My MA in Creative Writing: Lessons Learned

Yesterday even­ing, I happened across this blog and shocked myself. The date of the last entry was two months ago. I guess we blog­gers are often guilty of not post­ing enough, but that’s too long. High time for a pro­gress report on my cre­at­ive shenanigans.

By coin­cid­ence, yes­ter­day was the sub­mis­sion dead­line for my Creative Writing Master’s dis­ser­ta­tion. I did it under the tutel­age of Tibor Fischer and the exper­i­ence has been great fun and emin­ently worth­while. Productivity-wise, the MA was often bene­fi­cial because it forced a cer­tain level of cre­ativie out­put. At other times, how­ever, it was less help­ful because I had to spend writ­ing time on essays and assigned read­ing. But the essays, dis­cus­sions, and assign­ments all pushed me to improve as a writer…and if you’re not improv­ing from moment to moment in this game, what’s the point?

To be sure, when you reg­u­larly sub­mit work to a group of intel­li­gent crit­ics, trends emerge in their cri­ti­cism. For instance, most agreed that my work was too hard on the reader. First, my writ­ing asks a great deal in terms of memory load. Things are often men­tioned once; the reader has to remem­ber, or risk fall­ing behind. Second, the reader must fill in the blanks. I might have a single event lead­ing to more than one con­sequence, and expect the reader to anti­cip­ate them. Third, my pacing is fast. I eschew unevent­ful sec­tions in my work, where read­ers might oth­er­wise have the oppor­tun­ity to pon­der what’s happening.

This fits the com­ment­ary I’m get­ting back from my editor at Unsung, George Sandison, and, franky, it chimes with my own sus­pi­cions about my work. (In one of my favour­ite Amazon reviews of Flashback, the pre­vi­ous incarn­a­tion of the second Saskia Brandt novel, a reader encour­aged people to use a note­pad and pen­cil to keep track of what was hap­pen­ing. Awesome.)

So I’m try­ing to ease back on the ascetic, spare approach to the story; try­ing to think less of the words form­ing a per­fect whole, more of the words as scaf­fold­ing the reader’s enjoy­ment of a story.

Another les­son learned was about my writ­ing pro­cess. Too often, I spend my writ­ing time star­ing at a blank screen grasp­ing for the per­fect phrase. When the phrase won’t come, it won’t come. So now I write first drafts in a delib­er­ately ‘trash’ style, like this:

Roscoe put his briefcase on the drain­ing board, which was the only part of the kit­chen not covered in dust. There was some­thing upset­ting about the dark­ness of the place. When he was [sic] Grandad was alive, the place had been airy and light. Roscoe’s shoes slid a little on the gritty floor as he reached over the sink to the Venetian blind, tug­ging it open, let­ting the sun­shine back on the chaos. His gut, strain­ing at his work shirt, touched the edge of the sink. It left a dirty smear. Terrific. This was his last shirt.

That’s the first para­graph of a new com­edy novel set in Cornwall in 1988. It is utterly uned­ited; writ­ten start-to-finish. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read it since writ­ing it. What I have here is a word sketch where the words aren’t import­ant. The import­ant ele­ment is the struc­ture under­neath the words: who this per­son is, where he is, what he’s think­ing, and what his role in the scene or story could be. By com­pletely for­get­ting about writ­ing to any stand­ard of English, I’m pro­du­cing a first draft where the story is in focus. Thus far, the trick has worked. The sample para­graph above is the first in a book that I star­ted in May and fin­ished in August (bear­ing in mind it’s 50,000 words, which is a short one, but that’s still a good rate for me). There’s a chance that 90% of the prose I wrote won’t make it to the second draft. On the other hand, I might be suprised at how well the prose works when it’s pro­duced in this flow state.

Otherwise, the writ­ing is going well. I’ve star­ted to write a ‘serious’—i.e. literary—novel. It’s a novel about an aca­demic, and we’ll see how it goes. At the same time, I’m com­ing to the end of major edits for the Unsung quint­es­sen­tial edi­tion of the second book in the Saskia Brandt series—title as yet undecided.

An Interview with Proper Job’s Narrator, Dave Bignell

My audiobook, Proper Job, is finally fin­ished! It is some­what redund­ant to say that it wouldn’t exist without my producer/actor, Dave Bignell, but without his help, enthu­si­asm, and per­sever­ance, and cre­at­ive input, I wouldn’t be as proud of the final product.

Since pro­du­cing an audiobook is a dark art, I thought I’d inter­view Dave for my blog.

Can you tell a bit about your back­ground, and how you ended up work­ing as an audio pro­du­cer and voice actor for Audible?

I’ve worked as an actor for theatre, tele­vi­sion, radio and film. I had the amaz­ing oppor­tun­ity to sup­ply a voice over to a National Geographic pro­gramme and host a radio sta­tion; I thor­oughly enjoyed the pro­cess which opened my mind to a whole new dimen­sion of ‘acting’.

I worked as a drama teacher in London and my com­mute involved walk­ing across Hyde Park. I used to listen to audiobooks on my jour­ney and was cap­tiv­ated by the won­der­ful stor­ies and nar­rat­ors. When I heard about the oppor­tun­ity to pro­duce audiobooks I thought, that sounds great, how dif­fi­cult can that be….?!? 

What made you audi­tion for Proper Job?

Comedy is an extremely dif­fi­cult thing to pull off, espe­cially in a book. After read­ing a few pages of ‘Proper Job’ I knew that Ian Hocking was in full com­mand of a) telling a com­pel­ling story and b) mak­ing the reader laugh. It would also be fair to say that ‘Proper Job’ appealed to my own sar­castic and sur­real sense of humour.

On what basis do you decide on how to deliver a character’s voice? I can remem­ber being very sur­prised by the char­ac­ter of ‘Madame’! A per­fect rendi­tion, but not at all as I’d ima­gined her speaking…

Often I have a very clear idea of what a char­ac­ter should sound like in my head, but my vocal chords don’t always fol­low suit! So it is often a com­prom­ise of both!

In my opin­ion, the char­ac­ters must all sound dif­fer­ent in some way so that the audi­ence does not get con­fused about who is speak­ing. In order to do this I have to ensure that I can sus­tain that voice and that it does not change from chapter to chapter. 

How do you main­tain what might be termed ‘con­tinu­ity’ in TV in film, i.e. keep­ing a con­sist­ent per­form­ance across mul­tiple takes/sections of an audiobook?

The most dif­fi­cult thing is to ensure your char­ac­ters’ voices are con­sist­ent through­out; for each char­ac­ter I write a short hand for myself of how they sound — some­times they are based on people I know (you’ll have to guess which char­ac­ters are the ones I know!) The great advant­age I have how­ever is that I can of course listen back to a pre­vi­ous record­ing to remind myself of how a char­ac­ter sounds. 

Not to fish for com­pli­ments, but what was the best thing about doing the Proper Job audiobook? In other words, what kept you going across all those months?

Haha! Excellent ques­tion. For me, although ‘Proper Job’ is a com­edy, the story is very hon­est, very ‘real’ and at times, very touching.

After each record­ing of a chapter, I would send the record­ing to Ian for his approval and he would email me back his notes. These notes were essen­tial, ensur­ing my deliv­ery and tim­ings were enhan­cing the com­edy. I enjoyed this col­lab­or­a­tion with Ian, always push­ing me and the audiobook and I am extremely happy with the end result.

What was the most dif­fi­cult aspect?

Sustaining accents and swap­ping between mul­tiple char­ac­ters in a con­ver­sa­tion! It is very dif­fi­cult to go from a Welsh accent to a Cornish accent etc without one bleed­ing into another. Also, some­times I can sit in front of the micro­phone and record pages and pages with no errors, other times I will be trip­ping over every other line and have to keep stop­ping and start­ing, there was never any pat­tern to it, just some­times my brain didn’t seem to be in full control! 

Which other audiobooks have you produced?

Broken Mirror and the sequel, Broken Mind writ­ten by Oliver Rixon. Alternative Dimension writ­ten by Bill Kirton and Blood and Silk, writ­ten by Jeffrey Love.

Anything else you’d like to plug?

Probably my pho­to­graphy blog.

Thanks again to Dave for mak­ing the exper­i­ence so worthwhile.

A Russia for Yuri Nikolaevich

The idea for A Russia for Yuri Nikolaevich evolved from a com­pan­ion piece, A Solitude of Space, which was itself inspired by a cent­ral theme of Lem’s Solaris: that con­tact between human­ity and an alien civil­isa­tion may not bring mutual understanding.

The first draft of A Russia began as a story about a space­craft pro­pelled by the col­lect­ive will of gal­ley slaves. Disruption arrives in the form of a woman whose mind is power­ful enough to alter the course of the ship. The second draft re-imagined the story as that of a hus­band and wife tak­ing a final cruise in the dying days of their mar­riage. Again, they sailed an intention-powered craft, this time across the sur­face of an ocean planet. The story hinged on the man’s struggle to power the craft with his will, and how he deals with the rev­el­a­tion that his wife also has the power.

In the third draft, I placed the story on a snow planet and made the char­ac­ters marooned, Chinese astro­nauts. They named the planet wo, which means I, me, myself. The story was fine, but I wasn’t quite happy with it; prob­ably I was uncon­vinced by the abil­ity of the female astro­naut to con­jure great ice struc­tures from the permafrost.

Between the third and fourth draft, I read a bio­graphy of the Soviet rocket engin­eer and designer Sergei Korolev. The astro­nauts became cos­mo­nauts in a future Soviet Union. The snow turned to ash. The cos­mo­nauts named their planet sushnyek.

I’ll let you find out what sushnyek means when you read the story on the Unsung Stories web­site, if the mood takes you.