clhollandwriter: (Default)
While I was writing the other posts, I had some ideas that didn't fit anywhere else so here they are in the final post in the series.

Talk to Other Students
On a taught MA there would be other students to talk to, and online courses often have associated forums. You could join a local writing group or, if looking for something more specific to your interests, there are plenty of free online writing groups and forums based round specific genres. There are also organisations you could join and use to meet and network with like-minded writers, such as SCWBI for children's writers, although many of these aren't free and some have requirements like qualifying sales.

Set Yourself Homework
Although you'll probably have a main project, you might decide to start it after some initial reading or want some shorter exercises for a change of pace. There are many books out there that offer creative writing exercises, without having to get bogged down. Some I've seen recommended are Steering the Craft by Ursula LeGuin, Now Write! edited by Sherry Ellis, and The Creative Writing Coursebook edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs (full disclosure - I haven't tried these, although I do own all three).

Be Flexible
Life happens. You might find yourself faced with illness or moving house, and that can throw the best made plans into chaos. The beauty of setting your own timescales is you can park the study if needs be - without losing thousands of pounds in tuition fees! There's nothing to stop you shifting the emphasis onto reading for a month, or making notes for your project, or extending your timeline by an extra six weeks. There's nothing to stop you deciding you've made a wrong turn, and you don't want to write a short story collection retelling Bible stories from the point of view of rabbits after all. The important thing is to keep moving forward with your goals, however you can.
clhollandwriter: (Default)
This one's for poets - a free course at edX, The Art of Poetry. It's an archived course, which mean there isn't a class community, but does mean it can be done at your own pace.
clhollandwriter: (Default)
I was originally going to post about this first, but then it occurred to me that how long you need is likely to depend on what the subject matter is. Investigating all the myriad subgenres of speculative fiction is likely to take longer than if you're only interested in Steampunk.

There are three way you could go about picking a deadline.
1. Decide how long you want to spend on it, and pick your books and areas of study to fit the time available. It's all too easy to look at a genre from outside, or even one you're familiar with, and see so much to learn that it leads to being overwhelmed and choice paralysis. It's also easy to decide to do All The Things, make a reading list and to do pile that will take the rest of your life, and then make yourself miserable failing to do it. Setting yourself a deadline should help with this.
2. Decide on what you want to get done and set a timescale based on it. This is the NaNoWriMo approach - "I will write 50k in 30 days!" If you know you want to write a 70k novel and read X number of books, you can plan around how many words you can write and books you can read to figure out how long it should take.
3. Decide on what you want to do, but leave it open-ended. This is actually not an approach I'd recommend. Time is finite but procrastination is infinite. Picking an end date means that choices have to be made about where this thing is going, rather than just planning it forever and never actually starting. Or finishing.

The important thing is to work with the free time you have - a writer with a full time job and three kids is likely to have less free time than one with no kids and/or no full time job. Some days it's just not possible to write, because of work, family, or general life commitments. That's fine. Goals need to be realistic, and if it's not realistic for you to write every day, then don't. What's important is to make the space for writing every day, so if you can't write do something else - read, listen to a podcast, whatever. Just make it related to your goal.

There are several well-known events in the writing calendar that can fit in with your timeline. The obvious one is NaNoWriMo in November, but there's also Camp NaNoWriMo, a "virtual writer's retreat" that runs in April and July. Also running in April and November is the Poem a Day Challenge where a poetry prompt is posted every day for a month. There's also Story a Day in May, which does the same thing with short story prompts (although to be honest some of them seem more like exercises).

I've been posting these every two weeks, but it's actually Christmas Day two weeks today so I'm going to leave it three weeks until the next one of these.
clhollandwriter: (Default)
Since some of the previous links have been for those relatively far along in their writing, this one's for beginners. FutureLearn has a free online course, Start Writing Fiction, starting on 9th January.
clhollandwriter: (Default)
Once you've chosen your subject matter, it's time to decide on some course content. On a taught MA this would involve a lot of reading, but there are other resources too.

This will broadly fall into three categories - books about writing what you want to write, books about the subject you want to write, and books of the type you want to write.

When picking the former it's important to choose books by authors with a track record of publication in that genre, in the same way you'd look for this in an MA tutor. Respected editors in the field can also be a good source of advice. This is also true of books in connected subjects, for example books about police procedure written by former policemen.

For the latter, I'd suggest choosing a mix of authors whose work you like, and those whose work if popular but you just can't work out why. For the former, read with an eye to why it works for you; for the latter, with an eye to why it doesn't work for you, but why it might for everyone else.

Do Some Outside Study
There are several websites offering free university-taught courses on creative writing. I particularly like Coursera, although it's difficult not to fall down the rabbit hole as there's a huge variety of courses. Some of the writing courses are more general (plot, character), and some are subject-specific (Writing for Young Readers). All are free if you select the option to audit (so you don't get marked or a certificate of completion). Another good site is FutureLearn, which is also a good source of courses on peripheral subjects (they ran a few on forensics last year).

Most of these courses take several weeks and run at set times, although some can be done at your own pace if you sign up before enrollment closes. There are a few that are self-guided so you can do them when you like.

Invite Guest Speakers
An MA course would likely have guest lecturers and there's no reason this can't be replicated at home. There's a wealth of writing-related podcasts about writing, that can fit in around pretty much anything. For example, commuting to work and doing chores are both activities where it's not possible to read or write (unless you like to dictate). There are also YouTube videos and TED talks that can fit into short lengths of time. There are also audiobooks, if you want to get some of your reading done this way (just be aware that some books are abridged).

Next time, deciding when to do it all.
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Just as you'd do preparation and research for a real MA, some preparation is needed to build your own. Otherwise you'll just end up with a mess of books and good intentions, with no real idea of what to do with them (yes, I am speaking from experience here).

So, thinking out loud again, here's how I'd start planning my course.

Decide on the Subject
The first step is to decide what to study - creative writing is a big field, after all. You might want to write children's novels, crime thrillers, or how-to books, or get started in poetry or article writing. Picking a subject at this point will help you to keep focussed on what it is you want to achieve.

Let's say you want to write crime fiction - do you want to write cosy mysteries or Tartan Noir? Are you interested in the history of the genre, or historical crime fiction? Picking out areas of interest will help later when it comes to choosing specific texts to study. Write a list, do a mind map, or whatever helps you get the ideas down.

Choose Modules
Taught courses tend to be divided into modules, which is a good way of breaking it down into manageable chunks. Sticking with crime fiction for a moment, if you've read it but never written it, you might decide to spend some time reading books about how to write crime and thrillers. You could include a module on the type of crime fiction you've decided to write, and other writers in that area. For example, if sticking to the grittier end of things, you could include some Tartan Noir, Scandinavian crime novels, or dark crime fiction written by women. If writing for children, you could look at books for that age group, and the particular genre you want to write in.

You can also include modules that fit around the subject - for example for crime fiction there's forensics, psychology, weapons. There are plenty of books out there of the "guns for writers" variety, which could be a useful resource. It depends on where you want to build up your knowledge.

Pick a Final Project
Most MAs have a final project as the end goal, for example a novel or a poetry collection. What do you want to have achieved at the end?

Next time, we'll fill those modules with content.
clhollandwriter: (Default)
During a Facebook conversation in one of my writing groups. A friend asked "Should I do an MA to get anywhere in this business?" The response was a far from enthusuastic "maybe".

The problem with doing an MA is, of course, that it's time-consuming and expensive - and you may not end up getting what you want. The field is still overwhelmingly aimed at the literary, although this is changing. Some universities, such as Edinburgh Napier University offer courses with modules in genre writing, children's writing, etc, although a single module may not be enough if a particular genre is your passion. It's also worth noting that when several of them mention genre what they mean is poetry versus prose versus non-fiction, so if you do go down this route it's worth clarifying exactly what they mean. (I think of these as forms, with genre being used to refer to the subject matter, eg fantasy, science fiction, crime fiction, and this is what I mean when I refer to genre.)

A common complaint I've heard from friends with MAs is that they didn't focus enough (if at all) on the business side of writing. Mostly this is something that's picked up later, by doing. This may not matter to writers with a grounding in the industry, but for others they could pay a whole lot of money for how to write and end up with no idea of what to do with it after.

In the end, the advice given to my friend was "it depends what you want to get out of it". If committing time and money to something, the first step is to research exactly what you're getting. There are enough resources out there for a writer to put together their own "MA" programme, tailored to individual interests, which could be done for free or nearly free. There's no qualification at the end, but the qualification isn't guaranteed to get you anywhere in this industry. So you don't get a shiny certificate to hang on your wall, but you do get the benefit of the study.

Since this is already getting a bit long, I'm going to follow up with other posts - my thoughts on how to build your own course of MA study. At this point I'm mostly thinking out loud, so I'll include links to other entries as I post them.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Day Seven is not really a day, as all we do before we leave is have breakfast and say goodbye. Then it's on the coach for those of us heading to the station. Once we're unloaded there's already a sense of separation, of normal life creeping back in, as everyone scatters to their individual platforms. I miss the days when those of us who had a longer wait for the train would gather in a coffee shop, chat (those of us not horribly hungover from the previous night's disco, anyway), and extend the week those few minutes more.

I had mixed feelings about leaving this year, part sadness it was over for another year and part relief that I got to go home. The last twelve months have been frantic - I've changed job, moved manager three times and team twice, had health problems that are likely to have a long-term impact, plus bought and moved into a house. During all of this I've barely had the time, let alone the energy, to write. While I spent most of the year longing for Swanwick week, when I got there I found I didn't have the ability to deal with homework, large groups of enthusiastic writer folks, or watching everyone eat cheesecake or fish and chips that I couldn't have. As a result I was tired, cranky, and snappish, and I apologise to anyone who found themselves on the receiving end.

The trip home was longer than usual due to the route but after a nap, ten hours sleep, and another nap the following afternoon, I felt a lot more refreshed. And it turns out my week wasn't wasted after all. Despite not writing, and not feeling like writing, I've still got the post-Swanwick motivational kick. I've got ideas for two projects and the desire to do my homework. This weekend, I'll dig out the notes from the Manifesting Your Goals course I took in 2014 and create a timeline. It appears some of that Swanwick magic rubbed off after all.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
As always, I approached Thursday in a state of semi-exhaustion. It doesn't seem to matter how much sleep I get - or don't get - I'm always tired by the end of Swanwick week.

In the final poetry class a handful of people read out their homework, and then we shared our devices for creating original poems. Mine was to cut up several poems you like, put the pieces in a jar, and pick out a few random pieces to use as a springboard. Obviously this is for inspiration and the lines themselves shouldn't appear in the poem.

The short courses on offer were about comedy sketches, family history, finding inspiration from song lyrics, and "How To Eat an Elephant" which was about breaking writing projects down into manageable chunks. I took the latter, since the thought of starting something new on top of everything else I've done this year is a little overwhelming.

Instead of a workshop session, Thursday sees the AGM. It was short but sweet this year, since we had exactly the same number of people running for the committee as there were positions and no two people running for the same one.

On the programme, the spot after the AGM is labelled "time for you" and I always use it for packing as it frees up the rest of the evening. As I headed back into the main building several people were setting up the dregs party - an opportunity to get rid of leftover food and drink delegates don't want to take home - on the lawn. It was a bit damp and chilly for me so I went to the bar.

There's no after dinner speaker in Thursday, instead there's a pantomime. This year it was "The Battle of Writer's Block" featuring BBC journalist Simon Hall as Trevor, a joke writer trying to write a novel and win Success while being plagued by the villain Doubt. There were the songs "500 Words" and last year's "Is This the Way to Summer School?" which were catchy enough to sing along to.

After the pantomime was the traditional farewell, and then it was off to the bar to wait for the disco to start.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Wednesday saw us back on the courses, with poetry tutor Alison Chisholm dividing the room into groups based on poetry forms we'd never tackled before. I ended up in the terza rima group, which is a poem divided into three-line stanzas with an interlocking rhyme scheme. Our task was to discuss what theme might suit the form, and how we could adapt or develop it to make it our own - and then to write one for our homework. Unfortunately by Wednesday I'm usually running more on caffeine and sugar than actual brain power, so this seemed like a mammoth task and I opted to spend my time sleeping and socialising instead.

The short courses on offer were: endings and agents, plotting and strategem; cover design; and even more poetry. I'd decided early that this year was poetry year, but the session turned out to be a workshop and it was a bit late in the week for me to cope with on-the-spot writing (see above). I made a few notes and wrote down the exercises to add to my "do at home" pile with the homework from earlier in the week. In hindsight, I wish I'd taken the first part of Erin Kelly's course (on how to write endings) and the second ("strategem") part of Michael Jecks' course in which, among other things, he discussed ways of tackling writers' block.

The workshops were on writing about an unforgettable episode in your life, and also on hybrid authors. I took myself for a walk around the lake and then went to sit in the vinery for a bit.

The evening speaker was Irish storyteller and one-time Swanwicker Brendan Nolan. He spoke a little about how attending Swanwick - and one of first night speaker John Lamont's courses - changed his life, as it gave him the motivation to write his first book. He also told us stories, one about a traveller and a bar of gold, and another from Irish mythology about Aengus and Caer. I've never seen the hall so quiet!

After the speaker, it was time for the Page to Stage Performances prepared earlier in the week. In previous years this has run concurrently with other entertainments, however from last year it was changed to be the sole offering, so no one taking part felt like they were missing out.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Traditionally Tuesday is the "day off", but this only means that there are no classes. Most don't rest however, as the morning is usually taken up with a speaker and a panel on a particular area of writing, and the afternoon with rehearsals for those taking part in Page to Stage. Alongside both runs the Procrastination Free Day, one session for those with laptops and one for those without, during which people are shut in a room to write to their own goals - only being let out when it's time for food. It feels all too much like a workshop to me, despite the shiny stickers being offered as bribes, so I steer clear. Maybe I'll give it a try when I have a project that coincides with the school.

This year's theme for the morning was crime, and was hosted by retired policeman (and then Swanwick Chairman) Michael O'Byrne, forensics expert Kate Bendelow, and journalist and crime writer Simon Hall. Each gave a short talk on a different aspect of crime fiction, including common mistakes made by writers, and why you needn't bother dusting a steering wheel for fingerprints. Michael gave a visual demonstration with replica weapons as to why you should think hard before having your killer shoot a rifle from a moving vehicle, and also why it's important to know where your shell casings are. The second session was a Q&A where the three were joint by Ian Martin, also a retired policeman, to answer any questions the audience could throw at them.

As I wasn't taking part in Page to Stage, I spent playing card games with a friend and relaxing.  I also went on the mini-excursion to the other side of the site to see the beginning of the escape tunnel.

If you read this blog in 2013 you might remember me posting these pictures:

The Hayes was once used as a prisoner of war camp, and there is a case of memorabilia in the bar area, including photographs of how the site looked then, and also the spoons used at the time - some of which were used to dig the tunnel. This year there was a short talk about the history, and then a trip to look at the tunnel itself. The camera on my phone doesn't really do justice to how steeply the tunnel descends, or how tight a squeeze it is.

It was back on the usual programme at 8:20pm, where the speaker was Michael Jecks, author of over 30 historical crime novels and also a tutor for the following day. There was also a general knowledge quiz, and the buskers night.Save
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Day Three saw us discussing the mathematics of poetry in part two of the poetry specialist course - how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide to improve a poem. Our homework was to do just that, or do write a poem about one thing in the jargon of another.

The short courses were on song writing, non fiction, fantasy fiction, and "the trickier side of fiction" - viewpoint, flashbacks, and dialogue, among other things. I took the latter, and while I didn't learn anything new from the course it was a useful refresher. In fact, the course was so popular we realised partway through the second session that some latecomers had crept in and sat on the floor!

The workshops were an ideas generator session and one on flash fiction. Personally I don't get on very well with workshops - something about being told to sit and write for an hour rubs me up the wrong way, so once again I gave these a miss and spent some time relaxing instead.

The evening speaker was Kathryn Aalto, leader of the creative non-fiction specialist course, who was followed by the first of the week's discos and a retrospective of the first 25 years of Swanwick - the latter of which inspired a mini-excursion the following day.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Day Two sees the start of the specialist courses that run all week. This year's subjects were creative non-fiction, journalism, short stories, character psychology, and poetry. I toyed with the idea of creative non-fiction, but opted for poetry as I've been doing more of that lately while creative non-fiction is completely new to me.

In the session we discussed ways of working on poems that aren't working (edit them shorter, and then longer again), and the tutor Alison Chisholm requested that for the last session we think of ways to come up with original poems. She also gave us homework - poems from the past, and five ways to look at them to start something new.

The short courses on offer were self publishing, a grammar refresher, picture books, and connecting with an audience. I took the latter, even though I was in two minds about signing up for the poetry open mic that evening. Tutor Joy France was a little frazzled, having arrived from a festival minutes before, but was an engaging and lively tutor. She discussed audience reaction, memorising works, and how you won't always know something works for performance until you try it. It made my mind up about the open mic, but when I went to sign up all the slots were taken. Maybe next year.

The workshops were on flash fiction or a briefing for Page to Stage, a theatrical event that takes place later in the week. Since I was planning on taking a specialist and short course every day I'd planned to take the workshop time to rest and/or nap since it's a busy week.

The evening speaker was James Runcie, author of the Grantchester Mysteries. He told anecdotes from his varied career, and gave writing advice, including: "Don't be cautious: write what you want." I should really listen to that.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Last year I blogged the week as I went along; this year I'm back to posting the week after. I just couldn't find the spoons to fit it in during the week this year.

Day One is really only half a day, since the earliest we can arrive is 3:30pm. For most of us it feels full, since we've either been travelling or have been on site early to set up. This year the travelling took up more time than usual - for me because the route I'd been booked on was longer and with more changes, presumably to avoid the trouble spots where there are strikes and cancelled services. Others had to travel through the trouble spots, and a lot of travel updates were passed back and forth on Facebook.

For those of us who arrive in time, Swanwick starts with a cup of tea and meeting up with old friends. I usually take this time to unwind and unpack. Then it's off to the chairman's welcome, to find out such important housekeeping elements as the code to get in the accommodation block.

The evening speaker for Saturday was Swanwick regular John Lamont. He taught last year's specialist course on "Succeeding on Purpose", which I regret missing (and have asked on my feedback form to be run again!). John spoke about the adaptability of the human brain, and about visualisation and retraining the subconscious - both of which are important in learning good writing habits, or unlearning bad ones.

After the speaker the traditional Saturday evening entertainments are "What Are You Writing Now?" and an alternative fairy tales icebreaker. I spent a short time in the bar catching up with friends, and had an early night to sleep off the travel.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
I mentioned the other day that I'd been looking at online writing courses. Here are the ones I've found that are free. It's not an endorsement as I haven't actually taken any of them, I just thought other people might be interested.

Coursera is a site I particularly like, because it has a wide range of free university-provided courses. At the moment it's offering courses on Writing for Young Readers: Opening the Treasure Chest, and Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop. Both are self-paced so you can take them how- and whenever you like, which in the case of the children's writing course is probably for the best since the hours of study are estimated at 8-15 a week. I've signed up for Sharpened Visions and hope to make time for it around other courses that aren't self-paced.

There are also a number of literature courses covering different genres. I took the historical fiction module last year and really enjoyed it, and I'm considering Spacebooks: An Introduction to Extraterrestrial Literature, which is one of two speculative fiction courses alongside Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. There are modules on comics and graphic novels, American Poetry, lots really. It's well worth taking a look if you fancy studying something.

Future Learn has free courses run by British universities, and has lots of starter courses for various modes of writing, including Start Writing Fiction, screenwriting, and songwriting. None of them are self-paced, but from looking at a course I signed up to but never started it appears the course content is available after it's run as long as you don't unenroll. I'm not signed up for any of the writing courses here, but I am for the one on Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales which starts in three weeks.

EdX is another site, which has about seven or so courses on the history of the book which I'm trying to ignore as I don't have time to take them all on! There are a number of "book club" courses as well, which take in individual texts like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Frankenstein. There are a lot of poetry study courses, which seem to all be American poetry. The only free writing course (the novel writing courses are paid) is The Art of Poetry, which I'm also signed up for as it seems to be self-paced. It looks like most of the free courses here become "archived" but still do-able once they've run.

These are just the ones I'm aware of on sites I check regularly. Feel free to mention any others in the comments.
clhollandwriter: (Matter)
Neil Gaiman has posted a letter on his blog about whether aspiring writers should take a college course in Creative Writing. His response, and the letter beneath it, are incredibly insightful and useful and I'd recommend anyone thinking about taking Creative Writing at college read it. It starts just below the dog photos.

My own opinion on the matter - I wish I'd had this advice when I was making my own choices. If I could go back now I'd tell myself to take English Literature with History or something, instead of English with Creative Writing. Of course, I'd have to go back quite far to tell myself to take history GCSE first.....

If I could do things differently I'd avoid Creative Writing like the plague, because everything stated in the second letter Gaiman posts is true: even in the UK there's a bias against anything non-literary. Genre is, if not banned, frowned upon or sneered at. No effort is made to teach young writers how to edit, critique, find markets, promote themselves.....

Before I went on my Creative Writing course, I wrote all the time. I wrote stories in the back of old exercise books, told stories to my younger brother, got told off for writing in class when I should have been working. After I came out of the course, I didn't write for two years. In attempting to hammer me into the shape of a proper literary writer and/or poet, the tutors actually managed to hammer out of me any joy I took in my craft.

I can honestly say I learnt nothing useful in the whole three years I was there.* Everything I've learned since, about writing, critiguing, editing, manuscript format, markets, promotion, you name it, I learned through getting to know other writers. I joined a writer's forum that focussed on producing and critiquing flash fiction (yes, that would be Liberty Hall), I made connections, got my Livejournal and started making friends, and joined other sites like Absolute Write and Codex.** Most of what I learned, I learned by doing.

So my advice to any writer wanting to take a course - especially young ones whose egos are fragile - is BE SURE. Be sure of yourself, and of the choice you're about to make. Most Creative Writing courses fit a very narrow set of criteria, so be sure you're comfortable enough in yourself and your writing to be able to take that. Otherwise, do something else - like Gaiman says, other subjects can feed your writing. You can always write in your spare time, at lunch, on the bus, in the holidays. The whole world, and the internet, can be your classroom if you're willing to make the connections.

There are a lot of us out here. And mostly, we don't bite.

*This isn't counting the Literature side of my course, which was a whole different thing.
**It should be noted that Codex is only open to writers who've made a pro sale.
ETA Codex is also open to writers who've gone on a writing course like Clarion, Odyssey, Virtual Paradise, etc., even if they haven't yet made a pro sale.

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