A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Napier Universityin Edinburgh is launching a new Creative Writing MA with a difference. Not only is there a big focus on genre (with modules in screenwriting and NO poetry) but one-to-one mentoring replaces the traditional “workshopping” system. RosyB talks to course tutors, Sam Kelly and David Bishop, about why they made these choices. *Thank you to Sam Kelly for sending us this fabulous Dempsey and Makepeace shot.
CAN TALENT BE TAUGHT?
Do you think being able to write creatively is a talent that some people just ‘have’ with very little teaching required, or if it’s something that anyone can learn with enough practice and patience. Can writing – in other words – be taught?
DB: Ahh, that old chestnut. There’s a world of difference between talent and craft. Many people have a gift for storytelling, but it never occurs to them to become writers. Others have their heart set on being published, but don’t have anything original to say, no stories to tell. Our task is to fill a class with students who have potential as writers and help them discover their talents. We’ll be challenging them, questioning them and giving them the benefit of our professional experience and expertise. In return, we want them to surprise us, to bite off more than they can chew, and to learn skills that make the most of their writing. We’ll teach them all we can – but it’s up to the students to go beyond that. Any writer who believes they’ve nothing left to learn is already on a downward spiral.
SK: I think it’s perfectly possible for people with no talent whatsoever to get the hang of plausible imitation, if they spend enough time practising. I also know that there are people out there who promise to “unlock your inner writer”, regardless of whether there’s anything in there worth the effort of typing up. We’re not in either of those businesses: we’re not that cynical. “Talent” is tricky to define, but we know what we’re looking for: that spark of originality, wit, risk and curiosity that we can work with.
“I’m pretty pragmatic, and for me, the key to maximising the money-earning opportunities for graduates is in the level of professional versatility we’re looking to foster.” (Sam Kelly)
What do you think an MA has to offer and can do for a writer that they can’t do by that age-old trick of applying their bottom to a chair? And in these tough times, and with writers’ average incomes falling what are students lead to believe about their chances of publication after leaving and the possibility of making any kind of living as a writer?
DB: Writers make sacrifices to do what they need to do. Most of the time they sit alone in a room, battling the tyranny of the blank screen, the blank page. They give up time with the people they love, sacrifice their spare time and their holidays to write – because they have to. Writers don’t write out of choice, they write because they have to. Sitting on a chair doesn’t make you a writer. Writing does. We’ll be giving them tools and strategies to make the most of their talents, their stories.
We offer no guarantees when it comes to publication. We’ll have editors, publishers and agents coming during the latter stages of each academic year to offer their advice. Networking opportunities will be plentiful for our students. And Edinburgh is a brilliant city for prospective writers, with a lively literary and cultural scene for those who want that. Our course is designed to enhance our students’ prospects – but it’s up to them what happens next. We’ll do all we can to help them along the path.
SK: Our ambitions for graduates don’t start and end with getting a mainstream commercial book deal: that’s an outcome at the top of the wish-list for many students, but it can take years to achieve, and involves the decisions of many third parties whose minds – alas – we can’t influence. As part of the final assessment we’ll be requiring students to do some work on personal development planning, so that everyone leaves with a decent level of self-knowledge and market knowledge; so that people understand the cultural contexts they want to operate in, and are realistic about what they need to do next to get to where they ultimately want to be. I’m pretty pragmatic, and for me, the key to maximising the money-earning opportunities for graduates is in the level of professional versatility we’re looking to foster. As well as giving people the opportunity to work across different forms and media, and to experience what it’s like to write outside your comfort zone and produce creative work to commission, we’re also going to be teaching a whole range of other vocational skills, such as adaptation, abridgement, editing and collaborative working. These skills have intellectual value, in terms of understanding narrative, but they also translate, quite obviously, into actual jobs. For talented writers with flexible skills, there are opportunities across the arts, media, broadcasting, online and print publishing sectors. If our graduates are prepared to be entrepreneurial, then they will find ways of making a living – and, crucially, they’ll find ways of getting their ideas out there, influencing the culture and continuing to grow as writers while they’re working towards achieving their ultimate creative goals.
“If cinema was the dominant storytelling medium of the 20th Century, online entertainment in all its variations could be what dominates this century.” (David Bishop)
One of the great USPs (if you don’t mind me using that horrible marketing speak) of the Napier MA is that it embraces genre. Can you talk a bit about this, why you think it’s important to look properly at genre and how unique this MA is in this respect?
DB: There’s a plethora of creative writing MA courses in the UK, but the vast majority focus on literary fiction and poetry. A few make some passing reference to genre writing, but that seems more like lip service than any genuine enthusiasm for the most widely read form of fiction.
We believe some of the most exciting and innovative work happens in the genre context. Great writing is great writing, no matter how a book gets marketed or what shelf it occupies. We also believe that if you’re going to write for a genre, you should love that genre, be reading that genre, and understand that genre. Have a grasp of the rules before you break them.
SK: Hear, hear. Our programme is definitely unique in its ethos and scope, and including genre fiction is an important part of that. There are huge numbers of emerging writers out there whose talents, backgrounds and ambitions don’t fit the rather conventional assumptions of the “Creative Writing” world – and we’re delighted to have them! Within genre fiction, we offer the opportunity to specialise in Science Fiction, Crime Fiction or Fantasy – but it doesn’t stop there. This isn’t about forcing people into categories, or teaching banal, market-oriented tricks of the trade – it’s about empowering people to challenge assumptions; giving them enough knowledge to enable them to find the next big idea. This is why we’re also teaching a lot of avant-garde and experimental writing and postmodern theory alongside genre: we want whatever can happen next to happen here, and we’re very keen on all manner of crossovers. To my mind, this kind of territory has grown all the best fiction of the last 15 years. Genre here is inclusive rather than restrictive: we expect students to take influences from everywhere, from all of literature, and to treat our course as no more than a deluxe ideas factory. We can’t wait to get to them and see what they come up with!
An exciting element of your course, in my eyes, is the crossover and linking between writing for different media: with screenwriting and scriptwriting for example. Can you talk a bit more about this and why you think it is important?
DB: We want our graduates to have a diversity of skills, knowledge and experience that enhances their prospects of making a living from creative writing. To survive in the challenging economic climate, writers need to have a broad portfolio of skills and contacts. They could be writing a radio play or for an online drama one day, pitching ideas for a graphic novel the next, scripting dialogue for a computer game the following day and be researching for a book of creative non-fiction.
We’ve heard of other courses that show students how to fill out grant applications for Arts Council funding. To me that’s admitting defeat before you’ve started. We want our graduates to make their living from writing, not from handouts. Writers write – that’s what they should be doing.
SK: The point about all our optional modules are that they’re an opportunity to professionalise on one hand – after all, that magnum opus won’t get written if you starve in the attempt – and on the other hand, they’re an opportunity to experiment, and see how far an idea you have can go in different media. Because of the flexibility of the course, we can encourage writers to stretch and challenge themselves – and for a novelist or short story writer, to be asked to work collaboratively or in a new field is an excellent way to do this. You are allowed to totally mess up and fall flat on your face at least once on this programme: it’s a very supportive environment, and much better to get it wrong here than when you’re out there in the market.
With the growing literature festival scene – do you explore writing and performance at all?
DB: It’s not one of our core activities.
SK: We might include a session in voice training and presentation as part of the general vocational strand, and there will be performance opportunities for students who choose to take them – but generally, for prose writers, the requirement to perform comes after publication rather than before, so it’s not going to be a focus.
Can you talk a little about interactive media like computer games and online writing?
DB: Increasingly the line between TV, text and computer is blurring. As broadband becomes faster and more universal, that line will be erased. If cinema was the dominant storytelling medium of the 20th Century, online entertainment in all its variations could be what dominates this century. Our students have stories they want to tell – need to tell. Our course seeks to equip them with the skills to do that across a range of commercial media and popular genres. These are essential tools for the years to come.
SK: Frankly, I think it’s criminal to send creative writing graduates out ill-equipped. The module in writing for games and interactive entertainment is just one of the specialist options, so we’re not forcing it on people – but at the same time, the idea of interactive narrative is going to crop up all over the programme. I’m a huge admirer of the work that certain American universities have done in creating the means for experimental fiction to occur in technologically-enhanced environments, and there are always new things to be done. It’s an interesting observation that, historically, any new technology attaches first to pornography, second to the avant-garde, and finally to the constant reinvention of mainstream narrative. So again, for students who choose this challenge, it’s an exploratory space on the level of ideas, as well as an imminent commercial necessity. I probably ought to point out here that pornography is not one of our specialist options.
I read that you took the decision that poetry would not form part of the course. Is this unusual for an CW MA?
DB: Yes. We have a motto on our MA: Poetry Is Not An Option. If you want to explore that, there are plenty of other courses to scratch that itch.
SK: For readers in Scotland, the Creative Writing programmes at Glasgow and St Andrews have outstanding provision for poetry. I admire and applaud, but am resolutely focussed on different ends.
WORKSHOPS v MENTORING
“The workshop may have been the default setting for creative writing courses for decades, but that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to challenge the orthodoxy.” (David Bishop)
I’ve also read that you are going to replace the traditional workshopping by other students method with one-to-one mentoring. Why did you decide mentoring would be more effective?
DB: In a professional context, most writers interact with one other person – an editor, an agent, a producer, a publisher, or a script editor. The mentoring process is designed to replicate that one-to-one relationship, giving each student detailed critical feedback on personal work. It’s not about helping students get good marks on their assessments. The mentoring is specifically geared to their personal development as writers.
Some people may thrive in a workshop environment, but we don’t believe it’s the best method for helping individuals develop. The workshop may have been the default setting for creative writing courses for decades, but that doesn’t mean we should be afraid to challenge the orthodoxy. Why settle for a lowest common denominator brand of feedback when you can have ten hours of individually tailored development time?
SK: I think that workshops do have benefits for certain types of writing – particularly poetry and scriptwriting – but I’m sceptical about their value in this kind of context. We’ve created physical and online spaces for students to share and comment on each other’s work, but David and I have other things we want to do instead of facilitating the lottery of peer critique. We’re evangelical about the value of professional, structured, editorial mentoring, having both experienced it in different contexts. So every student will have one or other of us as a mentor for the time they’re on the course. It’s an intense and fairly challenging process, which demands a high level of commitment on both sides – and that’s why it works. The key to this is that we’ve both spent a lot of time developing new talent as industry professionals: we’re not setting ourselves up as literary figureheads to be emulated or appeased, and I think this role liberates students to concentrate on what they really want to do, and allows us to focus on enabling them to achieve it.
One of the Vulpes foxes was interested to know whether you see the MA as professional training or as creative and critical study. In other words, is the measure of success publication, or becoming a better writer, or understanding creative writing better?
DB: Sorry, but I don’t see creative and critical study being mutually exclusive to professional training. Our course has three streams – vocational, academic and writing practice. We’ll be introducing students to innovative theoretical ideas and encouraging them to experiment with these in a practical writing context. Our students will be reading and writing, with each activity informing the other. And there’s the practical working skills across a range of commercial media and popular genres designed to enhance their career prospects. Each student defines his or her own measure for success. So far, we’ve offered places to professional journalists, stand-up comics, authors who’ve had several books published and award-winning scriptwriters, so that’s not a one-size-fits-all definition. For me, it’s about helping students become better writers.
SK: Quite. We can’t put what we’re doing into any one of those boxes: that would be an evening class, not an MA.
BACKGROUND/ATMOSPHERE/WHAT KIND OF WRITERS MIGHT BENEFIT
“I have a personal horror of a roomful of docile teacher-pleasers, all embroidering their homework and repeating what I tell them back to me. That would drive me nuts: I want to be challenged and surprised” (Sam Kelly)
Can you tell us a bit more about the tutors on the MA and the kind of atmosphere you want to create?
DB: I was a daily newspaper journalist in New Zealand before coming to the UK. For the next ten years I worked as an editor of graphic novels and comic, including several years with iconic British weekly 2000AD. There I found and nurtured dozens of talented writers and artists to professional careers. I’ve had 20 novels published, a radio play on the BBC, written audio dramas featuring the Daleks, Doctor Who and Judge Dredd, won an international screenwriting prize and written more than a thousand pages of comic strip published in five different languages.
SK: I worked as a literary agent in London for many years, then as a critic for various newspapers, a development editor for publishers and a mentor to emerging writers through the Scottish Book Trust’s mentoring scheme. As an agent, I launched the careers of over 50 new authors, and worked across pretty much all fiction and non-fiction categories – and my whole career has been about finding talented writers, responding to their work with sustained and detailed attention, developing that talent and enabling people to achieve success. I write and have things published from time to time – but that’s not my focus: I see my role on the programme as very similar to the roles I’ve occupied previously. My academic background and research interests are in literary theory and experimental fiction, and these interests are a large part of the intellectual background to the programme.
And the atmosphere? That will be created by the students: from the moment they arrive, it’s all about them and what they bring to the enterprise. I have a personal horror of a roomful of docile teacher-pleasers, all embroidering their homework and repeating what I tell them back to me. That would drive me nuts: I want to be challenged and surprised – I want an exchange of ideas and a real team effort.
The atmosphere I’m hoping for is energetic, supportive, inspiring, risk-taking and fun. We’ve created a Writers’ Room for the private use of our students: it has a lot of sofas, a screened-off quiet area with desks, a huge bookcase, a DVD player, wi-fi, a wall you can scribble on, and great views. Students can use it in whatever way they choose: for collaborative working, reading and thinking, socialising – it could be a performance space, too. I can’t wait to see what goes on in there!
What kind of writers are you looking for – should they have experience/know what kind of genre they are interested in from the offset? Who do you think would benefit most from this MA?
DB: I believe writers working in a genre they don’t love tend to get found out sooner or later – you can fake it, but readers will know if your heart’s not in it. Better to work in a genre you naturally gravitate towards as a reader. But the course is not just about genre. We’re offering modules in different storytelling media such as writing for graphic novels, where the choice of genre is entirely your own – life writing, crime, fantasy, western, romance, whatever. And we also offer a specialist non-fiction option.
There’s no shortage of hobbyist writers who want to be published. We’re looking for students for whom writing is a need – not a want. They can’t help themselves. It’s a compulsion. They’re bursting with stories that have to be told, in whatever medium. The personality of our students leaps off the page in their writing. Dull, familiar, derivative work isn’t for us.
I believe writers who want a challenge, want to be pushed, want to learn the skills that can unlock their talents – they’re the people who will benefit most from this MA.
SK: This course is very competitive already, and we’ve turned down far more applicants than we’ve accepted. Those we take on have the kind of talent described in various answers above, and they’re energetic, committed and ambitious. Applicants definitely don’t need to have a fixed view of what kind of writer they are – that can sometimes be a disadvantage. For this programme, students have to be keen to take all sorts of challenges and learn about themselves as writers in the process.
Where do people go if people are interested in finding out more and about how to apply?
Fastest route is via our website. For full-time students, click this link: http://www.courses.napier.ac.uk/W54718.htm – and for part-timers, click here: http://www.courses.napier.ac.uk/W54719.htm – to find out more.
There are still places left for 2009/10, but we’d advise people to be quick. The first step is to fill in the online form via the links above. Selected applicants will then be invited to submit around 3,000 words of their work, and the final stage in selection is an interview.
Thanks to Sam Kelly and David Bishop for taking the time to answer our questions in such great detail. To read their interview with EPIC go here.
RosyB is a writer and regular bookfox.