Writer’s Life – Five Things About my Creative Writing MA

I have undertaken many creative writing courses, the most important one of which was probably the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. I was asked to describe what I learnt during that time so, rather than write about the more technical elements of the programme, I thought I’d talk about the experience being on the programme itself.

Corsham Court, Wiltshire, home of Bath Spa’s MA Creative Writing

Corsham Court, Wiltshire, home of Bath Spa’s MA Creative Writing

Number 1 – You’re never too old to learn to write, nor too young. You might just find you have a natural talent. I was encouraged to apply by a very good friend, who was undertaking an MA herself at Bath Spa. At the time of my application to Bath Spa University there was around a hundred and thirty-three applicants and only thirty-five places – I was determined to get one of them. At the open day, I was surrounded by younger people. It would have been easy to be intimidated. But, I’m not a giver-upper – I said to myself, why not me? I made sure my application was the best it could be. I was thrilled to be invited to an interview and surprised to be seated opposite Fay Weldon and Gerard Woodward, two literary novelists with great credentials. It was a challenging experience to say the least. I cannot describe how excited I was when I received the email confirming that Bath Spa University was offering me a place, one of the most prestigious creative writing courses in the UK.

Tip: If you’re currently looking into creative writing courses at university, take time out to research how to write a great personal statement. This could make or break your application! Also, you will likely be required to submit an example of your writing. In my case it was twenty pages. Polish it until it shines. I’m dyslexic, so I can check my work numerous times without spotting the mistakes (generally words missed out). Ask someone else to proofread your writing. And, if you use Microsoft Word, use the Read Aloud Speech function on the Review Toolbar. It makes spotting mistakes a little easier.

Number 2 – There is an assumption, particularly on an MA, that you have underpinning knowledge. There was a whole vocabulary of literary terms I was unfamiliar with. I often had to interrupt the tutor for clarification in order to understand what he or she was referring to. I wasn’t the only one in that position either. Fortunately, because of my studies with the Open University, I knew how to present my work. With regards to layout and formatting, that gave me a small advantage.

Tip: look up literary terms such as Register, Agency, Trope to name just three words you’ll need to understand. Make sure you understand the correct manner in which to format your work. For example, line spacing (usually double) and indentation (the first paragraph of a chapter should not be indented), no line spacing between paragraphs of the same style. These small touches can make a big difference. Also, on the MA, you will be required to submit assignments and essays. I wish I’d read up on essay writing in advance, it would have made life much easier.

Number 3 – Workshopping is integral to most creative writing courses. Having other people (tutors, students) read and critique your work can initially be worrying and stressful. The benefits you will derive far exceed the fear. Just remember the feedback is on your writing and not you as a person. Your tutors and fellow students will tell you what, in their opinion, works for them and what doesn’t. Often there will be opposing views. One person may love a piece of writing, someone else less so. It is immensely helpful if you are open to feedback and become practised in both giving and receiving it. I find it a joy to read other people’s work. You can learn from it, both in terms of the quality of writing and the writer’s individual style. For me, the workshopping process is critical. I’m dyslexic, as I mentioned earlier, and there are often errors in my work, so it is enormously helpful to have those pointed out. Even more important is feedback on description, plot and characterisation. Also, someone’s else’s eyes on a piece of writing can be invaluable, especially when working on a novel. Some people will offer detailed feedback, others may give it a once over and make a couple of comments. This can lead to dissatisfaction, especially if you’ve spent a lot of effort critiquing someone’s work and it isn’t reciprocated. But, in reality, an MA will be very demanding of your time. People have lives, some of your fellow students may juggle jobs, families and health issues. It’s easy to judge without knowing people’s circumstances. I endeavoured to tailor my style of critiquing to the individual.

Tip: Join a writing group before you start your MA. Generally, they are supportive environments that provide the discipline of submitting work and will introduce you to the critiquing process.

Number 4 – My tutors were wonderful. They were inspiring, encouraging and kind, especially Nathan Filer, Lucy English and Samantha Harvey. My manuscript tutor, Dr Colin Edwards, was all of that and also went beyond the call of duty. He understood my need for very detailed feedback and was especially attentive to errors that I was unconsciously making (words missing, the wrong spelling even though I knew exactly the right spelling). A few tutors were overly direct; you learn to get over it. As time goes by you develop the thick skin that is essential in order to cope as a writer and prepare you for the world of getting an agent and publisher.

Tip: Familiarise yourself with the tutors who may be teaching you. Read their books if you have time. No doubt, there will be a ‘Recommended Reading List’. It can cost a fortune. You probably won’t need to own every book on the list. I bought second-hand and still have those books today. Two favourites are: Writing Fiction – A Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (the 1992 edition) and Stephen King’s On Writing. Also, practise note-taking. It can be hard to keep up otherwise. I can count on one hand the number of handouts we were given on the MA I did. I used to take notes and then make my own.

Number 5 – We had the opportunity to meet and learn from agents, publishers and authors. I loved those sessions. Statistically speaking the chances of signing with an agent are small, and of signing a publishing contract even smaller. Listening to what they had to say was interesting, informative and motivating. My cohort and I were fortunate in that, upon graduation, our work was included in Sparks Bath Spa Anthology. This anthology was sent out to agents both in paperback and digital format, which gave us a huge advantage, or it certainly did me. So when you’re researching creative writing courses, personally I think it’s a good idea to see what they do to help students get their work out into the world of representation and publishing. If you’re interested, My Journey to Publication blog can be found here.

Tip: Do take notes. You might find yourself submitting to an agent later on that you met in the course of your studies. Sadly, book bloggers weren’t on the list. I’d encourage you do research in that regard. They have a great deal of influence with readers, they love books and the interviews they conduct with authors are often very insightful. They are the interface between the writer and their potential audience.

Finally, am I convinced having an MA in Creative Writing makes me a better writer than someone without one? No, I’ve met many wonderful authors who are naturally talented and write great books. They’ve honed their craft and worked hard to be successful. There are also many wonderful writers out there who could write a novel but don’t. For anyone like that, I would encourage you to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it gave me the confidence boost that I needed. There are many routes to publishing and the MA is merely one of them. When you are reviewing the options on offer, it’s important to ascertain the level of commitment you are going to have to make both financially and work-wise. The course I did required a substantial amount of commitment. Was it worth it? Yes, it was. Good luck!

My debut novel, She Lies Hidden, was a UK Kindle Best Sellers Top 100.

How far would you go to find your missing sister?

When DI Thomasine Albright is informed that the remains of her fifteen-year-old sister, Karen, have been found, she promises her mother that she will be the one to find the person responsible. Thomasine is willing to sacrifice everything to find Karen’s killer. And when she does – he’ll pay

Grab your Kindle or paperback copy from Amazon. The audio-book is also available from Audible.

She Lies Hidden by C M Stephenson

She Lies Hidden by C M Stephenson

My Journey to Publication

When you think about getting a book published, you probably think about agents and publishers and deadlines. But my journey to publication started much earlier on. And for many years, it was solely as a reader. I read every single day and have done so for much of my adult life.

My family were working class and financial hardship was the norm. Books were both my escape and my solace. For the first time in my young life, the world opened up beyond the boundaries of the small Lancashire village in which I spent most of my childhood. I became an avid reader when I was about fourteen. I had a paper round and, at long last, I could buy my own books.

Although I left school at fifteen before my ‘O’ Levels, I went on to have a successful career, acquiring many qualifications along the way and even lecturing at university. And those early years were filled with life experiences that continue to influence my writing.

In 1996 I established my own training consultancy, and it was there that I forged an embryonic writing career. I wrote the majority of materials for the workshops I ran and also sold them to other organisations and trainers. My greatest love was writing role-plays and case studies. They were in themselves one page stories, which would then be acted out by willing participants before my eyes.

It was only when we moved from Cornwall to South Gloucestershire in 2008 that I took the opportunity to study creative writing, initially with Open University, followed a few years later by the MA Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in Corsham. Along with completing NaNoWriMo the previous year, this was another critical turning point in my journey towards getting a book published.

The MA was daunting. I had to learn a whole new vocabulary. Fortunately, the first piece of work I submitted was well-received. That very same piece, after graduation, was included in the Spark’s Anthology for 2016. Getting a book published with your work inside was a wonderful opportunity for myself and my peers. The anthology, a critical element of the MA, was sent out literary agents throughout the UK and is available in digital and paperback formats. Four weeks later there was a formal launch in London, where students could pitch their work to agents.

Back in the January, I had attended a two-day residential Women in Fiction Workshop in Bath. We were offered a fantastic opportunity – there was to be a Dragon’s Den type of competition. Writers could submit five thousand words of their manuscript, then pitch it to an editor from Harper Collins and a literary agent. Much to my huge surprise, I won. The prize – a bottle of champagne. But more importantly, something of greater value – a critique of the work submitted. The editor very kindly offered to read the full manuscript, but at that time I was only about thirty thousand words in. It was without doubt a confidence builder, so much so that I pitched to an agent at the London Book Fair. She too was interested in reading more.

The Spark’s Anthology was launched in digital and paperback in early April. The first agent emailed me three hours later. During the following weeks I was contacted by a further nine agents, including representatives from some of the leading agencies in the UK. I was overwhelmed, to say the least.  I sent more additional chapters to the first five agents who contacted me. Of those, three offered me representation. One declined and another said they’d wait until the full manuscript was ready. The rest I sent a thank you email to because, by the end of April, I had agreed to sign with Jenny Savill of Andrew Nurnburg & Associates.

In May 2016, Jenny and I agreed a deadline of the 31st August for the first draft. I would send her a few chapters every week or so. Importantly, she advised me to just write and not worry about the word count. The plot truly twisted and turned, it seemed to have a life of its own. At times I struggled. I wrote three potential endings, all of which ended up in the archive file. Four months later, the first draft was completed, all one hundred and sixty-five thousand words of it.  It was then that the feedback process began in earnest. The advice and guidance from Jenny was invaluable. The following December, I undertook a massive edit, the result of which reduced the word count to 95k. Slowly it was shaping up. The final draft, finished early July 2017, was submitted to editors and publishers. This is when I knew I was finally close to getting a book published. Jenny passed on to me a number of very kind rejections who praised the writing and creativity. No doubt there were others, not so kind, but thankfully she didn’t send them to me.

To keep myself busy and sane, I started on another manuscript and wrote a summary for another idea (still on file). I carried on studying; I attended residential workshops at Moniack Mhor and Arvon. More recently, I undertook an online course with Unthank Creative Writing School.  For me, the structure of learning, writing and critiquing is essential. All three programmes were highly enjoyable and I met lots of interesting people, many of whom I’m still in contact with.  

I was delighted when Betsy Reavley of Bloodhound Books offered me a contract. I signed with them in June 2018 with a target date for publication of September 2018. Life since then has been pretty hectic. I asked Betsy if it would be possible for me to go through the manuscript again; there were amendments that I wanted to make. Much to my relief, she agreed. I believe the book is better for it. I found both the editing and proofreading elements of the publishing process challenging yet invaluable. Getting a book published is not always plain sailing.

She Lies Hidden by C M Stephenson

She Lies Hidden by C M Stephenson

She Lies Hidden was released on Kindle on 24 September. Whilst I was filled with trepidation, I was also excited at the thought of people reading it. For me, that has always been the dream. To add icing onto the cake, I signed an audiobook contract with Bolinda Publishing, am Australian publishing house, in December 2018. Available in the UK, North America and throughout the southern hemisphere, it is due for release via Audible on the 28th March 2019.

My debut novel, She Lies Hidden, was a UK Kindle Best Sellers Top 100.

How far would you go to find your missing sister?

When DI Thomasine Albright is informed that the remains of her fifteen-year-old sister, Karen, have been found, she promises her mother that she will be the one to find the person responsible. Thomasine is willing to sacrifice everything to find Karen’s killer. And when she does – he’ll pay

Grab your Kindle or paperback copy from Amazon. The audio-book is also available from Audible.

My Writing Day

My writing day varies, if I’m on a deadline, I tend to wake early and, if I’m struggling to get back to sleep, I get up. This could be as early as four-thirty. Today I’m writing this at five-twenty-five. On days such as these, I write in my dressing gown, reclaim my office chair (one of my cats thinks it’s his) and start work immediately.

Alternatively, if I wake later, I wait until my husband has got up for work, around six-thirty, then read for thirty to forty-five minutes. I have a pen and pad by the bed and make a note of any particular words that leap off the page. My early morning reading is for self-development and inspiration. I’ll scan through something like Writing Fiction – a Guide to the Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. My 1992 edition is well-worn and bought second hand. I love it. Or I’ll read a work of fiction (authors such as Maggie O’Farrell, Val McDermid and Jessie Burton to name but a few). These are generally novels I have already read, found to be beautifully written and want to learn from. Most recently, I was captivated by Educated written by American author, Tara Westover; a tremendous book that was an absolute page-turner.  Although a memoir – it reads like a psychological thriller. If I’ve received a new copy of Writing Magazine, I read through that. It’s a very useful publication for writers of any level.

Then I get up, make the bed and get ready for the day. I try and get a little housework out of the way before I start. The first thing I do is feed the cats, I have two. Then I feed me. After that I load the dishwasher and washing machine and tidy up. All these are practical tasks that would plague me if I didn’t get them out of the way.   

I like to be in the office by nine o’clock. This is a fairly simple commute as I work from home. I make myself a coffee, turn on the computer, have a quick glance at my planner and jot down anything else that comes to mind. This enables me to stay on track and also ensures that tasks progress and deadlines are worked towards. I like the discipline of it.

IMG_0267 (002).JPG

With my current project, I read through the bullet point list of the plot line to make sure I’m going in the right direction.

Unless there are more urgent priorities, the first hour or hour and half is usually dedicated to the previous day’s writing. In real terms, this means editing and polishing. Flashing things out, shrinking them back, looking for the right words, behaviour and dialogue. Before I adopted this approach, I would get caught up in the opening chapters, reworking them time and time again. Experience has taught me that there will be several drafts and if I keep trying to improve the beginning, it’ll take me a lot longer to get to the end.  I’ve recently started using a sixty-minute hour glass that I bought for that very purpose.

I’m dyslexic and often horrified to see how many words I’ve missed out or misused, regardless of the fact that I know which ‘too’ or ‘to’ to use. Then I discovered Microsoft’s text to speech and life got somewhat easier. Regardless of all that, things still slip through.

When the hour and a half is up, I check my emails, Facebook and Twitter. I try and limit this to fifteen minutes. It’s easy to get lost in them.

 After that I do new writing, that is the next chapters in the whatever project I’m working on. This involves jotting down a few ideas and then letting my mind go with it. I learnt a great deal from writing Where She Lies Hidden, especially about planning things out (I didn’t) and plotting (I struggled). The first draft is me telling myself the story. After reading through the bullet pointed plot list, I literally close my eyes and write what comes into my head. That early version bears no resemblance to that final draft. Most often, I will write in 3rd person, chapter by chapter and in one document. Then I decide the point of view for each character and edit accordingly again. I am very fortunate to have people I trust to critique my work. They provide me with valuable, honest feedback, and I return the favour. For me, it is perhaps one of the most important parts of the process.

IMG_0269 (002).JPG

I usually work through until about two-thirty, then take a break. Then I will watch a crime drama – notebook and pen in hand. It’s one of the many ways I gather description. I make notes on dialogue, gestures, facial expression and voice. I examine the way actors interpret the script; my current favourite is Unforgotten – great writing and superb acting. YouTube is also an invaluable resource. For She Lies Hidden, I used it for research into brain injuries, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, police interview techniques and for the case histories of missing people. I also speak directly to those involved in the areas of work I’m writing about.   

Every few weeks, I like to treat myself to coffee and cake. Tea and coffee shops are a goldmine for detail. I usually spend a couple of hours observing how people move, gesture and talk.  I take copious notes which I keep for reference purposes. I rarely leave home without a notebook and pen. However, on the 1st January, I gave up anything with processed sugar in it. The cakes are now, quite literally, off the menu!

Every other day I back up my files to the Cloud. Once a week I copy the directory to a detachable hard-drive. That way my work is safe.

I finish work about three-thirty, hopefully after achieving my word target. Currently I’m aiming for 700-1000 words a day. Then I peer into the fridge and wonder what the hell I can whip up for dinner.

Life isn’t all work.  We live in a very lovely part of the country and like to get out walking a couple of times a week. Plus, I meet up with friends. There is so much inspiration out there and I don’t want to miss it!

Inspiration - Getting Words on the Page

I’m writing this at 6.26 a.m. It’s publication day of my debut novel, She Lies Hidden, and I am very nervous indeed.

I woke very early today, which is the norm for me most mornings. The digital display on my Garmin watch glowed in the dark – 5.09 a.m. I lay in bed for thirty minutes desperate to go back to sleep, it wasn’t going to happen. So, I gave up, got up, made myself a coffee and started work.

Ironically, early morning seems to be the best time for me to write. The house is silent, and my husband and the cats asleep. I don’t bother getting changed, it’s just me in my dressing gown, my computer and a coffee. I let the words flow unhindered, make a note of whatever comes into my head. I don’t worry about the quality or accuracy of what I’m writing, that comes later.

For the last week, my husband and I have been on holiday. An unusual two centre holiday, four days in Norfolk and then three days in Vienna. Whilst I have an iPhone for communication, I didn’t take along my laptop, I would only worry about it being safe. Instead, my trusty friends are old school – two notebooks, a smallish one for my handbag (a permanent fixture) and an A4 ring bound one for my daily writing. I like to write with a fountain or rollerball pen (Lamy make wonderful ones that aren’t too expensive).  

My daily practice when on holiday is to write just after breakfast. I endeavour to fill at least one page of A4, it usually takes me about ten to fifteen minutes. It doesn’t have to be well-written. Sometimes it’s to do with the project I’m working on, at other times it’s not. It probably drives my husband mad, he’s always eager to be off out, sightseeing, walking or getting on with whatever we have planned.

For the rest of the day my small notebook lies waiting, literally itching to be written in. I’ll jot down a few notes as we wait for a coffee in a café, it’s a habit that’s repeated time and time during the day. I look around, write what I see. It was something that developed when I was studying creative writing with Open University. We were encouraged get outside, to observe the life around us. And life is so incredibly interesting.  

Last Saturday, whilst having coffee and cake in a beautiful 1930’s café in Vienna, a family of three seated themselves a few feet away from us. The small family unit comprised a young child and two adults, who I assumed were her parents. The walls of the café were lined with cubicles, the seats covered in red velvet. Some tight and snug, big enough for only one person; others up to six. The tables were ringed with chairs on the other side. The family in question were tucked in an L shaped booth.

The child nestled in her father’s lap, she was perhaps only three or four years old, with huge dark brown eyes and shoulder length hair. The resemblance to her mother was striking. The mournful expression on the child’s face was matched only by the force by which she clung to her father’s neck. The mother sat rigid in the corner, her mouth set in a frown, her eyes completely fixed on her daughter. The sadness that emanated from her was quite startling. The edges of her lips turned down. Her eyes gleamed with tears, yet none fell. I felt her aloneness. The father’s left arm wrapped around his daughter’s waist tightly, the fingers of his right hand stroked her forehead. Was she ill, I wondered. Her eyes locked on his adoringly. The mother looked on, hands resting on her lap, as though filled with dread. 

Then a waiter appeared; their food order had arrived. Three plates of food piled high.

All three transformed into happy, smiling human beings. The atmosphere changed in a moment; the clouds appeared to lift. We sat in the café for another thirty minutes and yet the girl stayed in her father’s arms. Her mother remained in opposite side of the booth.   

The image kept coming back to my mind as I sat on the plane on the way home to the UK. The memory of it so open to misinterpretation. It was none of my business after all. The child could have clambered onto her mother’s lap moments after we left. The father might have been away for a while. Perhaps the father wasn’t the father after all. He could have been a beloved uncle. Perhaps the mother did reach out and touch her daughter. I wasn’t watching them all the time.

Of one thing I am completely sure, I am highly unlikely to find out. All I saw was a snapshot of life. Three human beings waiting for their breakfast in a café.  

It is scenes such as these that stoke my imagination. It was the first thing I wrote in my notebook when I returned to our hotel. And strands of it may very well turn up in my next book. Who knows.  

Photo Credit: Mark Stephenson