Adam Baron is a principal lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University, teaching on the undergraduate, MA and MFA programs. During his versatile career he has been an actor, literary editor, comedy writer and performer. Adam is a published author and his crime novels Shute Eye and Hold Back the Night were both adapted into drama series on BBC in 2009/10. Here he shares his thoughts with Words, Pauses, Noises’ Boyana Petrovich about studying creative writing, feedback, grades, how to get published and more.
‘Interview With Adam Baron, Part 2’
Adam, what would you tell students about getting their work published? Is online presence important for young authors?
I think these days it is.
Do you think students should publish on blogs? Is that helpful?
Why not? Get it out there. Get your work published. If you get this blog up and working and people hear about it literary agents will go and look for work on there. They will. And if you have some sort of editorial board that says these are our favourite short stories of the month that will be a good platform for those students to get their work noticed. I send a report to literary agents who come to our Awards and Achievements Show, I think three were there last time and asked for it and they will look at it and contact the students if they feel there’s anything they can represent. Literary agents are hungry for new writers especially and are taking matters into their own hands rather than just waiting for work to be sent to them.
How did you first get published?
Advice I would give is try to meet people in publishing. I wrote to many editors saying can I read your manuscripts and one said yes, Alan Samson, a fantastic editor. He was then at Little Brown and sent me some scripts to read. I started giving him editorial feedback on the books that were going to be published. When I eventually said that I was writing a crime novel he told me to send it to these three agents and two of whom were interested. I think being able to mention his name helped, at least in the sense that it sped things up. I sent it to the right people. So, I got an agent, he got me an editor. Macmillan wanted to meet me and then they made an offer. I think the process is more or less the same today.
Do you have any advice on how to get published today?
Today – write something brilliant. More than ever you need an original take on something. The marketing people have an enormous power and unfortunately it is true that novels of lesser quality but with a good, flashy idea have a greater chance of being published than novels that are better but don’t have that. So a real leap for originality and voice and trying to do something new is what I think the publishers are looking for today.
My next question is about grading. What do grades actually mean to you?
To me personally I think they’re a marker as to where people need to go. If you look at our marking criteria a pass is a decent piece of work. It will get you a master’s degree and that is not easy to achieve. If you get above sixty that means your work is good to very good. And if you’re getting up towards seventy you have produced work that is readable, well executed; it may be raw in terms of its formal qualities, there may be errors in terms of clarity of writing, clumsiness in prose but you’ll have written a very good piece. If you get above seventy you’re approaching a sort of work that we think is going to be looked at seriously by agents and editors. And then, if I’m giving an eighty, which I do, very rarely, I am saying to that student I think that their work is as good as the published stuff I’ve read.
Often there will be elements in students writing which cross marking boundaries and then you have to make a decision, a piece that is say a sixty two with elements that deserve a highest possible mark.
When we are doubtful we get work double marked and get external examiners to look at the work as well. Obviously it’s difficult to mark creativity. We have students who have already published their work and we have students who are raw and fresh and want to learn. We just want the people to move along the arc. And you get students who really go on a massive learning curve. The marking I suppose lets you know whether you are doing that.
It can also be a rude awakening for a student. When a student is disappointed with their mark there are two responses to that. One is do I really want to be a writer? These are professional people, there’s nothing malignant about their marking of me. Do I want to shout out those comments or do I want to take them on board? And they go part and parcel with the written feedback, it’s not just the mark you give them, comments on student’s work will be referring to why the student got that mark.
Does that mean if you give student a fifty you’re telling them that they should perhaps consider if writing is really their calling?
No, I think they should consider working a lot harder. Your comment seems to imply that you’ll have failed if upon finishing the MA you do not become a professional or published writer. I wouldn’t say that’s true at all. For some people it can be an immense achievement to come and discover the voice that’s been inside them. The publishing industry is changing, moving on. What we do here, what we offer to people is to try out their writing against templates of good writing and professional comments. Not everybody who comes out of the Royal College of Arts becomes a professional artist. It is not simply quip pro quo. It can be a hugely valuable experience to discover what your inner creativity is like and can offer you. And also they’ll acquire hugely transferable skills. Our students go on to do an enormous range of things.
What can students expect after finishing the MA?
Then you’re in the world, backed up by the confidence of the tutors, by marks and feedback you’ve received. But you’re not on your own, you’re still part of the Kingston Writing School, can still come to all the events that we hold. And more than anything what you’ll have is this body of students who you’ll, I hope, continue meeting up with in your own workshops and continue the learning process.
Any advice for students to maximize their experience while they’re at Kingston University?
Come to as many of the master classes and readings as you can. We have many people coming from outside the university. Forming writers groups among students themselves is important, that’s part of taking yourself seriously as a writer. Taking advantage of our staff. Asking questions. Engaging with the writing of the staff is a good idea, they’re professional authors and they’re around you. Go and ask them how they got published. Go and talk to them about why they did that in that novel. Also, some students come here to write that one novel that’s been on their mind and that’s fine. But I’d say launch into absolutely everything that the course will offer you. Read things that you can’t see why you’d been asked to read. Try new forms of writing, poetry, playwriting, they will all inform your own writing. Be brave enough to start new things as well as work on something from before. Take advantage of London. Don’t just stay where you are, engage with various parts of the city. But the greatest resources are the people you meet.
How do you juggle your work as an author and a full time lecturer?
Discipline, not making excuses. As a writer, you’re writing all the time, so it’s just that you don’t have that much time to sit down and do it. But it’s churning through your mind all the time. I’d been a full time novelist and the days seem endlessly long and you don’t go on a bus or a train so nothing’s moving in front of your eyes. It’s the problems of just being a writer. A lot of successful writers’ books are getting worse and one of the reasons I think is because they’re not out there, they’re not in the world. Which Harry Potter book is the best? The one that was written by a very successful woman at the end of her series or the first one that was written in a cafe when her baby was asleep? So, you can’t ever moan, you know. And it’s not the teaching that ever gets in the way, it’s the kind of bureaucracy that’s asked of a tutor that is the stuff that you mind. But I accept it as a part of my job. I love teaching. We also have research days and sabbaticals. Every five years we get a semester off to work on our own stuff. But, you know, you’ve just got to get on with it.
Do you write every day?
No. And I should, but quite simply I can’t, because I also have three small children. But I read every day.
Here’s to making the most of the MA. Some great insight on getting work noticed in publishing and on-line platforms, becoming involved in KU’s literary social events and life after the bubble. Thank you Adam for the pointers. Now folks, you’ve heard him, let’s start writing outside the box.