The Kids by Hannah Lowe (Books 2022, 3)

    I don’t think I’ve ever written about a book of poetry here before. That’s because I don’t read that much of it. Whenever I do, I think, ‘I should read more poetry.’

    This won the Costa, but that’s not the main reason I picked it up. The author, Hannah Lowe, was a tutor on my MA course. She taught my Creative Nonfiction (CNF) module. Which sounds a long way from poetry, but a person can have skills in more than one type of writing. She was very good as a tutor, and in fact I got my highest single mark in CNF.

    It’s a very short and easy read, but some of the poems go to some dark places. Others — most, I’d say — are highly positive and life-affirming. They were inspired by her time teaching sixth formers in English schools. Which made me wonder on my CNF class chat, should we be worried about what her next collection’s going to be about?

    Hopefully she won’t repeat herself. These are all sonnets, or in one cases a series of sonnets under one title, and very good, as the awards people clearly think.

    Dissertation Submitted

    Just an hour ago I submitted my dissertation for my creative writing MA.

    This means my course is effectively over. The novel is far from complete, though: I have what I think will be about a quarter of it. So we press on. But for now, I’m taking to the hammock.

    My phone just reminded me that my dissertation is due right now. Which wouldn’t have been a very useful reminder if I had been planning to submit today, but had somehow – incredibly! – forgotten.

    Luckily I’ve got a two-week extension. I plan to actually submit in the next two or three days, though.

    Just found a typo in my diss: ‘Jeff the sandman,’ instead of soundman. Should probably be two words, ‘sound man,’ but anyway, an unexpected @NeilHimself-esque touch.

    One Week Away

    My dissertation is due in just under a week. I’m seeking an extension, because I’ve been a bit poorly and have lost a lot of work time over the last week, but I still hope to get it in on time.

    But that will mean my course will be over. Which is a little bit saddening. I’ve enjoyed being a student again, even though this academic year’s particular situation has meant that the experience has been distinctly unlike a classic student one. Even, I’m sure, for Birkbeck, ‘London’s evening university.’

    I have, for example, met none of my classmates in person. I’ve met exactly one member of staff, and that in the park in Gordon Square. I’ve never been in the department’s building. I’ve been into any Birkbeck building – the library – I think three times, maybe four.

    Online classes have been fine, though. I wonder if creative writing, in its common workshopping format, works especially well over Teams or Zoom. Everyone takes turns to comment on the piece that’s being discussed, and there’s much less scope for interruptions, compared to in person. Of course the downside of that is that there’s less scope for conversation, for organic discussion. So we probably lost out in some ways, too.

    Less, though, than students on other courses, and especially first year undergraduates. Like my daughter, who has done a year of uni and met practically no one on her course. It’s a strange state of affairs, to be sure.

    But we move on. This novel extract isn’t going to dissert itself.

    MA Latest

    I realised the other day that it’s a year ago that I was applying for creative writing MAs, before being accepted on and choosing the one at Birkbeck.

    Well that went fast.

    2021 feels like it’s being disappearing even faster than 2020 did, which is strange. Or maybe not. The pandemic is far from over, of course, many things are still up in the air, and it could all change again in an instant.

    But I’ve been lax in reporting on what’s been going on with the course . The summer term was all an optional lecture series, which largely consisted of members of staff interviewing writers, along with one or two pieces about the craft of writing. One on the structure of the novel, and one a session with some agents.

    That last one probably had the most practical value – at least potentially – but they were all interesting.

    Other than that, My dissertation is due in a month. Actually now just under four weeks. It consists of 15,000 words of creative writing (plus or minus 10%, so up to 16,500), plus a 3000-word preface (also plus or minus 10%). I have 23,000 words, of which I can’t use the first five or six thousand, because I already submitted them for an earlier assessment. So there’s plenty to work with.

    It feels a little odd to have paused the forward flow – I intend this to be a novel, after all – to work on editing what I have so far. But it ought to be worthwhile for the novel, as well as being necessary for my dissertation. This period of working over what I’ve already done should give me a firmer base on which to build the rest.

    I think I miss classes. I only had two a week for the first two terms, and a slightly more erratic schedule averaging to one a week for the third, but they provided structure, as well as a feeling of connection with others on the course. So I’m looking forward to an informal workshop session some of us have arranged for this week.

    But beyond that, the future. What’s next?

    The Exes by Pagan Kennedy (Books 2021, 13)

    Another one suggested by my supervisor. It’s about a band, and the novel I’m working on involves a couple of bands. And it’s also a multiple viewpoint third-person narrative, as is mine.

    Like the last such, it handles the multiple viewpoints in quite an extreme way. There are four band members, and a quarter of the book is told from the point of view of each. Four chapters, no returning once one PoV is finished with.

    The title is the name of the band, and their schtick is that they are all exes of someone else in the band (in practice, it’s two former couples, but there’s obviously a certain amount of will they/won’t they about any other possible hookings up).

    So really it’s about the relationships, and how each person handles the pressure-cooker of being in a band together, touring, all that. Along with a fair chunk of backstory for each.

    It’s set in Boston (and a few other places) in the early to mid nineties. The ending is – open, let’s say, but not in annoying way. In fact, it’s quite satisfying, though I could happily have read more.

    Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Books 2021, 11)

    My other dissertation supervisor, Julia Bell, suggested that I read this. It’s a multiple-viewpoint work, which is something I’m doing. This one takes it to extremes, though. Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character, and we never go back to any of them.

    They’re all members of families who are staying at holiday park of log cabins deep in the Highlands of Scotland, one week when the rain never stops.

    It does an excellent job of showing us the inner lives of the different people, as well as the minutiae of what goes on at the park in such difficult circumstances (no internet, miles from anywhere, and constant rain).

    And the ending is – well, it’s something else, I’ll say that.

    Hinton by Mark Blacklock (Books 2021, 10)

    The author is one of my MA supervisors, so take that under advisement, I guess.

    This is a historical novel, based on the real life of Charles Howard Hinton, a Victorian mathematician who studied the idea of a fourth spatial dimension. In fact, at least from this I’d go further: he believed in the existence of such a dimension. He, I learned, was the originator of the term tesseract, which – as I’m sure you know – is the four-dimensional equivalent of a cube.

    So much for that. What of the story? It’s interesting, a little odd, and slightly experimental, in terms of its telling. It makes use of letters, diagrams, and other documents from Hinton’s life. But a lot of the really interesting bits of Hinton’s life – his bigamous marriage and being convicted for the same, and subsequent departure for, and time in, Japan, for example – are told largely offscreen. Or second-hand and partially, via some of those letters.

    Which is all fair enough, but I feel that we didn’t really get to know Hinton as a person. I could have done with more of that. In fact we get to know some other members of his family slightly better, as the story’s focus changes in the second half.

    The book is split into sections called ‘Point,’ ‘Line,’ ‘Square,’ ‘Cube,’ ‘Tesseract,’ ‘Cube,’ ‘Square,’ ‘Line,’ ‘Point.’ Numbered chapters or subsections, 1 to 14, are included across the first ‘Line’ and ‘Square.’ But chapter 9 is missing, or skipped. I kept trying to find some mathematical reason for this – 9 is a square number, of course, but it’s not the only square number in the list, and there’s nothing special about 9 in the text, that I noticed. Nor is it one of the numbers we associate with a cube. Six faces, eight vertices, but not nine of anything. So I suspect it’s actually a mistake. I might email Mark and ask him.

    I first came to know of Hinton through Rudy Rucker’s books. The fourth dimension is one of Rucker’s great interests, along with infinities, so Hinton was bound to come up. Apparently I’ve never mentioned Rucker on my site before. That’s a little surprising, but I suppose it’s a good few years since I read anything by him. I’m slightly surprised to find he’s still alive: I thought I remembered hearing of his death (and was surprised I hadn’t noted that here). Oh well, the Mandela effect, I suppose.

    Lastly, I noticed it was on the list of eligible titles for this year’s Clarke Award (and my apologies for linking to Medium). Which is odd, as it’s not really a novel of the fantastic in any way (except maybe, the slightest hint of something towards the end). But it wouldn’t be the first novel the the Clarke Award has noticed for which that is true. And Hinton wrote some SF himself, and inspired various SF writers as well as Rucker, so it kind of sits near the genre.

    How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (Books 2021, 4)

    Despite the title, this is not a writing ‘how-to’ book, except maybe by example. Nor is it a novel itself; it is a collection of essays. The subjects they cover do include writing and writing courses, most notably the Iowa Writers' Workshop. That was one of the first, if not the first, postgraduate-level courses in creative writing, and Chee studied on it.

    But the book covers a lot else, too. As Chee is a mixed-race gay man, you won’t be surprised to hear that those details feature in a number of the essays. As does living in New York and trying to make it as a writer. And growing roses, and the origin of Catholic rosary beads.

    I was drawn to this because one of the essays was assigned reading on the MA early this term, and he was also cited at various other points on at least two modules.

    His debut novel is called Edinburgh, which immediately interests me. Though you learn from a couple of the essays that he hoped, when younger, to go to Edinburgh to study parapsychology, but didn’t; and that the Edinburgh connection in the novel didn’t survive the writing and editing process, but he kept the title anyway.

    I don’t know what his fiction is like yet, but he’s a fine essayist.

    End of Term 2

    Here we are at the end of the second term of my masters. In fact, the end of the taught part of the whole thing. Teaching is finished. In the summer term, which starts a month today, We have a series of lectures from various writing teachers and people from the writing and publishing fields. But no more seminars, no workshops, unless we, the students, organise them ourselves.

    I have two 5000-word pieces to submit in a month‘s time – one for the Creative Nonfiction module, and the other for the Writing Workshop. After that it‘s just solid writing and editing until I submit my dissertation in September.

    That‘s not quite the whole story. I will also have two meetings with my dissertation supervisor. Or actually, supervisors, because we have been assigned two. The reasoning seems to be that more people seeing our work is a good thing. I can certainly see the sense of that. But at the same time I wonder whether we‘ll lose the advantage of continuity. What if the first one recommends some changes, I make them (or at least, integrate their suggestions with my own ideas), and then the second recommends their opposite?

    Oh well, it probably won‘t happen, and I‘ll deal with it if it does.

    As for the two pieces I‘m submitting in a month, right now I have the required number of words for both. So I have a month to manipulate them, structure them, and make sure they‘re the best words. A process we writers call ‘editing.‘

    Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Books 2021, 3)

    This book is infuriating. At times, and in certain ways, at least. Or not the book, but some of the characters.

    For example, the parents, especially the dad – are so fucking pathetic it makes me angry. He can’t even boil an egg for his kids' breakfast when his wife’s away.

    And throughout the early part you’re wondering why do they both love Lydia much more than their other two kids? Even before she dies, I mean?

    Oh, yes it’s a dead girl story, did I mention that? Lydia is fridged in the first line, so it’s not a spoiler. It’s totally a fridging, though. That page tells you that the term means killing a female character ‘often as a plot device intended to move a male character’s story arc forward.’ Lydia’s death drives the whole plot, including the actions of her father and brother, so it definitely qualifies.

    Her mother and little sister too, but that doesn’t lessen the truth of it.

    It’s a very good exposition of a family with secrets at its heart. Though in the case of some of the secrets, there’s no very good reason for the person to keep them secret. A lot of problems could have been avoided – including, probably, the death of Lydia – if people had just talked to each other. That’s part of what’s so infuriating about it at times.

    But maybe that – the difficulties people, families, have in communicating – is the point.

    I also wondered why she chose to set it in the time she does. The present day parts are in 1977-8. I think it’s so that she can write about the particular immigrant experience she does: second and third generation Chinese immigrants to the US.

    I picked this up because one of my tutors recommended it to me, due to its use of an omniscient narrator. I’m trying something similar with something I’m working on at the moment. This article in the New York Times practically credits Ng with bringing omniscient narration back into fashion. I don’t feel that it ever really went away, but maybe it has remained more common in SF than in literary fiction. Though as I write that I’m not sure I could cite an example from recent SF either, so maybe I’m wrong.

    Here’s a good article by Ng herself about her decision to use the device. It’s been useful to me, anyway. And I actually enjoyed the book, aside from being annoyed at times.

    It’s reading week again already! Or it will be from Monday. Halfway through the second term already. Time flies when you’re writing a lot.

    The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (Books 2021, 1)

    It looks as if I haven’t read anything yet this year. That’s far from true, of course, but this is the first book-length work I’ve finished. Though that ‘book-length’ is extremely deceptive, as it’s very short.

    I read it for my course – specifically the Creative Nonfiction module that I’m doing this term. It’s a powerful statement about the position of Black people in America in the early 60s, when it was written. Things have sadly not changed much.

    In terms of presentation, it’s a little odd. It’s titled as two letters: one to his nephew, and another ‘from a region in my mind.’ The first is short, and does read as if it were a letter. The second, not so much.

    It’s more of a personal essay, combining memoir and political analysis. It shows a great deal of empathy, both for Black people and the white majority in his country. And it ends with a note of hope, that America can still become the country it claimed to be. I wonder what he’d think of things now.

    Both parts are available at those links, so you don’t even have to buy it if you want to check it out, which you should.

    Submitted the first assessed pieces for my two modules today.

    The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (Books 2020, 28)

    Read this for the young adult (YA) section of the Genre module on my course. It’s a powerful story inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

    In an unnamed US city, a teenaged girl is the only witness to her friend being murdered by a police officer. She has to find her way through the complexities that follow, including family, school, friendships, the law, and the streets of the neighbourhood she grew up in.

    It’s a tough read at times, as is it should be. But it’s also very funny in places. Well worth checking out.

    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Books 2020, 25)

    Read this for my course. It’s very good, unsurprisingly. Historical fiction isn’t usually my thing (Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle notwithstanding) It has a striking stylistic tic – if that’s the right word – in the way she refers to Thomas Cromwell. It’s always ‘he said,’ or ‘he did such-and-such’; very occasionally, for clarity, ‘he, Cromwell…’ But never just, ‘Cromwell said…’

    Not a big deal, but in a work of this size, it stands out. It feels significant. And it is; ‘tic’ is the wrong word for something so definite, so chosen. Mantel has said that she wanted the viewpoint to be ‘over Cromwell’s shoulder.’ So ‘he’, rather than ‘Cromwell.’

    One of the most subtle things about it as how Cromwell switches from just being an advisor to the king to rounding up certain priests, and I don’t really understand how it happened. It’s a masterpiece of characterisation.

    Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Books 2020, 24)

    I wasn’t quite sure about this at first. I know it won awards and all that. It was assigned for the ‘Genre’ module of my Creative Writing masters,1 but it didn’t immediately grab me.

    But I came round to it. It’s set in the very far future, because there are examples of technology that is old, but people don’t understand it. Reminiscent of Viriconium or Against A Dark Background in that way. And ‘Home is the pink one’ – star – suggests that Sol has got very old. Like, billions of years older than now. Which feels wrong, because humans should have changed a lot more in that time.

    The titular character is the first of her people to leave Earth (we assume it’s Earth, anyway) to go to Oomza University, which appears to be a whole planet that’s a university, and takes people from many different species and civilisations.

    Things happen on the way, as you might expect. It’s good, and I’m keen to read the sequels.

    1. As such it’s an odd choice: for the crime and historical fiction we got long novels, and even for YA it’s a full-length novel. But for SF: a novella. ↩︎

    Masters Update

    We’re halfway through the first term of my Creative Writing masters course. Those five weeks went fast, but 2020 is The Year When Time Was Weird, for everyone. How is it going, you ask.1

    Pretty well, thanks. At first glance, with only two actual sessions, the workload looked light. But as is common with postgraduate courses, you have a lot of work to do on your own. Add to that, it’s a writing course: we have to write, and you can’t do that while sitting in a class.

    Or you could, for small exercises, and I think maybe they would be asking us to do that kind of thing if this were a conventional year and we were sitting in a seminar room in Bloomsbury. It is, however, the most unconventional of years, and we are sitting in our own homes on Microsoft Teams.

    There are two modules. Everyone does the Writing and Reading Seminar, where we focus on short stories. Each week we read and discuss two or three assigned stories, with there being a theme or area of focus: Character, Voice, Territory, for example. Then we workshop pieces submitted by three members of the class. Everyone gets to submit a piece of up to 4000 words, twice this term.

    For my first piece I decided to get out of my comfort zone (such as it is) and write a purely realist piece. No spaceships, no magic; no element of the fantastic whatsoever. I think it worked out pretty well.

    Those pieces are not assessed, but in January we have to submit a 4000-word piece that will be. I only recently learned that this piece has to be a reworking of one of the two pieces we’ll have workshopped in class. I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, but I would have liked to have known that sooner.

    The second module I’m doing is called Contemporary Writing 2: Genre2, or just ‘Genre.’ We spend two weeks on each of these genres: crime, science fiction, historical fiction, and young adult fiction.3 There’s a novel assigned for each one. The first week has a two short, prerecorded lectures, and in the seminar we discuss those, and techniques, and the assigned novel.

    For the second week we each write a 1000-word piece in the genre in question, and some of us have the pieces workshopped. We got to choose the genres in which we wanted to be workshopped. I chose SF and crime. Even those of us who aren’t being workshopped in a given week have our pieces discussed on the class forum.

    So as you can see, there’s quite a lot of reading, analysis, and commenting, as well as actual writing.

    I’m enjoying it a lot, but if you were to ask me what I’ve learned, I’m not sure I could specify that yet. However, the practice, the fact of looking at my own writing and that of others, professionally-published and not, in great detail: that alone is bound to improve my writing, I feel.

    Right now it’s reading week. I don’t recall having such a thing back when I was an undergraduate, but maybe we did. They’re standard now, just like half-term breaks at school.4 So we have no classes, and some extra short stories to read, and time to catch up on the novels. I finished Wolf Hall yesterday, so I only have The Hate U Give to read for YA. Plenty of time to get some writing done.

    Oh, and a couple of homework assignments, too. All work is homework, of course.

    1. I’m always confused about how you should punctuate that idiom. I’m asking a question: it needs a question mark. But neither of these look right:

      • How is it going? you ask.
      • How is it going, you ask?

      It should really be:

      • ‘How is it going?’ you ask.

      But that makes it too much like I’m writing dialogue in a a second-person narrative, and it doesn’t really fit with the overall feel of a blog post.

      The way I’ve written it above has no question mark at all, and that can’t be right. ↩︎

    2. I’ve yet to learn what ‘Contemporary Writing 1’ is, or was, or if there ever was one. ↩︎

    3. I’d argue that YA is a target market, not a genre, but never mind. ↩︎

    4. It was during my primary school years that Scotland introduced the week-long half-term break in October. ‘The October Week,’ as it was called, and it was definitely a new thing at the time. I was aware of it particularly because my Mum was a primary school teacher. I can’t find any evidence of it now, because there are so many other pages about half-term holiday dates and history projects for October half term. But if my memory is not totally faulty, that’s the truth of it. ↩︎

    The Secret Place by Tana French (Books 2020, 23)

    Crime fiction set in Dublin. In a posh boarding school, specifically, which causes it to have elements of young adult (YA) fiction. We studied it for the ‘Genre’ module of my MA course. It also dips into magic realism, so it’s particularly appropriate for that module.

    I hadn’t read any of French’s books before. This is volume five in a series about the Dublin Murder Squad, but they’re only loosely linked. I enjoyed it a lot, and wouldn’t mind reading more.

    She has a great way with colour imagery, and compelling characters.

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