Transmitted

I wrote in a post over three and a half months ago about the MMU MA Creative Writing ‘Transmission Project’. That’s the second largest piece of assessed work on the course, which was due to be submitted in September.

As with all Masters’ degrees (at least in common with my fairly recent OU MSc in Software Development), the course is structured into 180 credits. The largest component is the dissertation or project — in our case a novel of at least 60,000 words — which is worth a third of the marks (60 credits).

The MMU course then weights the Transmission Project and the two Reading Novels units at 40 credits each (the latter split across years one and two, which are assessed by essays). I found both the Reading Novels units that I did to be the best parts of the course — with very good tutors in Jenny Mayhew (who’s since left MMU and has published a novel of her own — see this interview on the Waterstones blog) and Andrew Biswell.

The Text Assignment (the publishing industry strand for which I wrote an essay on literary agents) makes up 20 credits and, interestingly, the Writing Novels workshops make up the remaining 20 credits, split over the two years, quite a small weighting considering that this is the part of the course where creative writing is taught in earnest. I’d guess it could be argued that the novel, to which the third year is devoted, is also the end product of these sessions, which means 80 of the 180 credits are devoted to the novel (and the extra 40 for the Transmission project specifically non-novel).

Anyway, I had an e-mail a few days ago with the welcome news that I’d passed the Transmission Project with a mark that I wasn’t displeased with, given that I’d pulled it all together in something of a mad scramble, post York Festival of Writing, whereas some of my coursemates had been sensible and started well in advance. This may have been reflected by the marker’s comments that the accompanying essay rather let down the screenplay with which it was submitted, in terms of the scores.

Most of the comments were quite positive — it was noted that the characters and their situations came across strongly. That’s important in a dramatic form such as a screenplay, which is all ‘show’ with very limited options to ‘tell’ — so you can put a few, brief notes in the script about a character (INT. JAMES’S OFFICE. DAY. JAMES, mid30s, is staring at a computer screen) that’s about it. You can’t spend half a page of exposition describing how James came to be in his office that day or, most crucially, how he feels about it (more than a stage direction like ‘bored expression’). It all has to be told by action and dialogue. So it’s an achievement that my two main characters’ predicaments came over to the marker very clearly.

It’s amazing to be reminded how much readers can infer from a very limited amount of words. I once converted into a poem a piece of prose description that set the scene for a chapter in the novel. I guess it probably wasn’t a great poem if it was born of a piece of prose — it wasn’t that long, possibly a sonnet structure –but I took it to the Metroland Poets workshop and a couple of the poets who listened to me read it completely nailed what it alluded to. I’d attempted to describe a barbecue outside a pub held on the day England played Germany in the 2010 football World Cup (the infamous ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard disallowed goal game) using only 70 or 80 fairly oblique words (and without calling the poem England v Germany or similar) but they identified it exactly — probably more of a testament to their poetry interpretation skills than mine as a poet.

(As an aside, I’ve just purchased Sharon Olds’¬†Stag’s Leap, this year’s T.S.Eliot prize winning poetry book. As widely reported, it’s a very personal collection themed around the break-up of her 32-year marriage around 15 years ago. I’m currently revising a section of the novel that deals with related themes and I’d like to read her poetry to gain some additional insight into these situations.)

As with poetry, screenplays are a medium where brevity is paramount. My Transmission Project was more like Spooks than Ingmar Bergman — I had about half a dozen scene changes per page on a couple of pages (and a page in screenplay time is meant to equate to about a minute). I’d say that was quite conservative compared with many modern films but the feedback suggested I’d have earned slightly more marks with less slicing and dicing. Possibly so, but it’s all good practice for injecting some of that pace into the novel itself.

So, to use an athletic analogy, I’m on the home straight with the MA with everything completed and, even more importantly, passed apart from the submission of the novel itself. However, the somewhat ridiculous mismatch between the course deadlines and the annual sitting of the examination committee means that we’ll have to wait eight months after finishing in October to hear our results. Unless I submit early, in March, then I won’t graduate until 2014.

What’s worse, we won’t even get our student entitlements during the wait. I think I’m due at least one visit to the student bar to get the cheap beer which is part of my student human rights. I might even bump into the sort of characters from¬†Fresh Meat who’ve been my virtual, fictional colleagues over the past two and a half years.

As a post-script to the posting on the blog technical problems, I reported to my wonderful internet hosting provider that they’d managed to corrupt the historical content of the blog by interspersing it with peculiar characters seemingly at random. According to various Google searches, there are ways of fixing this automatically but I’m not sure I’d trust either the hosting provider or my own PHP and mySQL skills to implement these without cocking the whole lot up even more — so I may have to work my way through and manually remove the extraneous characters. I’ve done a couple of posts already and there’s loads more to do — but it’s a good displacement activity.

3 Replies to “Transmitted”

  1. Hi, I’m applying for this course this year and am currently in the process of getting my review together. My background is teaching drama, but following redundancy and lack of jobs in my field I’ve decided to return to my love of literature and the numerous novels I’ve been in the process of writing for about 20 yrs. The above blog has given me an insight into the course which is really interesting. I wonder if you could tell me what you reviewed for your application? I keep second guessing myself as to what i should review. My preferences are pretty masculine I think and I wouldn’t feel confident reviewing poetry. I’ve just finished ‘The End of Mr Y”, by Scarlett Thomas. which is a kind of metaphysical thriller. Any thoughts or advice would be most welcome. Good luck for the rest of your course. Gail.

  2. Gail,

    Thanks very much for finding and reading my blog. I hope you found it of interest and of use in your choice of course.

    As it’s been three years or so since I applied for the course I’d forgotten about the reviewing criteria for the application. I vaguely remember doing a bit of recycling from the City University course that I’d done previously where I’d written an essay on Ian Rankin’s use of location in his Rebus novels (it’s possibly on here somewhere). I think I may have re-used that.

    I tend to agree with you about reviewing poetry — unless you’re quite familiar with it.

    The type of novels that you’d study on the course are a mixture of fairly standard literary fiction (the likes of Amis and Will Self) plus a fair amount of ‘accessible literary fiction’ (if that’s a genre) — Alan Hollinghurst, J.M. Coetzee, Benjamin Black, Marina Lewycka for instance. It’s the sort of stuff that gets reviewed seriously in the weekend papers.

    And I believe that there may actually be a Scarlett Thomas novel on one of the reading lists for the novel route of the course too so you’re on the right lines with your choice.

    I guess what you need to follow is the fairly standard advice to not just say that you liked or disliked a novel but to explain what led you to that conclusion and why. I don’t think they’re looking for literary criticism but some sort of evidence that candidates can (or show the potential to) ‘read like a writer’. Speaking of which, you might do worse than read the similarly named book by Francine Prose.

    Don’t worry too much about the review — it’s your creative writing abilities that will be of most interest.

    Good luck with your application and I look forward to you posting on the blog with your progress.

    Mike

  3. Hi Mike

    Thanks so much for your response and I’ll take on board your advice and check out the Francine prose book. I’ve already started a review of the Scarlett Thomas novel, which I thought was a really interesting combination of genres. I’ll let you know how I get on.

    Thanks again

    Gail

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