“Just ask!”: creative writing and working with authors

Janice Parker is a learning rep in UNISON Corby branch, part of the UNISON Northants Learning cluster. In this blog she explains how she worked with author Louise Jensen to put on a creative writing workshop for UNISON members from across Northamptonshire.

Creative writing is something that I am very interested in myself as I write poetry, plus Louise Jensen is a friend of mine, and I knew that she would probably be interested in running a course for us. She had given freely of her time for us in the past by helping us with the Reading Ahead Challenge about two years ago (by launching the event with us, and by handing out the certificates at the end). She is very supportive of libraries and any initiative to promote reading and writing. Also, I thought that it would be something fun for everyone to do, so all our courses are not centred around work based subjects.

Firstly, we had to make sure that Louise was willing to help us. This time, I wanted to make sure that she was paid for her time, as writing is her full time profession and therefore her job. Apparently, authors do tend to get asked to do lots of different events, and people seem to expect them to give their time for free and feel honoured that they’ve been asked, so if anyone is thinking about running a course themselves, they should be willing to pay the author’s fee.

After that, we booked our venue. We used a room at the Corby Innovation Hub near us in Weldon, as the Council have a department based in there, so we were able to negotiate a good fee for the half day. This was paid for by Kickstart funding. The Hub also has its own canteen and catering company, so we asked them if they would provide tea, coffee, cakes and biscuits for us (also paid by Kickstart) so that the attendees didn’t have to pay for any refreshments. Louise’s invoice will be paid for from the UNISON Northants Learning Fund that we have in Northamptonshire (see below for more on that).

The room that we hired was a lovely, spacious conference room that could comfortably seat up to 18 delegates. Louise brought her own laptop with her, although everything we did was very hands on and manual in content. The reception area provided us with extra pens and paper, and I made sure that there were jugs of water on the table. The refreshments were brought in ready for our short break at 3pm, and the waitress came and cleared everything away at the end of the afternoon.

One important thing that I haven’t mentioned is that I did have lunch with Louise the week before so we could discuss how we envisaged the afternoon would go, and talk about what we both wanted the course to achieve.

Louise also requested if I could ask people if they had any questions for her, or if there was anything in particular that they wanted her to cover, so she could be prepared and also tailor the content to what people were most interested in. I felt that this was very useful, and probably a bit easier for me as she was already a friend.

Louise also brought along her friend and fellow author, Darren O’Sullivan, who she had also asked to help her prepare content for the course.

Darren specialises in psychological thrillers, but his persona is so light and funny, so they really complimented each other’s styles. Two for the price of one, you could say!

Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it and I have had some lovely comments and feedback about it. Louise and Darren also really enjoyed themselves. I think it all went extremely well, and I am amazed at just how much interest it has generated.

People said that it was very informative and motivating, and I for one can vouch for that, having written two more poems since the event!

In fact, it was the first time that Louise had hosted a Creative Writing course, so it was a big learning event for her too.

You can read Louise’s account of the workshop at her website.

Janice explains how to make it happen

How did you publicise the event?

We had posters made showing the 6 months of courses up till the end of March 2020 plus separate posters made for each individual event. Each branch were given plenty of the posters to advertise and cascade, and they were also emailed to anyone who requested them.

We have a UNISON Northants Learning Google account, so that people can request application forms for the courses online, and they can then send them back to the website where they will be acknowledged and signed up to the courses. It is monitored on a daily basis, and all the course records are available there.

Did you limit the number of places?

Louise thought a maximum of 12 would be just about right, so that everyone could have a chance to really interact and do some writing of their own.

As it was, we had 14 people sign up for the course, with 10 attending on the day, so it turned out just about right.


Tell us more about UNISON Northants Learning?

In Northamptonshire all of the Unison Learning Co-ordinators and ULR’s have come together to form UNISON Northants Learning, and we meet up approximately every two months to discuss what courses we want to offer throughout the year, how we are going to go about it, and which branch is going to lead on each course. This way we can offer many more free courses to our members, at many different locations throughout the county, as opposed to each branch doing their own thing, and therefore only really reaching their own members.

Region donated £2000 to our fund, and then each branch donated approximately £500 each, so we have a healthy budget throughout the year. We plan to have the same amount of budget for this year too.

What would you say to someone who wanted to invite an author to an event like this but was feeling nervous about approaching one?

Just ask them!

When we first approached Louise about the Reading Ahead Challenge a couple of years ago, we told the library (where it was being held) that she had agreed to help, and they were like, “Gosh, that’s a real coup – how on earth did you manage to get Louise Jensen – she’s been at the top of the Amazon best seller chart for weeks with both her first two novels – how did you pull that one off?”

We said, “We just asked her!”

When I told Louise that, she laughed and said that authors are human too, and 90% of the time, if it’s anything to do with writing then they will say yes if they’re available, as promoting reading and writing is what they’re all about. If they do say no, then you’re no worse off than you were beforehand, but if they say yes, then you’re sorted, so just ask!

Any more tips on making the event run smoothly?

I found it helped to print off everyone’s application forms to take with me, as when they were filling in their Learner Records at the event, they didn’t all know their membership numbers, but they were on their application forms, so that was good.

When I got to the venue, I made sure that all the attendees had the Learner Records set out ready for them, along with writing paper and pens, and Louise had also put a signed copy of her latest book, The Family, at each person’s place, so it looked nice and professional and welcoming. I also left some ‘free courses’ booklets around the room in case anyone wanted one.

Make sure too, that if you are going to take photos, that everyone there (including yourself and the authors) sign the photo consent form.

Be prepared to do the necessary housekeeping introductions (fire escapes, toilets etc) and give the authors a nice introduction too.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for feedback as it really helps to gauge how things went, and spurs you on to do it again, plus, remember to thank the authors formally afterwards and give them the feedback too.