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…

Expectations

I’ve just submitted a script to the BBC Writers Room (literally about 10 minutes before ago, as I write this). I mentioned my plan to my Screenwriting tutor, who warned me that the Writers Room has bad rep for being a cosmetic exercise that rarely leads to anything. This seemed fair warning from a man with a strong independent, self-publishing, go-and-film-it-yourself mentality, and whilst even the blurb on the page says it’s rare the scripts themselves will be made, having heard Anne Edyvean talk at the Mosely Litfest about the opportunities it has opened for some writers, it seemed worth a punt. If nothing else, it was an excuse to extract it from the dusty recesses of my hard drive and sort out the issues raised in my feedback.

Given the low chance of success for breaking in with any creative project, I’ve generally found that keeping my expectations low whilst repeatedly butting my head against the wall is the best way to stay sane during this process*. There was a wonderful blog post Kristen Lamb made some time back (I mentioned it in an old blog post running along a similar theme as this) about the real odds of success… It basically says the odds are crappy, but…if only 5% of people get through the slush, and only 5% of those get a request for full, and only 5% of those get signed by the agent…etc etc…well the only way to succeed is to keep trying. Because even if the odds are against you, as long as you’re working on your craft, and you’re submitting, eventually something will hit. There’s no guarantee it’s going to be the success you might want, but if you don’t try, then it will never happen.

This was the essence of the conversation I had with my husband on Tuesday morning, the first real “day off” I’ve had since my assignment was in. After the kids were at school & nursery, the laundry was on, I’d washed up, cleaned the cooker, even listened to a particularly excellent episode of the Ditchdiggers podcast, with Lexi Alexander talking scripts and films…even then, before emailing my tutor, as I eyed up the chaos that is our house, I asked “should I even be wasting my time?”

Lovely man that he is, my husband replied “You’re not wasting your time.”

“There’s pretty much zero chance of anything coming out of this.”

He shrugged. “There’s only zero chance if you don’t submit.”

And that’s the (slightly rambling) story of why our house is still a mess, (but I’ve got my first sitcom submitted to the BBC! Huzzah!)

 

 

*Whatever you might hear to the contrary…

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.

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 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!

 

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!]