If you’ve ever thought about how to invest in your future as a writer, you might have considered an MA course in creative writing. Geraldine Brennan looks at the different courses available, and what you can expect to gain from them.
Which Creative Writing MA course you choose, apart from financial and logistical concerns and what you gather from attending open days, research and talking to alumni, depends on various factors:
Is your main goal to get published and how close are you to that goal?
Do you need maximum time for solitary focus or do you want to get out more and be part of a community of writers?
Would you rather explore the possibilities of your writing life in the broadest sense or to focus on the conditions and processes particular to writing for children?
An MA course is not a guarantee of publication or even of completing a particular project, but the act of commitment to the course makes those outcomes more likely.
For Elen Caldecott, one of the first alumni from the the MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University, ‘the main benefit is the expectation to write, an assumption that it’s not an indulgence or a hobby and that your job is to produce work every week, think about your work really intensely, talk about it with others. You learn a technical vocabulary that might be new to you. I remember finding out what a point of view was and what a close third person narrator was.
‘MA courses are looking for people with talent and commitment who would eventually succeed on their own. I might well have done that by continuing to write and do evening classes for another five or six years, but there’s so much I wouldn’t have learned.’
Mark Lowery says of his MA in Writing for Children at Winchester University: ‘Without the structure, discipline and skills it taught me I wouldn’t be a published writer.’ Mark wrote his first novel, Socks are Not Enough, while a student at Winchester. Firmly in the Adrian Mole tradition, it was shortlisted for the Roald Dahl Funny Prize as was the sequel, Pants are Everything.
Winchester’s MA, which is taught in the evenings, is the oldest MA with a focus on writing for children. Students analyse and try out writing for all age groups and develop a project to the point of submission for publication.
The number of alumni on awards shortlists is one way to choose an MA course to investigate. The MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University had three graduates on the Branford Boase Award shortlist last year. Sam Gayton, who wrote his first novel, The Snow Merchant as a Bath Spa student, relished the encouragement his MA gave him to make writing a career choice.
‘I was looking at job options after trying out teaching and deciding it was not for me. I wasn’t sure that writing could work as a job but when I met the tutors at Bath Spa I realised that it could. I’m not business-savvy but the course showed me the level of professionalism you need.
‘I came away with a list of contacts and got an agent and a publisher within a year. The MA had given me a foot in the door. Also, you focus fully on writing while you’re there. Once you’ve left and managed to get published and there’s a whole lot of other concerns and deadlines, you appreciate having had that dedicated time.’
Elen Caldecott, like Sam, wrote her first novel, How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant as her Bath Spa MA dissertation almost ten years ago. She is now writing a novel set in pre-Roman Wales as part of a PhD at Bath Spa. In between she’s had a successful career writing mainly for 8 to 12-year-olds: ‘I enjoy the rebelliousness and search for identity in children of that age’ including the Marsh Road Mysteries stories. Her MA course, she said ‘encouraged you to think about where you want to place yourself along the spectrum of commerce and art and what options are therefore open to you. One difficulty is deciding whether you want to take a gendered path. I decided to write in a gender-neutral way which does close certain doors. After taking a fairly commercial path I’ve moved back towards art for my PhD.
‘You have to submit 40,000 words of a work in progress by the end of the year. For me that was a complete novel. Julia Green (now the Bath Spa MA director) was a really good manuscript tutor and I also had a close knit workshop group. You learn who among your peers really gets your vision and feedback from those people is like gold dust.’
A chance to experiment with writing in general might appeal more than immersion in the particular concerns and market conditions for children’s authors. Rosie Rowell had already secured a publisher for her first young adult novel, Leopold Blue (which won the Branford Boase Award last year) when she embarked on an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s College, London. She is now writing her third novel as part of a PhD in the same department.
‘I enjoy the process of writing alongside others, feeling that you are not writing in isolation. The course is not set up to teach you how to write but you learn to write better because you are constantly exposed to what works and what doesn’t in others’ writing. You try out new styles and forms. I’m not a poet, but listening to poets talk about how they used words fed into my own writing.
‘Also, I was 40 and a full-time mum when I started the course and as I was writing for young adults I enjoyed the contact with students in their early 20s. I chose to do the course part-time, half a day a week, so that I could make the most of the networking and social side.’
Chelsey Flood, the 2014 Branford Boase Award winner, went to the University of East Anglia for the most celebrated Creative Writing MA in the UK. ‘I’d expected more teaching of the craft of writing but I realized MA courses aren’t about that, it’s about giving you the space to write in your own way. They choose students who can write but who also have the capacity to critique and want to engage with others’ writing. So a criticism that is sometimes made of MAs in creative writing, that they encourage everyone to write similar books, isn’t the case.
‘I was working on the book that became Infinite Sky before I went there but I didn’t know how to tell it, I tried it as adult literary fiction and then a memoir and then it found its place of comfort.’
A particular benefit was ‘the level of UEA course’s relationship with the publishing industry. We met a lot of agents and publishers. I was one of two students in my workshop group writing young adult fiction. Although the focus was not on YA it meant that when we met agents I would stand out.’
For writers with a draft manuscript who want to work towards submitting to agents and publishers while also learning tools to self-edit, the Golden Egg Academy is an alternative to higher education set up by publishing professionals (and unlike MA courses does not have academic entry requirements, you simply submit work in progress). Experienced editors deliver targeted analysis and editorial consultancy through a structured programme which can be tailor-made for each participant, including day workshops, one-to-one editorial surgeries and intensive manuscript feedback. Some elements of the programme are mandatory such as the Mapping Your Novel course (andpicture book equivalent) devised by founder Imogen Cooper, former editorial director and now senior editor with Chicken House. The Golden Egg editors, who all have impressive track records in publishing, then advise writers on the best path through the training. Some, such as James Nicoll, are selected for one-to-one mentoring. James has spent 18 months in the Golden Egg programme alongside a full-time day job as a library services development manager, and now in turn mentors new participants. His first novel, The Apprentice Witch, will shortly be published by Chicken House, which also awarded him a scholarship towards Golden Egg fees.
‘There are no promises that you will get published, although it has worked for me, but you will certainly get closer to publication. I’ve continually evolved as a writer during the process, which I chose to move through quite quickly. You can take it slowly and do as much as your circumstances allow.
‘I’d started writing again after a long break about five years ago. I used to write a lot in my early 20s, then life and jobs got in the way. I took creative writing courses, because very few people had read my work before. Once I was working seriously on a project my creative writing tutor suggested I talked to an editorial consultant. I’d worked in books for a long time but not from the writer’s side and had no idea how to get my manuscript into shape. The Golden Egg book mapping course in particular encourages you to step away from your book as a writer and analyse what it needs.
‘Golden Egg prepares you for working with a publisher. When I had my first consultation with editors Bella Pearson and Beverley Birch at a workshop, I thought it would be like getting my homework back but they were interested in what my ideas and solutions were.’
James’ summing up of the Golden Egg experience could apply to an MA course or any other serious structured learningjourney for a writer. ‘You find out that writing takes dedication and stamina, that you get out what you put in, that it helps to set interim goals and that there are no quick fixes.’
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education. She regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.