Vicky Newham


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MA thoughts and thank yous

Having now got #NaNoWriMo out of the way, I wanted to say a few things about my course and to thank the people who have helped me to complete it.

Like many of my peers, I’ve been writing for years but only decided that I wanted to write a novel about five years ago. Applying for, and starting, my MA Creative Writing at Kingston University in 2012 marked a formal commitment to that decision. I wanted to do the course because I was aware that teaching myself to write had limitations and I also wanted to get some feedback on my work.

How do you switch this thing on then?

How do you switch this thing on?

The tutors on my four modules were Paul Perry, Adam Baron, James Miller and Jonathan Barnes. I feel privileged to have studied with all of them as they are very talented writers and extremely nice people. I learnt different things from each of them (beyond the fact the modules were different, I mean). I don’t want to get into the debate about whether creative writing courses have any value, or whether it’s possible to teach a person to write and be creative, other than to say that as a teacher and a student I believe that it is possible to teach and show someone how to do/be both. The question is, though, how this is done and I have plenty of thoughts and ideas about that too.

I do feel that I’ve learnt a lot from doing the course and I think that it’s helped to improve my writing and inform me as a writer. I now need to build on what I’ve learnt and apply it to complete a novel that I am happy with and excited about, and which I can then send out into the world of agents and publishers. I still haven’t decided what to do about my first novel: I really like a lot about it but I am not sure it’s the novel I want to send out as my ‘calling card’, and hence I haven’t done so. I will definitely finish the novel I started for my dissertation, a police procedural set in East London which begins with a murdered Head Teacher. I will definitely finish my #NaNoWriMo novel, a sci-fi/crime novel which could also be described as a YA dystopian novel (thanks for that suggestion, Dave Sivers), details of which you can find here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/vicky-newham/novels/the-exchange-633635. If I am a bit vague about its genre classification, I am not vague about the plot: it’s all plotted and I love it. Not surprisingly, they are both very psychological.

I am thrilled to have got a distinction on my MA overall and firsts on both my dissertation pieces … and I feel that I owe a lot to the many people who helped me in small and large ways.

I really enjoyed working with Juliet Mushens as my dissertation supervisor and feel that I learnt a huge amount from her. I completely trusted her judgement on my work and her feedback style enabled me to take on board what she said without feeling at all defensive. Having shown Juliet a very early draft of what I wanted to write (Why oh why did I do that? I cringed the whole way home!), I was worried that she would think I was an awful writer. However, I was determined that I wanted to use the opportunity to learn as much as I could and that meant I made myself take the risk of being honest with Juliet about what I think my strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. And then I made sure that I worked my butt off to improve my work each time I submitted it to her. We also had to figure out what to cover when and how – in just 5 hour long sessions – but it worked really well and we even had time to laugh and talk about dogs. Can you believe it?! Dogs. As if.

Lexi thought the early drafts of my work were rubbish too!

Lexi thought the early drafts of my work were rubbish too!

Thank you to Stav Sherez, for generously chatting to me about his books and about writing, and for being encouraging about my dissertation novel and writing aspirations. Thanks also to Sophie Hannah, Sarah Hilary, Eva Dolan and Anya Lipska, for chatting to me about their books and/or answering my questions for my dissertation essay. Sophie, it was your books, and those of Kate Atkinson, which made me want to write crime fiction.

Siobhan Campbell was kind enough to give me some feedback on my academic essay for James Miller’s Ten Critical Challenges module and my experimental creative piece just seemed to work from the off (which is what I’ve been developing for #NaNoWriMo).

I love writing more than anything (well, perhaps not the lil brown puppy) and I am determined to continue to experiment with mine, and to see where that takes me. Oh. And to read, read, read.

Anyone got any book recommendations, then?!

Lexi particularly enjoyed Erin's prose in the Broadchurch novel.

Lexi particularly enjoyed Erin’s prose in the Broadchurch novel.

Vicky Newham © 2014


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A student’s view of what an MA Creative Writing offers, and what should be considered

I started this post over a year ago. With all the recent articles in the media about the value of creative writing courses, I felt compelled to finish it. What I hope to do is give my own view of what I feel such a course can offer and what needs to be considered. Some issues need to be thought about prior to application and some will come into play once you start the course. And I hope to write the entire post without  referring to Hanif Kureishi or Will Self. Did I mention that Ha – ?

In September 2012 I started an MA Creative Writing at Kingston University, Surrey. As a part-time student I covered two taught modules in the first year, and two in the second (plus a dissertation). I did them in this order:

–          Writers’ Workshop

–          Special Study (also a writers’ workshop, meant to be more specialist)

–          Ten Critical Challenges for writers

–          Structure and Style

–          Dissertation

The teaching on my MA has now finished (except for dissertation supervision) but I am still completing assignments, and doing my dissertation over the summer to submit in September.

 

1. What do you hope to achieve from the course?

It is essential that you are clear about this and that your expectations are realistic.

Speaking personally, my motivation was to learn about writing and to improve my own writing as much as I could via taught sessions and feedback from peers and tutors. I’ve been poring over books on writing craft for some years and I do find that I learn from doing this. But when I try out the methods and techniques, what I don’t know, without feedback, is whether or not I have been successful. With practice and experience you develop the ability to assess your own work, to self-edit, but when you’re starting out I believe it’s helpful to have guidance.

One of the things I’ve seen written about Creative Writing MAs is that ‘people’ think that having one will guarantee a publishing contract. I cannot say that I’ve read all the prospectuses for every MA in the world but do any of them actually claim that? Do they imply it? And if they do, on what basis? And do ‘people’ (presumably students) really think this? What, you collect your degree certificate with one hand and a publishing contract with the other? Ahem.

I think you can and should expect the following:

  • to be taught by tutors with both teaching and writing experience & expertise
  • to meet and learn with other people who are interested in writing
  • to learn about writing theory and practice
  • to complete assignments and get useful feedback on them
  • to have access to extra-curricula events with publishing professionals

The ‘extras’ are worth researching via the course literature and by asking the staff in the department. If you can, once you start, I would go to as many events as possible: readings, launches, workshops, masterclasses, and socials. Learn as much as possible and network. This aspect is obviously something that you can’t get from a book. And it could help you to make contacts with agents and editors who might then be interested in reading your work. No-one is going to show special interest in you because you’re doing an MA (do I really need to say this?). Expect, as always, to be judged on the quality of your writing and the creative and commercial viability of your ideas.

Something else to consider is, can you teach writing? What about creativity? You will need to make your own mind up about this and there are plenty of people who will tell you that you can’t teach either. Writers are born, not made, they will tell you. They plop out of the womb with a pen or tablet in their moist fingers.  And they’re entitled to think what they like but I don’t have to agree. As a teacher, I believe that you can teach anything. I show students how to write essays. I teach them facts about Psychology. I give them feedback on their exam answers showing them what they did well and what they need to improve, and how. If they practice, experiment, emulate, they learn.

I acknowledge that creativity is a bit different from writing. Some people are naturally more creative than others. But there are exercises that you can do to help you develop your creativity. To be honest, if you don’t have any ideas at all, and nothing screams out to you to be written about and explored, writing might not be the best thing for you to do.

 

2. Do you want to do an online course or go to an institution for your sessions?

This is really important and will affect the sort of experience you have. If you are fine with online tutorials, video conferencing and written feedback, a distance learning course might work well for you.

I was clear about not wanting an online course so I didn’t really research them much. I wanted to be able to go and see my tutors to discuss my work, and to be in the same room as my peers when learning.

 

3. What modules does the course offer?

What you will study and how is the most important consideration, in my opinion. And it can vary so research this carefully. I didn’t study English Literature and whilst I am interested in it, I didn’t want to do a writing degree which is actually a literature degree in disguise. Which modules are compulsory? Are there any optional ones?

On my course we had to do a compulsory literary theory module which I was unhappy about. It was taught very well but I resented having to spend several days of my week ploughing through Barthes and Foucault. I still believe that it wasn’t necessary and hasn’t been useful for my writing. Some of it was interesting, a lot of it was deathly dull. A few of my peers liked it. Most, like me, gritted their teeth and prayed for it to be over soon.

MAs bring in a nice chunk of income for universities, especially from overseas students. I know several people who’ve done them and this is my second one so I’m not making it up, honest. Longstanding courses are often very good because teething problems have been resolved, and a good set of adult teeth are in place (that doesn’t quite work, does it?! Puppy on the brain). New ones need to run for a few years for them to bed in (ohmygod, that sounds like dentures, it’s getting worse). Sometimes the rationale for what to include on the programme is driven by who is available in the department to teach and what their expertise is rather than what needs to be included to provide a good course. It shouldn’t be like that but it sometimes is.

I am sure you will have noticed how many MAs are now being offered. Does the amount on offer devalue what you can learn? And how they might be perceived? Not necessarily to the first question. If there are lots of rubbish electricians or builders, does it mean there aren’t any good ones? No. Does it mean I’m going to be more cautious about which electrician I will let loose on my wiring? Of course it does, and so it should. Research and reputation (amongst people whose judgement I trust) are what I go on. The same is true of all the other writing courses which are popping up. If someone’s written one book and they want to teach novel writing, personally, I’d want someone with greater experience. But that does depend on the situation and individual. And I may be more bothered about this because I’ve been a teacher for 10 years.

As for how your MA will be perceived, who knows? Some people will think you’re wasting your time. Some will respect you for being prepared to put money, time, effort, tears and gallons of wine behind helping yourself to learn. Yes, it’s okay, I do realise that wine doesn’t aid learning but it does help you cope with having your latest offering shredded at workshop. Some people will be envious, and will snipe that it’s ‘alright for you’ . . . Shoes. Walk. In. Them. Before . . .

 

4. MAs are expensive – how are you going to fund it?

With fees starting at £6,000 for a full-time UK student, and going up to well over double that, depending on the institution, MAs don’t come cheap. Does more expensive mean better? Not necessarily. Does the status of the university and course matter? Not to me, no, at least not in itself. Courses such as the UEA one, which have been running for years, are often excellent as they’ve sorted out what works and what doesn’t. Had I lived near to UEA and been able to afford it, I’d probably have applied. Not because of their Alumni but because their MA looks excellent and their teaching staff are awesome. Some new courses, especially in Greater London, are charging a lot. Personally, I wouldn’t pay it. If you have plenty of money, it perhaps matters less but if you have to save, borrow money and make sacrifices to do the course, I think that this can add pressure to the experience. I know that I felt I wanted value for my hard-earned pounds. I saved up over a lonnnnnnng period to pay for mine.

There are a few discretionary awards on offer, depending on the institution. Some are awarded on the basis of hardship, some on excellence.

 

5. Who teaches on the MA?

Some institutions use big name authors to attract students. If this works for you, that’s fine but it is often the case that this person has no day to day involvement with the university and doesn’t do much teaching (if any), so you might not even meet them. Having been a teacher for ten years I am bothered about how people teach and so my view is that I want to be taught writing by people who are both successful, published authors and who know how to teach. It’s almost pointless being taught by someone who is technically strong, and whose prose makes you hold your breath – with admiration not horror – but if they cannot show you how to do things, you won’t learn much.

Your tutors also need to know how to give feedback and how to manage the feedback-giving of your peers in workshop modules, both those who give inappropriate feedback and those who cannot be bothered to read your work for class and/or comment on it (but expect you to read theirs). The non-feedback-ers. Both tutor and peer feedback are incredibly important. On my first MA, in Effective Learning, we covered a module on Assessment for Learning. This is used a lot in teaching. We learnt about how and when feedback does and doesn’t work. If you get very crushing feedback before you have built up confidence in your work, it can quite literally stop you from writing. More on feedback below.

The internet is such a useful research tool. If there are tutors on a course you’re interested in, google them. Have they been published? Was it in 1946? Look at their website. Does what they say about writing sit well with you? Have they written newspaper articles sneering at writing courses and students? Do they tweet negative things about students’ assignments and how bored they are by the prospect of their next lecture? Or is their track record solid, and they seem like people you can respect and learn from? I was lucky at Kingston: I had four main tutors, and I liked and respected all of them on a personal and professional basis.

Two other good ways to get information are to go to Open Days and also to sit in on lectures and seminars by tutors of the course you’re interested in. Of the two, I’d say the second is the best. At Open Days students are prepped to say positive things about the course, tutors and institution. This means that . . . yes, yes!

With regards to access to tutors and meetings, this will vary depending on their contract, what days and hours they work, responsibilities and other commitments.

 

6. Feedback is best viewed within its context

One of the reasons why I wanted to do an MA was because I wanted some rigorous, informed feedback.

Some people claim that all feedback is good. I don’t agree with this as either a student or a teacher. On a course I did I had one peer who colour coded my work according to what he did and didn’t like and this meant almost every word. It must’ve taken him ages but it was just not helpful as he didn’t understand how contemporary commercial crime fiction is written. There was so much negative feedback, it made me doubt my abilities as a writer for several weeks at the start of my course and was a really horrible time. Fortunately my tutor went through his feedback with me and set me straight.

Initially the workshop experience – where you share your work prior to class and have it critiqued in class – was an uncomfortable and negative one for me. Having set up and run a writing group locally to where I used to live, I was used to sharing my work with people and getting their opinion on it. I knew that the feedback from my MA peers – and tutor – would be much more rigorous, and that was what I wanted. In my writing group, no-one was prepared to say anything negative. But the MA workshop experience was challenging. I was in a group with people who didn’t seem to like crime fiction, and who weren’t familiar with the conventions, tropes, techniques and trends of the genre. As crime overlaps a lot with the thriller genre, I use(d) a lot of thriller-writing techniques. But my peers didn’t seem to like shifting PoVs, little ‘world-building’ at the start, not knowing what was going on, deliberate false clues, unreliable narrators, particular text formatting for emphasis, and short sentences. I found myself having to defend my choices to people who didn’t seem to like my genre. It wasn’t that I wanted them to tell me my writing was great: I just wanted feedback which helped me write better crime fiction.

Finally, on feedback, I want to say that people can have very fixed ideas about what constitutes good writing and how things should be done. I find this disconcerting. If they say it’s their opinion but are happy for you to do different, that’s fine. In the ‘real world’ of publishing people will say, ‘Nope, don’t like it done like that’. But I believe that teachers should say, ‘These are the various ways of doing this. This is how I do it and what I think works best. But it’s your piece of writing and the choices are yours to make. This is what will affect, and be affected by, those choices’. But be warned: you may encounter someone who will mark you down if you don’t do things the way they tell you. Very annoying. Just get a doll and stick pins in it. Kidding. Smile sweetly. And kill them off in your next book.

 

7. Expect to read and write outside your comfort zones and preferences

One of the modules I’ve enjoyed on my course was Structure and Style. We learnt about, and wrote, poetry, drama and short stories. Learning about a form of writing that you aren’t used to and aren’t thinking about pursuing beyond the course might seem like a waste of time. I don’t want to write poetry for publication (world, you’re safe!) but I do write short stories and would like to write scripts for TV at a later date. Having to focus on these forms did take me away from my novel-writing, and it’s important to be able to cope with that distraction. I decided to go with it, and have suspended my everyday novel-writing since September 2013 as I just couldn’t focus on it adequately and do my MA work.

In terms of reading, at first I found it hard to read genres and forms with which I’m not familiar. It is, however, a good way to learn about the tropes, structures and techniques of those forms. And with commercial fiction becoming increasingly cross-genre, it’s definitely worth broadening your focus.

So, are you still awake? Do you still want to do an MA? If you can afford it and are passionate about writing, I’d say do it. But do your homework thoroughly, be clear about why you’re doing it – and don’t let people put you off or put you down.

Vicky Newham 2014

 


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What have I learnt from the first year of my MA?

In September 2012 I started the first year of an MA Creative Writing at Kingston University. As the year progressed I’ve reflected on how it’s all been going, and what I’ve learnt. I’ve now completed the first year. Have I enjoyed it? Have I learnt from it? Do I regret enrolling? Here we go.

Kingston University, Penrhyn campus, where the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is based.

Kingston University, Penrhyn campus, where the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) is based.

A part-time student covers two taught modules in the first year, and two in the second (plus a dissertation). The module I started with was the Writers’ Workshop. This was followed by Special Study in semester two, which was basically the same (although was supposed to be more specialist).

I’ve organised this post around five main areas of learning.

1. Feedback is best viewed within its context

One of the reasons why I wanted to do an MA was because I wanted informed feedback on my writing. Some people say that all feedback is good. Having been a teacher for ten years, and seen how destructive feedback can be, I don’t agree with this.

Initially the workshop experience was an uncomfortable and negative one for me. The way this works is that, when it’s your turn, you send your work to your peers and tutor and you come to class with each piece printed and annotated, ready to discuss. Having set up and run a writing group, I was used to sharing my work with people but there no-one really wants to say anything negative. I knew that the feedback on an MA would be much more rigorous, and that was what I wanted.  The MA workshop experience was very different. Participants were supposed to say what they liked and thought worked well before they said what they didn’t but in practice people just launched in with perceived faults, and it went round the room like this. I was in a group with people who didn’t like crime fiction, and who weren’t familiar with the conventions and trends of the genre. As crime overlaps a lot with the thriller genre, I use a lot of crime- and thriller-writing techniques. However, many of my peers didn’t like multiple PoVs, not knowing what was going on, deliberate false clues, any use of italics, and short sentences. So I found myself having to defend my choices to people who didn’t seem to like my genre. It wasn’t that I wanted them to tell me my writing was great if they didn’t think so. I just wanted something that would transcend the conventions of crime writing and a balance between positive and negative. It was easier in the second semester as my tutor for that module is a crime writer so he was able to put things in perspective.

I had one peer who colour coded everyone’s submissions according to what she did and didn’t like and this meant almost every word. She wrote ‘lazy’ and ‘cliché’ all over people’s work, and crossed out every single adverb. I wouldn’t have enrolled on an MA if I didn’t know to avoid clichés and lazy writing and to minimise adverb usage. Many of her comments were detailed, and some useful; it must’ve taken her ages but it was excessive. It also made me doubt my abilities as a writer for a good few weeks which was a really horrible time. In the end I had to go and see my tutor and ask him to help me sift through everyone’s feedback and decide what to consider and what to forget about. After this I felt more confident. Please note: if you are going to workshop your writing, you have to expect to have it torn to pieces. Not everyone does this but some will and tutors don’t always intervene. You have to develop the ability to cope with it, and to weigh up feedback.

When processing criticism of your work I think it’s worthwhile considering the following in relation to the person giving it: their motivation; their experience; their technical knowledge. It is also true, of course, that some people will ‘get’ you and ‘get’ your writing and others won’t. You have to be prepared to be honest with yourself: if the feedback rings true, it’s worth considering. If you’re not sure where the person is coming from, or it doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to take it on board. I know I respond best to criticism from people who I know well and trust, and who know me well. The problem with ‘workshopping’ writing is that you’re often doing it with strangers.

Room 3005, where my workshop sessions were held in both semesters.

Room 3005, where my workshop sessions were held in both semesters.

2. Expect to read and write outside your comfort zones

Like all writers, I read widely within my genre. However, there are certain genres which I don’t tend to read. In my workshop groups I had people writing children’s fiction, dystopian fiction, science fiction, travel writing, memoirs, experimental writing. Some pieces were set in places and cultures I know nothing about.  One piece, for example, was part-fiction, part-non, on life in (very) rural Dakota, US and fracking. I couldn’t relate to it at all. Initially, it threw me. I found some of the pieces hard to read and I had no idea how to comment on them, let alone say anything useful. But gradually I grew accustomed to my peers’ topics and styles. What also helped was that at Kingston we are allowed to attend some of the undergraduate modules within the faculty so several of us went to lectures on genre fiction. I also read up on the conventions and tropes of different genres in commercial fiction. Both of these things helped me to feel more confident and informed. It was no different, of course, from my peers not knowing about crime fiction: we each tend to read certain ‘stuff’ and learn about our own writing genre.

In my final semester this coming year I will be doing ‘Structure and Style’. In this module we write and study multiple forms of writing, and also have to write it. I’m looking forward to this as I think that it will be good for my writing. Poetry. Er … yes, that too. Eek!

3. People have fixed ideas about how you should write

In an ideal learning world there is: ‘These are the ways that other people do it and this is how I do it’. In practice I’ve found that what you get told is mainly the latter … except it’s not presented as ‘This is just my opinion’; it is presented as ‘This is how it’s done’. I have also found that when you talk to some writing tutors about your work, the default mode is to tell you how they would write your book. Sometimes I do want to know how they would do it, but often I want to know what the options are.

So what do you do if one person hates prologues and says they should be avoided, and another says you have to have them? If one person says you have to write your prologue like this, another says definitely not, and someone else says that it doesn’t matter? Well? What do you do? It can be very confusing when lots of people tell you different things and insist that they’re right. What I do is think about all their views, have a look at other people’s prologues, and then write mine the way I want to. Obviously I’ve used prologues here as an example (although this happened to me with mine) but it’s the same with numerous aspects of writing: people have their own way of doing it and you have to figure out your own. Oh and just hope that you find an agent and publisher who like it.

When we submitted work for formal assessment, we had various student discussions about whether to write things according to our own style or whether to try to meet the expectations of our tutors. At MA level I want to be able to do the former but in practice, well, you get the gist … I’ve met a lot of other people who’ve done MAs in Creative Writing and who say the same thing: to get the highest marks you have to write things the way your tutor tells you to.

Fortunately, there are plenty of texts available which explain how to write, and what the various views are on keys issues, but you have to trawl through them and there isn’t one text which covers everything.

The post-graduate office, where we submitted work for formal assessment and collected it once it had been marked.

The FASS post-graduate office, where we submit work for formal assessment and collect it once it’s been marked.

4. Tutors vary in style and what they will offer

It’s stating the obvious but all teachers are different. Two people can respond very differently to the same one. I think that it is important to have writing tutors who are both successful, skilled writers and good teachers. The two don’t necessarily go together. There is no point having a tutor whose prose writing is divine but who is unable to communicate how to write, or who is unable to be encouraging and constructive. Similarly, some tutors are more approachable than others and some more accessible.

Given the fees charged, I expect to be able to make an appointment to see tutors in the department for a proper 20-30 min meeting if I need help with something. If you are planning to start an MA it is worthwhile checking how things work in your institution as, in practice, staff seem to be limited in the time they are able and/or prepared to give. When I did my Psychology degree we were able to make an appointment to see a lecturer in the department even if they weren’t teaching us. I did it numerous times when I need some pointers from an expert on a specific topic or issue. Maybe things have changed.

5. MAs are expensive

When I was researching my MA I saw that fees range from £5,000-10,000. I think it varies depending on the institution and whether it’s distance learning. I wanted to be able to attend seminars and speak to people in person.

You study 4 modules and complete a dissertation. Term starts at the end of September, usually with an enrolment week and then an induction week. Teaching doesn’t start until mid-October. After a few weeks there is reading week, then a few more weeks then it’s the end of term. I was surprised how little teaching hours you get for your money. Maybe this is partly because I’ve been within a school environment for so long and there you feel like the terms just go on forever. Of course, on an MA, the expectation is that you spend a lot of time doing independent study (which I do) but I don’t consider that I pay for this as I do it anyway. I consider I pay for teaching, feedback, access to staff and facilities. On my MA you get two hours contact time a week on each module. When I thought about it I realised that this is the same structure and format as the previous MA I did at the Institute of Education: 4 modules plus dissertation, two hours a week on each module, so perhaps it’s standard.

Conclusions? It is vital to research carefully the MAs on offer and to visit the university. I think it’s also important to be clear about why you want to do one and what you want from it. Some institutions will let you attend lectures and seminars to get a feel for what they’re like. This is a great idea and is definitely worth doing if you are applying before term ends. At the Open Evenings you will get the party line: ‘Come and do your MA here. Ours is the best and everything is perfect’. What you really need is to find people who’ve completed them and get the low-down. Despite being slightly disappointed about some aspects of my MA, I do not regret starting it and have learnt a huge amount. You do have to grow a thick skin but I consider that this is good training for entering the publishing industry. And it is worth remembering that we can be defensive and stubborn about our writing for free if we want to be! So, if you want to learn as much as possible, and you’re going to pay a lot of money on an MA to do so, it’s good to be open to the feedback you get but also to try to develop your ability to weigh up what people say, and also to edit your own work ruthlessly.

Vicky Newham © 2013