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.