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?


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.


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.


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


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.