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Red Line Book Festival October 14th-19th 2014
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Resources for Writers

Go Big or Go Home – Studying a Creative Writing Masters in UCD

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Article by Dave Rudden ©.
Posted in Resources ().

I decided to apply for the UCD Creative Writing Masters last summer because I wasn’t quite sure whether I was a writer or not.

I did write - a handful of poems here and there, flash fiction when a good line popped into my head – I’d even had a smattering of pieces published here and there. The thing is that it is easy to write when you’re inspired and I only ever wrote when it was easy. Showing your characters the gates of heaven or tossing them off a cliff is simple, intuitive and exhilarating. What’s more difficult is getting up in the morning and writing about your character getting up in the morning.

I wanted the Masters to fix my lack of discipline and the fact that I knew nothing about writing except that certain words looked better in a line than others. I’d imagine that’s what attracts a lot of people – the need to step beyond your own amateur efforts, the feeling that there’s another level you want to reach and you’ve maybe come as far as you can on your own.

This article is a resource for people considering the Creative Writing Masters in UCD based on my own experiences.

When you’re submitting keep in mind that what they look for is potential. Don’t worry about your work being Booker Prize level – if it was then you wouldn’t need the course. They ask for twenty-five pages of material. Try and vary it if you can – whatever shows off your strengths. Be wary of submitting hard science fiction as we were told by a lecturer that they don’t feel the coursework accommodates it. Take a look at the course breakdown before you apply – what won me over with UCD was the Myth & Folklore module in Semester 1. If you’re looking for a course that will polish writing in theatre specifically you’ll need to look elsewhere.

My favourite thing about the Masters was that I was constantly forced out of my comfort zone. I had my writing habits, the genres I liked, and the people I liked showing my work to. I was pushed to engage with work out of my balliwick, not only reading it but writing my own. It’s not always pleasant but it is necessary and a good learning experience. Reading more, dealing with varied prompts and the demands of the course also meant that by the end of the year my body of work had grown exponentially.

The best example of this is in the Novel module in Semester 1. You’re required to write a first chapter and an outline. Up until this, I had never attempted a novel. I thought that at twenty-four I just hadn’t had an idea that was sustainable over seventy thousand words. The course made me go out and find one, and then after I handed it in… I just kept writing, and bringing it to the class, and writing some more. It’s now at the tail end of its second draft.

This is actually a key point. Go join a writers’ group. The closing date for applying to the Masters is in May, you have time. Go now. This might seem obvious – or not, depending on where you are in your own writerly wanderings – but learn the skill of giving good feedback. Learn how to tell a stranger you like this part of their story but you don’t like that part. Learn the right terms to use and how to do it graciously. It takes practice but the set-up of the course in UCD means the majority of feedback you’ll be getting is from your classmates. If you’re not comfortable saying it to their faces write it down and give it to them in class. It wasn’t something I was always superb at, but nothing fosters goodwill in a class like being handed a sheet full of comments. The comments don’t have to be all positive and the author of the piece can totally ignore them if they like – the point is you did them. You engaged with the piece. That’s encouragement in itself. You’ll also learn the skill of receiving feedback. Agree with it, apply it, ignore it – whatever. Smile and nod and say thank you. You can curse their bloodlines in private.

This is especially prevalent in the poetry module. I was very unfamiliar with poetry going in and felt I was missing the tools needed to properly dig into my own work and that of others at least at first. By the end of the course I was writing two poems per assignment and reading them at open mic nights. There is so much to be learned in the difference between those two forms, even if you have no interest in one after the course is done.

There were also plenty of frank discussions about the industry in class – our lecturers maintaining a perfect balance of enthusiasm and realism. In the second semester class speakers came in such as representatives from Penguin Ireland and the Stinging Fly.

A big part of the Masters in UCD is the anthology released every year by the class. If you’re planning to do the Masters or you’ve just started then consider this next piece of advice to be written in ten foot tall letters of black iron.

Start now.

Don’t wait until the second semester. The anthology is a weird beast – it’s not staff-curated and it requires a lot of fundraising. There are also no marks going for it so expect varying levels of commitment.  It’s a good idea to contact old students and chat to them about how they did it and what problems they encountered. It is worth it when you get to the end, but it is an extra complication on an already demanding Masters.

It can be argued that all of the above can be done without the course. Be discerning about your writing groups and you’ll find people you can trust to give excellent feedback. Go to events and research publishers to learn about the industry. Put aside what you read normally and learn plotting from crime fiction, world-building from fantasy, despair from Faulkner or subtlety from Ford.

What I will say is that I needed it. I needed to go big or go home – fulfil this sideways logic I had that if I were to make the commitment of a Masters that meant I was serious about writing. I couldn’t give up or get distracted or call in sick to a day of writing. The year I spent and the amount I paid was a symbol of the commitment I made. I needed that push. It’s up to you whether you do as well.

(c) Dave Rudden


Dave Rudden is a writer and performer currently based in Dublin. He was recently shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Prize and is the winner of the Fantasy Book Review 2011 Short Story Prize. Contact him at https://www.facebook.com/daveruddenraconteur

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