Community Learning

February 10, 2011
I recently read an article about creative writing courses,written by David Peace, author of the compelling Red Riding Quartet He implies that the main aim ofstudents on writing courses is to acquire industry contacts. He says they “pay £10,000 to meet and listen to flocking agents and publishers”. These agents and publishers, he says, go to meet such students because it’s easier than reading unsolicited manuscripts that “might actually require them to exercise their own judgment (which due to the twin evils of cocaine and post-modernism have rendered most publishing people incapable of arousing).” [sic]

It’s probably worth saying a few words, having actually taken such a course (I did the one at UEA, which Peace derides elsewhere), about why I found it helpful, and also to outline some of the very real problems with undertaking an MA in Creative Writing.

For me, the most important thing about doing the course was that it gave me a readership. That changed my focus completely. I had previously written huge amounts of material in the isolation of my bedroom. It was mainly massively pretentious and self-indulgent. My work, at that point, was about ‘the surface of language’(!) It was about finding words so beautifully obscure, so precise that nobody knew what they meant. The emphasis was on description. If I had a particular vision of what a tree looked like, then I felt that vision was important enough to deserve several pages of everybody’s time.

When I submitted pieces of my draft to the workshops I quickly found that readers in the real world wanted something different. They required some semblance of a story, along with the complexities of characters acting under pressure. Once I’d realised this, I felt my writing improve immeasurably. Most of my coursemates were proper, passionate readers of fiction, and they rarely talked about ‘the Biz.’

My work certainly became much more reader-centred at UEA. Near the end of the course I submitted a much sparer, more character-focussed extract. One of my fellow students said, ‘have you got any more of this?’ With those words, I knew I was on the right lines, and I went on to write a good chunk of Blackmoor, my first novel, on the course. Far from being a means to getting published, I often feel that I would like to take the MA now, and I’m about to start my fourth novel. The response of the other students was constructive in a way that publishers often don’t have time to be when they send out their rejections.

Another criticism often levelled at creative writing courses is that they somehow turn their students into drones, all writing the same thing in the same style. I’d argue that taking a new writer outof her/his bubble and exposing them to the influences and experience not only of other readers, but also of practising writers, can only broaden their scope. With the guidance of some excellent established novelists (including Moy McCrory, on my first degree), I was able to experiment, and to critically explore all areas of my craft, to see what other, more successful writers were doing, and see if I could learn from them. A good creative writing course can change what fiction you read, and can deepen how you read it. I went to UEA reading DeLillo, Auster, Ondaatje, and came out reading Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Annie Proulx, William Trevor and David Peace.

Of course there are problems. I’m not about to contribute to the marketing campaigns in which many universities invest so heavily. A degree should not be undertaken lightly, especially given the current costs. I survived on a writer’s bursary, a pot-wash job at Baguette Express, and with the support of my family. I like to think I worked hard and took it seriously. I would very much advise any young writer, before they take such a course, to spend a good deal of time trying to combine writing and paid work (it’s what they’ll probably have to do when they graduate) to make sure it’s a sustainable way of living, and to make sure it’s what they want to do.

There are issues around reconciling such a subjective art with the critical requirements of a degree. You may not see eye-to-eye with your tutor (who is also your marker), and you will have to complete theoretical and reflective analysis of your work, which is not everybody’s idea of useful. University courses also foster a good social environment, and whilst –in many ways – that’s what life’s all about, it doesn’t always provide the seclusion necessary for writing. I do know a few people who found the experience distracting and irritating. There’s no point doing a writing course if you’re not going to do any writing.

Writers have different motivations. Some want to connect with readers – and being published obviously helps with that. Others feel that exploring technique in an academic setting can help them to produce better novels. Many of the writers who graduated from UEA with me are quite realistic about the fact that the serious fiction they write is unlikely to bring huge financial reward.

I’m also yet to come across any coke-fuelled publishers or agents. Most of the people I’ve worked with put in long hours reading fiction well into the night, and painstakingly exercising their judgment upon it. But maybe I’m only saying that because I’m after a new contract.

Me and Bobby McKee - a review of some books that taught me about stories

February 01, 2011
Hiya. My novel, The Hunger Trace, comes out in March, so I'm counting down by writing a few bits about writing.

I don't mind admitting that my first book, Blackmoor, was rejected a fair few times before it sold. I didn't like admitting it at the time. Many of the rejections mentioned problems with the plot and structure. When S&S bought the book, Rochelle, my first editor, and I worked hard on that aspect, and I hope we turned it around.

But before Blackmoor sold, I had a bit of a crisis about the idea of plot. We hadn’t really studied story structure on my creative writing course, because we mainly submitted extracts of novels. So, before embarking on my second book, I went down the library and undertook to teach myself the basics of ‘story design.’

I can’t help the inverted commas. That’s the part of me that still bends to the snobs who think books about storytelling technique are only for people who do screenplays. If you write proper novels, plot is apparently a bit scabby and unmentionable. You’re supposed to write books that interrogate the meaningless constructedness of plot and characters, isn’t it? Because nothing’s real, it’s just the infinite play of signifiers, yeah? Derrida and stuff.

Well, sod that, I like characters and stories.

So I read Robert McKee’s Story. You’ve probably heard of McKee. He’s a Hollywood script doctor who runs massively successful lecture tours. Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation does a great job of making fun of him, and Story deserves a certain amount of satirising. McKee likes a religious-sounding bit of terminology – it’s ‘controlling idea’ this, and ‘inciting incident’ that. There are a lot of diagrams. I did, however, learn quite a bit about the classic three-act structure, which has, of course, been around for hundreds of years. It’s good to know the basic techniques that underpin your trade, even if you want to ignore them. Also, beneath McKee’s buzzwords lie some sound, straightforward bits of advice: an ‘inciting incident’ is actually just the big event that happens near the start of a book, which creates a need in the central character. Robert McKee suggests that should happen in the first few pages. As obvious as that sounds, many agents and publishers (and other readers) will tell you it’s not always agiven.

He also goes over ideas like Conflict, and The Crisis (basically, the bit in the story where Luke has to decide whether to join the dark side or throw himself down the chute). Well-respected literary writers like David Vann continue to talk about such ideas, sometimes in relation to the more subtle stories of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner ( this is worth reading).

However, where I depart from McKee is on the idea of cold-plotting - planning it all outbefore you start. I gave it a gobefore embarking on book two. The problem is, when I just wrote the plot, nothing looked interesting. The characters were flat, the events a bit meaningless. So I tried to increase the number of twists (“Every scene must turn,” bellows McKee). By the second act of my synopsis, I’d revealed that most of the characters were each other’s dads. The third act was all about how one of the central characters turned out to be a panther. Ha! I thought. You didn’t see that coming did you, readers? Eh? No. No reader would ever see that coming because they would never be allowed to read it.

Discouraged, I shelved this cold plot, and started jotting down notes on the early train to work, figuring that was all the writing I would ever do. One of these notes, scribbled in the back of a published novel, was about the small buttons on the sleeve of a cashmere jumper worn by a fellow commuter, and the second was about a depressed falconer who is in love with a dead man. Those two notes became Maggie and Louisa, the protagonists of my novel, The Hunger Trace. There are a few twists in The Hunger Trace, but nobody turns into a panther. Sorry to spoil the ending.

Louisa, obsessed with her ungiving birds, and shunning the human company that she actually deeply wants, really excited me, and her needs began to drive a new story. And the conflict with Maggie, her vibrant young neighbour, gave rise to plenty of scenes. But where had these characters come from? Certainly not from cold-plotting.

A book I often go back to is Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Written in 1934, it was one of the first creative writing books, and gives some insight into where my two characters might have originated from, and where I might find more. Brande encourages one to wake early and write immediately, write anything, while still half-asleep, in order to tap into the unconscious. I do live in Brighton now, and I know how the idea of ‘freewriting’ must sound to the more straight-laced writer, but I find it incredibly effective. It not only allows you to go to those nasty, dirty little places in your memory, but after a while – because you know you’ve got to write something the next morning – you start to focus more keenly on the details of your day. You store new things. Brande rightly suggests that if you look closely, every day contains enough ideas for thousands of stories. My character Maggie had grown from the glimpse of an arm reaching up to grab the strap on a London train.

Bear in mind, when you flick through Becoming a Writer, its publication date. All you twitterfaces might want to skip the bit about the merits of those new-fangled portable typewriters.

Anyway, having rediscovered the source of decent ideas, I was still looking for less fanatical instructions on how to shape an extended story. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Booker argues that there are a limited number of story designs, but he delights in that fact, and in the multitude of ways in which those stories can be told. There’s the ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative, for example (Alice in Wonderland, Brideshead Revisited, Lord of the Flies), and the ‘Rebirth’ plot (Sleeping Beauty, Silas Marner). I was interested to find that I often write rebirth stories about ‘frozen’characters, not too dissimilar to Snow White in fact. Realising this actually helped me to see the paths my story could take; it gave me a greater awareness of how my novel might create meaning.

There are other books I go to when I’m stuck. I like Creative Writing – A Workbook with Readings (Linda Anderson ed.), which has plenty of little starter exercises and a nice appendix of writing about writing, including a fascinating interview in which Pat Barker details how she researched Regeneration.

It’s always nice to hear how the geniuses do it, and so I often dip into The Agony and the Ego: Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored (Clare Boylan ed.), a great collection of essays by writers on their creative processes. Hilary Mantel and Lorrie Moore contribute, amongst others.

Of course, the books that teach us most about writing are often our own. So, that said, I can really only recommend The Hunger Trace, by me. It could have been a lot worse.



Get a FREE eBook
when you join our mailing list!