Friday, 23 December 2011

School Visit to Brigshaw School 7 December 2011

I had a very enjoyable half-morning with some Y9 students at this very pleasant school. I arrived at about 9.15 – just in time to start my session at 9.25.
I started off reading a little from each of the threads, in my Holocaust story, Potatoes in Spring. I didn’t introduce it as a Holocaust story, but let the students “listen between the lines”. Many of them seemed to understand though I’m not sure that they’ve yet visited the Holocaust in Y9.
I then read a little to them form Alex Smith’s Calling for Angels. Alex won The Red Telephone competition last year and I edited the book. She really captured the voice of the fourteen-year-old. Her story stood out beyond all of the others, including three very good ones. We were astonished to find that she was just 16 and even more astounded to discover later that she had only been 14 when she wrote the book. I wanted to show the students what they might be capable of and encourage them to have a go.  
We then had some time for questions and answers. One question I’d never been asked before was “What do you drink when you’re writing?”  I guess the young man who posed that question was hoping I’d say gin and tonic or red wine. The truth is, I guess, that if I drink anything at all it would be Earl Grey tea. But there is also the sense that one is writing when one is not writing. The ideas continue to bubble along. I did explain this. I did not connect that with drinking.  The young man in question seemed worldly-wise enough to work out any such connection without any help from me.  
We finished up with a short creative exercise which demonstrates how story comes from character and how important it is that writers know their characters well. I left the students working on a scene where they put two main characters in their stories together. They see what happens. Also, they then let others read their work. They try to establish whether the readers understand the characters as they’ve created them.  Most of the time they do and this is because of the effort that has been put into knowing the characters before they’re written about.    
We worked in the school’s library and it was a joy to see it well-stocked and well-used. The students were extremely engaged and very polite and enthusiastic. A group of students were taking notes with a view to producing a piece of journalistic writing.  I’m interested to see how that turns out.
Find out more about Brigshaw School here.  

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Opportunities List

I publish an opportunities list two or three times a week – in fact, usually when there are a minimum of five opportunities on them. I’m thinking mainly of my students- both undergraduate and postgraduate. These are opportunities I stumble across and from a couple of lists I check. People are now beginning to send them to me.
Some of the opportunities are competitions, others are just publishing possibilities. I’m looking for certain qualities. The writer must get something out of this. This usually means being paid but not always. Sometimes a good line on the CV might be worth having or an opportunity to get detailed feedback. Or sometimes their writing might be exposed to a lot of people.  
Some competitions have an entry fee. Up to £5.00 for short fiction or a few lines of poetry is fine, up to £10 for a novel extract and synopsis – presuming that eventually you will have to send the whole novel – is also fair. £20 might also be fair for the latter but it depends on what the prize is. Anyone who has been involved in judging a writing competition will tell you that they are rarely paid anything near minimum wage, unless they’re famous and just judging the final selection. Most of the takings go to cover admin and the prize.   
And in competitions, what of prizes? Publication or cash is always welcome, though sometimes the quirkier prizes are actually better value for money and more interesting. A year’s supply of chocolate would aid any writer as would a two week retreat in a beautiful villa on an isolated mountain.  
Most of the publishing opportunities on the list are with small press. This is not a bad place to start. You can make your mistakes while you are not over-exposed and you can start to build up a following.
It’s important also to take stock when you’re rejected or not placed in a competition. What is different about what did get it?
Finally, what gets put on my list and what doesn’t may be a little subjective. However, my bottom-line question is always “What’s in it for the writer?” I doubt that I get it right all of the time, but most people seem pleased with the list.
If nothing else, it gives you something to aim at.    
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Sunday, 6 November 2011

Another look at critiquing

Bigger classes, more contact time with students and fewer staff to teach the same number of courses mean that we can’t spend as much time annotating students’ texts as we used to.  For this reason as well we can’t offer the traditional workshop where everyone sends in work to everyone else and all write copious notes which are then fed back in detail to the person who has produced the work.
I’m in a couple of critique groups myself and have to fit in looking at another eight or so scripts a month.  As you would expect, with my university work and my own writing deadlines I don’t have a lot of time to devote to this. I only have about an hour before the meeting as I sit with a pot of Earl Grey and a slice of cake in a nice café. I actually do get quite a lot done in that time, and actually make more annotations than I talk about in the meeting.  But I certainly don’t go into as much details as I would if I were being paid for a full critique or edit. 
My comments are always along the lines of:
What is best about the piece?
What is worst about it – maybe identifying the fault the removal of which might make the biggest difference?
Which one thing might the writer do that will make a huge improvement?
I also tend to ask questions rather than make comments. I do that when I’m editing too.
I think this works quite well, both with my writing buddies and my students. People can only digest a certain amount in one go. What you’re teaching them at this point anyway isn’t just for this piece of work. They can probably apply it to everything they write.
Also, they need to know what they are doing right as well – so they can repeat it. Finishing the feed-back with a practical suggestion also gives the writer hope for the future. The negative is cushioned nicely between two positives.    
I have to confess that the idea of commenting through asking questions came from a former existence: I learnt this technique when supervising trainee teachers. It worked in that situation too.              

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Knowing When to Break the Rules

As a creative writing teacher, as a publisher and as a writer who often sees the work of less experienced writers, I meet the same common mistakes frequently.
-          Not having a proper story – often with too much or not enough drama or being very clichéd and predictable
-          Switching close third person points of view mid-chapter or even mid-page
-          Telling instead of showing.
Yet many successful novelists and other story tellers break these rules and not only get away with it but receive critical acclaim for their work.
Philip Pullman goes from close third person to omniscient narrator at the end of his His Dark Materials trilogy. Yet it works because he is in effect zooming out of the story and pre-empting our need to think about what we have just read.
Little happens in the stories of Raymond Carver yet they stay with us for days because they tell us much about the human condition.
I’m currently reading Jake Wallis Simons’ The English German Girl. It has a quite clichéd plot. Simons zooms around from the inner thoughts of one character to that of another, then steps back and tells us what the sages say about this and that. Yet the novel is captivating. The author becomes another character. The voice is astoundingly consistent and convincing.   
So why shouldn’t the less experienced writer do all of this?
I’m guessing it’s because Pullman, Carver and Simons really know what they are doing that they get away with this.  They have chosen to break the rules because they have made the decision that doing so will be more effective than sticking to them. In order to make that decision they must understand the rules well and importantly, why they are there.
This is a far cry from accdinetally going against a convention that allows the reader to feel comfortable because it is familiar.
So, the advice is, unless you have a very good reason for going against the convention, stay with it. And that, of course, means you need to understand the mechanics of it and why it is there.  

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Salford Sampler

This event rocked. We had just the right number of people in attendance. The day was kick-started by a performance from some of our students.  It was absolutely excellent I have to say. One of our graduating creative writing students read out his piece about the city whilst some of our English, Drama and Performance Studies added extra voices and acted parts out.  
Even though many of the attendees were from the university, they were from a variety of places, and not always obvious ones.  There was also a good representation form the community.
There was enough material offered that we could run parallel sessions – at one point there were three on at once. This made my session rather small, and in fact it was attended by three of my colleagues. No pressure then. I’m pleased to say, nevertheless, that within thirty minutes we had all found a Salford story and found a voice in which to tell it to a young adult.         
There were several other story-telling / finding sessions and I’m pleased to say I attended quite a few of them and enjoyed them very much. It’s good to be taught occasionally.
As the day wore on, the group got smaller so we were a really intimate bunch for the last two sessions. Nevertheless, it still felt extremely successful.   

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Contact time in higher education

There’s a lot of concern about how much contact time students get at higher education institutions. Typically, students receive nine hours a week over 24weeks a year. Exams will be spreads over a further four weeks. At my institution, students enjoy 22-33 hours contact on courses which are supposed to last 200 hours.
School children typically have 25 hours of lessons on 39 weeks, with an extra half hour per day for assemblies and registrations, followed by one to two hours homework a week.
However, it may not really be as different as it sounds.
School students tend to spend five minutes getting form one lesson to another. Often, getting the logistics of the lesson right is more time-consuming: it takes longer to give out hand-outs etc. – there are more students and they are less motivated than university students. A classroom teacher in compulsory education settings spends some time on discipline. Even a really well-behaved class will spend a certain amount of time on classroom routines and rituals. There is rarely any confrontational behaviour in higher education – if a student doesn’t want to be in a class they don’t turn up and may even sneak out part way through. They’ll pick up the hand-out on the way to their seat – if they haven’t already downloaded it themselves for their VLE (virtual learning environment). It’s a given that work had been prepared before the class began – and even if, as frequently happens, students come to class unprepared - at least they know the onus is on them. Exam time is included is the 39 X 25 hours in school. Up to half of the type of work that higher education students do in the other 150 hours or so is actually done in class by school students within the 39 X 25 hours.
It’s a different quality of time anyway, in a higher education class. I personally find a two hour seminar with university students far more draining than even a whole day in a challenging comprehensive school. The students suck knowledge out of you. Even if you set them a bit of pair work in class, you can rarely sit back: they find questions to ask and you feel that because of their enthusiasm you need to be able to jump in and offer further suggestions.
In school, teachers pass on a recognised body of knowledge, often defined in part by the government. In higher education, lecturers teach about their research. As they are constantly adding to this, they are constantly adding to the VLE for the course and constantly advising students of this. As the students are keen to learn, they often email their lecturers with questions, or visit them during the two office hours offered per week. Most lecturers will see students at other times as well. Most courses timetable a fifteen minute one-to-one tutorial in addition to the 22-33 hours. And students get another three or four minutes – longer in awkward cases – feedback when assignments are handed back. Admittedly some need to spend more of this ad hoc time with lecturers than others. But it is there if it’s needed. Many students are encouraged to join in wikis, blogs and forums.  Some lecturers even use Twitter and Facebook. Lecturers have a presence too on these types of platforms.   
All in all, then, there is probably less difference between contact time in schools and contact time in institutions of higher education that one might at first think.