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Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing

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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
* Harry Bingham, How To Write
* good books on story structure, such as various written on screenwriting, e.g., Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey or John Yorke’s Into The Woods (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 DownSkyros, 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.]

Masterclasses on Plotting and Voice: 29 September and 24 November 2018

A quick break from my summer break to say that we’re now taking bookings for the craft masterclasses that I’m running this autumn with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. These are one-day courses held on Saturdays at London Bridge Hive:

* The Craft of Plotting, including guest speaker Nick Ross, production director of Little, Brown, on Saturday 29 September 2018

* The Craft of Voice, including guest speaker Jenny Savill, director and agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, on Saturday 24 November 2018

More info on my Events page or via the links above, where you can also book, and Kellie and I will do a Q&A giving a few more details shortly, but in brief: these masterclasses are designed as overviews of important aspects of craft that will make your writing stronger. I’d like to think that they could be made into part of your own personally assembled and self-paced DIY MA in creative writing, or maybe used as a refresher or extension for some course you’ve already done.

Places are already being booked – over half the spaces for the plotting workshop have already been taken. We are thinking of others for 2019 – maybe prose style, character and setting, and once again revising. I’m also planning some other workshops of a different type at another location – more on that soon, I hope.

Hope your summer is going well. Have been loving the heatwave, even if the garden is a bit singed. Hot tip, if you’re in London: go and see Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up at the V&A. It’s one of the most well-curated exhibitions I’ve seen in some time, and Frida herself is so inspiring. We are our own muses, et cetera. Related to that, my big fat summer read is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, which is turning out to be everything I want in a big fat summer read: engrossing, taking me into other worlds and other lives. A big thank you to Barbara Kingsolver.

Back to my break – and to my reading!

The Craft of Voice: Coming Soon

Kellie Jackson has posted a Q&A on her blog for our 24 November masterclass The Craft of Voice.

It’s voice that matters most in writing for me. It’s voice that draws us into a story at the start, and it’s voice that keeps the pages turning. When I was an editor working in-house, it was voice that usually convinced me that I wanted to take on a new writer.

I think of the opening of one of my favourite novels, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

I recently read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and, among its many strengths, what stands out is the way in which its voice brings a gritty humour to content that at times is pretty grim. It’s also very well paced – it’s natural, it’s easy, it brings us along. This class will devote some time to learning to trust the natural speaking voice, and also extending its range – varying the tone, shifting into other voices.

Related to voice, we’ll also be talking about narrators and narrating. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, which is fantastically done; a strong narrative voice that brings to life the gossipy world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is well served by the audiobook’s narrator. The voice of the text and the voice of the narrator are beautifully fused. Truman can be somewhat unbearable! But that’s the point, and because the voice is compelling this is a joy to listen to.

A recent article in the Guardian on the rising popularity of audiobooks says:

The new medium beckons a change in writing styles. The omniscient narrators of 19th-century novels, whose godlike qualities were unpalatable to the realistic writers of the 20th, are more suited to the audioboomers of the 21st.

I like that idea very much – I love a good narrator, whether omniscient or involved in the action or unreliable, and whether it’s read on the page or listened to in an audiobook. Who’s telling the story, and how? There’s a real art to good narration.

I feel that understanding how to use and develop your voice is the most important lesson in writing. I’m continually bemused by the reliance on screenwriting guides for prose fiction in creative writing, as there are real limits to what we can gain from studying film when writing novels and short stories. Don’t get me wrong – certain ideas about, for example, structure and dialogue are invaluable. But good prose cannot draw on the grammar of visual storytelling. Prose relies on words placed on a page in a book, one after the other, just as speech amounts to a linear sequence of words: a voice. Words and sentences are all we have – so we have to learn how to craft them in ways that are natural and persuasive and a pleasure to read or listen to.

This masterclass on voice is designed as part of an ongoing sequence of classes and workshops that could be incorporated into an ongoing DIY MA in Creative Writing. We’ve already covered revising, and plotting come next week, and future topics might include: prose style; character and setting; and creating scenes. As with earlier masterclasses, which featured guest speakers Lennie Goodings (chair of Virago), Nick Ross (production director at Little, Brown) and Jenny Savill (agent at ANA), we’d again hope to invite publishing professionals for Q&A sessions to help demystify the industry. Contact us if you interested in a particular topic or would like to be added to our mailing lists.

More information on the 24 November voice masterclass can be found in the Q&A on Kellie’s blog, and further details about the schedule for that day can be found on the Words Away site.

Interview on The Craft of Revising

Kellie Jackson of Words Away recently interviewed me on her blog for the workshop on revising and self-editing that we are holding in June, and I thought I’d copy it here as well. I know some of the people who’ve signed up already, and there are a few spots left. Do let us know if you have any questions – and I’ll look forward to seeing some of you on 23rd June.

***

Kellie: We have an exciting new workshop, The Craft of Revising, all planned and ready for Saturday, 23rd June. I’m teaming up once again with experienced editor and writing teacher, Andrew Wille, who’ll be leading the workshop. There’s also a Q&A session arranged for the afternoon with Virago Press chair, Lennie Goodings. Our venue, the London Bridge Hive, is a recently renovated space located three minutes walk from London Bridge Station – close to Borough Market and the cafes of Bermondsey Street. I thought it would be interesting to interview Andrew about next month’s workshop to give you a flavour of what’s on offer – especially as we’re planning more craft oriented workshops later in the year.

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Kellie: Our first collaborative endeavour, Everyday Magic: The Four Elements of Creativity, had an emphasis on creativity and intuition rather than outcome. This new workshop is focusing on the ways in which we Create, Craft and Connect our writing – our approach will be intuitive and practical, challenging yet generous. Can you expand on this a little?

Andrew: It is certainly more outcome-oriented, in that we’ll be working towards the goals of a finished manuscript and a published book, which are practical aspects of writing we might relate to the left side of the brain in the Everyday Magic workshop. We’ll discuss aspects of form and technique essential to improving a draft (Craft), and also talk about the realities of the market (Connect).

I prefer to think about readership rather than marketplace, though: writers connect when their books are read, rather than when they are sold, so let’s think about relationships with readers instead. Writers connect especially when their books move readers, so what do we need to do to convey feeling in our work? Much relies on developing intuitive approaches: digging deeper with character, achieving the right voice and tone, remaining open to a book’s potential, experimenting.

And how do we sustain those initial sparks that bring your work to life (Create)? And what in fact were those initial sparks, and how might the work have shifted during the drafting?

I’m hoping this course will foster a creative and intuitive approach towards a practical outcome. Both/both, rather than either/or.

Kellie: How developed does a writer’s manuscript need to be in order to get the most out of this workshop?

Andrew: Writers who have a first (or an umpteenth) draft should find this useful, but so should writers who’ve embarked on a work-in-progress and completed some writing of substance: an outline, or a few chapters, maybe the 15,000 words of an MA dissertation. It’s about training yourself in approaches to revising, as well as the tasks that self-editing might involve.

The workshop should be helpful for novelists and writers of longer works, but also writers of short stories and essays. Some of the discussion might seem more obviously focused on the craft of fiction, but this can be just as relevant to nonfiction too. Voice, character and setting are vital in a novel, for example, but they are also needed in nonfiction, even if they crop up in more subtle ways.

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Kellie: Is editing a creative endeavour?

Andrew: Of course it is! Occasionally we generate pieces of writing that come out perfectly formed, but on the whole I’m with Anne Lamott: expect first drafts to be shitty, and improvement to come through the creativity of revising and editing.

Kellie: Are all first drafts shitty … ?

Andrew: Actually, maybe I’m not so much with Anne Lamott – maybe I don’t like the idea of anydraft being shitty? A first draft is just a first draft, after all – it’s about getting the material down, and sometimes we don’t really know what we have until we get to The End. And what’s shitty about that? It is what it is.

By contrast, Allen Ginsberg said: First Thought, Best Thought. Though I question that approach, too – I’m all for spontaneous bursts of genius, but a First Thought can often be revised into an Even Better Thought.

Kellie: You clearly think drafting is important, then?

Andrew: Yes! I’m surprised at how often beginning writers finish a first draft, give it a light dusting for typos, and then submit a manuscript for publication. I guess there must be occasions when such books do get published – though if anyone knows of an example, please let me know! It’s more likely that much of the real work begins once a first draft is complete.

The task of creation gains depth when, armed with the hindsight of reaching the end of a first draft (or even just its middle), you start to probe your intention: where on earth did that come from? Why did I write that? Should I follow that trail for a while …? Giving yourself permission to explore during the drafting can be very important.

Maybe the shittiness of a first draft is rich manure, and maybe what’s grown in it includes lots of seeds that need thinning out, and some dead wood or crossing branches that need pruning, and maybe a bush that needs some special attention so that its flowers bloom more brightly?!

Gardening presents many analogies for the work of self-editing and revising. You take what’s there, and see what’s needed and what’s not needed, and you plan accordingly. And: you can’t have everything! This is advice that my own garden is only finally heeding now. I’ve had to murder a few darlings, or at least give a few away, and the frost did some of the rest in. Likewise, focusing your energy on your strengths and resources will make your writing more effective.

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Kellie: You have a background in publishing and worked as an editor of fiction and nonfiction for many years: what do you hope to bring to this workshop that might be new to writers?

Andrew: I’ve worked with writers for decades now. I started working in publishing in 1987 as a trainee with the Maxwell Corporation. Later, I was part of the successful editorial team when Little, Brown won its first publisher of the year award, and subsequently I’ve freelanced for all of the major UK houses and many small presses and individual writers. I’ve worked with bestselling and award-winning writers, and also on books that were, sadly, published without trace. So I bring commercial experience, and my own instinct as an editor.

Kellie: And you write too? And teach, of course?

Andrew: Yes, I also write, though in a haphazard way. Mostly short fiction. So … I sympathise.

More than anything, I consider myself a reader, I think, which is one reason I love being an editor. I was always writing as a kid, but that seemed to stop sometime after I began work in publishing. Reading is very consuming when you work in-house.

Then I started writing in earnest as an adult when I studied and later taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, which recently discovered it is the birthplace of the modern mindfulness movement. Working among poets and small press publishers and activists as both writer and teacher gave me many gifts, not least among them an understanding of contemplative traditions in the arts.

In my practice as a teacher and an editor, I try to bring together these two approaches: an indulgence of creativity for its own sake, but also an understanding of what it takes to get published. These are not mutually exclusive categories.

I also find similarities between my editor self, who’s always seeking to improve the work, and my teacher self, who’s always trying to make writers more curious about their potential.

Kellie: If a writer is struggling with a particular aspect of self-editing will there be an opportunity to explore this problem on the day?

Andrew: Absolutely. We’ll probably open with an overview of the types of editing done by both writers and publishers, and subsequent sessions will be focused on different aspects of craft: the bigger picture of character, setting, and storyline; choices in narrative style; and last but not least the nuts and bolts of prose style. There will be plenty of chance to raise questions throughout the day – specific examples will offer everyone valuable lessons.

The group will be relatively small, so even the shy ones will get a chance to speak. I’m hoping there will also be room for everyone to share some of their writing or maybe a rough outline with other writers, working as partner-editors or in small groups.

Kellie: And we‘re concluding the day with a Q&A with an editor?

Andrew: Lennie Goodings, the chair of Virago Press, is a good friend – I first met when we attended editorial meetings together at Little, Brown. I cannot think of any press more hallowed than Virago, and Lennie is, simply, one of the best publishers in the business. She’s passionate and engaged, and she understands the book trade, and she has a sense of humour (a requisite in any workplace). And she edits – yes, she edits! Contrary to scurrilous newspaper reports, editors do edit, and the list of authors that Lennie’s worked with speaks for itself.

Lennie is also writing a book for Oxford University Press called The Idealistic Publisher. I think the world needs some idealism right now.

We’ll probably have a couple of questions ourselves to ask Lennie to get things started. But I’m hoping that the delegates will bring lots of questions of their own, and we can have a lively discussion about books and writing and editing. There might even be gossip. (Where publishers gather, there is always gossip.)

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Kellie: Can you elaborate about your idea of a DIY MA? What’s the ethos behind your idea? How would this work and who would it be aimed at?

Andrew: There are so many resources out there: workshops, masterclasses, writing groups, mentoring, retreats, online courses, festivals, genre conventions … I’m interested in helping writers to develop their own programme of studies in the craft and process of writing. I have blogged in more detail about this here: Learning and Studying and Writing: A DIY MA in Creative Writing.

Kellie: Incidentally, I’m testing out some new cake recipes to bring along for morning and afternoon tea. Besides your editing expertise, what are you bringing?

Andrew: I have a sweet tooth, so biscuits might be involved, but I can’t swear they’ll be homemade. I’ll also bring lots of handouts and worksheets. We can’t possibly cover everything about revising and self-editing in a day, but we can send everyone home fired up, and equipped with a set of exercises to try out on their work-in-progress.

***

Hope to see some of you at the workshop if not before!

Kellie

 Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive
Andrew leading an Everyday Magic workshop last Autumn at The Hive

York Festival of Writing 2016

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Yesterday I returned from my fifth Festival of Writing. I’m tired, and overstimulated, and typing on three devices; I have email, Twitter, two Scrivener projects, three Word documents, and an infinity of Safari tabs on this very screen right now. (No Facebook, though. I’ve deactivated that. For now, for good?)

But I have to say I really love that buzz I get when I come back from York. Here is a quick wrap-up including links to various things I mentioned (perhaps to be updated as my monkey mind remembers bits and pieces).

DIY MA IN CREATIVE WRITING
Here is the post that inspired this workshop: Learning And Studying And Writing: A DIY MA In Creative Writing.

I hope I didn’t sound too biased in my advocacy of the self-help model over educracy (or crookademia, as we called it on a train heading home). But looking at the cost of an MA should really give anyone pause, and in this class I wanted to give practical suggestions and resources for writers who wanted to build their own programme of studies.

We all agreed that doing the necessary studying then drafting and completing a book is probably going to take longer than the usual year of an MA. We thought three to five years was reasonable, maybe seven or eight.

I brought into our discussion a couple of case studies where I had asked two writer friends (one published, one about to be published) how they would put to good use a budget of about half the cost of an MA.

Both said they would spread the learning and writing across three to five years (which seems pretty accurate), and they included things such as: courses, writing retreats, the services of a freelance editor who can also give some market advice, a writing conference where they could pitch to agents, and membership of genre organisations and attending their conventions. Both writers also stressed the importance of networking and building community through such activities – and especially the joy of making like-minded and lifelong friends. Childcare is an additional expense that can be worth the investment at key times.

One came to £4,200, and the other to £3,600. (Gym memberships can cost more!) This is significantly cheaper than most MA courses, which anyway would probably need to be supplemented with other courses or input as the writer extends what is usually a 15,000-word dissertation, give or take, into a book.

And while we are talking about costs, here is a clip that might give further thought on a subject that came up in the class: ‘Fame costs, and right here’s where you start paying’. What is writing going to cost you? How are you going to pay for wherever you want to get in terms of making time, and making space? Time and space are going to be more important than money. (One of my case studies also built a very lovely writing shed, but this is shared with writer’s partner and would blow any MA budget. At least visitors can be slept there at Christmas.)

I mentioned the highly practical and very brilliant self-editing course run for the Writers’ Workshop by Debi Alper and Emma Darwin as a sensible investment too; I always feel a bit sheepish touting the house wares, but I did point out that, among people who have taken it, this course seems to be more highly rated than any other I know, and it turned out that several of its graduates were in the room to back me up.

When signing up for any course, check out the tutors (and note not all the best are famous writers either … or have even published books – at least in that sense). Personal recommendations are always good.

I also suggested an exercise based on the Lynda Barry diary. Here she is in action: Creativity & Learning: A Conversation With Lynda Barry.

I also recommend highly David Gaughran for his wisdom and fire about self-publishing, and his generosity with resources for the writer. His book Let’s Get Digital is free to download right now (and perhaps you can buy one of his novels in exchange).

Back to the course: we did a few brainstormy exercises on the fly, and I used one to challenge writers to produce a short story, and offered to read and comment on any sent my way by Monday morning. And I got one story first thing this morning, and it’s really good! The constraint within that exercise worked really well.

Many other resources, including stuff from the handouts and plenty more, can be found in the Resources pages on my site.

The better you are, the more sweat I’m gonna demand.
Lydia Grant
of the New York City High School for the Performing Arts

TRUSTING YOUR VOICE
This workshop focused on trusting your natural speaking voice as the foundation of your writing. It’s natural, it’s easy, it’s how we’ve been telling stories all our lives. My friend and teacher Bobbie Louise Hawkins from Boulder has been a great influence on my sense of using the speaking voice.

We discussed how different types of writing have different purposes (informing, selling, arguing a case, telling a story, creating an atmosphere). And this creates different needs in the syntax. Fiction needs mood, as do many forms of narrative nonfiction, and sometimes, if we’ve grown used to writing in other forms (academic writing, journalism, business writing) we need to adapt and perhaps return to the simplicity of getting the natural speaking voice on to the page.

We discussed how fronted adverbials can be bad for the health of your fiction, and enjoyed the delightful right-branching syntax of Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’. Here is my I Remember from York a few years ago (I remember getting affirmation that we needed a whippet of our own …), and here is an exercise: Variations On The Theme Of I Remember.

Related to voice, I also gave a mention to narration, the narrator, and the persona. We also looked at ways to adapt and extend your natural speaking voice and using dialect in writing. How much can we get away with? Not much is needed, probably. As in many things, sufficiency is a useful principle in writing.

Here is a useful piece by Annabel Pitcher: Me, Myself And I: The Secrets Of Writing In The First Person.

Here are some more exercises on voice from this blog:

Voice 1: Listening
Voice 2: Tone
Voice 3: Passion and Purpose
Voice 4: Other Voices

I’ll end on a quote about a voice’s distinctive qualities from Stephen King:

A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it.

Something to aim for.

RAISING THE TONE
Here are a few examples of logos, ethos and pathos in action.

Here is the Garrison Keillor essay that shows a certain ironic take towards its subject: When This Is Over, You Will Have Nothing That You Want.

And here is a profile of Kit De Waal, whose most sincere My Name Is Leon we listened to.

Can’t go without mentioning George Orwell’s ‘Politics and the English Language’.

And here are a couple of older posts on related matters: Ding. Dong! Right Speech and What Words Can You Use?

BOOK DOCTORING
The manuscripts I read were a good bunch. One was outstanding, and made me wish I was a publisher again, or even (scary) an agent. A couple of others showed a lot of potential. Actually, quite a lot of them did.

In fact, is it too pollyanna of me to think everyone has potential? I had a meeting with someone I’d first met at the Getting Published day in the spring, and he’d gone away and studied the books I recommended and taken Debi and Emma’s course and (most importantly) done lots of writing, and his prose style had truly come on leaps and bounds. Improvement comes through application.

In general, tweaks for mood and pacing are often the things I was paying attention to – things that bring a distinctive style out in the voice and help build an emotional connection. With content, there was sometimes a need for a clearer narrative focus: what’s at stake in the story as a whole? And by extension: on every page? I told one writer I chatted to in passing that every page should offer a gift to the reader. It is helpful to think of writing as an act of giving.

I had to see a few people at short notice – if any of those good folk are reading this and need any points clarifying, drop me a line via my contact form.

Further to that, though, I want to recommend this post for anyone who’s figuring out what to do after meeting with agents and editors: Working With Feedback On Your Writing.

(To come: a post on choosing an agent or publisher.)

TILL THE NEXT TIME
As ever, the Festival of Writing was great fun. A real meeting of minds and especially hearts – there are a lot of good-hearted people at the festival, and that is because writing is fundamentally a good-hearted practice. Group hugs all round! (Man hugs especially.)

Thanks to everyone at the Writers’ Workshop for having me along, and to everyone I spoke with: it made for a very enjoyable weekend.

And a special thanks to those left behind …

lying-charlie

PS for anyone in or near London: I’m joining Kellie Jackson and Emma Darwin at the Words Away Salon at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall next week. We’re going to be talking about editing your writing. And networking and building community (see above).