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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A Brief Update…

I’m torn. Part of me feels guilty that it’s been so long, but the other part of me is trying to be a realist and remember exactly how hectic life has been recently. That I’ve passed out before 9pm every night this week (often before the kids have) is tribute to how exhausting things have been.

I forget exactly where I was the last time I blogged*, but this is where I am now:

  • The first draft of my second novel is complete, rested (a little) and now being worked on. I burned out a bit at the end, so spend a couple of much needed weeks off playing Fallout (3…sadly I’m not flush enough with cash or time to justify updating our PS3 yet). I was reluctant to get back into it, but made myself tart up a chapter to take to my writing group, and not only was it well received but seeing the prose tidied up gave me hope again for the story as a hole, so I grabbed at the momentum and have been working on it since.

 

  • I’m going against the advice to print and read the whole thing in one go. I tried it last time, and found I got overwhelmed by the pages of scrawl and notes everywhere. Because I know a lot of the issues that are in the first draft I’m doing a brief read-edit to get the whole a bit tidier before I do the Big Read. Hopefully it will help me get a better overview with fewer things to niggle over.

 

  • I’ve mentioned before that I like to use a spreadsheet to log my wordcount. I’ve found that logging my editing days and notes is just as motivational. It lets me see how well I’ve actually done when I’m on a good run. I’m focusing on time spent, change in wordcount (goes up and down depending on what scenes I’m working on need), notes on revision tasks undertaken, and general notes (usually along the lines of “Urrrgh, so tired…”).

 

  • I’ve been working on a couple of short stories-one horror, one children’s picture book (diversifying much?!). Both started well then stalled for different reasons. I’m hoping to dip back into them when I get a bit of inspiration or I need a break from novel revisions.

 

  • I’ve been reading more. Largely because I got to actually have some holiday during my recent holiday, and I remembered how lovely it is to read a book properly instead of in 1-2 line chunks before someone interrupts me, so I’ve been making more of an effort to get those longer lengths of time (although that’s largely come at the expense of writing time, so I’m not sure how sustainable it will be. Hopefully as the kids get bigger and life gets a little calmer…hahaha!)

 

  • I’ve been outlining(!!!) my next novel. This was partly something I’d intended to do, then used to procrastinate starting revisions! As it is I’m enjoying dipping in, partly because it’s my Big One that I devised the concept for before I’d even started writing my first novel (it was initially going to be a board game, but it turns out board game design is HARD! Who’d have thought it, huh?!), so it’s already been stewing a while, and I’m happy to let it grow. The most productive parts have been writing short character pieces and scenes in the world, rather than trying to force a plot (I tried this and have scrapped most of what I came up with because it felt so…forced!)

So that’s pretty much me for now. I’ll try to make more effort to update, and who knows, even talk about non-writing things!

 

*I could (and maybe should) check, but I promised myself this would be quick else I would have argued myself out of logging on!

I’m at THAT point in the manuscript…

…It happened last time, too.

There I was, past the muddly start, past the “I should go back to re-write the start” convictions, skipping through the words with the happy knowledge that that end is in sight. It’s so easy, I just need to…

Wait. What do I need to do?

I’m not mad-keen on outlining. I see the benefits, I made a hearty attempt this time round, but honestly, once I get a grip on the story, I want to just write it. So I plan ahead, but the further I plan, the more I want to just see how I get there. Which is fine…

Until now.

My outline for the last chunk of my story runs something like this:

“[protagonist] breaks into building. Gets captured. Manipulates powers*. Burns the place down. Everyone escapes.”

Easy.

Except, ummmm… *this.

I’ve been brushing over it, using the square brackets I’ve been so pleased with, but finally crunch time has arrived. I have to fix the mechanics on which my story is based, because otherwise I have no idea how to bring the ending together. I could (and probably will) fudge it to some extent, but the carefree sense at the start of the story has worn off. I’m committed to this one now that I’m so many thousands of words in, and which I know that I’ll have to go through and redo large chunks of it, I’m reluctant to do that here, because I keep telling myself that I need to know the ending to really know the start.

So I’m going to give myself a day or two to recover and research. Then it’s time to sit down with a notebook** and get working again.

 

**I bought a notebook! It’s pretty colours.

 

The Mid-Section Slog

I’m in that funny place, where the end is hovering tantalising ahead like a mirage, but I’m still slogging through the middle of the desert, hoping that it all makes sense and I’m not going to have to rewrite the whole lot. I suspect that even if I do, I’ll have to write my way into realising how!

I’m finding the use of [square brackets] a blessing, though it doesn’t always feel like it when I think about just how much there is to go back an fix once I’ve finished this write through, and a large part of me wants to go back through and sort it all out now.

But since that put my last project back into the perpetual re-write stage, I’m holding off until I’ve at least got my ending down so I can see the whole before trying to slot in new parts.

So right now it feels like an uphill slog probably not helped that I’m doing a dialogue heavy scene that’s fighting very hard to become an infodump rather than charismatic and purposeful banter!], but hopefully it’s not too long before I can slide down into the ending! [and mahoosive revisions I have waiting!]

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…)

 

Round 2: Lessons Learnt and Starting My Second Novel

It’s been a while since I updated and a lot has happened, though not so newsworthy to actually write about. Kids are growing (if still refusing to sleep), work is stressful, and all the usual stuff. The writing has been going well, however, although the time pressures have meant blogging has had to take a backseat to writing.

In the spirit of moving forwards, I finally trunked my first novel. I still like the story and hope to use elements of it in the future, but it’s morphed drastically a couple of times since its first inception, and whilst it’s taught me a lot, the amount of work still needed is more than I’m willing to put in. It’s a little disappointing as I was hoping to refine my editing skills by getting this story as honed as possible, but a few things made me realise that I’ll be better investing my time elsewhere.

So here’s what’s been going on:

  1. I’ve been working on my short fiction. It started as a bit of light relief from the momentus editing albatross hung around my neck, and also some last minute panics when I needed something to read to my writing group. But it’s actually taught me a lot about structuring a story, filling in details that keep the story flowing (I tend to underwrite, so this is a biggy for me), and giving me practice at the sentence level restructuring I’ve been desperate to get to practice but was no where near ready to do with the novel.
  2. I got my first set of feedback at the absolutewrite.com water cooler. Priceless. Absolutely bloody brilliant for critiques (at least the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section)! My writing group is lovely, but much more a supportive, cheerleading group, than the thorough critiques that really push ones writing forward. and this site got that corner.
  3. I’ve made my first submission. Only for a short (as mentioned, novel #1 is not going to see the light of day any time soon!)It’s still in the pipeline, but it’s for a major, paying market who publish some really quality stuff. Whilst I’m not so delusional as to expect it to be accepted, the piece has had almost universally good feedback, and it means a lot to me to feel like I stand a chance at that level. So, excited, but realistic about my chances!
  4. I’ve started Novel Number 2. It’s different from Novel Number 1, but still has some elements of style that I’ve discovered I like. I’ve also used it as an opportunity to embrace my Science/Biology background that seemed to work well in the short stuff I’ve done, and that’s got me even more interested!
  5. Further to point 4, I’ve been a-planning! After initially deciding I was a pantser, then getting exhausted with the rambling, ever changing mess of my first novel, I decided to put a bit more effort into structuring this one. Doing so has made me realise I’m not such a hard and fast discovery writer as I thought-even with my first WIP I had to stop to plot out the next chunk of story to get it clear in my mind. So I’ve embraced that amalgamated method, kicked things off with KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel Workbook, and dotted to and fro between writing and planning ahead. The proof will be in the writing, but so far it’s working well.

So, that’s a brief update on the big things in my writing. I will try to update more regularly, just…time!

Still, forging on for now! 🙂

Baby Burnout, Writing Fatigue, and Dabbling With New Forms…

It’s getting old now, but I am EXHAUSTED. With work pressures, a boisterous 3 year old and our youngest fully enjoying the new world of walking, talking and playing day and night, amongst other things, I’m well ready for the summer holidays (I’ve been off a week and it really doesn’t feel like it.)

But it’s not just physical tiredness. After a pretty good patch, I’ve lost momentum with my writing, too. The second draft I’ve been slogging at was getting me so down that I decided to just give up on it, and for about a month I’ve been pretty lax on the writing front (not helped by losing most of my evenings to bedtime battles or passing out even before the kids from exhaustion.)

Even at my most knackered I’ve kept up the podcasts etc (I do love Writing Excuses for a 15 minute or so hit whilst cooking or doing laundry) so hopefully I’m still learning by osmosis, but I also stumbled across a couple of competitions via Twitter that got my brain whirring and tempted me to try some different forms.

So I’ve written the first short story that I actually rather like,* and am hoping to do a final edit and send it off next week for this competition (my first! Eeek!). I doubt anything will come of it**, but it’s been refreshing to find out that I can do it, as well as a satisfying learning activity, going from first concepts to line edits within a few weeks (as a opposed to years for novel length work.)

I’m also contemplating a pop at playwriting for another competition that’s sparked my interest***. Again, no real expectations of getting anywhere, but it’s as good excuse as any to have a try and see if I can do it. Worst case, I’ll waste a bit of time, discount a form from my “to try” list, but still get some much needed practice with dialogue and endings.

So that’s my plan for the next few weeks, as well as trying to revive (and hopefully finish not too far off schedule) my novel.**** And sleep. (Someone tell the kids that, please!!)

*My last few attempts were highly derivative and I lost interest pretty quickly.

**Not least because I missed the part saying they want an inspiring fable. My husband was in stitches when I read the guidelines as he got to the bit where society is wiped out. Ooops.

***I do love Brave New World but was never quite convinced by the ending.

**** I got some much needed critique back a few days ago that made me realise the story’s not quite as dead as I’d thought. I’d been milling around at the wrong starting point and getting bogged down in details that needed to be more subtle.