Creative Writing Courses – Is the Bad Press Fair?

A GUEST POST BY LIZ MONUMENT

Before I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA, I’d written several novels, none of them to a publishable standard. But instead of getting progressively better, I seemed to have reached a glass ceiling I couldn’t break through. The worst thing was, I had no idea why. I’d published non-fiction and competition-winning short stories under my belt, and my novels seemed to begin OK, but the endings repeatedly fell flat. Cost or not, an MA seemed to be the last option I had before I accepted that I was doomed to fail. This is every writer’s biggest fear: the monster that lurks under the bed; the shadow that sneaks into your darkest thoughts as it dawns on you that you might just not be up to the job after all… and I had to find out.

Only a few weeks into my MA, I realised that I’d been writing the kind of fiction I thought I should write, rather than the kind of fiction I really needed to write. My novel endings were hollow because I simply hadn’t gone the extra mile to make my fictional worlds vivid enough. As an experiment, I wrote a test piece to assess my tutor’s and peer-group’s reaction, and was delighted to find they had as much fun as I did venturing into my make-believe world. From that moment onwards, I began to concentrate on Sci Fi Fantasy, something I’d not written since childhood. I’ve never looked back.

The MA’s critiquing process worked, for me, far better than slogging away alone hour after hour. Two years of part-time study later, my MA novel was shortlisted for a competition and signed by an agent. But, without the camaraderie of my critique group and the wise comments of my tutor, I felt adrift. So, the following year, I returned to university to begin a PhD in Creative Writing. Six months in, and I’m back in my comfort zone – in fact, I’m positively thriving on the experience. I’m exploring women in Sci Fi Fantasy, and writing a dystopian novel in which I’m being encouraged to push boundaries and experiment freely. This is what creative practice should be all about. My tutors were, and are, published novelists, poets and short story writers with a plethora of industry awards to their names. And between them, they have a huge amount of educational experience. Just because you write doesn’t mean that you can teach people to write, so publishing and teaching skills are essential for good tutors. So, I simply don’t agree with the angry voices in the aether who blog or post that CW courses are over-priced and pointless. I sometimes wonder whether those dissatisfied customers resent the fact that their MA taught them they don’t make the grade as professional writers. After all, it’s a fact that not everybody with a Creative Writing MA goes on to get published.

So why do we need CW courses at all?

In the old days, an agent would pick up a new writer and would be prepared to work with that writer for up to two years, to produce a polished debut. Then, things changed. A couple of serious recessions impacted the publishing industry, and the internet altered the nature of publishing. Publishers became more risk averse, and agents followed their lead. Today, agents will only take on a novelist who is ready to be put straight out into the public arena. In other words, authors have to do their training somewhere, and the system has conspired to ensure this is at the author’s cost (both in terms of time and money) rather than at anybody else’s. Case in point, Robert McKee (Story, Methuen, 1999) notes that apprenticeships used to exist in the world of film writing. They don’t any more. So, welcome the Creative Writing course…

Now take a look at the Universities who run the majority of CW programmes. I studied for my degree in the days when every UK citizen was entitled to state funding. Student loans were only introduced in my final year (and the maximum amount you could take at that time was £350). Today, Universities are run in a different way. Students take out huge debts to study, and universities have to balance their books, which means courses have to appeal to applicants who will be paying out of their own pockets. And what better way than offering would-be writers the chance to realise what is, for many of us, a long-chased dream. Education is no longer simply a system: today, it is an industry, and universities are smart enough to use it to cash in on those dreams.

You may have read that Stephany Meyer wrote Twilight in three months flat. Combine this with the maxim that ‘everybody has a novel in them,’ and you’ve a heady combination of possibility and promise aimed at the would-be writer. Of course, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that it actually took Meyer ten years to write Twilight, with only the final edit being put together in three months. As I writer, I know it is simply not true to say that anybody can write a novel to a publishable standard, but it’s fair to point out that if most people think they can, then English departments have a guaranteed audience for CW courses. So there you have it. A simple equation, but an equation non-the-less. Add to this the fact that on-line (distance learning) courses have answered the demand for students to keep costs down by studying from home, and you can see why, at the end of 2011, an internet search for CW on-line tuition brought up only two distance learning courses whereas two years later, the same search listed a screen-full of possibilities. Now, in 2015, there are even more. So, if the education industry is providing what we as consumers are asking it for, can we really complain?

I can only talk about my own experience, and it’s been extremely positive. I perform best with repeated reviews of my work, intelligent and structured comments from a feedback group, the overarching guidance of a supervisor, and a recommended reading list. Yes, it’s true you can learn to edit your own work (you have to!) and trawl websites for book reviews but for me, that’s never been a substitute. Every writer benefits from mentoring at some stage in their career. I wouldn’t change my path one bit. I remain a champion of Creative Writing courses, and of distance learning. I’m sure I would’ve got there in the end, but I have no doubt that my MA shaved two or more years off the process. Long may the CW course continue!

Liz Monument is a novelist and PhD student at Lancaster University. Her novel, The Eternity Fund, is published as an audio exclusive by Amazon Audible on the 17th February.

www.lizmonument.com

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Where Have You Been?

Last year I started a full time post at Lancaster University, and have been working on my next book, and it kind of feels I haven’t done that much, but if I list things can see I’ve not just been spending my time, lying on my couch an stroking my infamous cat. Here’s a few writing things I’ve been up to:

I gave an evening address and ran a workshop at Swannick Writers Summer School because they liked my post on ‘how much wine to drink before an event’. This is a photo of the participants busy doing a writing exercise in the workshop and a photo of some peas we had at dinner.

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I ran two creative writing workshops for PEN/Help for Heroes. PEN has started a new initiative of running CW workshops at Tedworth House with soldiers who have returned from Afghanistan and are recovering from wounds and trauma. The sessions were difficult but very rewarding. I’ll write another post about the workshops and therapeutic writing. After the first session, Tedworth House and the soldiers sent me a lovely thank you card.

I also attended the TRUCE workshop at the ECAL Conference in Sicily. I got together with scientist Andy Philippines to write my story, ‘Key Note’ for the Beta Life anthology. This story is about a pair of scientists who decide to experiment on their children by making them into a kind of ‘hive mind’ or collective intelligence. Andy’s research is possibly the most benign things ever done to ants in a lab (they live longer than in the wild) but my story is pretty dark, and written in the voice of a scientist in 2070. I haven’t gone easy on the science so I’ve offered a pint to anyone who can finish it.

Last year I hosted the Manchester launch of Sylvia Pankhurst: Feminist, Socialist, Scourge of Empire at the People’s History Museum. An excellent biography of an amazing revolutionary life. She was always at odds with the politics of the day, always two steps ahead. Catherine Connelly is also a wonderful speaker, historian, and activist. Yeah, she’s great. Sylvia

An equally impressive writer, activist and journalist is Tansy E Hoskins. I hosted the Manchester launch of her first book: Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of FashionTansy interrogates the relationship between the fashion and the planet and our bodies. She asks why  nothing has changed since the Rana Plaza disaster, and asks what hope there is for rebelling against it. Does ethical fashion work? Tansy is an inspiring speaker. It was great to meet her. Tansy is one to watch.

I managed a few readings from various drafts of my new book, and from The War Tour. I read at Arvon’s Lumb Bank. It’s such a beautiful old house, I want to live there always. I especially enjoyed the event with Withington Girls High School. One of them will hopefully end up as Prime Minister. They asked the most astute and insightful questions about The War Tour that I’ve ever had. Last week I went to the school to talk to them about WW1 alongside speakers from the Peoples History Museum and Manchester Art Gallery. I was pretty nervous about this event, but in the end there was not much time for me to speak. But I might go back again soon.

Last year I went to London (the SOUTH! Exciting!) to read at What’s The Story run by Cathy Galvin at the Society Club Shop Soho. This was a cosy venue, and a lovely, warm night. I also read at Manchester’s Bad Language, then the annual Manchester Book Market, which promotes independent publishing in the NW. Then World Book Night and a one off of classic the Manchester night: No Point Not Being Friends. That was more than enough readings. I find it hard to read from work in progress. It can go so wrong. But it can also be a great testing ground for new work, and the recent events have really encouraged me in my new book, The Quiet Longing. This book has not been easy to write, but for reasons I’ll explain, for me, really needs to be written.  

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Taking Over the Library – Chaos to Order

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This is my new site!!! I have absolutely no idea how to use word press, so just trying to work it out as I go along. It turned out you have to pay if you want some colour or anything remotely nice on it. Hopefully it will get me going again. But I wouldn’t bet too much money on it.

I thought I’d start by updating on the fun we’ve had this week at the library. The band Everything Everything colonised Manchester Library with theatre, comedy, music and literature, all exploring the theme of chaos to order. Above is Josie Long, who performed on Tuesday to a full audience. I’d got my a ticket last minute and was confused between Josephine and Josie Long, and was expecting her to start singing. But she didn’t.  Instead, she was very, very funny. She has managed to convince most of the audience to help her stop Farage winning a seat in her hometown. Her plan is to  by organise thousands of people to move there for the election, and then all vote Green. But don’t tell the Green candidate, mind. No, let her think she will lose again, and have a lovely surprise. Then we can all leave afterwards.

Emma Jane Unsworth was the writer in residence, terrorising people in the cafe each lunch time by reading Frank O’Hara poems, appearing on Radio 6, which was recorded there today, and organising the Manchester Fiction Showcase. I was in that one, with Chris Killen, reading from his second novel, as well as Kerry Wilkinson, children and crime writer from Preston. None of us had met him before but he has about fifteen books in the pipeline. Kerry gave a powerpoint (who doesn’t like a powerpoint?) on the writing process and chaos prior to publishing, including email exchanges with his agent. Chris Killen was profound on the meaningless of existence. I read an excerpt from my new novel. It’s the bit I’ve read a couple of times this summer but tbh the rest of my novel is a bloody mess. I had another bit to read on being a communist but I paused, and thought ‘I could just get off this damn stage right now’. The event had overrun a bit and this was all the excuse I needed. Emma read from her new novel. A brilliantly witty teenage girl. Can’t wait to read more. 10805741_472473536224031_8293600422030764122_n

That’s me reading, my face looking kind of angry. Photos when reading always look pretty bloody weird.

Last night Josephine presented ‘Celluloid History Films’. Songs composed to films produced by Kim May from footage from North West Films Archive. The films were of working class people at the beginning of the century having fun, on days out to Blackpool, dancing and generally finding a bit of chaos in very ordered lives. I can’t quite describe how beautiful they were. Utterly spellbinding. As soon as the first song began I started crying. But then I cry at most dog videos on youtube. Here you can see one of the images, but they were also projected onto two of the walls. I think Josephine is going to perform them elsewhere. Just thinking of it makes me teary….1454867_472459436225441_9040172248787090188_n

My Next Book

This is a crime against blogging, but it’s been a year since my last entry. I started a full time job at Lancaster exactly a year ago… and a few other things went to pot. Like this blog. But other things have gone much better.

After publishing The War Tour, I’ve been working on a novel, well kind of novel. The War Tour, was, for obvious reasons, rather far from my own experience (though as I have discussed elsewhere, things are more complex than that). But my second book stems much more directly from the experience of illness and disability and the role as carer. In many ways, these issues have shaped my life. And I want issues that have stemmed from this to be at the centre of my next book.

How I go about that has changed over the past year; the way this kind of material is fictionalised, the form, the approach, has gradually morphed with each word I wrote. Things are now coming together. The structure of this book is more cohesive than my first collection. But there is still something fragmentary about it. I’m still attracted to different stories bumping up against each other, but those connections this time are much more novelistic.

Notes to Self Prior to a Year of Events

a) the two-glass wine hypothesis will prove to be correct.

b) events are very tiring, especially one hour lunchtime readings where you have to keep talking for exactly ONE HOUR. This is a long period of time. Don’t expect any sympathy for this.

c) it’s OK if only your parents turn up. Seriously. And remember this doesn’t reflect on you; it reflects ON SOCIETY AROUND YOU. Think this as you go over your two-glass wine limit. At lunchtime.

d) you never know what event organisers will do, such as decide to include a random poet in your event, who cries at her own poems. If this happens, don’t expect any questions from the audience and don’t expect anyone to buy any books.

e) never try to leave a music festival at 7 am on the Sunday morning to go to another festival. You will want to cry. You will cry. You will miss seeing New Order.

f) there are actually mosquitoes in Wales, and they bite through tights.

g) a one person tent is meant for one person.

h) it’s perfectly OK to BYO wine to events.

i) if you do too many readings, you will certainly get Event Fatigue. This is similar to Compassion Fatigue. You will certainly never want to open your book again. You may even be cruel to it.

j) Swansea is very far but you can get there and back from Manchester in a day.

h) Throckmortons’ Festival has its own butler

i) if you spend a weekend at Throckmortons where you don’t even have to pour your own drinks, your nail polish won’t chip at all

i) Boris Johnson’s dad is a really nice guy

j) you tube recordings of you reading are a bad idea. But there is nothing you can do to stop their proliferation.

k) don’t attempt to drive yourself to events. At some point you will actually be driven by a chauffeur. Unfortunately, it won’t ever be in a limousine.

l) if anyone takes a photo while you are reading, you are going to look like a goldfish:

(c Paul McVeigh)

The War Tour on Tour and exactly how much wine to drink before a reading

Reading out your work in front of people for the purpose of their entertainment is a daunting prospect for any writer.  It is probably not advisable to resort to dancing, juggling or doing card tricks to deflect attention from your prose. What you should do is practice. A lot. And secondly, you should know exactly how much alcohol is needed for a smooth delivery.The right amount will get you talking and make you less self-conscious. Too much and you will be slurring into the microphone and including embarrassing jokes.
So, after a lot of study and many years of practice, I have come to the conclusion that the right amount is exactly what the governement health people advise for daily consumption, which is a maximum for 2-3 units, which works out as 1-2 medium glasses. This also depends on the time of day. Two glasses of wine first thing in the morning might be a slippery slope, so it’s best to use your judgement there. But a hip flask of whisky can liven up an instant coffee at a library reading. I am not advocating being drunk at readings. This only leads to regret. You know it. I know it. But sometimes we just never learn…

NEWCASTLE – TUE 12 SEP 7pm
Litmus at the Lit and Phil
Sara Maitland, Zoe Lambert and Christine Poulson
The Lit & Phil plays host to an evening of science and semi-fiction.. Sara Maitland reads and discusses her story about the often overlooked astronomer, Henrietta Swann Leavitt, a woman who despite being un known at the her death changed the face of astronomy with her discovery of the period-luminosity relation – a yard stick for measuring distances in space. Zoe Lambert talks about Lise Meitner – the first scientist to identify nuclear fission (one caricatured by a US journalist as ‘the woman who left Germany with Bomb in her purse.’ Whilst Christine Poulson discusses the moment when American biologist Kary Mullis, driving home late one night, dreamt up a way of revolutionising DNA research.”

We will be staying in a hotel afterwards so I hope Sara and Christine like to party. 

Lit & Phil Library, 23 Westgate Road, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE1 1SE. 

 Festival Number 6 @ Portmeirion

Notes From the Edge
The Central Piazza         
Friday 14th September 
4.20pm-5.15pm   
“Four writers read from their work and discuss how and where it finds common ground. Maria Roberts’ best-selling memoir Single Mother on the Verge explores the trials of living with an eco-warrior. Award-winning novelist Emma Jane Unsworth’s fiction features characters often drawn to the darker side of themselves. Shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize, Zoe Lambert’s short story collection The War Tour gives voice to women in situations of conflict all over the world, while journalist Alison Taylor’s edgy dating memoir The Still Single Papers “makes Bridget Jones’ Diary read like a Saga holiday brochure” (John Niven).”
This is going to be a great event. I am worried I will be late because I’m still trying to put up my brother’s high tech mountaineering tent. Or I might just be lost somewhere in Wales. But I hope I get there. The line up for the festival is AMAZING. 

 
ALDERLEY EDGE – SUN 16 SEP
Zoe Lambert at the Alderley Edge Community Book Festival
I’ll be reading in a line-up that contains Jackie Kay, Melvin Burgess and Mike Garry.
 Organised by Oxfam.
Reading Room, Festival Hall, Talbot Road, Alderley Edge, Cheshire SK9 7HR.
More information here.
2pm.

I will be coming straight from Festival 6 so expect wellies, mud, and messy hair. I hope I will be able to string a sentence together and not lost somewhere in Wales.

CHORLTON – FRI 21 SEP
Kagyu Ling Cultural Programme presents The War Tour by Zoe Lambert.
‘The event starts at 7.30pm with a welcome cocktail. Free but donations are welcome on door.
Kagyu Ling Buddhist Centre, 45 Manor Drive, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester, M21 7QG.
More information from Jessica Frye on 0161 850 4450 or culture[at]kagyuling.org.uk.’

Yes, it does say a free cocktail.

SUN 23 SEP
Zoe Lambert at Throckmorton Literary Festival.
Throckmorton Literary Festival at Coughton Court, Warwickshire.
More information about the festival here. 9.45am. Georgina Harding, David Starkey and Rachel Seiffert are also reading over the weekend.

I am not sure where this festival is, but it sounds wonderful. It’s in a very old hall, with a Jacobean staircase and I am staying over in it because my reading is in the morning. I hope there’s a four poster bed. 

 DIDSBURY ARTS FESTIVAL SAT 29 SEP
BORDER FICTION with Jane Rogers, Zoe Lambert and Michelle Green

‘Comma Press presents three exciting authors, whose short story collections cross personal and political borders. Jane Rogers’ new collection, Hitting Trees with Sticks, ranges from Uganda to Australia to the West Indies, taking in love, death, and Alan Turing along the way. Zoe Lambert’s The War Tour paints a picture of the world’s conflict zones, giving voice to the silenced casualties. Michelle Green’s forthcoming Jebel Marra, explores the complexities of the on-going war in Darfur through the eyes of aid workers and the people involved. Didsbury Baptist Church, Beaver Road. Manchester, M20 6SX.

6.30pm-9pm.
Part of the Didsbury Arts Festival.

I am calling us The Comma Girls.

Friday 12th October:  For Books Sake 2nd Birthday Bash!
The Star and Garter
I’ll be reading my zombie and caravanning story from Short Stack and dressed to the nines in red and white poker dots.
Also reading will be Emma Jane Unsworth, Clare Robertson and Les Malheureux, and they all know exactly how much wine to drink. 
Details here

LANCASTER – SUN 21 OCT Zoe Lambert and Jo Baker: The Right to Imagine

These two North West writers explore elements of war within their story-telling. This event brings you two readings and a short discussion on the act of creating fiction around events that may not be so close to home.
Lancaster LitFest
The LICA Building
Lancaster University
Visit LitFest.org
4.30pm

WED 24 OCTZoe Lambert at Chester Literature Festival
Chester Town Hall, Northgate Street, Chester CH1 2HJ .
1-2pm.
 More info here.
See how serious my photo looks next to Andrew Motion. Very serious indeed.  

LONDON – SAT 27 OCTZoe Lambert with Adam Marek, David Vann and Chris Paling
The Stone ThrowerThe Story Salon 3, at the society club
12 Ingestre Place, Soho London, W1F OJF
6pm-8pm.

I am really looking forward to this event. I bet the guys are scared about reading with me.

BLACKPOOL – TUE 13 NOV
Zoe Lambert in Conversation with Eleanor Rees at Wordpool

I’ll be reading with Liverpool poet, Eleanor Rees and discussing place and locality in our writing. We tend to talk about vintage dresses a lot, so this may come up too.
more info to follow.

Dylan Thomas Festival (note to self – check date)
reading with Edge Hill Prize shortlisted writers, Rowena Macdonald and AJ Ashworth.
more details to follow.

This is in Wales again. Perhaps I’ll still be lost in Wales finding my way to Festival 6. This is not unlikely.

How not to talk on the radio

No one gives you media training if you’re a writer, so I thought I’d share the mistakes I made on Women’s Hour, BBC radio Manchester, ALL FM and EL FM.

1. Don’t expect the actual interview to be anything like the discussion you had with the producer. It won’t be. Producers want to find out as much as they can about your work; they will ask nice open questions so you will feel at ease. In an interview, the point is getting an angle so the questions won’t be as nearly as nice, especially on radio 4.

2. If the interviewer starts widening her eyes at you, it means ‘SHUT UP’ so she can ask you another question. Don’t under any circumstances pause and then ask ‘excuse me?’ which I did on Women’s Hour.

3. Do copy politicians on the Today programme: go in with a sound bite, and get it in, no matter what they ask. Michelle Green, who was on Women’s Hour with me, did that with a quotation, and it was probably the best part of the interview.

4. Make sure you mention the name of your publisher or where the book is available. I completely forgot to do this on BBC radio Manchester. 

5. If you are shortlisted for a prize, remember to mention it too, which I forgot to do on EL FM.

6. In general, they will always always ask if the book is about you. If it isn’t, they won’t understand how it is possible to write anything not about yourself. You will have to think of a reason for not writing a book all about yourself and defend this terrible action. If your book is all about yourself, you are going to have to make a full confession about your life. Remember, interviewers aren’t interested in the book; they want the human story.

7. Make sure you know exactly where your book came from. If in doubt, invent an amusing anecdote about when you had your first inspiration. This always goes down well. My long explanations of the origins of The War Tour were dull and probably brought on the ‘eye widening’ moment.

8. If you have a cold or cough, like I had on WH, don’t worry; the adrenelin of being on the radio will make your cough magically disappear. Do sip a hot toddie in the studio. No one will know.

9. If you can bear it, listen to yourself afterwards. I have never done this. If I did I’d probably never get out of bed again. But it might have improved my interviews.

10. If you can organise it, do local or community stations first; the interview will be more relaxed and friendlier. My interviewers on ALL FM and ELFM were warm and supportive and lovely.In fact, community radio, I salute you!

11. Don’t worry too much if your tights have a massive hole in them, like mine had for EL FM. It’s the radio.

12. Make sure you ask reliable friends who are good at lying to listen in and tell you how amazing it was. Don’t not tell anyone and then go home feeling sorry for yourself (yes I did this).