on the receiving end of the literary avalanche - and commissioning editor, Will Atkins, says that it can feel as though there are more people writing books than reading them.

Mr Atkins commissions novels for Macmillan New Writing, which was set up as an outlet for first works. In its first year, the publisher received about 5,000 novels, he says.

"There seems to have been this immense increase in the general public deciding to start on a novel," he says.

Just remember to start and finish with an interesting word - that's the way to start a literary "heelabalow".

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

It was a dark and stormy night, and the authors were starting to swarm....
Phil, Essex

I'm writing a book, and it's gonna be great. No, seriously, it is. Honest. If I ever finish it.
GM Ledwith, Halifax

I have a friend who went on a creative writing course. She said it was 'Indescribable'. Can't have been a very good course then.
Joe, Cambridge

Both my bloke and I have often discussed our story ideas and our desires to write decent novels. He wants to be a full time writer but rarely finds the time to write in the evenings after work, and he's also very aware that there are hoards of writers and 'trained' writers trying to have their big break. I wonder if there is an affect on the quality of work from the number of courses that teach how to write by the book. If you want to write, just write! It may never be published, but it will be there, even if it's only for your own pleasure.
Heather, Wolverhampton

Yes, there are predictable plots. But I also see dozens of excellent manuscripts that are unlikely to get published by mainstream publishers simply because they are not commercial enough. It is no longer enough to be a good writer. Nowadays, authors need to be good storytellers first and foremost. What many disheartened writers dont realise is that there are many other viable options still open to them - such as e-publishing and self-publishing. In many cases, authors make more money from e-publishing and self-publishing than they ever would from traditional publishing houses.
Stephanie Hale, Oxford

There may be a lot of us aspiring authors out there, and maybe agents and publishers are drowning under our mss, but my first novel (I Married A Pirate) has just found a publisher - and if I can do it so can you. Write on!
Samantha David, France

An annual event that gets thousands of people writing is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) - the idea is to write 50,000 words of a novel during November. The reward is pure satisfaction, but a number of NaNoWriMo writers have gone on to be published authors. Although it was started in the US (and is really International Novel Writing Month), it's been taking off more in the UK and the rest of Europe over the past few years.
Catherine, Northern Ireland

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