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.