Monday, 29 April 2013

Writing Without a Parachute by Barbara Turner-Vesselago

I’m someone who would not be up for jumping from a plane. I was worried that Barbara Turner-Vesselago’s book, Writing Without a Parachute’would give me vertigo, especially with the subtitle The Art of Freefall. But this kind of writing, I discovered as I read, is something I already encourage in my students, and practice myself. ‘Falling into writing’ is something that can benefit every writer. There is no creativity in being tightly held and cautious, especially in the first draft. 

I was slightly relieved, though, to find that there is a safety net within the book. It’s organized into Five Precepts, which guide you; Writing what Comes Up; Not Changing Anything; Specific, Sensual Detail, Following the Energy and Waiting Ten Years. These are pieces of valuable advice which offer a route through the book and allow the words to flow. Each chapter concludes with a set of exercises to get you writing – in themselves they make the book invaluable. 

Vesselago’s writing is ‘mindful’, her freefall writing is ‘with intention’ at all times. I loved her quote...there are no memory police. It’s so easy to get bogged down with ‘head stuff’, such as ‘should I write this…what would my mother say?’ 

Despite the possibility of plummeting to earth, the book offers swathes of practical advice. First up – find a writing partner. I’ve just moved house and had to leave my wonderful writing partner behind; although we still support each other by phone and email. The chapter on A Poet’s Way of Mind is something I feel crucial to good writing, and there are excellent sections on Show, don’t Tell and Dialogue.

Although this might be a good addition to any writers bookcase, I think it’s a particularly necessary read for writers who are just beginning seriously to write, and writers who have got themselves in some sort of writing jam. I got into one of those almost ten years ago now; my solution was to do an MA. It cost me thousands. This book is a lot cheaper and might just do the trick. If in doubt, jump from the plane and fly!

Go to 

to order the book.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Raw Head and Bloody Bones; does an MA in Creative Writing lead to success?

Increasingly, I get emails or letters from my students asking me to supply a reference for an MA programme in creating writing. Occasionally (but not always) they also ask me; will I gain anything from this? Is it worth they money and the time? Will I enjoy the experience? 

Almost without fail, my answer is; you will benefit enormously, both as a writer and a person. And, so long as you love your work to be honestly critiqued and you are the sort of person who would thrive in an academic environment, then, yes you will enjoy yourself. 

Not many people actually ask me what I think of the courses; are they well thought through, have good lecturers, are well laid out? If they do, I respond that I can, of course, only speak for the MA pathway at Bath Spa, and that's changed and grown quite a bit since I was there. Mostly, MA teaching is peer led; the students critique each other's work and the lecturer guides the workshopping experience. Lecturers may also lead workshops that investigate specifics; in my one year course, I did 'Writing for Children and Young Adults', 'Political Writing' and 'The Novel'. There are often extra-curricular events that allow 'networking' with publishers. Most students will create a long work which will be minutely mentored by a single lecturer. All these things build a good MA programme. 

I know this question is in every candidate's mind, but very rarely do they ask me; will my MA get me a contract?

And the answer to that one? Your writing will get you the contract. But you can certainly gain two things; help and mentoring to improve the basic production and a place to focus your mind on getting to the end of a piece of work.

Since I was on the Bath Spa MA programme, I've known several  students get published, but they will be the exceptions, not the rule. First up was Ally Kennon. She completed her book Beast on the MA, and she's gone on to write many books for children and young adults including Sparks and Bullet Boys both in the running for the Guardian Prize.  At the same time, Lucy Christopher finished Flyaway on the MA, and was nominated for the Costa Award, and has also published the acclaimed Stolen.
More recently, a friend of mine from Bristol has completed the MA, is back at Bath Spa to complete a PHd. The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, published by Chatto and Windus, is a startlingly imaginative story set in the world of Henry Fielding. I have described it as 'the thinking man's 50 shades', as one of the major themes in the book is an exploration of the desire to hurt and be hurt, but what stands it apart for me is its 'persona' or 'voice'. Wolf has chosen not to take the usual advice about writing an historical novel, which is to create a tone of voice that 'feels like', but does not emulate, the style of the day. Instead, he takes the speech and writing patterns of the mid 18th Century and runs with them, creating a fascinating first person character that could have stepped out of  Tom Jones - except that this is a darker tale told for the 21st Century..."What I did know, know for certain, was that I had wanted to cause Pain to Lady B. - I had wanted to heal her, too; but I had wanted to hear her Scream... We were Monsters, both of us; or perhaps fallen Angels" It is never perfectly clear if Tristan Hart is totally sane; the call of faerie is never far from his mind and he clearly sees things that others do not, and fears things that the Age of Reason had by then discredited. But at the end of the story, all feels real and substantial. This novel has the feel of a first attempt, but it is a stunning attempt. 

And myself? Weirdly, I didn't take the MA to get published. I was blocked by a book that was doing my head in, and knew I would either give up writing or push myself through it. But since then my published career has gone from strength to strength and I know I learnt masses on the MA that help the process. I also was told on the course, that I might have some skill in teaching - and that's mostly what I thank the staff at Bath Spa for. I love my job as a tutor with the OCA, and, as much as the MA itself, mentoring and tutoring other writers has made me a better writer myself.

I'd love to hear other writer's opinions - and their experience of the MA life. Do you think it's 'worth the money' Do you think most student assume they'll be published afterwards? And was it, as it was for me, the turning point in your writing life?