A group of Sheffield-based debut novelists are offering useful advice to would-be writers. Yvette Huddleston spoke to one of them.
If you have ever thought you could be a writer, there is an event coming up at Wakefield Literature Festival next week which may help you to decide whether to follow that dream and sign up for an MA course in writing.
The Sheffield-based Hallam Writers group – which consists of Jude Brown, Susan Elliot Wright, Marian Iseard, James Russell and Beverley Ward – will be reading their work, talking about their individual journeys and discussing the pros and cons of taking the post-graduate writing course route as a way in to becoming a published writer.
All graduates of the MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, the members of the group have had varying degrees of success since they completed their studies.
“Susan landed an agent fairly soon after the MA and then struggled initially to get a publisher for her novel The Things We Never Said,” says Brown. “But then it was picked up by Simon and Schuster and it quickly became a best seller.”
The course at Sheffield Hallam has an excellent reputation – alumni include best-selling author Marina Lewyczka, T S Eliot Prize-nominated poet Frances Leviston and BBC scriptwriter Sharon Oakes – and is unique among the many on offer around the country in that it requires students to have a finished a finished novel, script, collection of short stories or poetry by the end of it by the end of it. Brown completed the course in 2010 with the first draft of her debut novel The Dangerous Sun and received an Arts Council grant to develop it. “It was longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition in 2011 and last year I won a Northern Writers Award,” she says. “So I sent it out to four agents and it’s currently under consideration with the David Higham Agency in London.”
Brown describes her novel as a character-driven coming- of-age story and it grew out of a short story she had written several years previously.
“The main character is a 19-year-old man who has an obsession about the sun dying. He sets fires using a magnifying glass and the novel begins with a fire getting out of control,” she says.
“Fire is an element that fascinates me – there is something primitive and mythological about it. Luke is a pyromaniac – he doesn’t set fires to hurt or destroy – and the profile is usually a young man with psychological issues.” The book is written in the first person present tense – it is a style that Brown has used before in her short stories but admits that sustaining it for a whole novel has been a challenge.
“I love the short story form but I had put that a bit on the back burner while I was doing the course,” she says. “Last year I was sending stories off and was getting shortlisted for decent competitions, so I won’t abandon it. Short story is more of akin to poetry and I will keep that going because it gives you a different perspective on your writing.”
The members of the group meet once a month to read each other’s work, discuss ideas and offer feedback and support. There has been some negative press in the past regarding MA courses in creative writing, with professional writers and publishers saying the work of graduates of such courses is easily identifiable because they all write in a particular way, but Brown feels that her experience has been mostly very positive. “An MA in writing can’t teach you how to write, you need to have some level of talent, but you do acquire the skills necessary to craft your writing,” she says. “Also it gives you a focus and a goal and it sorts out whether you are really serious about being a writer.”
• The Hallam Writers will be at Wakefield Literature Festival on September 20 at The Orangery, Back Lane, Wakefield at 2pm and at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf Festival of Words on October 15 at The Red Deer, Pitt St, Sheffield at 7.30pm.