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.

To Vim

I see that Apple has updated its word-pro­cessor Pages again. The new ver­sion has some sweet fea­tures, but if you open a doc­u­ment cre­ated in the pre­vi­ous ver­sion, you will be asked if you wish to upgrade the file format. On click­ing ‘yes’, the pre­vi­ous ver­sion of Pages will nev­er again be able to open the file.

That, in itself, is not a prob­lem. But, let’s say, you don’t upgrade your ver­sion of Pages imme­di­ately. Let’s say you wait until the ver­sion after that. Will that ver­sion open the files you have right now? Possibly not.

When a file format is updated, you get new fea­tures. I under­stand that and I applaud. But there are dis­ad­vant­ages. Once you’ve been writ­ing for a few years, and you look back for your floppy, your ClarisWorks files, or even your Kindwords files, you real­ise that file format change is the krypton­ite of lon­get­iv­ity.

Check out this art­icle by Charles Stross on Microsoft Word, entitled ‘Why Microsoft Word Must Die’. Now, we all hate Word, don’t we? Come on. You do.

I hate Word from a pos­i­tion of some expert­ise, because, back in 2003–2005, I used it to write my PhD thes­is. That was a single doc­u­ment con­tain­ing mul­tiple con­tents tables (some for chapters, sure, but oth­ers for psy­cho­lin­guist­ic examples), cross-ref­er­ences, a bib­li­o­graphy, and a great deal besides. I learned the hell out of that pro­gram. Thus did I learn to hate it. It is buggy, poorly designed, and over-fea­tured.

Going back to the point made by Charles Stross, it is a real shame that the pub­lish­ing industry relies on Word as its work­horse.

Stross men­tioned anoth­er pro­gram that he some­times uses. It is called vim. I also use it.

Format Wars: A New Hope

Back in 1976, the year I was born, Bill Joy wrote a text edit­or for UNIX. That edit­or was called vi. It was designed to work over a com­puter ter­min­al (i.e. a text-based inter­act­ive inter­face). It had two modes. In the first mode, whatever the user typed would be entered as text in the cur­rent doc­u­ment. In the second mode, the key­board became a way of nav­ig­at­ing around the doc­u­ment. You can read more about the pro­gram over at Wikipedia.

The pro­gram was updated by Bram Moolenaar for the Commodore Amiga, a com­puter I used as a kid. Moolenaar called his pro­gram vim. This stood for ‘Vi improved’. The year was 1991.

What’s It Like Using Vim?

Where I grew up, we often bought fruit from the vil­lage shop. The apples didn’t come from China or South America. They tasted good, but were a bit small and occa­sion­ally bruised. Later, we bought fruit from super­mar­kets. They were nev­er bruised and they all looked the same. Didn’t taste as good, but by then I’d for­got­ten what non-super­mar­ket apples tasted like. Nowadays I eat ponsy ‘organ­ic’ apples, and they tend to come from Kent, where I live. They’re smal­ler, more bruised, but the taste real.

Where am I going with this? Is Vim some kind of home-grown product? No, it’s American.

Is it tasti­er than Microsoft Word or Apple Pages?

Well.

It’s like this. When you write in Vim, it doesn’t pre­tend that you’re look­ing at a book. It’s text. The notion of ‘present­a­tion’ is off the table. Layout can take a run­ning jump.

Vim presents you with the text at a much sim­pler level.

If you—by which I mean ‘me’—write a story in Word, or Pages, and print that bad boy out, the product you hold in your hand is some­what disin­genu­ous. It mas­quer­ades as a fin­ished product. The imper­fec­tions and short­falls of your prose are very slightly obscured by the lay­out and present­a­tion, both of which are telling you, uncon­sciously, that the work is already like the work you see in books.

To Vim (verb): To remove super­fi­cial present­a­tion in order to reveal sub­stance.

Example: ‘We were lar­ging it at the Time Piece last week until the last tune, Get Lucky. Then the main lights came on, the music turned off, and the boun­cers moved in. The place was totally vimmed.’

Every imper­fec­tion jumps out. It’s just you, your eye­balls, and your text.

Stop Being So Arty-Farty. What Is It Actually Like To Use?

Vim is Fast

When you’re typ­ing text into the com­mand line, the com­puter is not ren­der­ing graph­ic­al gub­bins. Letters appear slightly faster. Not so much faster that you notice it in Vim, but fast enough to notice that text ren­der­ing is slower in most oth­er places, not­ably Word and Pages.

Vim as a Learning Curve

Vim has key­board short­cuts for:

  • Deleting sen­tences
  • Moving the caret to the start/beginning of a sen­tence
  • Moving x words for­ward or back
  • Jumping to the top of the doc­u­ment, to the bot­tom, to the middle, and so on

These take time to learn. I’m still learn­ing them. But, even after a few minutes, it becomes much faster to nav­ig­ate a doc­u­ment using the key­board than using the mouse.

Rock-solid

Vim is used by a lot of geeks (mostly for pro­gram­ming). I’ve nev­er encountered a bug or had it crash.

How Do I Start?

Every jour­ney starts with a single jump, grasshop­per. From Engadget, VIM 101: a quick-and-dirty guide to our favor­ite free file edit­or.

Happy vimming.

vim

Writing ‘Red Star Falling’: Part Three

I heard back from my edit­or yes­ter­day. He’ll be tak­ing a look at my final­ised manu­script on the bank hol­i­day week­end (next week). Ahead of those edits, won­der­ing what they might be, I thought it would be use­ful to post anoth­er instal­ment of my writ­ing journ­al.

In the last excerpt, I had fin­ished the first draft of the story, which came in at 15,000 words. I next turned to the prob­lem of deal­ing with an edit­or.

Thursday, 4th April

For my next trick, I’ve been in con­tact with an edit­or. A few things are rolling around my head on this sub­ject. First of all, the cost. It’s expens­ive.

As I’m going to pub­lish this short story (call­ing it a novella, now!) to the Amazon Kindle—i.e., in elec­tron­ic format—it needs to be in good shape. That means edit­ing. What does an edit­or do? Well, there are dif­fer­ent types of edit­ing. There’s noth­ing about these types that a writer can’t do alone (indeed, many writers edit the work of oth­ers, too), but they usu­ally find it dif­fi­cult because they lack per­spect­ive. The edit­or gives a kind of ‘san­ity check’. They work as a pro­fes­sion­al, exper­i­enced sound­ing board. I liken them to record pro­du­cers. They don’t fun­da­ment­ally change the text itself, but they lend it a cer­tain per­spect­ive that can be help­ful. They sug­gest dele­tions, addi­tions, and so on.

Is it worth it? Undoubtedly. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to get my work into the best shape pos­sible. If my story were a box­er, this would be about hir­ing the best train­er.

Friday, 5th April

It’s a struggle to make the story as alive as it can be; what is the best way of present­ing it?

I’ll need to increase the ten­sion in cer­tain parts. I’ll prob­ably do this by set­ting the char­ac­ters against one anoth­er rather more. The final scene, in par­tic­u­lar, is a bit too friendly.

I go on to write:

There’s a char­ac­ter I’ll prob­ably delete, and anoth­er I need to be very care­ful about. His iden­tity is

(Redacted.)

For that [redac­ted] to work, his motiv­a­tions need to seem con­sist­ent dur­ing the ini­tial read (when the read­er thinks [redac­ted]) and also when the read­er goes back over their memory of his actions and thinks, ‘Aha!’ My mod­el for this ‘Aha!’ moment is the reveal at the end of The Usual Suspects. That is to say that I aspire to cre­ate the same effect.

Good luck with that.

During this stage, the story tends to dog my thoughts and give rise to that faraway look that friends often com­ment on. The story is a multi-piece jig­saw puzzle where I’m allowed to change the size of the pieces as well as their arrange­ments. There’s no way this can hap­pen con­sciously. You have to let your uncon­scious per­col­ate.

One more thing is hap­pen­ing. As I become more famil­i­ar with the story—dream about it, pon­der about it dur­ing idle moments—I think of cer­tain meta­phor­ic­al con­nec­tions that could be made. For instance, I’ve decided that Saskia should be ‘awoken’ at the begin­ning of the story by a vase of flowers fall­ing over. Not entirely sure, at this stage, wheth­er the flowers should be red or white. Anyway, it com­ple­ments the end­ing of the story, where [redac­ted].

Sunday, 28th April

I often recall some­thing that Steve Jobs said about design­ing a product. Good design, he claimed, is about leav­ing things out. By elim­in­at­ing what is not great, you leave the great bits. I’m often reminded of this when I read stu­dent work, like an essay. I’ll look at a para­graph and think, ‘You should have left that out,’ because the oth­er para­graphs were writ­ten at the top of your game; they work well. Only leave in the stuff that works well. If some­thing doesn’t work—a char­ac­ter, scene, metaphor—then you can try to fix it, but must always remem­ber that dele­tion is also a fix.

Structurally, I’ve decided not to include some flash­backs (of the future, where the main char­ac­ter comes from). This should give the story a tight­er, more focused feel. You can’t have too much focus.

I’m aim­ing for this story to work in the same way that a third act works.

The final draft was 20,000 words. That’s the ver­sion I sent to the edit­or.