In my work as a book doctor and writing teacher, I sometimes remember a friend who’s a publisher saying to me that she thinks that creative writing programmes ‘give false hope’.
Hmm. I think this is a valid concern.
However, I am a teacher, as well as an editor, so I do believe in the idea of improvement, and especially in the idea that people can learn.
An MA in creative writing is one possibility, and it can provide structure and community, as well as direction. Someone was singing the praises of such courses in the Guardian only this morning: ‘Will a master’s in creative writing get you a book deal?’ – a variation on a familiar theme of discussing whether writing can be taught.
But an MA can also be expensive, and very often you’ll probably only produce the 15,000 words required for an academic thesis to satisfy the academeaucrats. Which is fine if you want or need an academic qualification. If you also want to complete a novel, you might need to seek out one of the few MA’s that actually require you to finish a novel (and even then, know it’ll still almost certainly need revising). So: research such courses well. Look at their content, look at the teachers, speak (directly) to recent graduates, and go in with your eyes open. And remember that the guy who wrote the article above got his book deal because an editor liked his book enough to want to publish it, and not necessarily because he has an MA.
And don’t start me on the idea of marking academic work. A % attached to a piece of creative writing is an absurdity, but one that the academeaucracy requires. In my view, if writing has to be marked (and it is a big If), it should be Pass/Fail, with maybe (maybe) very rarely, like, every five years, a Distinction for that brilliant thing that is ready to go. After that success should be measured by the author: completing the novel, getting it published, winning a prize, making a living, finally getting the approbation of the disapproving father. A % (often based on pretty subjective criteria) just disappoints, and boxes you in, and that is useless for most any creative enterprise. So please: a Distinction might stroke your ego, but take it with a pinch of mixed metaphors if what you really want is to publish your book. (Not least, you have to finish it first. See: 15,000 words, above.)
One further thought: in the UK, I suggest part-time MA’s spanning a couple of years are often better than one-year courses, because writing and creativity take time to gestate. In the US, an MFA (such as the one I did at Naropa University) usually takes two years full-time, and maybe longer part-time, and I think that shows in the depth and quality of the experience. Plus, it usually takes at least a term/semester to warm up and readjust. One year simply feels too rushed! Spin out the experience, spin out the pleasure.
And if you are thinking of going to university for any reason at all, you really must read this.
Rants over. Let’s put the positive back into the world. Let’s make it new. Let’s not forget that most of the great writers we read had no MAs, but very different qualifications: life experience, yearning, a typewriter, a well-read library. Their writing courses were self-assembled.
With a bit of discipline and imagination, you too can build a course of careful study and reading for yourself:
DIY CREATIVE WRITING: SOME NOTES TOWARDS A SYLLABUS
1. Read. One of the more gratifying things that someone said to me at the festival this last weekend was that she was very grateful to me for making her go away and do a lot of reading after last year’s book doctor session. (And she might know a thing or two, as she did win this year’s prize for the best opening chapter. Though I’m not taking the credit! Her book idea is very good, and she really can write too.) I always always always dish out a load of reading recommendations, and sometimes I worry I am being a bit too schoolma’am. So this was validating.
I recommend a lot of good books and links on my Resources pages. Long lists can be overwhelming, so a short list might include:
* Ursula Le Guin, Steering The Craft
* Constance Hale, Sin And Syntax (for help with prose style)
* Alice LaPlante, The Making Of A Story (a super course-in-a-book, if you want that sort of thing)
* Stephen King, On Writing
* Susan Bell, The Artful Edit
* Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer
* John Gardner, The Art Of Fiction
* Scarlett Thomas, Monkeys With Typewriters
* good books on story structure, such as various written on screenwriting, e.g., Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (though remember that fiction is not film, especially with regards to narration – fiction writers do not have to rely entirely/mostly on foreground action)
* Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark, How Not To Write A Novel (much mirth here too)
* Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones (fabulous for inspiring people, especially at the beginning)
The Writers’ Workshop has a fabulous advice page with lots of links too. And do seek out the many recommendations made by others.
Note: these are books about writing. You might have to research other stuff too (what it was like to live in the 1970s, the workings of an astrolabe), but here I am talking about the focused study of writing. If you’ve not done this, you might gain from it.
2. Also reread your favourite books – but this time as a writer. See what makes them work (Francine Prose’s book listed above is great for helping with that). I often recommend listening to old faves as audiobooks for a different experience of them.
3. Get circulating in that world of writing. Take yourself to conferences, writing festivals, or conventions. Attend readings and literary salons. Join Twitter and use social media, and participate in online communities. Blog, review. In fact, in some genres this is almost a requirement. Plus, it’s fun, and at the very least you’ll make friends. You’ll also grow your writer’s instinct.
4. [Updated January 2018.] Think about taking a course. Creative writing is now an industry, and some course are better or more suitable than others, for sure. I strongly recommend you get a direct personal recommendation from someone who’s actually taken a specific course with a specific teacher (and paid money to do so). Maybe try to talk (not email) with some of the teachers, and also consider who the other students might be (your peers can make a hell of a difference to your experience).
A sequence of online courses that I recommend highly is run by the University of British Columbia on the edX platform – read my review of How To Write A Novel here. The teaching materials on that course are probably among the best I’ve seen in creative writing.
I have also seen very good results from the self-editing course run by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin for the Writers’ Workshop. It’s short (six weeks), and focused, and more (I think) affordable than most courses, and it’s taught by two very good and very experienced teachers who really know what they’re talking about. It might be an idea to consider a class such as this once you have a first draft of a manuscript and it’s ready for more work.
There are plenty of other courses too – online, residential, and regular classroom: Curtis Brown Creative, Faber Academy, Masterclass, Arvon Foundation, Word Factory, London Lit Lab, Writers’ HQ, Guardian, classes run by museums and libraries and regional writing organisations. Some are one-offs lasting a day or an afternoon, some are run over a weekend or a block of several days, or once a week for several weeks. Some offer more interaction with tutors and other writers than others; some are self-paced, while others have more fixed durations. You can find all sorts of different topics too, e.g., inspirations in getting started, characterisation, structure and story, drafting, publishing. I recently ran a one-day creativity workshop with Words Away, and in the near future I hope to offer masterclasses and workshops on topics such as plotting, voice, and revising and editing. Contact me if you’d like to be added to a mailing list.
And how about going to Boulder and immersing yourself in a week or two of the love and crazy wisdom of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program at my alma mater Naropa University? Such residential programmes and writing retreats can be found all over the world, e.g., Write It Down, Skyros, various locations across the UK. If that sounds a bit Let Them Eat Cake (or Millet Bars, in the case of Boulder) it’s cheaper than an MA, and possibly more transforming. Combining writing and learning and travel can be extremely liberating for your creative self.
It is in fact good to attend a variety of courses and events: practical, commercial, artsy, academic. By exposing yourself to different styles of teaching or different views of writing, you can work out your own process and needs. Also take on board the fact that, though there are times when feedback is essential, there are other times simply for finding inspiration. Taking classes in other fields can also inform your work in some way.
And again: seek out direct recommendations. Twitter can be a good place to find out more.
Also, it can make sense to use fresh projects or new ideas for exercises you try out in your studies. The task of learning can be complicated by your attachment to an existing or intended pet project, so it can be good to get out of your own way. Your labour of love can make you too outcome-oriented (is this good enough to publish?), when at this stage what you might really need is to focus on the more immediate goals of learning the craft (is my characterisation strong enough? should I try out another point of view just to see what happens?). It’s usually easier to free yourself for experimentation in technique and style when you’re working on something fresh. Short stories are great places to practise writing – and are also great outcomes in and of themselves, requiring less time, commitment and resources than a novel.
5. Use time wisely. It’s also a good idea sometimes to put a limit on various activities such as courses, as you can become a writing groupie, and mostly we probably want you to be a writer. (Nothing against groupies, but that is more about community and socialising and friendships – do that on the side too, for sure.) Create long-term goals, with deadlines. And not just deadlines of daily word counts, and for The End. Among your deadlines, you might actually take a break from writing your masterpiece for a bit, and decide to spend six months reading some of these books on writing, and maybe taking a short course or two.
6. Oh yes, and among all this set aside time actually to write. Maybe even do something like NaNoWriMo. I have conflicted feelings about NaNoWriMo, but a bit of bingeing doesn’t hurt for one month a year.
(And if you don’t want to do NaNoWriMo, you can always grow a moustache in November instead.)
7. Find readers. Writing groups, reading groups, workshops. In person and online: I recommend working both ways, so that real time and eye contact can be balanced with reading that takes place at slightly more of a distance. Consider other potential beta readers among booklovers you’ve gathered down the years (and if you’ve not been gathering them already, maybe now’s the time to start). You can also get professional reads from writers or editors.
Integrate the different and sometimes contradictory things you hear, until your instinct knows what you need to do to make the writing the best it can be, or what you want it to be.
8. And reading and giving editorial feedback on other people’s work-in-progress will turn you into an editor, and you’ll gain perspective on your own writing too. Who knows, maybe you’ll even develop another career as editor or teacher yourself.
9. Most of all: listen. Listen to other people, but most of all slow down and listen to yourself, and listen to your own writing.
[I added a few minor updates here in January/February 2018, mostly to point 4 above, though this could have rewritten more extensively to reflect the fact that the landscape of creative writing is changing quite significantly and there are lots of workshops and courses popping up all over. It’s great to see so many opportunities giving writers alternatives to the MA model.]