My experience of doing a Creative Writing MA

I am now in the final stages of my Creative Writing MLitt at Glasgow University. Only 25,000 highly polished and well-crafted words to go… Looking back on the year, it’s been a worthwhile learning experience.

The taught portion of the degree is split between three modules: Craft and Experimentation, Editing and Publication and workshops.

The Craft and Experimentation unit was the most enjoyable, as it meant getting to explore new writers, their work and style as well as exploring why and how we write. During the first semester we read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge and Alice Munro’s Open Secrets, amongst others. I enjoyed them all but my favourite was The Poisonwood Bible and Open Secrets. I love that Alice Munro can take seemingly everyday material—the stuff of her hometown and upbringing—and turn it into something special.

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During the second semester we focussed on more contemporary books and poetry. We read Room by Emma Donoghue, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Sharon Olds, Petit Pascale and Mary Oliver. Out of these I enjoyed Mary Oliver’s work the most, though I learned something from every writer we studied. While I discovered that I did not care for Sharon Olds style, it was interesting to learn more about confessional poetry. I had not previously considered writing about myself or my life, directly. And while I don’t think I’ll be doing any autobiographical writing anytime soon, I certainly enjoyed exploring how connections are made between the life experiences of the writer and their work. Extracting the emotional essence of an experience is something I’m very interested in, although I think the details are better left alone.

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I also learned a lot from reading Petit Pascale’s book of poems around the paintings of Frida Kahlo, What the Water Gave Me, named after Kahlo’s painting of the same name.  Alongside this I read a couple of biographies of Kahlo’s life, Frida: The Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera and Frida Kahlo: Passion and Pain by Andrea Kettenmann. As most people know, Kahlo’s life was full of suffering and pain from a very young age. While her poems (and the biographies) made for difficult and upsetting reading at times, it was enlightening to see how Kahlo’s painting transformed her life. While her work could not deliver her fully from pain, it did distract her and give her a purpose, something that was uniquely her own and which others could appreciate. It was, perhaps, her way of communicating her pain to others, and communicating more generally. On the flip side, having read more about what she went through, I can both appreciate the paintings more as well as finding them far more disturbing than I previously realised them to be. The harnessing of emotion and its transformation is something which was fascinating to explore.

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Another interesting topic we covered was the relation of art forms to each other, and to writing, known as ekphrasis. One of our assignments was to write a piece based on a painting. Another was to think about how music influences our writing. Prior to this I was never able to write to music as music tended to distract me  (even instrumental music) but since then I’ve begun compiling soundtracks for my stories. Thinking about how art is created, what inspires us and how we can help this process along has been the best part of the course. Also, it has helped me to think about different routes coming off of writing itself, and the various benefits writing/producing art can give us in our lives (besides publication, I mean!). And that is something which can never be lost.

The Editing and Publication module was also helpful. During the first semester we had various speakers visit to discuss their work and the different elements of publication. For example, the editor of “The Dark Horse” poetry magazine, Gerry Cambridge came and talked to us about what is involved in the production of a small scale poetry magazine, and the various challenges they sometimes face. We also spoke to Sara Hunt of Saraband Books about how best to approach an editor, how to pitch your book, and the role of a publisher. Towards the end of the semester we spoke with Jamie Colman of Green Heaton about the role of a literary agent and how they make decisions. Everyone who came to speak to us was honest about what their work involved, and how we could use that knowledge to our advantage, either through approaching publications or by getting involved in that side of the writing business ourselves.

The second semester was comprised of an editorial project, during which many students chose to produce their own publication. I am still in the process of collecting copies of everyone’s lovely publications. Here are links to a few of them, if you’re interested in checking them out:

The Atelier Project, a journal dedicated to the process of creativity: http://issuu.com/mollymiltmurray/docs/atelier_project__final

Crooked Holster, a new anthology of crime fiction: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Crooked-Holster-Anthology-Crime-Writing/dp/1508819173

The Williwaw Anthology, an anthology of magical realism and flash fiction: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/535761

Outside Culture, essays, poetry and prose dedicated to the experience of being an expatriate: http://outsideculturemagazine.com/

Other students chose to concentrate on running workshops for schoolchildren and collecting their stories in a bound anthology, writing a radio play and various other projects. For myself, I concentrated on this blog, and the recent publication of my novel, The Forest King’s Daughter, which is available from Amazon http://t.co/HL50jaLLXb.

The workshop element of the course was enlightening, to say the least. While everyone did their best to help each other develop as a writer, the level of in depth discussion on my writing was something I had not encountered elsewhere, and which definitely pushed me forward. Working at this level forced me to continuously question and challenge myself, and I think this was a very good thing. My writing in general, and my approach to it, has benefited as a result. At any rate, I got a distinction on my last assignment.  🙂  Yeh-hey!

So, looking back on the year, I would say the MLitt has definitely been a worthwhile investment. It has forced me to up my game as a writer, and to render that process conscious. Of course, I don’t think you have to have a degree, or any sort of qualification, to be a writer. But, for me, the experience has helped me to gain skills and confidence I may not have acquired otherwise, or not quite as quickly as I could by doing a degree. Ideally, I’d like to go on from here to do some paid work related to writing. But even if I don’t succeed in doing that, I know that my writing will be stronger as a result, and perhaps more likely to be published. And that is exactly what I wanted from the course. 🙂

For more information on the Creative Writing MLitt at Glasgow University, you can visit their website: http://www.gla.ac.uk/postgraduate/taught/creativewritingmlitt/

Have you done a degree in Creative Writing? If so, what did you think of it? Did it help you? Or, are you considering doing a degree in Creative Writing, and, if so, what are your considerations? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below.

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Why write?

Any article, magazine, book or website on the craft of writing will tell you what a difficult state the publishing industry is in. While writers now have the option of self-publishing, and publishing in electronic formats, we are worker harder than ever before and and for less money (and prestige).

These days only the biggest names in the publishing industry make enough money to live on, and while some authors are respected, just as many aren’t even noticed. The phrase ‘everyone has a novel in them’ both democratizes the writing community while also making it harder to get your voice heard. The idea being that it is easier now than ever before to publish, but the overall quality of writing is also lower.

But is this true? These days writers have to invest far more of their time, energy, skills and—yes—money to see results. Mentoring happens in creative writing classes and through editorial/mentoring services which most writers pay for with their own funds, because it’s important to them to increase their skill set. Of course, the most valuable contribution any writer can make to their career is to put in the time, working on their own stories and pieces as much as possible, experimenting, editing and discovering what works best for them. And reading widely and insatiably, of course.

CIMG0252 bookshelves from morguefile

credit: morguefile

I remember being obsessed with J.D. Salinger when I was a teenager, not just The Catcher in the Rye but also his other books: Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories etc. When I finally got my hands on his biography by Ian Hamilton, aptly titled: In Search of JD Salinger, I quickly devoured it. As most people know, Salinger was a recluse who lived an isolated life in Cornish, New Hampshire. After his initial success, he withdrew from the public eye entirely, but continued writing (though he stopped publishing). Only since his death have his unpublished manuscripts been brought to the attention of the public.

These days, you couldn’t be a writer and do that. Well, not one that anyone would take any interest in anyway.

An author platform and social media presence is crucial, and promotion of your work will often come through these channels. This is not easy to embrace, especially as many writers (like myself) are introverts, perhaps shy about participating in the necessary self-promotion and marketing required to publish today.

So, to come back to the initial question, why write? When I look at the question logically, I can’t find an answer. But, I know that writing is important to me. Through writing I can communicate—or attempt to convey—how I see the world, the people who live in it and what I think is important to take note of. I can attempt to tell the stories I want to read/hear, which I think people should pay attention to. Will these stories ever be read or published? Maybe. Maybe not. But I still have to take the chance in telling them, because if they aren’t written down and created in the first place they will never exist.

Of course, now that my first novel, The Forest King’s Daughter, has been published, this may increase my chances for having my second novel published. But even if it had never been published, I would continue to write, for myself, because the act of discovering and telling stories is part of who I am.

What about you, do you write for yourself, or primarily with the aim of publication? What is your experience of the publishing world today? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below.

Writing jobs

Okay, so I know by now that if you’re in this ‘business’ of creative writing, it is highly unlikely to be for monetary reasons. Basically, if you’re not in it for the love of writing, you may as well not be in it at all. But, that’s not to say there aren’t opportunities to be had—jobwise—from writing, however contradictory that may sound. And as my Creative Writing MLitt at Glasgow University will finish in August, I just might look for some of these.

For example, I know that some people go on to teach creative writing in the community. This is how I came back to writing, through online community writing classes at writingclasses.co.uk. The personal, one-on-one attention gave me the confidence and skills I needed to keep going. This is something I’ve always valued, and which I believe is very important for a writer’s development. Many writers are introverts and so it may be difficult to take that first step towards sharing your work with others. Having people whom you trust read your work can be a tremendous help.

At the same time, it’s a huge responsibility. What if a writer you’re trying to help blames you for their work not being what they’d like it to be? What if you accidentally damage a new writer’s very fragile ego? I know how important that first round of comments can be, I’ve kept every comment I’ve received from teachers in a special folder on my computer.

Others may be lucky enough to land a job teaching creative writing at a university. In this case, it’s likely that your students will be more experienced, if not in creative writing then at least in an academic setting. That is not to say that they don’t also have fragile egos. In my MLitt programme at Glasgow University we held in depth discussions on all aspects of a piece of writing. It felt incredibly intimidating at first, especially if it was your writing which was up for discussion, but having so many people read and respond to your work could also be mind-bogglingly amazing. And it certainly left a lot for the writer to take away and work with.

I also know writers who have gone on to start their own business as a proof-reader/copyeditor and/or mentor to new writers. I can imagine this would be an enjoyable way to use your skills, especially as it’s likely that this could be done from home, in the comfort of your own living room, and you could pick and choose your clients. However, the downside (I suppose) would be having to advertise and seek out clients, as well as having to balance the independent business side of things. Although, perhaps, if you’re an independent author this is something you’re already used to. And being able to fit in a bit of proofing on the side could temporarily boost your income if done alongside other paid work.

Finally, there are those lucky enough to land a job at a publishing house, magazine or perhaps as a literary agent. These writers are lucky indeed as (one would assume) these jobs come with a regular salary, paid time off and a certain prestige in the literary world. Of course, I know that some of these jobs require a degree in publishing (as opposed to a Creative Writing degree). Lucky for me the MLitt at Glasgow University covers both the publishing side as well as creative writing.

As part of the Editorial and Publishing side of the course we had guest speakers from publishing houses, literary magazines and agents, all of whom were open to questions and very honest about what their careers involved.

However, many writers balance their non-writing day jobs alongside their writing. I understand the benefits of this as it allows time away from the writing world, which lets you return to your writing fresh, and also allows for more security perhaps than a writing related job might offer.

So, what will I do after I finish my Creative Writing MLitt? The short answer is to keep writing, keep blogging and continue trying to keep up with the literary world. However, I’ll also keep my eyes and ears open to any creative writing related jobs that may become available and put myself forward for them as and when they do. I’ll also look for any teaching opportunities that may become available, even if they are on a voluntary basis to start with. In short I will scout out any opportunities which may be lurking and try anything I can in an attempt to find a niche in a writing related field, because I love writing and would love to work in a related field. 🙂

Have I missed any writing related jobs? If so, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

Do you work in a writing related field? If so, what are the benefits of your role? Does teaching writing give you more of an eye when it comes to your own writing? If you work as a mentor do you find the balance you strike between helping other writers and your own work to be beneficial to you creatively? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Until next time!

Kindle vs other e-readers

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I have to admit that although I’m the author of an ebook, up until fairly recently I never really read ebooks. It wasn’t so much that I was against ebooks, or e-readers, I just tended to read on paper. I owned a Nook, originally given to my partner, but when scouring for the next novel to devour I nearly always sought out the paperback. Possibly this was because we always have a growing stack of paperbacks in our living room, waiting to be read. Or, possibly this is because I grew up without the internet. The idea of searching a device, as I would search the internet, somehow seemed contrary to the experience I was after.

But, recently, I’ve been doing at least half of my reading on the Nook. Why?

Since becoming more involved in the world of social media I’ve discovered a number of amazing authors whose books are only available as ebooks (or for a significantly lower price than the paperback). Also, with an ebook, I can begin reading right away and don’t have to wait for the book to be delivered (a major bonus in my opinion). The Nook is  light and easy to handle, making it ideal for carrying about in my bag. Also, the touchscreen is not over-sensitive and it has a handy glow light for when I’m in a dark place and can’t turn the light on to read. All features that make me love my Nook.

However, many of the ebooks I long to read are only available as Kindle files. This means I have had to use a special software to convert the files from Mobi (what Kindle uses) to Epub (what Nook uses). It means that it is not an instant process (for most books, anyway) and after converting a mere ten ebook files they are asking me to pay for the use of their software. Even though the Nook is already paid for!

This brings me to the real point of this post: which of the e-readers is the best, in your opinion? From what I’ve read, it seems that Kindle is the most widely used e-reader. But I know that some people use Kobo, or Nexus. What are the pros and cons of these other readers? And what about Kindle? Do you use a Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Fire or…? I know some of these readers double up as computers, allowing you to go on the internet or save Word files. I can see how that might be handy, but I would prefer something which is mainly for reading on (I tend to use my laptop for the internet and relish the ability to escape into a book).

I’m trying to decide if I should pay for the conversion software (or try a new free trial of another one) or just treat myself to a new e-reader once I have the funds available. I have heard so many good things about Kindle that I have to admit to being tempted.

I look forward to reading your comments and suggestions. 🙂

Until next time!