What did your MA in writing do for you?

Posted by Yvonne Barlow on Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Once upon a time, I was a journalist. My prose consisted of static attribution - he said, she said. I studied for an MA in writing to loosen my style - and, for the most part, it worked. Now I try to come at each sentence from a differing angle, varying sentence length and structure - no more 'just the attribution of facts.'
My MA dissertation had to be a complete novel 'worthy of publication.' Until this point my maximum written piece had been around 5,000 words (an advance obit on Mother Theresa). Having to stretch my prose to 80,000 words felt unsustainable - characters, plot, providing a series of climax and resolution that all led to a finale worthy of the reader's attention was all a massive challenge.
But I did it - although the novel was never published.
So what did I learn:
  • Create a strong opening - but don't let it be a letter from God. I did this - distracting and grandiose! 
  • Know where you're going - it's easy to lose direction. I thought my story was about nuns but it grew into a tale of Africa and Africans (they were much more interesting).
  • Sketch your characters ahead of time - I needed to know why a particular nun would be nasty.
  • Don't over prescribe your character, they become wooden and dull - this happens to my main character and I found it hard to breathe new life into her.
  • Slip background into dialogue - don't bore the reader with info dump. 
  • We need multiple story lines - it's a rare novel that can be sustained on one plot. Hence my Africans bringing new life to the bickering missionaries.

I'm sure there are many more lessons I could offer. In general, I think the MA gave me a heightened sensitivity toward the novel - it's structure, dialogue and development. 
But, I'm curious. What did you learn from your MA?




Tags: "ma creative writing" "creative writing ma" "writing ma" 
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Yvonne Barlow Editor at Hookline Books - where book clubs and readers choose the novels that go to print.

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