Saturday, 19 December 2009


Once you research something, especially if it has a technical aspect, don’t assume you know it well enough to write about. There will still be elements you get wrong. Your character has probably been playing guitar or brewing beer or juggling for years; you’ve only read about it or watched someone do it for a few days. So if possible, ask the expert you shadowed to have a read over your draft; I bet they’ll pick up something. So, thanks JP.

Being irreligious I don’t really do carols, but I’ll make an exception in Jeff’s case.

Merry Christmas. See you in the New Year.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


My girlfriend found herself a little lost in a strange city after a fifteen hour day at work. It was cold and dark, and all the multi-story car parks looked the same. She rang me, half remembering its name, so I found it online, plus a street map, and guided her to it. She drove to the barrier, where the machine told her to go back and put a £1 on the ticket, despite the sign saying it was free after 6pm. Back at the machine, she realised she had no money, and no way to get out. A teenage boy appeared behind her – and now the story could go off in all manner of unwelcome directions. He asked her if she’d lost her ticket, and when she explained the situation to him, he gave her a pound. She'll never see him again. Sort of restores your faith in people.

Faith that was lost when I read that half the population of the UK don’t believe climate change is being caused or exacerbated by human activity. It’s not as if the science is ambiguous any more.

Anyway, back to fiction. I suppose this could be termed the final phase of the first draft: pulling all the threads together – finding an ending really (and not coming up short or going beyond it). It feels an exciting time. And then I’ll print it off, grin lovingly at it, then place it in a drawer for a few weeks, coming back with fresh eyes and several red pens.

Talking of rewriting, here’s an excellent piece, which somehow weaves in a damning nod to our most recent war criminals.

Happy holidays.

Friday, 11 December 2009


I blogged about teaching creative writing here; it’s a subject that invites much debate. Personally, studying for an MA was the first time I took my writing seriously. It felt like a considerable investment, both financially and to some extent vocationally. I met some wonderful people, but did it make me a better writer? That’s maybe for others to judge, but I’d say so. It certainly made me a more critical reader. And as a craft, there are skills and techniques to learn. Rules even, which you then go on to break.

Anyway, for those of you considering such a course, I’ve invited a former writing colleague – and current MA-er – to answer a few questions.

Hello Valerie. Welcome.

Hello Tom.

So, do you think writing fiction can be taught?

The eternal question. I think the key to good writing is good reading, and although a course can tell you what to read, it can't force the love of reading into you, and without reading widely and voraciously and critically, with enjoyment and enthusiasm, you're really unlikely to make a good writer. But if you've got that passion and immersion, and the will to write and rewrite and keep on at it, a writing course can teach you to look at your work critically, to edit, to pick apart your own stories and hone your craft. I think that the ability to analyse and present the world through words is something that we develop through childhood and onwards, and if you don't tend to examine your world in this way, in sentences and scenes, searching for the right word in the right place, then a course isn't going to be able to instil that.

What are you hoping to get from the course?

On a practical level, I'm hoping to get a solid draft of a novel written while I'm surrounded by tutors who can give me good feedback. The course is also a way of validating this whole writing business; moving it up a notch from something I fit in around my job and my social life, to being the main activity in my life. I also really enjoy the academic atmosphere – the seminars, the library, the events the University runs, and the sense of ambition and possibility that it creates. If I come out the other side with a decent chunk of prose, a peer group of other writers, and the sense that I simply must keep going with this, then it'll have been a resounding success.

Is the MA what you expected?

It's very much what I expected. I've actually got another MA – I studied film production straight after my English degree – so I'm ludicrously over-qualified and experienced in the ways of these things. From having done that course, though, I knew more or less what to expect – that the year would shoot by, and that there's never enough hours in the day to achieve all that I want to achieve in those few months. I'd gone to the University open day the autumn before I applied, so I knew how the course ran, and I'd downloaded the reading list in advance, so I was pretty well prepared for it, and there's been no real surprises so far, except that we don't get any homework except our end-of-semester assignments, our dissertation, and our twice-a-semester workshop pieces. I had expected more day-to-day mini-assignments, when instead it's quite self-directed learning. On the other hand, the standard expected from our prose submissions is high, and it takes time to get that right, so it works out well.

Value for money?

To be honest, it's a very expensive programme, and with the AHRC changing its funding strategy this year, there was no money in the pot for our course, which is a real negative. If it wasn't for the fact that I had a redundancy package from my old job, there's no way I could have afforded to do it. So though I think it's an excellent course, the value for money issue is a sore point.

Are creative writing MAs for every aspiring writer?

Financially, you have to be able to afford it, so in that sense, no, it's not for everyone. If you have trouble processing feedback, or don't like workshopping situations, then that's a problem too – but if you can't take criticism, it wouldn't bode well for your future as a writer at all. With my course, because the contact hours are low and the graded submissions are few, if you're not good at motivating yourself to work, you could let the year slip by without actually writing very much at all. In that sense, you need the same self-motivated perseverance that a professional writer would need, so it's good practice! On the other hand, some courses have weekly assignments and workshops, so the participation level is higher, and that would pull people along who might otherwise slack off. We've got critical essays to write too, and not everybody is interested in that, so it might put people off this particular course. There are programmes out there to suit a variety of working patterns, I guess, but if you have confidence in your own writing to the extent that you don't feel the need for a peer group or the feedback of a set of tutors, then there's not much point in forking out for an MA. For me, at this stage, the feedback is very important, so it works.

One of your lecturers is a rather well known writer; was this a factor in choosing where you studied?

Absolutely. We've got fortnightly seminars with Martin Amis this (winter) semester, and though he doesn't read our work, the discussions and the textual analyses that he leads are incredibly informative and encouraging. We've got other award-winning writers as workshop tutors too, and that's fantastic. I read the work of some of the tutors in advance of applying, and that did influence my decision. Another factor was the thriving literary scene here in Manchester – there are reading events constantly, and some fantastic bookshops – and the fact that a literary agency reads our dissertations, which is a useful way of skipping the query stage for at least one company, and a good spur to really whip that dissertation into shape. We also get to do internships next semester, and I'm hoping to get involved with running writing workshops in a prison, though it's not sorted out yet. It was always between UEA and Manchester for me, as they're the two big names, and UEA was less of a contender because I wouldn't have been able to combine my day job in the media with living in Norwich. Manchester has a decent track record of graduate publication, so all in all, it suited me.

Will most people who complete the MA go on to make a living from writing fiction? (Sorry for this one!)

If only! No, they won't, and the more savvy of them will be aware of this. Plenty of people carry on with the careers they had before the course, and plenty of them are young enough that their options are open anyway. If I could gear my career more towards writing, and reduce the hours I spend doing other things, that would be lovely, but I'm resigned to the fact that once the MA is over, it'll be back to snatched hours in the morning and lunchtime and after work. Anybody who's come out of my course that has been able to finance themselves from writing alone has done so by combining teaching with writing, and it's taken them several years post-MA to get to that point. I wish it were a golden ticket, though, I really do.

Thank you for your time, Valerie. Good luck with the rest of the course and your subsequent writing career.

Valerie’s blog, in which she regularly discusses the MA, can be found here.

Friday, 4 December 2009


Just discovered this. There are hardly any left, it seems (probably fewer than a hundred breeding pairs), as one by one they’ve fallen prey to high street chains, that online one, and latterly Tesco. But I found this one, just half a mile up the road from my new home. They sell online, but if you’re this way, you should have a peek before it’s too late. There’s a lovely tearoom at the top too.