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Insights from The Writers’ Academy Tutor

It has often been said that behind every great student, there is a great teacher. In online study, where many uninitiated fear the lack of face-to-face contact will lead to them feeling distanced or alone, the teacher, mentor or tutor’s role becomes even more vital. The Writers’ Academy Tutor Barbara Henderson has been working with students on our courses since day one, offering continuous support, feedback, guidance and reassurance. A former journalist, she made the move to professional writer after obtaining a PhD in Creative Writing, and has published both crime and children’s novels. We recently sat down with Barbara to get her insights on writing, creativity and publishing, alongside her thoughts on working as The Writers’ Academy Tutor.

When did you decide to start writing?

I loved writing stories as a child, but I mistakenly imagined that you had to be a very special person to have them published. So I became a journalist, telling other people’s stories, but the urge to write fiction never went away. Eventually I enrolled on a Creative Writing PhD and it was only then that I plucked up the courage to send my work out to publishers. My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier!

What do you think makes a good story?

Strong characters that fascinate us – we don’t have to like them, but we have to care what happens to them. A plot that carries us along, so that we want to stay in the writer’s world. And something we remember long after we’ve finished reading.

Do you work to an outline or plot, or do you prefer just to see where an idea takes you?

I always start off a novel with only the vaguest idea of where it is heading, which is very strange considering that in all other areas of my life I’m quite an over-planner. I used to think there was something wrong with this approach, but when I did my PhD and was writing my children’s novel, my supervisor told me it was a good thing. She also said that even if I did have ideas about where the story would go and how it would end, I should ‘hold them lightly’ and be prepared to change as I write. I think this was fantastic advice and for me, the creative rush of writing an unplanned first draft is my favourite part of writing.

When and why did you become The Writers’ Academy Tutor?

I joined The Writers’ Academy in 2014, when it very first started. I love teaching and I already had a lot of distance learning experience. I love the way online courses can open up learning to so many people who would never otherwise be able to fit it into their lives. And of course, the Penguin Random House name is so highly regarded in the industry that I think any tutor would be proud to be associated with it.

What is the most rewarding thing about teaching on the course?

I love the interaction with the writers and I especially like it when they get into a debate with me about their work. I also love to watch how the writing develops as the course goes on – particularly in terms of skills and technique on the Creative Writing for Beginners course, and then also seeing a substantial work take shape in the Constructing a Novel course. Many of the writers stay in touch with me and I love to hear their success stories! It’s fantastic to see, when they get work published or land a contract with an agent or publisher, that they feel the Penguin Random House courses and their tutor helped them to get to that point.

What are you yourself working on at the moment, aside from teaching?

I’ve just completed my fifth novel, which is a contemporary novel for Young Adults. It’s out on submission via my agent and – fingers crossed – we’ve had interest from two publishers, so watch this space!

What in your opinion does a publisher look for?

They want to see that a writer takes their craft seriously. So although it’s all about the story in the end (and all the things I mentioned above), they also want to see that a writer understands basic descriptive and storytelling techniques and has bothered to set out their manuscript properly.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?

Write because you really want to write – not because of some glamorous idea of being an author. Don’t put it off: you should write a little almost every day. And get as much feedback as you can – not from friends and family, as they will be too nice, but by entering competitions, joining writing groups and taking courses in the craft.

If you enjoyed this interview with The Writers’ Academy Tutor and are looking for more tips from an industry expert, check out our post Tips for Writers by Random House’s Editor. Remember to let us know what you think in the comment section below!

Interested in furthering your creative writing skills online? Why not find out more about the Creative Writing for Beginners and Constructing a Novel courses from Penguin Random House, delivered to you 100% online by The Writers’ Academy?

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