Will great expectations fall on hard times?

June 12, 1998

How would your students cope if at the end of their study they had to produce a full-length novel instead of a dissertation? Harriet Swain reports on a unique course at Manchester University

Not many university courses take in murder, solvent-sniffing, suspected adultery and a major accident involving a fat woman and an escalator. But we have had all four in a single morning, with barely a break for coffee, and the only eyebrow raised was over the murder.

"I think it's totally brilliant that he died," says Sarah. "But did it have to be murder? It's just too complicated." A number of other students chip in. Yes, they say carefully, murder is a bit much.

Lee, a former electrician in his mid-twenties, bites his nails as he listens but concedes they have a point. Maybe a fatal fall would be better? Or a car accident? He scribbles down a few notes.

We are in the final workshop session of Manchester University's MA in novel writing and by this time, nearly a year into the course, most of the students are half-way through their main oeuvre. After today, they will have another year by themselves to finish it off before they have to submit it to the examiners. Theoretically, attendance at the final workshop is optional. If the students have a major problem with structure or characterisation, it is probably too late to change it. The rest of the group have to be especially careful with their criticism at this stage in the game. But there is only one absentee and he is occupied with a spot of performance poetry in Ilkley. Everyone else is here and eager to talk about the four extracts chosen for discussion this week, even if their comments are, on the whole, kind.

The course was started five years ago by American studies lecturer Richard Francis, whose eighth novel, Fat Hen, comes out next January, and poet, novelist and publisher Michael Schmidt. Set up to rival the more famous creative writing course at the University of East Anglia, it has the unique selling point of forcing students to produce a novel-length piece of work during their course - at least 40,000 words and preferably about 70,000. In the past year, this approach seems to have been given a vote of confidence, with four graduates from the first course securing publishing deals.

Anna Davis has a two-novel deal with Sceptre, Emma Lee Potter a two-novel deal with Piatcus for Hard Copy, set in the world of tabloid journalism, and Sophie Hannah has a contract with Heinemann. Vivienne Savory has already had two novels, The Seventh Daughter and Over the Purple Moor, published by Fourth Estate, while a fifth student, Joseph Pemberton, received an offer from a publisher before even submitting the final version of his book.

Francis interviews about 40 students a year for the course and takes about a dozen. "It is vital to see their writing and talk to them at some length about what they do because you're really buying a pig in a poke," he says.

One or two people do fail the course, but he admits that judging what the students finally produce at the end of two years is not easy. "I think a book has to succeed on its own terms," he says. "Clearly one wants books to be published. But just in the way you wouldn't want to accept students for traditional academic subjects on the assumption that they will become academics, you don't necessarily expect a novel produced for the course to be published." He describes it as more of an apprenticeship, learning a craft.

It is only recently that Francis has viewed creative writing as a craft that can be learned. For a long time he shared the widespread opinion that it was "a Mickey Mouse thing to do". Then he went on a faculty exchange from Manchester to the University of Missouri, where they assumed, because he was a published novelist, that he would be teaching creative writing. Once he started, he found the quality of work produced was far higher and more disciplined than he had expected and the teaching particularly rewarding. As soon as he returned to England he contacted Michael Schmidt with the idea of setting up a creative writing course at undergraduate level. "We put it in as an option among a whole bunch of options and it pulled in a lot of students," he says. When they came up with the idea of the novel-writing MA, they did not meet any of the opposition they had expected, although the university did not submit creative writing as a subject to be judged in the last research assessment exercise. Francis expects this to be different next time around.

The MA students do not spend all their time waiting for the muse to strike. They also have to attend a literature course on modern fiction, a publishing course and a series of talks from people in the business, such as editors and literary agents. In addition, they have a project, which may be a long academic essay, a screenplay or a selection of poems or short stories. These extras give the course an academic backbone. But they also give students as many opportunities as possible to meet the people who could help them get their work on to bookshelves.

While most are writing literary fiction rather than pot-boilers, the students have a down-to-earth appreciation of how valuable this networking aspect of the MA is. Many have given up good jobs to do the course, which costs more than Pounds 2,600, and would like to become full-time novelists. They have applied because they want to get published and, ideally, to be paid for it.

They are equally level-headed about the limitations of the MAs more creative side. Anna Davis, who now works as a literary agent, says she does not believe a course can teach anyone to write a novel if they have no natural ability in the first place. "You either have a talent and aptitude for novel writing or you don't," she says. "But the course is very good at helping you learn the craft, such as planning and structuring and how the market works. It is also useful to have someone to help you find your strengths and weaknesses."

For this, she warns, it is important to be robust. The workshop arrangement for discussing each other's work can be intimidating and there has been the odd group that has failed to gel, or has indulged in criticism that becomes a bit too personal. Francis and Schmidt try to steer through these minefields, while resisting being too forthright themselves. Francis acknowledges that there is a danger that students will give more weight to his opinions than to those of the rest of the group, when the whole point of the workshop is to show "this is a business of multiple opinions". He hopes that doubling up with Schmidt, who has a very different approach, helps.

This does not prevent Francis expressing any opinion at all. Take the suspected adultery in Stephanie Aldred's The Star Woman. "I think it's time now for the husband to become a real bastard," he suggests. The group ponders this. Some agree, some are not so sure. Stephanie has a pretty good idea what she wants to do. But, as with everyone in the group, only if her novel is published will the others get to know what happens next.

RICHARD FRANCIS' TOP TIPS FOR NOVEL WRITING

1 You cannot use a novel to take your revenge on life

2 Write it to be read by someone else. There must be an interaction between writer and reader

3 It must have momentum and a good ratio of things happening to things described

4 It must enable the reader to tune in to an interesting or attractive voice or a panoply of voices

5 It is much easier to keep going if you write a bit every day, even if only for half an hour.

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