MA Creative Writing: One Year In

A year ago I made the decision to quit my job and start an MA in Creative Writing.

A friend of mine described this decision as “brilliantly random, whilst also being completely logical,” a sentiment that I felt summed it up well at the time, and continues to do so.

Coming in with a science based degree, I spent the summer before swinging between excitement and terror, and whilst I still have moments where I’m convinced I’m completely out of my depth, I’ve actually done far better results-wise, and learnt far more craft-wise than I’d ever anticipated.

Here’s some reflections on what’s working for me so far:

1. Pick your course to suit you.

I looked at a number of options, including the Open University. I wanted somewhere local that fitted in well with childcare and work, and that focused on improving writing skills as a priority over the critical and academic (ie. using the latter to reinforce the former, rather than vice versa). I narrowed my options down to two courses. The websites were great for finding out about the course, and heavily weighted my preference in favour of the more practical sounding course I finally picked. There was little information about the time commitments involved, but phoning up the university departments gave me not only that information, but also a sense of the people working there. Though both were friendly and helpful, I realised half way through applying for the more traditional, academically focused university with a fairly impractical timetable, that I was getting much better vibes about the course, the people, and the practicalities of the other, so scrapped that sensible “practice” application and went with what felt right.

 2. Make the most of the opportunities.

On starting the course I told myself I was going to take every opportunity that arose. Though this led to a few dodgy submissions and proposals, and towards the end I had to modify it to “consider everything, but be realistic,” I’ve tried not to turn down anything because it’s daunting, even asking (probably stupid) questions of the numerous visiting authors and other professionals. Opportunities have cropped up that I never expected, all of which have improved my writing, and broadened my employability skill set in the creative industries. This year I’ve attended radio writing workshops, screenwriting lectures and iPhone film making masterclass, and helped edit our student anthology. Next year I’m hoping to sit in on a range of additional courses, which leads me to…

3. Don’t burn out!

I’ve had a few points this year where I’ve come close. Financial worries after quitting my job and failing to get much supply work, balanced against time pressures and general parenting exhaustion negotiating the terrible twos–>threenager stage etc. and cutting down nursery hours to help with aforementioned financial pressure. Add to this a close family bereavement, which impacted me and my writing both emotionally (obviously!), and practically, in losing most of my  expected writing time for several months*.

There was also a greater intensity of workload for the course than I’d anticipated (always likely to be the case), and in the run up to assignments etc. standards have had to slip on the domestic front (never my strongest point, I’ll admit!). I also grew to expect a slump** after each deadline, and others on the course seemed to as well. Although “after my assignment” becomes a golden promised time of clearing everything that’s been pushed aside for the last few weeks or months, I’ve found it best not to put too much pressure on it and focus on a few important things (right now: family, health (mental and physical), reading ahead for next year and enjoying writing for myself again. The housework can wait another week or two!). This brings me to…

4. Remember why you’re doing it!

This will be different for everyone, but it’s probably a safe guess that the majority of people undertaking postgraduate study in Creative Writing will have some aspiration to be “a writer”, or at least work with words or stories in some way, be it in publishing, teaching or the film industry. My own ambitions are to improve my craft and broaden my writing scope into different areas***. It can be easy to get bogged down in grades and sidetracked by other projects. Learning so much in a short amount of time can leave you feeling disheartened about your own work and ability  (at least it did for me, and Mary Robinette Kowal has talked about this on Writing Excuses), as you’re able to spot more flaws, without necessarily having cemented the skills to overcome them. Being conscious that this is an indicator that my skills are improving helps, even if I can’t necessarily see it in myself  (wood, trees and all that lot!)!

It can also get disheartening when your reading and writing is dictated to by other people who may not necessarily share your literary tastes or aspirations. Though I chose my course in part because it felt the most open to genre writing****, a lot of the set texts are literary or mainstream works, a number I have wanted to read anyway, but a fair few that would be in the DNF pile were they not required reading!! The good ones (entirely subjective, obviously!) can make you question your own ability, whilst the nigh on unreadable ones are hard work and depressing! Whilst it’s certainly educational sticking with these to the end, it can become overwhelming at times. I’m currently reading ahead***** for next year, and A.S. Byatt’s Possession is making me question both my literary tastes****** and my ability to ever finish a novel again. *******

Reading and writing for fun has helped to keep these things in perspective, and remind me whilst I’m doing it. I switched to YA and short stories for light relief (both being fairly quick to get through whilst still getting a decent story), and dip in to Escape Pod and similar at times. Though writing time has been tight, working on short pieces in an alternative format (e.g. novel edits, a short script) from my course can help me stand back and gain some perspective before plunging back into things. The last thing you want is for the course to get so intense it puts you off writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Mostly helping with funeral preparations and other practicalities, the chief of which fell on my mum, who whilst more than capable, should not have had to do as much as she did (family politics! 😤). Hard as things were for me, they were worse so for her (she’d lost her mum, after all!). My husband goes to the football every other weekend, and my mum had got into the habit of taking the kids for a “granny day,” assisted by my dad and Nanna, and I’d got in the habit of relying on these for guilt-free writing time. Understandably, these were too much, or impacted boy other commitments, and I lost them for about 3 months, at a time when Anthology commitments were picking up and taking most of my “nursery days” (we’re down to two at the moment, one of which was for lectures etc, the other for cramming in as much reading, writing, laundry and general life admin as possible before it’s time to start dinner!).

Dealing emotionally with sudden loss of my grandma also made focused writing very hard, and most of my creative energy at the time went into journaling, letters, a poem, a PowerPoint of photos  for the wake etc. Writing for what should have been my favourite module became like pulling teeth, forcing one sentence out at a time. Not ideal when you’re meant to be honing 10k finely crafted words! I got there, but it was tough!

**emotional, mental.

***the first semester was particularly good for this, trying screen and radio formats, and, pushing myself to try something new, branching into comedy writing for my screenwriting assignment. It was great to try these new things in a supportive and instructional environment. I’m pretty sure that it would have taken closer to a year to gain the same skills on my own.

****I’m hoping the timetable is such that next year I can gatecrash…I mean “audit” … the undergraduate fantasy and sci-fi modules.

*****I’ve found reading as far ahead as I can is the only way to stay afloat!

******I know there are exceptions, but having sent A Brief History of Seven Killings back to the library with relief when my borrowing term was up, I’m noticing a pattern of potentially good but in real terms unreadable novels being picked for Man Booker Prizes.

*******I was in tears when I realised at my initial rate of 1% a night it was going to take me 100 days to finish the damn thing! I’ve discovered daytime reading is far more productive, if no less draining, but I’m a proud 20% into it now! Reading an online synopsis has helped me to appreciate that there is actually a story in there, and not just a muddle of family trees and unnecessary photocopier descriptions. And bathrooms! How much detail do we need about people’s bathrooms?! Sorry, I digress…

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Public Reading

Life has been a veritable whirlwind of challenges and new experiences, many a result of starting a Masters degree in Creative Writing this September, others, just life. Hopefully I’ll get the time to write about these in more detail, but I wanted* to come on and write about my first experience with reading my work in public, which I did on Monday.

I have read in public once before, at a small, informal event organised at my writing group leader, held at her house with drinks and a party like vibe. Monday was not a much larger gathering, organised by a local author, for other local writers to showcase their work (and for the self-published authors, make some sales!). It was far more terrifying than I had anticipated, and I did burst into tears as soon as I got home***, but overall, I believe that it went well (at least, that’s what I’ve been told!).

These are some of the lessons I’ll be taking from it:

  1. Practice your piece (aloud!) in advance.

    Due to last minute tweaking, university commitments family interruptions and traffic, I was unable to do a final read-through  on the day of the reading. I’d read it aloud in advance, but sat at my computer a few days before. I lip read it on the train home to check timings, I did not stand in front of a mirror in the privacy of my own home doing a dry run. Doing so would definitely have left me more confident when it came to the public event.

  2. Keep it simple.

    The best pieces read (in my mind) were linear and from a single viewpoint. First person worked well. My piece was fairly complex, and took a lot of cutting to get it within the time allocation (more on this in a minute!). It switched between two locations, indicated by scene breaks on the page, but less clear to listeners (it’s not good writing practice in general, but a few insertions of “meanwhile, over in…” may have helped). The story was located in Zambia, and I had meant to use a few gentle accents, but as I’m terrible at accents in general****, in the sheer panic of the night I forwent most of them and just ploughed through the piece. Maybe a few extra dialogue tags would have helped clarify the character interactions. I had also included a lot of medical/scientific terminology. My Science background took over, so I was fine with pronunciation, but it’s definitely an issue to bear in mind if inserting technobabble!

  3. Stay within the time frame.

    One of the positives of the night was knowing my piece finished just within the allocated time-slot. I kept the introduction short (I had pre-planned what to say), but I didn’t have to worry about evil looks from the organiser***** or pointed tapping of watches.

  4. Wear layers.

    I was fine in the café, until I stood up to read. Then my blood pressure soared and I was very aware of beetroot cheeks and sweating! Having something I could take off might have helped me feel less self-conscious. (removing my wool dress would not have helped me feel less conspicuous!!). On a similar note, staying comfortable in general removes pressures, so pop to the loo before and make sure you have a glass of water to hand.

  5. Look up!

    Even if you’re nervous, looking up at the audience makes for a much better connection and helps people enjoy the pieces better. It also projects a calmer image than may be the case.I glanced up about 3 times in the piece, even though I knew I should have been doing so more. A writer friend who was there recommended marking points in the text to look up, which is something I’ll definitely be doing next time.

So overall…terrifying, but definitely a good learning experience! Plus it can’t have gone that badly, because I’ve volunteered to do it again, and the organiser didn’t run away screaming. All positive! 😀

 

*aka. use some gained time from a cancelled lecture**

**Or really, procrastinate on the reading I should be doing.

***I think it took that long for the adrenaline to wear off!

**** My husband had mocked me earlier that everyone might think it was set in Romania. He had a fair point!

*****She’s a very lovely lady, so these would probably have been mostly in my head.

The Joy of Completed Works

No, sadly not the novel. I’m having a couple of days to mull over a sticky point before I whip myself back onto that one…

But I was skimming through some upcoming deadlines and competitions on the Word Factory site, and realised when I clicked on some that I actually have some things I could submit!

These are little short stories that I’d finished some months back but hadn’t found places to submit them, partly because they’re slightly outside of what I usually read, so researching was going to be more effort than just pulling up a website or two and checking the submission guidelines.

Whilst there’s obviously no guarantee that anything will come from it, it was incredibly satisfying to be able to send off an enquiry knowing that I’ve got something all ready to dust off, rather than the blind panic of trying to fit a story in to meet both a deadline and a criteria, which my rather unstructured writing approach (just blurting onto the page whatever the story seems to want) makes rather stressful!

So the lesson is…unless you have a looming deadline, write what you fancy, smarten it up, and keep hold of it…you never know when you might stumble into an oppertunity!

 

Re-Routing Mid-Story Tedium

With allowances for the festive season, I’ve been happily chugging through my novel. I hit a wall about four days ago, but thought I’d solved the issue by creating a map*, which helped me sort out the muddle of road names and locations of key events/clues for my protagonist to follow.

After a couple of days something niggled and I put in this square brackets prompt** for when I start the revisions process: [check this isn’t too boring with lists of road names etc!].

Last night I read this article on avoiding the mushy middle by Chuck Wendig.

This morning I realised that although my protagonist is progressing through the story, all he’s really done of late is buy a jumper, navigate some map issues, and develop some poor spatial awareness skills (interesting sidenote, the word “map” now appears 28 times in the last 8000 words of my manuscript).

It’s about time to deviate from talk of the weather and the state of the roads*** and insert some action!

New revisions note: [Iron gates twisted: melted and reformed. Claw marks up the brickwork. Possibly a sinkhole.]

It’s a start…

 

*Dithered over whether to post a picture or not, it is pretty bad and slightly embarrassing, so I’ve only put up a small section above. There’s a reason I teach Science and not Art!

**I mentioned before how helpful these have been in getting me through my first draft without looking back.

***I can see Jane Austen peering smugly over my shoulder at my deterioration into a British stereotype.

 

Fast Drafting

I’m not officially doing NaNoWriMo (at least not the 50k target, though I am dipping in to parts), but November has been the time to start a new novel.

It’s been exhilarating and slightly terrifying as I haven’t started anything of this length in well over a year*. Possibly two.

Initially I was terrified that I’d end up with an unworkable, ever-morphing mess like last time, but as I’ve got into it I’ve settled into the flow, and, utilising some tricks I’ve picked up on the way, feel so much more confident that I will end up with a first draft that is messy, yes, but workable.**

So here’s the tips:

1. Square brackets. Anything can go in here, from world building notes to reminders to fix names/ characteristics/ foreshadowing. It stops me having to scroll back through to change as I go, keeping flow, whilst leaving me with an easily searchable set of easy fixes for the editing rounds.

2. Skipping bits that are holding me back. With the aforementioned square brackets, I can leave the bits I either need to dwell on to get just right, e.g.. [portentous road name], or that I don’t have the energy or ideas for that scene type right when I’m writing it, e.g.. [flesh out /make interesting dialogue], or, he walks to shelter [make journey more exciting]. None of these are likely to be big story changing factors, and have helped me keep momentum as I write, even making writing in order more interesting as last time I preferred to jump around and write scenes as I felt like it.

3. Consciously thinking ahead. Last time I discovery drafted off the cuff until I got stuck, then trid to work out what had happened and where it was heading. Then I’d carry on again until the next blip when I would have to stop and work it all out again. This time I’ve got a clearer idea of where it’s going because, whilst I still like to free-write my way in, I’ve plotted far enough ahead to have easy prompts when I lose track.

4. My much loved spreadsheet of word-count-ness. I’ve mentioned this before, but I tally the start and end time and word count of most writing sessions. I’ve also started using a separate tab in the spreadsheet to note revision reminders as they occur to me (similar to the square brackets above).

4. Having the confidence to stop for breath. Fast writing an become addictive, especially using the spreadsheet to keep pushing for more and more words. But it’s easy to burnout. Normally I find writing rejuvenating and relaxing, but the pressure to finish a large work can get overwhelming*** Breaking it up with rest days to re-fill the well and deal with plot niggles etc, (or just deal with life), or working on some shorter pieces have helped to keep my enthusiasm for the project high, and working on it is still exciting.

I don’t think any of these are new and groundbreaking (although square brackets are soundly attributed to writingexcuses.com podcast, where I believe both Brandon and Mary have said that they use them), but they are strategies I’ve implemented this time round that are making a big impact on my drafting process.

Hopefully they’ll be of use to others, too!

 

 

*Actually, I’m cheating-this is a YA/MG crossover book, so the word count needed is closer to novella length. God help me when I start the epic scifi adult work I’m building up to!

**With the disclaimer that I’m still in the lovely first third honey-moon period, but these tips should stand up, even if I have issues later on. I also feel like I know much more clearly where I’m heading with this project, so am optimistic.

***I’m currently suffering with some health/wellbeing issues outside of writing, which have made me very conscious that I need to take care of myself more. Mur Lafferty has some excellent podcasts around the topic (as well as general all round advice. Plus I’m loving the new Ditchdiggers’ series. But I digress…)

 

Stephen King: On Writing

Whilst I enjoy it from time to time, non-fiction is rarely top of my reading list. Add that life and work have (rudely!) sapped my energy and free time to virtually nil of late, and you can see why I’ve not got very far through the long list of craft books I’ve bookmarked to look at.

Blogs, yes.

Podcasts, yes.

Writing books…

soon…

Honest!

However after finishing Stephen King: On Writing*, I think I need to put a higher priority on craft books.

Whilst a (self-acclaimed) short book, I enjoyed the gentle warm up with his personal history and route into his writing career. The guy can tell a story** and it’s always reassuring to hear how other people have slogged through the early days, refining their craft and getting exposure in between work and family life, before getting those breaks that build up to a successful career.

His section on writing advice is quite compact, which I liked, though will probably need to go back through to refresh , because the narrative on them is so stark.***

Some of my favourite parts/top lessons:

  • The image of his “muse” as a grumpy old man in the basement. Fab!
  • The importance of support from family (his wife in particular) and the freedom to disassociate with those that don’t.
  • A licence to spend time reading and writing, and to see oneself as a serious writer, rather than having to make excuses for it.

Some things I disagree***** with:

  • Writing groups are not always bad. I’ve found contact with other writers gives me confidence to treat my writing seriously. It gives me a time to focus solely on writing, without children, laundry, etc nagging in the back (or front!) of my mind. I can see how they can be misused, but with care I think they can be invaluable.
  • Plot can still be important. Yes, character and situation should come first, but a good plot that evolves from those things can draw me through a book. If people start with plot and work backwards to fill in the characters I think it can still work well, as long as the plot isn’t too rigid that it makes the characters flat or unbelievable.
  • A basic sense of grammar is important, but telling a good story still comes first. Now I have been put off reading indie pieces because of poor grammar, but getting every who vs. whom etc is going to annoy fewer people than unbelievable characters or bland story.

Hopefully I’m doing the book justice with these short points (we’re back on mad sleep patterns and my brain has given up on me recently), but they are just a few of the things that have stuck with me.

I may be slightly biased with how much resonated with me. I’m more of a discovery writer than outliner (he discards plans as sucking the life out of stories****, although I feel that’s a bit harsh and often wish I could plan, but I just end up writing instead), so his methods ring truer to me than they may to a hard-core planner. Even so, I think there’s something to be taken for everyone, so would highly recommend it.

If nothing else, it’s a quick, compelling read!

On Writing by Stephen King

*Not that the sample quite does justice to the rest of the book, imo.

**Well, duh! I have really enjoyed some of his fiction, although have to be in the right mood for it when it gets scary! Any hard-core fans would probably love it, because there are lots of references to the writing of specific books.

***Kicking myself a bit for getting the e-book, as print copies are so much easier to skim through for this.

****Paraphrasing, btw.

*****Please let me know if I’ve misinterpreted/misrepresented any of these ideas-as I’ve said I’m not quite on top par at the moment!