How I spent the pandemic: MA in Crime Fiction Writing at UEA

I am not the kind of writer who gets to a certain point in their development and decides that they’ve learned enough, that they’re good enough. I enjoy studying the craft of writing and continuing to improve as a writer. But as I become a more knowledgeable and well-trained writer (a process which took many years), it becomes increasingly hard to find appropriately advanced learning opportunities.

In 2015, I stumbled on the announcement of a new low residency, part time creative writing degree– the MA in Crime Fiction Writing at University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, UK. At the time, it was the only such program in the world. I was immediately interested, but I no sooner discovered its existence than I dismissed the course as impracticable, unfeasible, and unaffordable for me in the United States. But for the next four years, I periodically revisited the UEA site and fantasized.

The discovery also set into motion an intermittent exploration and daydreaming about, what I initially thought, were more practical, low residency MFA programs closer to home in the United States. Off and on, over the course of a couple of years, I created a massively detailed comparison spreadsheet of pertinent writing programs. From time to time, I added to it with the results of my investigations– answers to questions I’d emailed to directors and alumni, notes about conferences I’d attended on various campuses, and even a meeting with a recruiter.

Gradually, I let go of preconceptions. You might argue that I rationalized my initial intention. Maybe. But when I eventually analyzed and compared costs and did cold hard financial calculations, I came to an unexpected realization. UEA’s MA in Crime Fiction Writing was not more expensive than an American MFA; it was less. And it might be the best fit for me for a number of reasons:

  • No other MA/MFA specialized in crime fiction. In the past, I’d taken a number of workshops focused on genre fiction or fiction in general. While they were worthwhile and I learned a lot, I wanted to focus on crime fiction specifically and exclusively–to be with faculty who specialized in crime fiction and to be with classmates who shared my love of crime fiction.
  • I wanted a rigorous academic approach to crime fiction, to explore the theory, philosophy, politics, and socio-economics of crime fiction as well as the practice of writing it. (Take a look at the amazing reading list)
  • At the time, before Brexit, international students paid the same tuition fees to UEA as UK residents and that was a very good value, and much less than low residency MFA tuition in the U.S. I realized the money saved could be applied toward travel abroad for residentials.
  • The MA in Crime Fiction requires three brief residentials a year (September, January, May) in Norwich, UK. For students in the UK and Europe, this was an easy, convenient, and relatively inexpensive trip. For those of us in the rest of the world, it was quite a hurdle and had me stymied for a long time. (However attendance at residential turned out to be somewhat negotiable and once the pandemic hit, it became a non-issue as everything went online anyway). Gradually I came to realize that the extra expense of the residential trips could be combined with side trips in the UK and Europe, very much longed for and deferred side trips. And, the kicker– the cost of travel for the residential did not come to more than the cost of an American low residency MFA!
  • Attending would in fact be remedying a lifelong regret at not doing college study abroad and checking off an item on the bucket list that I didn’t even know I had. Win!

So, I applied to UEA, was accepted, figured out how to pay international tuition, get a short term study visa, and travel to Norwich.

UEA’s MA in Crime Fiction was the right decision for me.

The required fiction reading, literary criticism reading, and analytic writing were excellent. The creative writing module was excellent. Faculty (tutors) were excellent and possessed deep and broad knowledge of crime fiction. Classmates were talented and hard working and generally all-round excellent people who were a joy to be around.

Attending was not only a taste of study abroad and a chance to travel, it was also a surprisingly interesting and satisfying chance to experience another culture.

After the first semester of the two years, the pandemic hit and residentials became entirely virtual. Which worked pretty okay for classwork (other than the time differences around the world. I had class beginning at 5am and my classmate in Japan was finishing the last class of the day at 3am). Online wasn’t quite as satisfactory for socializing. My classmates and I were sad that we couldn’t see each other in person for lunch and dinner and tea breaks and hanging out during residentials. We couldn’t get to know the cohorts in front of us or coming up behind us. Fortunately we’d established a WhatsApp group before the pandemic and we instituted monthly zoom socials. But it wasn’t the same.

On the other hand, surprisingly, most of us agreed that it was great to be on the course during the pandemic–it gave us something to focus on other than the garbage fire that is the current state of the world. It gave us goals and filled the hours spent at home. As hard as it was to concentrate sometimes during the pandemic, my guess is, it would have been even harder to manage to juggle the coursework with life and work in normal busy times. An unexpected pandemic silver lining!

The coursework is substantial and a bit shocking if you’ve been out of school for a while as most of us had, but manageable. The final project is a complete crime novel that has been written and workshopped over the preceding two years. Also manageable.

For more info, check out my uncomprehensive twitter list of UEA MA in Crime Fiction alumni, current students, faculty, and guest lecturers, or tweet or email me any questions.

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The Powerful Magic of a Simple Notebook

For the past few years, my writing process has become increasingly digital. I like technology and use software for just about every aspect of writing–from collecting ideas to researching to writing.

But I have a notebook. It’s physical, not digital. It’s not a little palm-sized one to carry in my pocket or purse. (I used to do that years ago, but nowadays, for those kinds of notes I use Evernote or OneNote on my computer and phone.) No, this notebook is standard 8.5 x 11.

I realized just recently this notebook is magical for me–if I open it, thoughts automatically start to come to me. It’s become Pavlovian. I realized it makes me happy to even glimpse, touch, or open this notebook.

I use it in a specific way–for brainstorming about specific scenes, plot, problems, sequences, characters, etc. that I need to think about more deeply, away from the writing and the screen.

My notebook isn’t special; it’s not bound in leather or expensive or handmade. I considered the Levenger Circa or Staples’ Arc binders, which are popular with many writers, but they felt a little restrictive and expensive.

My notebook is ordinary, inexpensive, and practical. It’s a binder made by Five Star Mead.

I have several. I prefer red or purple covers. (One of my favorite is one with a pretty flowered fabric spine that they’ve since stopped making.)

It has plastic binder rings and a flexible plastic cover that’s lightweight, waterproof, attractive, and easy to clean. Most important is that it always opens flat and you can fold it over on itself like a spiral notebook.

The notebook takes standard 8.5 x 11 paper which is cheap and ordinary and encourages me to be profligate with it and freely and fully brainstorm a topic. Just recently I discovered Mead Five Star reinforced filler paper which has bigger holes so it turns better on the rings.

My handwriting is not neat and tiny; it’s purposely messy, but I do like pens with brightly colored ink. The standard dimensions mean I don’t feel cramped and limited by the small size of a palm-sized notebook.

I’m not precious about these notebooks. They aren’t journals. I don’t use an organization scheme for the brainstorming in this notebook. I don’t put in sections or an index, but I could. I might in the future. Currently I don’t usually refer back to notes, or at least not over long periods of time. Usually it’s daily/hourly/weekly problem-solving that I incorporate into current writing within a week or so, though I do occasionally enjoy leafing through the binder’s pages in a sentimental nostalgic way.

Now that I realize how magical this notebook is, I think I might start using it even more systematically–open it at the beginning of every writing session and make some notes before I start writing.

I’ve thought about using an app that would allow handwriting on my ipad or phone, but in the case of brainstorming, I find there’s no substitute for the magic of pen and paper!

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The Walk Home at Midnight

Cover: Recoil, Shotgun Honey Presents, volume 4

Being included in this anthology is probably the most badass I will ever be (which isn’t very).

My short story “The Walk Home at Night” is contemporary rural noir. It’s about a girl on country back roads at the dead of night, a stalker, and other dangers.

I loved writing it and I hope you enjoy reading it.

Recoil (Shotgun Honey Presents, volume 4) is available in the US, UK, and elsewhere through these outlets:

• Amazon — Trade Paperback | eBook
• Amazon UK — Trade Paperback | eBook
• Barnes & Noble — Trade Paperback | eBook
• iTunes — eBook
• Kobo — eBook
• Play — eBook

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