Regular readers of my blog will know that I started an MA in Creative Writing back in September. I’ve posted about point of view and shared some of my thoughts about the benefits of improving your craft as a writer. This term has been all about learning from other novels, and the reading list pulls from the last half of the twentieth century. Contemporary-ish!

Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr Ripley (1955)
Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957)
Anthony Burgess, Time for a Tiger (1956)
V.S. Naipaul, Miguel Street (1959)
Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries (1993)
Beryl Bainbridge, Master Georgie (1998)
J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace (1999)

By far my favourites were Ripley, Miguel Street, and Stone Diaries (which I had read before a couple of years ago). But, after 12 weeks of reading and analysing these great novels, what have I actually learned?


A novel must stay true to the rules it creates for itself. This is paraphrasing my tutor, who is basically telling us that while anything goes – to a certain extent – you have to stay consistent and stick to the rules you create within the novelistic techniques you’ve chosen. Example? (Yes, please!) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie makes use of flash-forwards, foreshadowing events to come. We are told that one of the girls will die in a fire, for instance, and how a number of others will end up. In some novels this would be a big no no, but Spark pulls it off by setting up the framework of the novel this way and keeping everything consistent with it: tone, voice, narrative, structure. Somehow, it just works. And I guess that’s what makes it a great novel, although personally I hated it.


Hoban’s Riddley Walker is written entirely in a kind of pigeon English, supposedly developed post-apocolyptically from the remnants of language. It’s largely incomprehensible, and I wanted to scream ‘Emporer’s new clothes!’ throughout the entire session on this book, but there are those who said they loved it and I have to take their word for it. What I learned from this was that it’s fine to experiment. It helps if you are already a well-known literary author.

Autobiographical tendencies

‘Write about what you know’ is an over-used piece of advice to new writers, but it was heartening to find within this reading list a number of writers who did just that. Miguel Street is based on the place where Naipaul spent his childhood years, and is written in the first person, as a series of short stories or sketches, and has strong autobiographical elements. Sheilds wrote The Stone Diaries to bring into fiction the ‘ordinary’ middle class woman, complete with the so-called trivialities that form her life. This is based on her own experience of motherhood and marriage. There are elements of autobiography in Pnin and Time for a Tiger, too. What these authors do is mine their experiences fearlessly. The benefit of this type of writing is that the author is very connected to the work, so it’s interesting to talk about, or be interviewed about.

Sympathetic characters

A real lightbulb moment was learning that the reader really doesn’t have to like or approve of a character to sympathise or root for them. Take Ripley, a murderer and all-round quite weird guy – by the end of the book I found myself hoping he wouldn’t get caught. But why? It’s all down to the clever way Highsmith writes, of course, and the techniques which can be employed to manipulate the sympathies of the reader were the most interesting of all the stuff we learned this term. And this is the topic I’m chosing for my end of term essay. Which I really need to be getting on with!