Completing a MA in Creative Writing
The craziness that is my life has recently gathered momentum. In April, my debut children’s novel, The Huntress: Sea, is due to be published in the UK by Egmont, with Italian and German editions publishing with Rizzoli and Carlsen. Proof copies have been circulated to key media, nestled in faux-fur lined wooden treasure chests, and the book has been included as one of the Bookseller’s most anticipated children’s books of 2017. I am pinching myself every day, because this is my wildest dream — my only lifelong ambition — made real. And if there’s one thing I know amid all this crazy, it’s that I would not be here if not for my master’s degree in Creative Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University.
An MA is by no means the only (or main) path to becoming an author (aka wild story-wrangler/whisperer). It’s not a guaranteed route at all; nothing is. It has to be valued for the experience itself. But it was the perfect path for me, and I doubt whether I would have had the time, motivation or space to finish a novel without it.
I’ve been a writer for pretty much as long as I can remember. But when I finished school, I knew writing absolutely was not a real job, and even more absolutely was not a job that could ever be real for me. I felt totally exhausted by the educational system. Dropping out of my first half-assed attempt at university was a legitimate choice, because my attitude stank. I needed to travel and live in mouldy, slug-infested flats and take jobs that would show me a pulsing cross-section of life. Very soon I felt too drained to write.
After my gap year expanded into 3, I was encouraged to focus on finding a failsafe route into a profession. Training and working as a nurse, and later as a midwife, proved to be one of the greatest adventures of my life (though for the most part the only books I had time to read were textbooks!). After working in healthcare for seven years I was humbled and inspired, and I felt a stirring of the courage I needed to face this Thing called writing. I’d seen first-hand that if there’s something you need to do, you shouldn’t hold out for tomorrow.
MA Writing for Young People, BSU 2013-2014: Highlights and Tips for Potential Students
Before I applied, I’d imagined I might also apply to a couple of other courses with good reputations. Pah! As soon as I found out about this course, I knew it was The One. In any case, I wanted a specialist course in children’s writing. I went ahead and put all my eggs in that one glorious basket. Wherever you choose to apply, research your choices thoroughly (spoiler: I can tell you which is the best MA right off the bat but if you will insist on shopping around. Eye roll.)
The application process encompassed a 20-page writing sample, references, qualifications and a covering letter, followed by an interview (the best day! The sun was blazing, the peacocks were strutting, cos, y’know, the campus has peacocks in the grounds). You should send in an example of work that showcases your strengths, but remember that your work isn’t supposed to be in perfect shape at this stage. I get the impression that tutors are often looking for a ‘spark’ of potential. I think the best thing you can do for your application is showcase something that you are enjoying writing – that’ll make your passion and your talent shine through.
The MA – Best Bits
Experience of working to tight deadlines
This was the best preparation for working with agents and editors, as was learning to how to accept and give critiques.
An aligned identity
(Serving a bit like a yoga instructor but for The Inside)
A remarkable thing happened to me on my interview day. One of the course tutors actually called me ‘a writer’. He held my application piece aloft to demonstrate, in a way that made me feel overwhelmingly happy. Every step following that moment was a step closer to my dual identities finally clicking back together. I could be a writer. It was possible. At some point during the course, one of our tutors asked us to write a couple of sentences on why we wanted ‘get published.’ (An awesome question!) For me, the same theme cropped up. To align my inner self with who I could be in the outside world.
This is even more important when you may not otherwise find yourself moving in particularly bookish circles.
The MAWYP has great industry contacts, including a prize awarded annually by a leading literary agent and a programme of talks by visiting authors, agents and editors. All the tutors are published authors, engaged in the contemporary world of children’s books. A good MA should be well-connected and give you opportunities to learn from those working in the industry, as well as the chance to forge connections. It should be a living, breathing part of the writing community.
Friends for life
I was lucky enough to make an amazing group of close friends during my MA year. Also, children’s publishing is a wonderful, inclusive community to be a part of and I feel like the love has never really stopped flowing. My introduction to this community came via the course, but many writers will already be connected through social media or writing groups, or other courses and societies. I was a total newbie and writing was pretty much a secret from everyone except my parents and closest/oldest friends. The MA was a great way of finding my crew.
Introduction to workshopping and critique
Writing had always been kept relatively close to my chest, so trust was an important factor in workshop, as well as a determination to improve my writing and being prepared to experiment with different age-ranges and genres. I threw myself in with openness and positivity, though at times workshopping can feel like wearing your skin inside out. Again, I was extremely lucky to have an amazing group. I had no prior experience of workshopping and had to learn pretty quickly how to give a critique (which is another subject entirely, but on a good MA you will learn to give a thorough, respectful and balanced critique and you’ll realise that it helps your own writing as much it helps the person whose work is being workshopped).
Teaching me to finish something
‘Finish a first draft!’ would be my main piece of yelled advice to younger me, along with ‘get over yourself’ and ‘accept criticism’ and many other roughly-hewn gems. I had to submit a manuscript of 40,000 words to complete my final assessment on the MA, but I also pushed myself to finish a full first draft because I was encouraged so much by my workshop group. Thank you, team Offenders!
Re-booting my reading habits
By the time I came to the MA I was still reading (there’s never been a time when that stopped, even when writing almost did) but I was suffering from distraction/sensory overload/stress and often had to re-read lines several times. The MA taught me to engage more deeply with reading and helped me to focus, which I’m so grateful for. We also learned about ‘reading as a writer’, which is a very valuable skill (but makes you hyper-analytical of everything you read!).
A taste of publication
During the course, we had two chances to be published. We were invited to write short stories for the website of the Roman Baths Museum (so much fun! We attended a talk at the museum and had free access to get inspiration!) and we each had excerpts of our work printed in the MA anthology, which is the annual student showcase for agents and publishers. As well as having a story in the book, we each had to take on a role to get it produced and distributed. Launching at Foyles was an incredible experience to share as a group.
A practical element
I would seriously recommend finding a course with some form of publishing module. Mine had a module where we had visiting lectures from a children’s books scout, we were made to dissect contracts, we had to write book reviews and learn about book packagers and commissions, and learn about the different agents and publishers out there. We had to write essays on an element of children’s publishing (mine was about getting boys reading and I included interviews with booksellers and children) and build a ‘media toolkit’ of synopses, bios and ‘blads’. It was super kick-ass and interesting.
Other things to consider when making your choice:
Location – I recommend being as flexible on this as possible. I know many people will be unable to relocate, but if there’s the slightest possibility, and it means you’ll get the right course for you, do it. If there’s no possibility, consider enquiring about low-residency options or studying part time and commuting.
Everyone in my workshop group relocated for our course and the majority of them came from the US. Some rented out their homes, enabling them to rent a place for a year in Bath (which could be an option if you’re firmly rooted elsewhere).
Full time or part time?
Personally, I knew I wanted the full immersive experience of studying full time, with two modules running concurrently. This is a very important factor to consider carefully though, and a part-time option makes a course much more accessible to many people. You should know that any full time MA (especially over one year) is highly intensive.
Understandably a prohibitive factor for many. But a career development loan from the bank helped me get the funds to do the course, plus I worked to support myself. The idea of having to start repayments can be anxiety inducing. But that’s another reason why it’s so important to make an informed choice of MA. An excellent MA is worth the price tag, IMHO.
I completed my course on a full-time basis, over one year, and worked day and night shifts as a midwife at the local hospital at the same time (19 hours per week). It was hard. But I felt proud to have done it, plus not working at all for a whole year would not have been an option for me. If it’s the same for you I would reassure you that if you need/want to work it is possible, though slightly hardcore. The less insane option might be to opt for a part time MA.
Any period of intensive study has the potential to take its toll on relationships. This isn’t a negative point, just something to be fully aware of before you apply. Your loved ones will need to understand what you are about to undertake. You have to be 100% committed to your studies, but remember that ultimately your mental health and your life outside the course are important, so it’s about finding a balance and practicing some form of self-care.
What do you need from your MA?
Are you interested in specific modules? Do you want a course that provides teaching experience or some kind of community outreach? Make sure you know what you’re signing up for and that it meets your personal needs and expectations. Mine met my expectations and far exceeded them, but I would have been devastated if I’d picked the wrong course and been let down by the experience.
Making a commitment to yourself and your writing, and getting the ultimate dedicated space in which to experiment, learn and create are the main reasons I recommend an MA (or MFA in the US). Throw yourself in and give it everything you’ve got.
Or, if you’re not sure you want to take the MA step, I’d recommend finding some way of experiencing the writer’s workshop, maybe by taking a shorter course. But no seriously you should just do the MAWYP at BSU, it really is the best.
(PS keep going, and if you’re struggling, find a crew to cheer you on!)
Sarah grew up in the UK, on the Sussex coast, and she started writing when she was around five years old. In 2013 she decided the time had come to take her writing more seriously. The decision to attend Bath Spa University for the MA in Creative Writing for Young People was the best of her life. Through this course, she made amazing writer friends, worked with incredible tutors, and met the agent who now represents her work, Jodie Hodges at United Agents.
Life has been a rollercoaster since finishing her masters in 2014. Her first novel for children will be published by Egmont Children’s Books in April 2017. The book is the first in a trilogy for 8-12s, and it’s called THE HUNTRESS: SEA.