The five best things I learned doing a creative writing MA

As a novice, er, novelist, I got lucky. To no-one’s surprise so much as my own, I was accepted onto the MA Creative Writing (Research) program at the University of Technology Sydney, the output of which, five years later, was my novel Where There Is Darkness and a 10,000-word ‘exegesis’ (a word I had to look up in a dictionary upon starting the course).

The research degree differs from the subject-based creative writing MA in that it demands of its handful of students no attendance at lectures or periodic submissions of coursework. Instead each candidate is assigned to a supervisor, whose sometimes unenviable role is to meet with their protégé a couple of times a semester and critique their work, assuming the protégé is actually producing any. And here I got lucky for a second time by becoming a student of Associate Professor Debra Adelaide, a renowned academic and award-winning Australian novelist. I have an awful lot to thank Debra Adelaide for. Without her interventions Where There Is Darkness would never have seen the light of day, or at least not in any form fit for human consumption.

Before we go any further, let me be clear: finishing an MA in no way qualifies me to dispense fiction writing advice. In many ways, it merely served to make me realise the extent of my own ignorance. All I’ve done below therefore is try to distil the huge volume of advice Debra Adelaide gave me over the years into a list of the five things I found most valuable in making my manuscript as presentable as I could make it.

1. Adverbs are evil little bastards that you don’t want in your life (these weren’t Professor Adelaide’s words exactly, but that was the gist). This adverbs thing is top of many ‘creative writing for dummies’ lists of things to avoid, yet I managed to ignore this when embarking on the early drafts of my manuscript and loaded up sentences with adverbs that at the time seemed essential but which I later realised should be banished, never to return.

My typical first draft sentences contained horrible things like: ‘Pete shivered and wrapped his arms tightly around himself’. ‘I vividly imagined being literally unmasked during assembly: Miss Roberts dramatically pointing us out, then us being reluctantly dragged out in front of everyone.’ (Is anyone ever dragged willingly, for god’s sake?) Just a few examples – but I could go on. And on, and on, forever.

2. The reader only cares about what the character is doing right now. This means action. A character who spends ten pages lying in bed pondering the mysteries of the universe is not giving the reader a fascinating window into their soul, they’re just someone lying in bed. Unless another character is about to join them there (and quickly), the reader will begin pondering the mystery of why they’re wasting their time.

With my novel it initially seemed to me critical that for the reader to comprehend the prolonged agony of guilt and fear that my protagonist Dave was suffering, it was necessary for the reader to live though it, with Dave, almost in real time. I therefore wrote many scenes in which Dave lay around, day after day, tediously bemoaning his fate and pondering his future, or lack thereof. It’s a miracle I didn’t fell asleep myself while writing those scenes. Luckily for all concerned, it was tactfully pointed out to me that I only needed to periodically give but a brief flavour of Dave’s fragile mental state, and preferably during scenes in which things were actually happening.

3. Filtering the narrative through a character’s lens often has a deadening effect (I nearly wrote ‘slightly deadening effect’ – those bloody adverbs again). Usually, the effect of filtering a scene through a character’s eyes is to distance the reader from the action, rather than placing them where you want them – i.e., in the thick of it.

Early drafts of my story were riddled with phrases such as ‘Dave watched the firework explode…’, when a simple ‘the firework exploded’ was so much more powerful. We don’t need to be told that Dave watched the firework explode – we want to be standing next to him when it goes off and to experience the same feeling of sick horror that he does. (The caveat to this is that it’s important to firstly set the scene clearly such that the reader is fully aware that Dave – to use my example – sees the firework explosion, but without it being directly spelled out.)

4. Drop the reader straight into the scene. My novel hinges around a shocking incident and what happens in its aftermath. In the early drafts, I was obsessed with making sure the reader always knew exactly how much time had elapsed since this incident. I therefore opened every chapter by describing precisely when and where its opening scene was taking place. Only then would the real action in the scene begin. The effect of this was to slow the story and for the reader to suffer the tedious experience of beginning each chapter effectively with a recap of what had happened in the previous one. It was like watching one of those TV documentaries about air crash investigations that after every ad break provides a summary of what has happened thus far, as if the viewer’s attention span is too feeble to otherwise keep up.

Not worrying about your readers sounds like fiction writing suicide, but in obsessing about always establishing time and place I think I was being too concerned about how the reader was faring, at the expense of just letting rip with the story. Thus the remedy to my fatal habit lay in crediting the reader with the ability to work some things out for themselves. (This is sometimes expressed as ‘leave some of the work to the reader’, but I dislike that definition. Who wants reading a story to feel in any way like work?). One of the most valuable things Debra Adelaide taught me was that the best way to open a chapter was to drop the reader straight into some action, and if necessary establish the scene’s time and place a bit later on.

5. Cut, cut and cut again. Yes, I know. Every writer has heard this a thousand times. Kill your darlings, and all that (I really hate that phrase). For me the real value in the advice I received was the realisation that in the process of constructing a novel, learning what to get rid of is more important than learning what to put in. Structural and copy editing of a manuscript is a big topic – at least it was for me – so we’ll leave it for now and give it its own shiny new blog post in a few weeks’ time.

Thanks for reading.

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