ALEX SMITH, award-winning author and creative writing at The Writers College

Alex Smith’s most recent novel ‘Devilskein & Dearlove’ is a YA Fantasy, described by the ‘Sunday Times’ as “a magical tale not soon forgotten”. She is also the author of ‘Algeria’s Way’, ‘Four Drunk Beauties’, ‘Agency Blue’ and ‘Drinking from the Dragon’s Well’.

Her writing has been shortlisted for the SA PEN Literary Award, Short Sharp Stories Award and the Caine Prize for African Writing, and has won a Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature and a Nielsens Booksellers’ Choice Award. 

Alex tutors the Novel Writing Course and the Literary Short Fiction Course at the Writers College.

Q. How did you become a writer?

Mmm, that is a strange idea, ‘becoming a writer’, like the beginning of a story. Wherever you pick for the story to begin is arbitrary because a story has so many possible beginnings.

One possible beginning in this case: in high school I wrote a shoddy adventure novel, inspired by Ian Fleming and set in Mauritius. Thankfully that manuscript has vanished, unpublished. More obvious a beginning I suppose was when I quit my good day job, sold my house and everything else I had, walked the Camino de Santiago, and then rented a labourer’s cottage on a rose farm in Stellenbosh where I took up writing full time. That’s where I wrote the first draft of my first published novel.

Q: What has been your greatest writing achievement?

Probably not giving up. Achievements are overrated virtues.

Q. How do you decide what to write about? Where do you get ideas?

Everything is inspiring, it can be overwhelming. Not all ideas are keepers though. Usually I leave an idea alone and if it returns over and over again then I do something about it.

Q. How easy is it to make a living as a writer?

It’s not easy, but very near to impossible to make a living as a creative writer in South Africa. I believe if you can get into scriptwriting that is lucrative. Journalism is something else altogether.

Q. What general advice would you give aspirant writers/journalists just starting out?

Journalists are in a different world – there are real jobs for journalists. I’d say to a person thinking of making creative writing their career, what my aunt once said to me: don’t do it unless you can’t live without it. Anne Landsman, winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award, said at the Cape Town book fair last year that she feels [creative] writing is a vocation.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important writing tip you ever received?

Go back and rewrite it. Go back and rewrite the rewrite.

Q: When you mark your students’ work, what are key qualities you look for in their work?  

In anything I read, what I want from the sentence I’m on is for it to make me want to read the sentence coming. I want that of each paragraph, every page, and all chapters; I even want it from the last line. It must be moreish. That could be because the plot is riveting, or the language is entrancing or the concept captivating or perhaps the characters are just damn funny or brilliant, vivid, authentic… authenticity is a very fine quality.

Feedback about Alex Smith from her writing students:

“It was a concise and thorough course; I learnt a huge amount. I have done three courses with the Writers’ College now and realise I have barely scraped the surface of what I need to do and the journeys I have to go on to become a vaguely useful writer. I never anticipated how challenging flash fiction would be so I would like to do more. Alex rocks; she is calm and collected, which is necessary because I reckon new writers are terribly nervous and emotionally immature about their work. We are like toddlers: we need to be guided into maturity with patience and encouragement. She has a very classical eye which balanced out my tendency to want to break the bank, and in the end, I think that yin-yang was good for my writing. She was professional and a pleasant lady too. I’ll be back to sign up for another course.”  Eleanor Talbot, Literary Short Story & Flash Fiction Course

“The course was structured perfectly and covered every aspect in the literary world of novel writing. The assignments were easily understood and helpful in developing the tools needed to improve my writing abilities. I enjoyed every moment of the course, and always looked forward to the next assignment. From the very first email received from Alex – I was convinced of her brilliance. All of my assignments were graded within a week, and her following advice and guidance was helpful and encouraging. Due to her endless support, I was able to gain the confidence in my writing and even managed to complete a full first draft of my novel. Alex is not only an inspiration, but a wonderful mentor and someone I would consider, “a dear friend.” Thank you Alex for allowing me the privilege of having shared my journey with you.  It would be difficult to describe this course as an educational tool; the course was so intriguing and captivating, that it felt more like a lifestyle  that you aim to live everyday!” Claire Froneman, Write a Novel Course

“The course was challenging and rewarding. My tutor Alex was very helpful and friendly in her communications. The course offered exactly what I was looking for – training to improve grammar from an intermediate to advanced level. This is something  I simply couldn’t find anywhere else. I enjoyed the course immensely.”  Neil Sheppard, Advanced Grammar for Writers Course

“The course notes were comprehensive, clear and informative. Alex was an excellent tutor who encouraged me all the way. Her instructions were clear; I enjoyed working with her and learnt a lot. She trusted and challenged my creativity all the way and made me believe in myself and my ability to write. I grew not only as a writer, but also as a person. Thank you Alex. Overall, I had a positive experience.” Magriet Visser, Write a Novel Course

“I loved this course, every moment of it. It has been absolutely amazing and my writing has improved so much. Working with Alex really has been a wonderful experience. She challenged me and helped me improve all aspects of my writing and creativity. I am extremely grateful for her involvement in this course. I’ve done creative writing courses before, but this course with Alex has by far exceeded my expectations. It has been my pleasure to work with The Writers’ College, from the website to the tutor. Thank you so much Writers’ College!” llona Nel, Write a Novel Course

“This course was very enlightening for me. Alex has been great and extremely helpful! I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. She was awesome to work with. The course met my objectives more than I had anticipated. It was a pleasure to be a student with the The Writers’ College, and to take part in an experience that has set the foundation to the rest of my writing journey.” Jade du Randt, Write a Novel Course

“I found the course informative, helpful and inspiring. Alex Smith was always available and quick to answer any questions; she was very supportive throughout. The course more than met my objectives. My overall experience with The Writers’  College was a very positive one. Now I truly feel I’m a writer.” Karin Noll, Write a Novel Course

“The course material was brilliant! I found everything helpful and easily applicable to my own writing. I was extremely happy with the entire course. Alex is a wonderful lecturer! Her use of positive criticism was amazing. It helped me approach my editing in a different way. The support she gave me was priceless, it got me through the times when I thought the mountain of writing was too high to climb. I have so many things to say about her, but what I will say is: Thank you Alex! The course objective was a couple of chapters and twenty five thousand words. Three and a half months in, I had hit the mark already. Alex hinted that it would be a shame if I didn’t finish my entire first draft of my manuscript before the end of the course. It was a tall order, but before the end I sat with a manuscript of hundred and seventeen thousand words. She helped me achieve above and beyond what I thought I was capable of. I’m happy to say that whatever made me stumble onto your college changed my life, and turned a small hope and dream into a reality.” Omri Pieterse, Write a Novel Course

“It was a fantastic course: very educational and easy to comprehend. Alex was a wonderful tutor. She was very supportive and inspired me to work harder and accomplish more. Deciding to do a writing course with the Writers’ College was the best educational choice I ever made.” Aileen Smith, Write a Novel Course

Alex Smith was an absolutely incredible tutor; I could not have wished or asked for anyone better. The course absolutely met my objectives and more. I have completed three courses with The Writers’ College now. My initial objective was to learn to write; I needed to put my experiences and stories into writing. I had no idea where to begin or what to look out for. I started with the Basics of Creative Writing Course, then took Advanced Creative Writing and then Novel Writing. It was a magnificent journey. Thank you very much.” Danie Markgraaff, Write a Novel Course

“If you want to improve your writing skills, The Writers’ College is the place to go. The tutors are friendly and they treat you as a real writer. The course material was informative and clear! definitely a plus. Alex was so patient with me; I learnt skills that enabled me to rework my entire novel and maybe publish it in the near future. Alex inspired me when I was feeling down-and-out and I have taken a lot of advice with me. I will most certainly invite her to my first signing (laugh out loud). The course met my objectives; my finished novel was 60,000 words and I am still rewriting it again and again.” Michelle Randall, Write a Novel Course