Thinking of Studying for an MA in Writing for Young People?
Writer and one of the twelve winners of SCBWI-BI's 2010 Undiscovered Voices competition, ANNE M LEONE, talks about her experiences and gives her Top Ten tips for your writing.
ANNE ML ANDERSON
ANNE M LEONE
I applied for Bath Spa University’s MA in Writing for Young People in a moment of desperation. I wasn’t sure I could cope with another day at my job. My frustration at work was leaking out into the rest of my life as well, sapping my time, energy and writing. An entire year spent writing seemed like a dream.
A few weeks later I received a letter inviting me to Bath for an interview and I returned to planet reality. What was I thinking? I couldn’t afford this. I couldn’t afford to not work for a year. I already had an MA, what purpose would a second serve? I had been in some bad writing classes, what made me think an MA wouldn’t be more of the same?
Then I went for the interview. It was love at first sight. I won’t bore you with descriptions of the castle at Bath Spa University, the rolling hills, the cows, the lake. But it was more than that. It was an interview spent talking about writing, why in my writing sample I chose present tense instead of past, my villain’s motivations, my favourite authors. I’d never before had fun at an interview. And when it ended—I didn’t want it to end.
So this past October I began my MA in Writing for Young People. Some might be tempted to call my decision impulsive or impractical. But maybe there’s nothing more practical than a writer wanting time to write, people to share writing with, and a beautiful place in which to do it.
Actually, much of what I’ve gained from my MA experience has been practical, by any definition of the word. I’ve had sessions on and been asked to write picture books, 5-7 books, 8-12 adventure stories, fantasy, real world settings, a teen story. For each of those genres, I’ve had to invent a new character and a new plot. These tasks have given me a confidence in my ability to write every day and to know there is a well of material inside me which won’t run dry. Because of the course’s regular workshops, I better understand the strengths in my writing. I’ve also gained insight into what I struggle with. I’ve become better able to deal with challenges and setbacks, and to take and give criticism. I’ve had the opportunity to make numerous contacts in the publishing world, from agents to editors to authors.
You could say I’ve been lucky. On a whim I joined a program in my own backyard and it ended up a perfect fit. I won’t dispute that. But I think I fell in love with Bath Spa’s programme so easily because its reality matched exactly with my fantasy. My classes are never bigger than eight students. I get to share work every other week. My tutors are so wise and encouraging. They respond right away via email and I can meet with them anytime. The programme is focused on children’s writing, so I don’t have to defend my genre, and instead can learn and grow within it. And yes, I do have classes in the castle.
The past year has been busy and a challenge for me, though I know my writing has improved dramatically. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been so happy in my day to day life. Do writers need to undertake MA programmes in order to be published? Of course not. But this programme was exactly what I needed at this moment in my life and in my writing career. A career? Sure. I’m not yet published, but I’ve given myself an opportunity to follow my dreams. I feel I can say, whatever comes next, I know I am embarking on something great.
What have I learned? More than anything, my MA has been an experience, a daily practice towards improving my writing. However, some of the writing lessons I’ve learned along the way are hopefully worth sharing:
TOP TEN TIPS
1. When a brand new character walks into your life, first imagine her physical appearance and setting. Somehow this often leads to her inner world and the secrets she keeps.
2. When creating young characters, think about the strong emotions and problems of that particular age to build your story.
3. Interesting characters have something missing in their lives and they’re trying to fill the gap.
4. Whether you start with character or plot, remember that character determines plot.
5. Actions speak louder than words. A single tear, tracing a wet line down your character’s cheek, tells the reader plenty. Any further information about your character’s emotions and thought process, however necessary it might feel, is just repetition. Your reader already got it.
6. Whenever you find yourself explaining what happened earlier, ask yourself if you should just show the reader the scene you’re describing.
7. Even one concrete detail can make your setting come alive.
8. End every chapter, every paragraph and every sentence with the most important or most poetic part.
9. Know what you most want to say and don’t say it. Instead, convey your theme through your characters’ actions and the physical world around them. (Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White has a great example of this. Charlotte’s death is described through the lens of the closing of the fair).
10. Keep track of critiques of your writing. Do people frequently notice similar things? I’ve made a checklist of the issues my readers always bring up so I’m better able to critique myself.
You can read about Anne's journey since being announced as one of the winners in the SCBWI-BI's 2010 Undiscovered Voices competition - here
Anne blogs here - Critically Yours