Ian Rankin Writing Scholarship Essays

There is no such thing as a “typical” day, even when I’m busy on a book. Some days the words flow, others feel like wading through suet. The phone rings, the doorbell sounds, there’s shopping to be done or an urgent email demanding a reply. That’s why I try to get away. I’ve got a house on the north-east coast of Scotland, three and a half hours by car from Edinburgh. Very limited mobile phone signal and no TV. There’s a landline but I haven’t given the number to my agent, publisher or any journalist. Perfect. I’m in the middle of a new book right now. It’s going pretty well. The first draft took me 27 writing days. It’s rough – really just me checking the plot works. The second draft sees me polish the prose, fix faults in chronology and geography, and add meat to the bones of my characters. So while my first drafts are usually done at a gallop – if I’m writing quickly, then the story will also have pace – I take things more slowly in the second and third drafts. The third draft is normally what my publisher and agent get to see.

I never have a clearly defined plan. The story has a sense of where it wants to go, and I just follow it

A good writing day would comprise maybe 10 pages, which is around 3,000 words. I don’t do a word count. The story is as long as it needs to be, and better to pen 1,500 great words than 5,000 ordinary ones. The day might start at 11am, or 2 in the afternoon, or 7 in the evening. Two things always take precedence: newspaper and crossword. Oh, and strong coffee. I don’t smoke and used to be a demon for pause-filler chocolate bars, but I am kicking that habit. I break now for tea (or more coffee) and stare at the kettle as I ponder the next few lines of the book. When I go up north, I write in a room at the top of the house. If it’s cold, I’ll light the wood-burner. When the sun’s out, I often go for a walk and do my writing in the late afternoon or evening. When I hit a wall or a problem, a walk often brings sudden illumination. Or else I phone my wife and talk it through with her – she reads a lot of fiction and has helped me on many occasions.

During the first draft I don’t pause to read what I’ve written, except maybe after the first 100 or so pages. I do that over a few days, making notes about where the book could go next. I never have a clearly defined plan – I almost never know the ending before I’m well into the book. The story has a sense of where it wants to go, and I just follow it. A character in my first draft may change their name, because I’ve forgotten what I called them originally – that’s fine; it can all be fixed later. I also don’t pause if I get stuck on a word or a description – I will fix that in a future draft. I do make notes as I go – what might happen; how characters or incidents may connect – but even this isn’t fixed and I may find a better idea later. So I’ve got all these Post-it notes stuck around the desk, plus scrawled reminders on sheets of paper and scribbles in the margins of the manuscript. I work on a very old laptop – when the screen died, I had it replaced rather than buy a new machine. Every day or two I print out what I’ve written, just so I have it. I also save each day’s work to a memory stick that goes everywhere with me. Safety first.

Oh, did I mention music? There’s usually some playing while I work. I have a few totemic CDs I use while writing: Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Boards of Canada, Mogwai, Aphex Twin, Coleman Hawkins. Nothing with lyrics; I can’t work if someone else’s words are swirling around me.

So: a certain solitude; tea or coffee; music; and the inside of my head. Twenty-seven days later, I have the first draft of a novel that will be published towards the end of 2016. It’s going to be called Rather Be the Devil – I can’t do anything until I have a title I’m happy with. Usually it reflects the theme I have in mind for the book. Having finished the second draft, I break off to do the research, because by then I know what I need to know rather than what I might need to know. Again, this speeds things up wonderfully.


Please note that the closing date for applications is 1 June 2018. However, the course may be full before the closing date and so you are advised to apply as early as possible.

This part-time course runs over two years via a specially designed distance-learning online platform. You will also take part in three short (two full days) residential periods of study each year – in September, January and May – to support your study. By arrangement, international students may embark upon a different residential structure. Accommodation may be available at UEA’s on-campus B&B, Broadview Lodge, where MA Crime Fiction students are prioritised. All the residential periods incorporate a mix of creative and critical workshops and seminars, and a masterclass from a leading crime writer. In the May residential period you will also benefit from visits by literary agents and editors of crime fiction lists.

Crime/thriller fiction is the most popular adult literary genre in the world; in the last decade, UK sales alone have risen by 80%. At UEA, we are at the forefront of both critical and creative study within this highly dynamic genre.

Your modules will be delivered by distance learning, and include tutor- and student-led group presentations, discussions, workshopping, and one-on-one Skype tutorials. We make the course material, including original recordings, easily available via our dedicated course website pages. Digital library resources are also available. 

Crime Fiction at UEA

Creative Writing teaching began at UEA over 40 years ago, and the University offers a number of renowned and highly regarded creative writing programmes. The MA Creative Writing Crime Fiction builds on our world-leading expertise, presenting you with the unique opportunity to further your knowledge and skills within the crime/thriller genre, and complete a full-length novel.

We have now embedded critical crime fiction and non-fiction modules across all levels of taught study within the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, and doctoral research and supervision in the area is also growing at UEA. Further, we are a founding partner of Noirwich, Norwich’s annual crime writing festival, which takes place in September, coinciding with the September residential.

Course structure

MA Crime Fiction comprises modules designed specifically for the course, ensuring our teaching has the same creative and academic integrity as UEA’s other Creative Writing MAs.

In the first year you will take the modules A Critical Approach to Crime Writing, and A Theoretical and Practical Approach to Crime Writing. In these, you will critically examine a number of landmark crime texts, address the practical and theoretical issues of fiction writing, and explore the literary devices particularly relevant to crime writing, including plot, suspense, pacing, setting and characterisation.

You will also take A Creative Approach to Crime Writing 1 and 2, which run through both the first and second years. In these modules you will plan and write your own crime novel, guided by one-on-one tutorials and group workshopping. At the end of the first year you will submit the first 10,000 words of your novel for assessment. You will complete the novel in year two, supervised throughout the process by our experienced tutors.

Each year, in addition to these modules, you will take part in three residential periods of study, involving masterclasses and seminars, which make up the modules A Public Approach to Crime Writing 1 and 2. These are a great chance to meet your fellow students in person and enhance your career prospects, benefiting from the advice of visiting writers, publishing professionals and other research-related professionals.


During the first year you will complete the critical and practical/theoretical modules, and part 1 of the creative module. These are continually (formatively) assessed, and you will submit work for marking (summative assessment) at the end of the academic year.

In year two you will complete a full-length work of crime fiction. Again, this will be assessed throughout the year, and marked at the end.

For more details see the Course Modules below. 

Course tutors and research interests

We have exceptional links with leading international crime writers, critics, publishers and agents. Ian Rankin was UEA’s UNESCO Visiting Professor in autumn 2016. Other writers associated with UEA and the Norwich Festival include Lee Child, Val McDermid, Megan Abbott, Nicci French and Sophie Hannah. Our Course Director is crime fiction writer Henry Sutton (who also writes under the name Harry Brett). 

Where next?

The principal aim of the MA Crime Fiction is to help you develop a deeper understanding of the craft and context of producing crime fiction. Our commitment is primarily to your writing. While we cannot promise outcomes in terms of publishing, we do have excellent links with agents and publishers, many of whom visit the campus to give talks during the spring residential.

Each year we create a dedicated crime fiction anthology of student writing, which is distributed widely. The literary agency David Higham Associates sponsors a generous bursary, and the publisher Little, Brown awards an annual prize to the best graduating student.

The course will also prepare you for PhD study.

Frequently asked questions

I already have a BA in Literature and Creative Writing, and have attended other writing workshops. What can the MA offer that I haven’t already done?

The MA in Creative Writing (Crime Fiction) should be a significant step up from anything you will have done previously, not least because you will be in the company of so many other exceptionally promising writers. As tutors we will look to test your assumptions as well as your abilities and there should be no grounds for complacency. We would expect you to want to extend your knowledge and understanding and improve on anything you have written before.

I don’t have a first degree in English Literature or Creative Writing. Would I be suitable for the MA?

Our first consideration is always the quality and potential of the writing sample submitted with your application. We accept students with a wide variety of academic backgrounds – and some with none. Whatever your academic background, however, we would expect you to demonstrate in your personal statement, and subsequently in your interview, that you have read widely and deeply within the genre not least, have begun to develop a critical vocabulary for discussing your writing (and that of others), and have the sensitivity and awareness to learn effectively and contribute to the learning of others.

Should I have a clear idea of my writing project before beginning the course?

Some students do have a very definite idea of their project before joining the course, but many do not. The course is structured to allow a focused and fully supported development of ideas. While the first year might be a time of experimentation and play – an opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them – the second year will be completing a full-length manuscript. Having too rigid an idea of what you want to achieve initially might make it difficult for you to adapt your work in response to first-year feedback.

Whom should I approach for references – a former tutor, my current employer, a lifelong friend? I know a published author who can vouch for my writing.

Academic referees are most useful to us as they can give an opinion on your suitability for postgraduate study. Employers can sometimes also offer useful information about your abilities and attributes. The testimony of a personal friend is rarely helpful. We will make our own assessment of your writing, but it can sometimes be beneficial to read the opinion of a tutor, editor or writer who can comment on your ability to develop in response to feedback.

How many students do you accept each year?

We are receiving an increasing number of applications for the MA Crime Fiction. Our target is 12 students a year. We interview (usually by Skype) everyone we offer places to.

Will I be able to teach undergraduates while completing my Master’s degree?

Opportunities to teach undergraduates are limited to PhD students in the second and third years of their doctoral studies. However, opportunities do sometimes arise for MA students to participate in schools-based initiatives, both locally and further afield.

What are you looking for in a student?

We are seeking writers and readers with a serious interest in exploring the particularly broad and dynamic crime fiction genre. Our admissions process places an emphasis on both the quality and potential of your writing portfolio (5,000 words of fiction, though not necessarily crime fiction), knowledge and commitment. While a good first degree is desirable, it is not essential.

Funding is available via three dedicated bursaries: Main Scholarship, David Higham Associates Crime Fiction Bursary, and the UEA Literary Festival Crime Fiction Bursary. The publisher Little, Brown also provides an award each year for the completed manuscript it deems the best.   

Course Modules 2018/9

Students must study the following modules for 70 credits:

This is your opportunity to write the beginning of a crime novel, including the planning and plotting. You will be directed throughout the year to the formation of this proposal, and work, through online group workshopping, residential workshops, and one-on-one tutorials. Discussions will also focus around genre and public and critical expectation. Formative work, largely comprising of draft outlines, research plans and early chapters, will be assessed throughout the year and the summative work will be the first 10,000 words of your novel.



You will study key crime fiction texts and accompanying critical essays and papers. These will include the modern genesis of the genre, from authors such as James M Cain to Gillian Flynn, allowing you to formulate your own critical response. Formative work, largely comprising of online presentations (for example, Powerpoint, or a Word document, and are not 'live'), will be assessed throughout the year and you will have a summative piece of work which will be a critical essay.



Writers are readers as well, and increasingly operate within the public realm. Attendance at literary events and festivals, profile raising and networking, are now often expected activities of the professional writer. During this module there will be three brief residential periods. You will attend masterclasses (conducted by visiting writers), the obligatory seminars, plus informal readings (from tutors and visiting writers), and events featuring industry professionals (during the annual agent and publisher evening).



You will study the theoretical and practical study of devices employed in the writing of crime fiction (such as suspense, pacing, characterisation, purpose, structure and prose style), while looking at a variety of fictional and critical texts and extracts. Formative work, largely comprising writing exercises, and discussion boards, will allow you to experiment, and solidify positions, and will be assessed by the tutor and your peers throughout the year. Summative work will be a contextualising essay, on an aspect or aspects of the craft and theory of writing crime fiction, while it could also situate your creative project.



Students must study the following modules for 110 credits:

Through close supervision during the year, by a primary and secondary supervisor, you will have the opportunity to complete a full length crime novel. There will also be numerous formative assignments, online supervisions, tutorials and peer workshopping opportunities, along with residential workshops.



Writers are readers as well, and increasingly operate within the public realm. Attendance at literary events and festivals, profile raising and networking, are now often expected activities of the professional writer. This module will comprise the attendance of three brief residential periods annually. Students will attend masterclasses (conducted by visiting writers), the obligatory seminars, plus informal readings (from tutors and visiting writers), and events featuring industry professionals (during the annual agent and publisher evening).




Whilst the University will make every effort to offer the modules listed, changes may sometimes be made arising from the annual monitoring, review and update of modules and regular (five-yearly) review of course programmes. Where this activity leads to significant (but not minor) changes to programmes and their constituent modules, there will normally be prior consultation of students and others. It is also possible that the University may not be able to offer a module for reasons outside of its control, such as the illness of a member of staff or sabbatical leave. In some cases optional modules can have limited places available and so you may be asked to make additional module choices in the event you do not gain a place on your first choice. Where this is the case, the University will endeavour to inform students.

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