Term 1, Week 5: MA Creative Writing Summary

Week 5 dealt with dramatic writing; that is understanding the concept of ‘character’ in dramatic writing and also to understand what it means to be characters ourselves.

The keywords for this week included (being a) character, motivation, complexity and subtext. Building on these, the themes for the week related to understanding the ways in which we are all characters, how we write with (and for) actors and also paradoxes where a character can seemingly have two conflicting traits.

A video presented by a guest tutor, Dr Paul Elsam, summarised dramatic writing really well. He stated that we often write privately for ourselves and we do have control over that but, with dramatic writing, you have to write with an expectation that someone else will get hold of your work further on through the process. Due to this, Paul suggests that what he does is ‘incomplete writing’ as he purposely leaves gaps that can be used as interpretation for others. Furthermore, there is a suggestion that we should also think about how we can leave clues in our writing for others to use when they perform, or act out, our work. It can be a fine line between actors feeling as if they’ve not got anything to work with and feelingn like they’re being preached to from the page.

Another part of the presentation discussed the use of character profile sheets as a way to model / capture the details of each of our main characters. Having spent many school holidays in the 1980’s playing Dungeons & Dragons, I felt much more at ease with this type of work (although I found the part where I had to come up with a character sheet on myself somewhat difficult.)  I use Scrivener to write a lot of my stories and I do quite often use the character sheet templates in there.

The writing exercises were a variation on the character profile sheet work extended to include characters from our own stories. Moreover, we were asked to bring two new characters together and to write a conversation between them – I enjoyed this aspect of the week and thought it tied back to the previous couple of weeks quite well. The final exercise was to free-write in the voice of a character and try to come up with a ten minute dramatic monologue.

Supporting readings and excerpts for this week include the very informative ‘what I’m really thinking’ which is a very tongue-in-cheek view at what people in certain roles actually think about their colleagues / customers but were far too polite to actually say. I do like the one about the student adviser who finished with this wonderful set of statements, ‘If you’re polite to me, I may let you bring me your application five minutes after the office officially closed. If you’re not, I probably won’t. That is a life lesson that doesn’t come in the lecture hall. Please don’t treat administrative staff as if we are less clever than you. I have a PhD, too.

I sent in a short story called, Steal of the Night, for a workspace critique. It will be interesting to read what others in the writing group think next week.


Term 1, Week 4: MA Creative Writing Summary

Whilst Week 3 was all about writing as seeing, week 4 focused more on writing as hearing, basically it was about voice and dialogue. Keywords included voice, point of view, tone and truth.

The themes for this week were around how we should take more time out to listen, to hear what other people are saying, and to try and understand what gives people their own voice. There was also a section around transcribing which covered how we capture voice on a page and how to understand what to include and what can be left out. For me, this is a very interesting subject as I tend to struggle a lot with dialogue. For imagery I know that huge pages of description are often frowned upon (and that’s me coming from an Epic Fantasy reading background), however, dialogue is different – whilst a tree in a book often looks like a tree in real life, it’s not always the best idea to write dialogue as if it’s actually being spoken. I’ll put a separate post about this in the near future but, for now, just assume that this is something that I’ve always found difficult.

As I expected, I found the writing exercises fun, but difficult. Examples of this were trying to free-write in the voice of someone you know. It did state not to think too much about it but I couldn’t help but feel I was thinking too hard as an average of 10 words per minute flashed back at me from my monitor. A further example which I did find interesting was to listen in on conversations in busy places, such as a cafe or a bus and to ‘transcribe’ these conversations in a notebook. It is interesting to identify what bits you miss out, such as swearing and localised terms.

As part of the reading list, I read an excerpt of a book called Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley (interestingly, she shared the same birthday as me!) and I found it really inspiring, especially at how Grace’s voice came through from the page. Each time I read it I felt as if I was in a chair whilst she talked to me. I know it would have gone through various phases of edits and re-writes but it still came across so natural.

I’d written a few things for the workspace forums at this point but as it was new (and there was a rush from everyone to submit some work) I chose to hold off mine for this week.

Term 1, Week 3: MA Creative Writing Summary

Week3 focused on writing with a view to seeing rather than just writing from our imagination.  Our keywords for this week were really-looking, image-making, describing and roaming.

The themes for this week were based around us, as writers, choosing to slow things down and to spend more time just watching the world go by in whatever way we wished. I personally spent more time out walking the dog and turned off the Ipod.  The idea here being that there is inspiration all around us for our writing, not only for the ideas but the actual depth of our writing and it can come from just spending time taking everything in.

One of the videos introduced us to a photographer from the university called Jim Poyner.  In the video Jim described a technique that he calls ‘roaming’.  This technique is simply Jim taking his camera out at night and taking picures of anything that takes his fancy (within reason).  There is no planning or pretext with this process, it’s simply Jim and his camera.  What is interesting here is the sheer wonderful images that he’s been able to take that are able to inspire almost anyone to come up with an idea for a short story, or an image that could be weaved into one.  Examples here would be an old wooden door that was part of a crumbling wall, or a picture of a child’s rope-swing taken at night in all its stillness.

The writing exercises for this week comprised of doing our own roaming as per Jim Poyner’s suggestion and also something called ‘Skyspace’.  This is an exercise where you choose a window through which you can see the sky and then spend a few days looking through it and write about what changes you see. I chose one of my conservatory windows and it was interesting to look back after a few days and see just how many things I noted, especially when I tend to think of that as a static view most of the time. It rained during that time and the way it hit the puddles reminded me of how Virginia Woolf described the rain on a pond in her diary, ‘The pond is covered with little white thorns; springing up and down: the pond is bristling with leaping white thorns, like the thorns on a small porcupine.’

An addition to this week was the introduction of the workspace forum. This is a forum where the tutor asks for writing submissions and then we critique it as a group.  It’s a great way to see not only what people think of your work but also what other people are writing about.  I do have concerns that there seem to be few fantasy/sci-fi writers on my course as many of the submissions are poetry or more contemporary writing but it is interesting to read nevertheless.

Term 1, Week 1: MA Creative Writing Summary

Week 1 was all about getting started and the key words for this week were very much aligned to the topic; being able to let go, uncertainty and being able to make mistakes.

The underlying themes built on the keywords by exploring how I can let go of the idea, or view, of the writer that I think I should be, and rewrite this into a vision of what kind of writer I can be.  This is made easier by addressing those thoughts about the kind of writing that I think I should do and just get used to pure writing without editing, crafting or analysing.  This brings in the idea of the ‘flow’ which is how we feel when the words just come through us and onto the paper, something that the writing exercises for this week enabled me to experience. This idea of flow was extended through a reading from “Creativity: the psychology of discovery and invention”. The final theme was that of rituals, or habits, that I should try out to see what works and what doesn’t when it comes down to my time for writing.

The writing exercises were based around the idea that I should learn to write without prejudice, and by that I mean without any external factors influencing it. This is the idea of ‘flow’ and I’m sure most people know that feeling when they’re in the ‘flow’ and all the words just keep coming.  There was an exercise on freewriting where you just write anything without pausing, crossing out or deleting and also an extension to that called ‘timed’ writing which was very similar although you set your freewriting against a timer.  Another exercise was to focus on a particular object and write whatever you want about it.

Like Doctor Who, I’m now able to travel back in time to a post back in October when I put up my first free-writing exercise here and here.

Each of these exercises, when done correctly, just got me used to putting something on the page (which is often the most difficult thing for some writers). Of course I was able to share my output in a discussion forum which not only gave me an insight into what the rest of the workgroup had done, but it also provided me with some reaction to my own writing.  Ironically, I found it quite difficult to present comments on other people’s writing when it had purposely been written without any real though behind it.

What I found more interesting about this week was the idea of ritual; being able to do something that often that is becomes a habit and something that you then continue to do almost without thought. I’ve always found it difficult to just sit down and write and, being a procrastinator, I’m an expert at finding something else to do.  If my desk is untidy, I’ll tidy it first and if it’s already tidy, I’ll just check some emails / websites etc.  What this week taught me, through some readings from a book called, “The Creative Habit; learn it and use it for life; a practical guide” was that there is never really a perfect time to do anything.  All I can do is work toward something as close to perfect and then just get on with it.  The example given was a dancer who had to get up early to go to the gym every morning.  Interestingly, it wasn’t working in the gym that was the habit, but the actual process of calling the taxi to get to the gym.  The author suggested that the action of ringing the taxi was the point of no return and, by doing that, they knew they’d have to go to the gym anyway.

This instilled in me the desire to set a habit of my own that I could choose to initiate or not; the only rule was that whenever I did initiate it, I’d stick to it. So, I now have a candle and a lamp on my desk.  If I’m in the dark, I put the lamp on and if I want the room to smell like ‘Hansel’s and Gretel’s House’ I’ll light the candle.  But, when I’m serious about writing, I light the candle AND put the lamp on.  When I do this all non-writing tasks get put on hold; no TV, no music, no Youtube and no Internet. This becomes my writing time and anything I do during this period has to be writing-related.

Although this summary is from a period in time from October, my ritual has continued to work upto the present day. I’ve mostly used the ritual to drive my writing but I have, on occasion, found myself sitting down to write without the candle or the lamp which can only be considered a good thing.

Is there any point in collecting books?

I found this on the BBC Website a couple of days ago.  It’s a post about whether collecting books is, in itself, worth doing anymore.

I collect books; rather I collect Tolkien books. I have done ever since my mum bought me an old paperback box-set of The Lord of the Rings sometime in the late 1970’s. I soon picked up the rest of the more common titles, Silmarillion, Hobbit, Farmer Giles of Ham, Tree and Leaf etc.  But the collecting bug really hit me when I got another copy of Lord of the Rings albeit with a different cover.  My mum mentioned something about me having already read the story inside, but it was the look of the book that I liked, so she bought it for me and, although I never read it, it took pride of place (for a while) on my bookshelf.

Over the years, I’ve been searching out the different editions from each year just so I can pop them on the bookshelf and tell myself “that’s another year you’ve got nailed!”. I don’t read any of them, I barely open them apart from checking the edition year and number.  I keep lists of years where I’m missing a boxset, or a particular part of the trilogy and I track gaps in the calendars and desk diaries that I used to get as presents each Christmas. I did have around a thousand books until the turn of the century when a certain Peter Jackson released the Lord of the Rings trilogy so I’ve ‘had’ to extend my collection to include videos, DVDs, posters, board-games, trading cards, plastic characters etc. Fortunately, the hype over the movies has now died down (including The Hobbit) and I don’t know how many items I’ve now got.  However I do know it easily fills five bookcases, three draws and countless shelves and boxes around the house.

It’s a pointless exerice, I know that.  I’ll never finish and I know I’ll never get them all simply because the older ones are expensive and are becoming increasingly difficult to find.  I once watched an episode of The Osbournes and was so jealous of Ozzie’s son, Jack because he had a first edition of the Lord of the Rings on his bookshelf in his bedroom.  I know he’ll never love those books as much as I would, yet I know I can never afford to have them. (Jack, if you do read this and you’re bored with the books, give me a shout and I’ll pay the postage to ship them to the UK!)

Returning back to the piece on the BBC website, I don’t think the question about whether it’s worthwhile still collecting books can be truly answered – why should it just be about books? All sorts of people collect all manner of things; Pokemon, stamps, cars, thimbles – the list does go on and on.  I think the reasons that drive many of us collectors on are far from easy to quatify, and even harder to justify. For some it will be financial drive, for others it could just be nostalgia. It really will depend on the individual.

For me?  Well, my drive is a mixture of the love of the books and the stories themselves.  But it’s also more than that, it was something that a young boy and his mum could discuss, something we could chat about and, as I grew up, my collection grew with me; it became a symbol of my relationship with my mum. Even when I could afford to buy my own books, my mum always loved wandering around car-boot sales, or second-hand shops and she was never more proud than when she’d come around and show me a book that I hadn’t got. She often joked that the collection was more hers than it was mine.

Now that my mum has passed away, I’ve lost that particular link to my collection and I have to admit the collection has slowed; the bond will never go away but it’s more fragile than it once was.  However new connections do form; it’s now become something to catalogue and work through and I still keep an eye out for that rare 1940’s Hobbit with the unusual cover or the final edition of the unauthorised ACE trilogy from the 60’s. You never know, they may just turn up one day and there’s always a space for them in my bookcases.


End of Term #1 – Creative Writing MA Summary

Wow, it’s all gone so quick, where has all the time gone? I had planned and putting out a more detailed weekly update on the blog, but work and study have meant I struggled to do it so I’ve opted for a summary of each week which I hope to get out over the next eight days or so.

I have to admit that I’ve really enjoyed this term and found it great to be back in the discussion forums and workspaces with other authors.  As writing can often be quite a solitary task, I do tend to miss being somewhat interactive and being able to see how other authors write, and think, about a particular subject gives you an insight into the workings of other minds.

Moreover, our online tutor, interviewed a number of other people during the term and I got to see how the creative mind works in other mediums, such as script/play writing and photography.  Being able to fire questions out to these guests and pull out some invaluable answers was an excellent way to find out about these mediums worked, something that I’d never really been exposed to.

The reading list for this course is HUGE and although I’ve been told I don’t need to read every book on the list (and many excerpts / books are provided in the online library) I do have an an old dusty shelf that needs to be kept occupied.  Second-hand, almost all the books cost me less than £50 which isn’t too expensive and pales into significance when you consider the costs for the MA itself, as well as the time I’ve chosen to invest in it.

The term culminated in a piece of graded writing split into two parts; a Manifesto, which I plan to put on the blog once it’s been marked, and a piece of prose for which I re-wrote the first chapter of my novel based on the techniques and skills that I’d picked up.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable eight weeks that has flown by and I can’t wait for term #2, Writing and the Self to begin.