Category: Writing Experiments

Syllabus for a DIY MA in Creative Writing 2019

In an earlier post I discussed how writers can assemble their own self-directed programme of studies: a DIY MA in creative writing.

Following further posts about that on Twitter last week, and inspired by my inner teacher as well as Lynda Barry’s wonderful book Syllabus, I’ve put together a syllabus for anyone who might want more specific guidance on what a good writing programme might need to include.

Follow this link for a PDF of the Syllabus of the DIY MA in Creative Writing for 2019.

(This is very much a work-in-progress, and I might tweak or add updates or corrections in the future, in which case I’ll amend the date and version on the final page, just in case you too are a little obsessive about such things.)

A brief overview: it has four modules:

  • Craft Seminar
  • Writing Workshop
  • Manuscript Project
  • Professional Development Masterclass

I’ve chosen four textbooks that are in my experience the most helpful (and affordable – at current prices their total cost is less than £50):

  • Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction (tenth edition)
  • Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax
  • Stephen King, On Writing
  • Ursula Le Guin, Steering the Craft

The content is based on my own teaching in MA and MFA programmes as well as craft masterclasses and workshops I’ve taught such as the ones that I run with Words Away; it’s also informed by my intuition and experience from over thirty years of working as an editor and mentor.

This syllabus is never going to be a substitute for a classroom, physical or online, where you can speak and listen to a teacher and interact with other writers. But it does suggest readings and activities for anyone who wants to develop knowledge and skills not only of the craft of writing but also of the business of publishing.

One unit of five classes of the Craft Seminar, Styling Your Prose, is devoted to style, syntax, and grammar, which is something that doesn’t get much focused attention in most MA programmes I’ve investigated in the UK; these are the aspects of craft that really help a writer develop a stronger voice, and for me (and many readers and publishing professionals) voice is what defines a piece of writing. This unit is where I recommend reading (and rereading) Constance Hale’s excellent Sin and Syntax.

An important part of an MA is being part of a writing community and getting and giving feedback on writing, so it will be important to seek out writers who can help with this. On another occasion, and in collaboration with others, I hope to share more tangible suggestions for how writers can, e.g., find writing partners or create a writing group, and locate more specialised resources on genre. But for now, if you have any ideas on this or anything else that would be suitable for someone embarking on studies in writing, perhaps you could post them in a comment below?

 

A few tips for getting started

* Practise some (or even all) of your writing away from your masterpiece-in-waiting. Sometimes we put a great deal of investment in ideas for books, and this can get in the way of the actual process of learning. There can be greater freedom in using exercises and writing flash fiction or short stories; fresh and powerful things often emerge too. Spend some time developing the craft and your intuition as a writer – then tackle your novel. Your passion for a project will still be there.

* Develop writing as a regular practice. Julia Cameron recommends morning pages: three pages of freewriting. Natalie Goldberg gives lots of prompts for you to tackle in a notebook. Robert Olen Butler insists that you write every day to maintain the creative energy in your zone or dreamspace. Explore for yourself; find what works for you, but – as with any craft – regular practice will make writing come more easily.

* Write in short spurts. Timed writings of ten minutes using prompts can generate a lot of material. You might want to edit it later, and you might not even want to use any of these words – but good stuff often surfaces in these short bursts of writing, particularly, e.g., in the last minute of a ten-minute write. And then you can take this good stuff and make even greater stuff with it later.

 

PS and while I’m here: if you are interested in an in-person workshop, we still have spaces in the Everyday Magic workshop I am running with Words Away on Saturday 28 September. Using the idea of the Four Elements, it looks at craft and creativity through the lens of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. It’s a day full of reading and writing and listening and talking that, I hope, brings fresh perspectives on writing and new inspirations for writers.

 

Only Connect: Writing Experiment No. 74

1.

I saw Bhanu Kapil reading at the LRB Bookshop on Friday. An intense but joyful event – tales of migrants, tales of violence, tales of family, rites of mud and glitter. Also: birthday cake on the summer solstice: that magical.

Bhanu posed a question – two questions – directly, simply in her writing:

What did you inherit?

What did you reproduce?

Inheritance and reproduction: energies to seek out in our writing.

2.

I am reading Ocean Vuong’s debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. And O! It really is gorgeous. I also recently read the profile Ocean Vuong’s Life Sentences in the New Yorker, and noted the following description of his style:

The structural hallmarks of Vuong’s poetry—his skill with elision, juxtaposition, and sequencing—shape the novel, too, and they work on overlapping scales: passages are organized by recurring phrases, as are the chapters, which build momentum as a poetry collection does, line by line. Most of the novel centers on Little Dog’s childhood and adolescence, but Vuong roams in non-chronological circles through a wide field of intensified memory. The narrative occasionally extends backward, to visions of Little Dog’s mother and grandmother in Vietnam, before he was born, and it briefly reaches forward, in a few passages that signal that Little Dog has become a writer.

(Update 25 June 2019) I’ve since completed the novel. It really is gorgeous, and brilliant, and in so many ways. I’ve also since read a couple of reviews – one of which comments on how in the book ‘a lot of information … comes to the reader in a jumble, out of sequence, as remembrances after the fact’.

Now: this suggests that this book might not be for every reader, particularly those who want their stories laid out clearly in the manner of representative realism.

But: for me these very dislocations and refusals feel very much part of the book’s design. I think some things in this book – scenes, images, statements, fragments – operate outside of the usual conventions of rendering time and space, lacking obvious consequence.

And that’s fine by me. In fact, that’s more than fine. This is a novel that among other things is about the Vietnam war, immigrant experience, gay lives, and the limits of the body. It’s inevitable that things leak out, resist definition.

Consider this in your own writing with caution, perhaps. This is after all a novel written by a poet and some of its forms and gestures will feel more familiar to readers who’re comfortable with some of the conventions of experimental poetry. But I think there are matters here that any writer can consider: character, voice, story, and what happens when things refuse to be pinned down.

Ocean Vuong talks more about some of these matters in a podcast with Barnes and Noble. I quote one selection:

Desire plus powerlessness is momentous feeling. I wanted the characters to move a little and feel a lot … The [fiction textbook] is all about plot: what’s the plot, and secondly: what’s the conflict? That’s also the formula: you need a plot to move through, and you need conflict.

And I was very suspicious of that. Perhaps because I’m a poet, in many senses we are plotless. And I thought: I don’t know if that’s how I feel as an American, as a person. I wonder if I live in a linear plot? To me it feels much more like proximity. The way we sit beside our loved ones. The way we move through the world, meaning tension and drama happen simply by proximity. The way chemistry works, you have oxygen and hydrogen: fine on their own. Put them side by side and all of a sudden: water. That was how I thought of the structure of the novel. It was blind faith. It was not the go-to form.

But I wanted something more faithful to what it meant to live as an American, in which we move from space to space, and meaning, drama and the substance of our lives happens because we are side by side each other, not because we are in a linear plot device.

3.

I relate these ideas to my recent blog post on alternatives to conflict in plotting.

Whether you are writing something that’s non-chronological or something that’s more linear, have a go at this writing experiment:

* Take some index cards and some Post-it notes. (You could use Scrivener or some mind-mapping software, if you prefer, but I really do think there is a great value in physical interaction.)

* Use the index cards to write down the chapters and/or scenes of your book, identifying the key CHANGE that happens within that chapter or scene. What takes the story forward?

* Then lay the cards out on a table or desk. (Or if you have lots of cards or not enough desk space, do a few at a time, perhaps moving through a stack of cards you keep at your right then gradually stack to the left as you work through them.)

* Next, using the Post-its, identify the CONNECTING ENERGY that fills the space between each of the index cards, and how that energy is achieved. It might be an overt matter of cause and effect: what happens in one chapter might lead to the events of the next. Or it could be more subtle, or the jolt that comes from a twist, or an abrupt shift of setting or point of view that delivers some reward through juxtaposition, or the question that’s raised at such a point (it might be as simple as: why are we now here?). Consider, for example, the energy arising from:

  • twists
  • information gaps
  • surprises
  • unexpected changes
  • reversals of fortune
  • turns
  • recurrences
  • variations
  • juxtapositions
  • elisions
  • chronology
  • jump cuts
  • flashbacks
  • flashforwards
  • overlaps
  • frames
  • contrasts
  • dislocations
  • mosaics
  • fragments sitting beside each other
  • alignments
  • questions
  • inheritances
  • reproductions
  • expanding horizons
  • contractions in focus
  • refusals
  • leakages
  • reactions by characters
  • cause and effect

That last one – cause and effect – strikes me as an important one overall.

For these points, think about: spikes of energy; connections; questions that prick our curiosity. How are these scenes/chapters and connections SEQUENCED? How might a CONTRAST create a forward propulsion? I am also thinking how both Ocean Vuong and Bhanu Kapil are writing narratives of migration that are made up of smaller pieces, even fragments: how do your own stories possess a quality of MOVEMENT that arises from the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?

Do this for both scenes as well as chapters eventually. It’s useful to consider both the connections between bigger units of narrative, and also those closer up, scene by scene.

Once you have finished this exercise, you might want to spread out all the Post-its in order, and see what you have: what patterns emerge? You might want to tabulate the connections and energies you find into a list. Are there gaps that could be made into something more interesting, or could the very fact of their gappy nature be heightened and made into a feature of the work? Are there points where the writing feels a bit too chronological (ploddy): might it increase the energy to introduce a gap or a disruption between two chapters or sections? How can the larger work gather MOMENTUM? Consider the types of connections listed above, and others of your own reckoning. See what you can find.

What’s the mud and glitter that holds together your work?

If you want to take this exercise further: use your index cards and Post-its to compose an outline in narrative form of a next draft.

‘Heart’ Words vs ‘Head’ Words: Guest Writing Experiment No. 73 From Zoe Gilbert

I’m really happy to introduce a guest writing experiment from Zoe Gilbert. She’s chosen a topic that I myself encountered in one of her excellent workshops – Zoe’s teaching is *highly* recommended (see link below), and so is her book Folk, a truly original work of fiction that was one of my favourite books of 2018.

Over to Zoe:

***

The English language is a richer resource than we might realise. Thanks to the influence of many languages arriving on our islands over the centuries, we have enough synonyms to warrant a thesaurus (not all languages have one of these). Especially useful to the creative writer is learning to distinguish between words with Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic, roots, and those that derive from Latin, or related romance languages. I like to call these two sets of vocabulary in English ‘heart’ language and ‘head’ language.

Germanic words are our heart language: they are direct, simple, concrete, and go straight to the heart with their emotional impact. Think of words like home, hearth, love, hate. They are sometimes onomatopoeic, blunt, informal or downright rude (think of the best swear words).

Latinate words are our head language: they are formal, academic, abstract, and appeal to the rational mind. Think of words like intellectual, superior, consideration, providence. They are sometimes emotionally distancing, elitist, technical or jargonistic.

Learning to spot which kinds of words you are using gives you the power to choose for effect. Think of the difference between writing ‘gut’ vs ‘intestine’, ‘sluggish’ vs ‘languorous’, ‘irk’ vs ‘displease.’ You can do this by feel, or enjoy an intense relationship with online etymological dictionaries until you get the hang of it.

If you want to create ‘oomph’, aim for Germanic language. If you want to prioritise the rational over the emotional, or create distance, use Latinate.

 

Exercise: take a scenario and write it twice, once using as many formal, Latinate language words as you can, and once using Germanic language words. Use a thesaurus or etymological dictionary if you get really stuck. You might find that the different words require different sentence structures, too.

Here are some scenarios to try out:

  • An animal attacks its owner
  • A lover ends an affair abruptly
  • A person discovers something unexpected in their house

Alternatively, make up your own, or take one from a story you are working on.

Here’s an example of the first scenario, written two ways.

A          When Phoebe saw the wound, anger flooded through her. Could she share her home with this fiend? In battle, which of them would win? She backed away, into the kitchen, to think through her next move.

B          When Phoebe perceived the perforations to her epidermis, a sensation of acute hostility cascaded through her. Would it be possible to inhabit the same space as this demon? In combat, which of them would be victorious? She retreated to the kitchen to consider her strategy.

 

Zoe Gilbert is the author of Folk, currently longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and she won the Costa Short Story Award 2014. She is currently completing a PhD on folk tales in short fiction, and teaches creative writing at London Lit Lab. You can find out about her courses on using folk tales in fiction here.

 

***

Back to Andrew: Thanks, Zoe! This really is one of the best exercises – really getting down into the mire of language. I remember being in a Zoe workshop where we forensically went through an Angela Carter story looking for Germanic and Latinate words – it’s a great exercise in reading too, and I am in fact very shortly going to be tasking students to look for Germanic and Latinate words in one of Zoe’s own stories.

If you’ve not read Folk, you can find out more here – I’m clearly not the only fan!

And before we go: on this day of days, let this exercise honour the many languages and cultures that have always made up these islands – and always will. Vive la différence!

 

 

Sitting (And Walking) With Your Characters: Writing Experiment No. 72

Last month I felt very privileged to see Anna Burns talk about writing and read from her wonderful, prize-winning novel Milkman. It was a profound experience, and I brought away many things. She has a lovely, intuitive approach to writing.

I came away most of all with an impression of someone who is not grasping: not grasping for success, but not really grasping for things in the writing either. And that lets her and her creations shine as originals.

Something I particularly registered was a statement that: ‘Characters don’t want to tell me what their favourite food is and they’re not going to reveal their entire selves to me anyway.’

This made me think about creating character questionnaires, which are exercises we often do in creative writing, and in fact we had been cooking up some questions for one at my most recent masterclass on character and setting; I used this as the basis of a recent writing experiment. Such activities are often necessary tasks in bringing characters to life or in researching who they might become.

But, too, Anna’s comments made me wonder if perhaps we need a bit of caution around such resource-gathering exercises? Many of the lovely little details that we put into character questionnaires are juicy, and we grow attached to them, and they end up in our manuscripts. And though often they are important as telling details we find or cook up for our characters, sometimes too they can end up cluttering our stories, or simply making them feel a bit stilted, like writing by numbers.

So what’s a good way to proceed? Anna Burns simply tells us to be patient, and ‘follow the energy’. She waits for her characters to come and tell her their stories. What arises?

We might get a few words a character might say, and we write those down, and then we see what comes next. She mentioned that sometimes she gets some words that she feels belong at the end of a sentence, and she sits with those, and in due course the earlier part of the sentence gets fleshed out. And later of course it all gets edited, particularly by reading aloud. I felt the idea was that we don’t tell our characters what to do as much as let them rise up and tell us what they want to do.

It’s an intuitive and mysterious process. Writing this way might seem for some people a bit confounding or irrational, especially for people who like to have concrete goals. But this is an approach that results in work that is authentic (and also wins Booker Prizes, should that offer any credibility). ‘Follow the energy,’ says Anna. It’s as much as anything about cultivating an attitude.

I might also add that writing this way often requires you to instinctively understand some of the basic ideas of how stories can be structured – stuff to understand deeply, but practise lightly, I say. So it is important to tend to those things in ways that feed your instinct as a writer as well as your senses of what your book might be (which is where that character questionnaire might be useful to some degree?). Anna mentioned having taken writing courses – though she also noted you do that for as long as it’s helpful, and it’s true that sometimes the wrong time or the wrong course might actually be unhelpful. But you do have to show up to some degree prepared, and e.g., have studied the craft to get some practical insights. (More on courses here, if you want.)

But too sometimes you just have to put that to one side and quieten your thoughts, and as Anna says be patient. At a certain point you come to know your characters inside out, or at least as much of them as is necessary for a story, and then you just have to let them go. For a character-driven novel especially, just make time: show up for the writing practice, and sit with your characters and wait for them to start talking. See what comes, she says:

It’s something about turning up and waiting for the energy to alight on something …

It’s kind of waiting and holding, waiting and holding, and then, when the final version starts to come, I read out loud a lot, and that’s when the rhythm settles …

And for those of us who delighted in Middle Sister’s reading-while-walking in Milkman:

I go walking with my dictaphone and my notebook, and the characters come back …

And for plot-driven novels: perhaps just sit with your characters for now, and understand their yearnings, then later figure out how they come into conflict with the yearnings of others. Out of those conflicts comes plotting. But still: be patient.

For this writing experiment: sit with your characters, and see what comes when you let them tell their stories. What arises?

Alternatively, you could walk with them and speak what they have to say into your dictaphone/smartphone.

A few suggestions to help with this (these are my own thoughts – I don’t want to present this as Anna Burns’s approach, even if her talk inspired me to think further about ways to create an intuitive and patient space for writing):

* Give yourself a good chunk of time. At least half an hour, I’d think, but an hour or even two might be better. Find a quiet space or someplace you can zone out, and have your notebook and pen, or computer – whichever feels most comfortable (you might need to experiment with this).

* You might like to start with a brief five-minute meditation to clear the mind and ready yourself for writing. (Okay, okay, it seems weird and counterintuitive to meditate for an outcome. But … hey, don’t think about it!) Simply: sit at your writing table with your feet on the ground, and set a timer for five minutes. Place your hands in your lap, and close your eyes. Then just follow your breath: in through the nose, out through the mouth maybe. Every time a thought pops into your head, imagine you are labelling it ‘Thinking’ like a thought bubble, and send it on its way … until the next one comes along. Keep coming back to your breath. In, out. In, out.

* Then after five minutes open your eyes, and listen. Be patient. Think towards a character, and either start writing in their voice, or observe them in what they do, and write, conjuring up what they say or do.

* Keep observing your breath. If you start to get irritated at your writing or lack of it, come back to the breath. Breathe deeply, and feel what comes up from your gut, or through your heart, or from behind your ears, or wherever you write from. Let your character tell their story.

* If you lose sight of your character, regain it somehow – perhaps by restoring your connection to some origin point, or something you find endearing or compelling about them. Why do you care for that character? Write from your caring.

* It doesn’t matter if you only write a line or half a sentence, or if you write a couple of pages or more.

* And if you really get stuck and want a prompt, perhaps let your character write in the form of an I Remember?

* Try to make a regular practice out of this. And most of all: be patient. Be kind to yourself, and be patient.

Click here for some more of Anna’s bon mots (someone was taking notes – thanks, Laura!) and here are some more of my observations and pics from the evening on Instagram.

Further reading: Anna recommended three books I treasure: Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron, and Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande.

And, of course, Milkman! I also recommend the audiobook, read by Bríd Brennan. But too look out for podcasts (in this one she comes in around 5:40) or videos of Anna Burns reading; seeing and hearing her read was a very special experience. And I’ve not even mentioned its brilliant use of words and form, and its great humour, and its subtle use of place and politics.

And here’s an absolutely joyful interview between Anna Burns and Tod Hodgkinson of the Southbank.

Follow the energy!

Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

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Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in many instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!