Tag Archives: creative writing MA

On friends getting published

I am very lucky to be in a position where I have a lot of writer friends. I’ve accumulated this creative network over time. Some are friends I made when we both worked in-house at a publisher; most are people I met while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa; and a few are friends of friends that have become closer because of the writing we have in common. Having writer friends is a big part of what I love about being a writer and it helps me to keep going when my writing stalls – because writing is not always pleasurable. One of my writer friends even went so far as to say he hated writing – hated the writing process and all the frustration of it, how slow it is, how painful – but he loved having written. The feeling of having put into words an idea, a story, and having pulled together all those strands, that feeling was worth all the torture of getting there, and it was that feeling that made him go back in and put himself through it all again. Hearing another writer say this is encouraging because it lets you know that you are not alone in this most lonely of pursuits. 

When I started writing, no one I knew personally had been published. Then an old colleague got a book deal. It was for something that was very different to anything I would ever write, but it still felt exciting. It seemed to make what I was doing more real, as if publication was a solid goal that had just become visible through the mist. The advance my friend earned enabled him to begin working part time so that he could dedicate more time to writing; he was inching towards making it his ‘proper’ job.

In the following years, other friends began to pick up book deals. Some months after completing the Creative Writing course, I was speaking to one of the other students I had become friends with and I remember him saying that, of each year of students that have completed the MA, it averages that about half a dozen get publishing deals. There are not too many people in each year, so this is not a bad success rate. However, my friend went on to say that, every time someone from our year got published, he felt his chances went down a little bit. He immediately followed this up by saying he knew that it was ridiculous and that of course those students getting published could never affect any other individual student’s chances, it just didn’t work like that, but still… he couldn’t help feeling a little bit like it did. 

I think this insecurity and defeatist attitude is very typical of unpublished writers (and, I’m beginning to realise, of published writers, too). In a way, it is inevitable. We dedicate a massive amount of time and effort to something, often working in total isolation, and there is no guarantee it will ever bring us any kind of monetary reward or creative recognition. It is no wonder self-doubt creeps in.

There have been some well-documented examples of literary back-biting amongst published authors (not least of all Virginia Woolf’s damning comments of James Joyce’s Ulysses), so it is hardly surprising that an unpublished author might be critical of a published author, particularly if they feel their own work is more deserving of publication. When the published author is someone known personally to the unpublished author, an even greater resentment can set in because that sense of ‘It could / should have been me’ is felt more keenly, particularly if the book is of a similar genre. 

It has been a little surprising to me that I don’t feel more like this when another friend tells me that such-and-such a literary agent has agreed to represent him or he’s just sold his book to such-and-such a publisher. I can’t deny there’s a little pang of ‘When is it going to be my turn?’ but it is only momentary, and I think this is because I’ve developed a staunch belief that half of the battle with writing is having a thick skin and keeping on plugging away. I try to remain philosophical about it; it will be my turn eventually, and whenever that is will be the right time for me.

I’ve worked in publishing for more than ten years now, and I know that there are lots of books that get published – and some which do very well – which I don’t think are particularly well written or deserving. There is no point in feeling resentful about this. The reasons why these books find publishers and why people buy them are varied and numerous and – most importantly – completely out of my control. I also know that writing is a craft and, as a general rule, the more someone writes, the better they become at it. Some writers who get published at the very first try find that they are learning their craft in full view of their readers and – more painfully – their critics, who will not hold back when the writer slips up (particularly now, when everyone can be a critic on Goodreads or Amazon, including those resentful unpublished writers).

I was talking to another writer friend yesterday, and she was saying that she knows of a writing-workshop group who met on a Creative Writing MA and have been workshopping together ever since – for about the past seven or eight years. One of them was published very soon after they completed their course, but now almost all of them have publishing deals, and the one who has only very recently found a deal secured a six-figure advance (which the others all feel slightly resentful about). So, it just goes to show, sometimes waiting a bit longer really can pay off. 

I love that so many of my friends are writers. I love talking about writing, about our ideas, and about the problems we all face. I know that I have been a useful source of information because of my job as an editor for writer friends less familiar with that mysterious side of the publishing process, and I find it really useful that friends of mine have gone down the getting-published route before me so that I can be more prepared if and when I find myself on the same road. I suppose, ultimately, what keeps me pleased for my published friends, and what keeps resentment at bay, is my belief that good writing is good writing, whether or not it’s published, and if it is good, it will be published sooner or later, so long as you keep sending it out to agents and publishers. Most importantly, good writers need to stick together, whether or not they are published, because the support we offer each other helps to keep quality literature alive.

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An Editor’s Brain

I never used to like reading multiple novels simultaneously. There was something about how I became immersed in the story that was tainted, diluted or confused if I dived into different books, splitting my empathy between disparate characters in separate times and places.

I suppose the idea is logical, to a degree, but it’s actually almost impossible not to read multiple novels simultaneously in my line of work. For a while I stuck to one novel at a time for pleasure, and I was dipping in and out of things all the time for work as an in-house editor, but it didn’t seem to matter because the books I was editing were so different from what I was reading at home.

Then I began to write a novel myself. This might have complicated matters, but the imaginative process is different, so it didn’t seem to clash. When I began my MA in creative writing, I was reading between six and ten extracts from different writers’ work each week for workshopping, as well as working on my own novel and producing shorter writing projects alongside that. I began freelancing during this time, so I would occasionally have a week or two where I was copy editing a novel on top of everything else.

I had to draw a line in my brain. It was very easy to slip into copy-editing mode with the extracts for workshopping, and workshop mode with the manuscripts for editing. It’s a common problem for freelance editors who line edit, copy edit and proofread. The different stages in the editorial process require different levels of intervention, and sometimes you have to editorially bite your tongue.

My method of working when I have an edit in is to sit down and get it done in one big chunk with as few interruptions as possible. Part of an editor’s job is to remember stuff. This might be the spelling of a character’s name, or it might be that a particular breed of dragon has no sense of smell, or that when the spy escaped from prison it was dawn. As you’re reading, you don’t know what will become relevant. It is only when those very same dragons sniff out the novel’s hero that your editorial alarm bells need to go off.

I’ve long been amazed with the human capacity to remember stuff. Most people’s brains must be a jangling mess of passwords and PINs. When I worked in an office, I needed one password to get into the building, another to log into my computer, another to access the invoice-processing system, another to access a client database and another to operate the photocopier. I’ve half a dozen passwords or more to log in to various websites, as well as the code for my burglar alarm and several bank card PINs.

Apparently, your brain develops a greater ability to remember if you practise. There have been studies of the brains of London black cab drivers, as well as the brains of piano tuners, which show how new neural pathways develop to accommodate our needs. I’m sure a study of editors’ brains would show something similar; we’re a pedantic, pernickety lot.

Since having my daughter over a year ago, I’ve thrown my one-book-at-a-time rule out of the window. I never know when or where I’m going to have a moment to sit down and read, or how long that moment will last. I have a book on the go in my bedroom, one in the living room and I have two that I’m midway through on my Kindle, which lives in my bag. So far, I haven’t noticed any ‘diluting’ effect. The only effect I’ve noticed is that, if the book’s a bit rubbish, I’m more likely to put it aside and read other things rather than feeling obligated to plough on to the end.

I’m also, for the first time ever, copy editing two things simultaneously. Or, rather, I took one urgent copy edit in the middle of a less-urgent one. I feel a bit bad about it, as if I’m doing a disservice to the less-urgent edit (although I’m pretty sure that’s just me being over-conscientious). I’m rather hoping my brain’s neural pathways have developed enough to cope with the break. Who knows how an editor’s brain works? Perhaps giving the opening section of the story time to sink in will mean I do an even better job than usual.

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