By Liz Monument
A Creative Writing MA is a notoriously expensive investment and, in terms of distance learning, it’s also a relatively new phenomenon. When I began mine at Lancaster in 2011, it was one of only two on-line courses available. Now, in 2016, a google search brings up so many options that they run to several pages.
Twenty or so years ago, an agent would pick up a new writer and would be prepared to work with that writer for up to two years in order to produce a polished debut novel. Then a couple of serious recessions impacted the publishing industry, and the internet altered the nature of publishing. Publishers became more risk averse, and agents had no choice but to follow suit. Today, agents will only take on a novelist who is virtually ready to be put straight out into the public arena. Authors still have to do their training somewhere, but the system has conspired to ensure this is at the author’s cost and not the publisher’s, both in terms of time and money.
Enter the education system, sometimes with seductive promises that ‘anybody can write’ (I have known at least one well-known University use this slogan in its advertising campaign), effectively offering to sell any paying member of the public the dreamed-of chance to find themselves on the other side of a signing table. The truth is that education is now an industry, and universities are smart enough to cash in on your dreams, because like it or not, writing is just like any other job out there: not everybody can do it.
My own distance learning MA experience was brilliant, and a choice I will never regret having made. I’d reached a glass ceiling in my writing where, after several novels, my enthusiasm repeatedly fell flat as they reached their final stages. I knew something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t work out what. Enrolling on the MA to sort out this dilemma wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I didn’t have the £6,000 fee, so after four years of telling myself no, you can’t do this, I finally re-mortgaged my house to find the money, and took the plunge. My biggest fear was discovering that I simply didn’t make the grade and that I’d better give up and start origami or flower arranging instead. I knew the MA was, in a way, my dreaded watershed moment.
My tutors were all published novelists, poets and short story writers with a plethora of industry awards to their names. Between them, they had a huge amount of educational experience. Just because you write doesn’t mean that you can teach people to write, so both publication and teaching experience are essential for good tutors. Before I joined the course, I thought I had a handle on the basic differences between genres. I followed various literary agents and read authors’ blogs, and I had a general understanding of how the publishing industry works. It took my MA to teach me that there are many more styles of novel out there than I’d realised, and that there are good, mediocre and pretty poor examples of each on the bookshelves. With some guided reading suggestions from a tutor and a wider selection of book reviews offered by my MA cohort, the reading I amassed proved a positive influence on my prose.
Nothing makes you perform like a date in the diary. Rather than winging it alone, the MA provides along-the-way critiquing which shapes your work as you go. This means that you’re constantly refining both your prose and your intentions, rather than tackling 80,000 words plus before anybody else gets to tell you what they think. The submissions for MA prose samples vary between 1,000 words and 3,000 words. At Lancaster, these submissions go alternately to your tutor, and to your conference group. Fortunately, there are several members in each group, so any weaker links (in the form of people who either rip your work to shreds for the fun of it, or are just plain nice because they can’t be bothered to be constructive) shouldn’t ruin your experience of the course. I was lucky: both my tutor Sarah and my conference group Dee, Ericka and Olivia were amazingly supportive, and have remained firm friends.
Two years of part-time study later, my MA novel Frozen was shortlisted for Mslexia’s unpublished novel competition (2013), and signed by The Viney Agency (2014). Frozen was re-named The Eternity Fund (the Disney musical Frozen saw to that!) and was subsequently published as a talking book by Audible.co.uk in 2015.
I was so impressed by the MA system that I’m now a part-time PhD Creative Writing student, distance learning again at Lancaster. The fees are more manageable for PhD (at the time of writing, £2,000 per annum), and the regular tutor contact keeps me focussed and broadens my exposure to critical work and contemporary fiction. I can’t imagine detaching my writing from the academic process, simply because it has transformed me from an eager student into a published novelist. I may have got there on my own eventually, but I’m sure it would’ve taken much longer. However, the fact remains that the MA isn’t for everyone, as reflected by literary agent Charlie Viney, who notes that: ‘Creative Writing MAs have proliferated over the last 20 years and offer clear advantages to would-be writers, not least the process of peer group review. Do all courses realistically reflect the challenging climate for debut novelists with British and American publishers? I’m far from sure.’
If your concerns are financial, and you simply can’t afford to enrol on an MA, there are plenty of excellent short writing courses staffed by published authors who are also experienced teachers. Many take place in retreats where you will have the delight of switching off daily life to focus purely on your art.
Liz Monument’s second novel Jennifer’s Garden is currently being read by publishers in the UK and US; her third novel Ring-O-Thorns is in progress. Liz taught music for 20 years before becoming a full-time writer; to read fiction extracts, visit www.lizmonument.com
Liz is represented by Charlie Viney at The Viney Agency, Telegraph Hill, London www.thevineyagency.com