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.