Saturday, 30 April 2011

Teaching Visit to Groningen University

I have just spent a working week at the University of Groningen on a teaching, monitoring and evaluating visit. Groningen is a delightful town and the weather was uncharacteristically warm and sunny. Mind you, the best weather in the Netherlands tends to be in May and we’re not actually that far off May now.
I felt at home there. I’ve lived in the Netherlands in the past – two years just outside Amsterdam. The British and the Dutch share a love of pomp and circumstance and a sense of humour. I’m glad, however, that the Dutch do not share a habit far too prominent in the UK – that of binge-drinking. I was pleased to see my Dutch come back quite quickly. The hundreds of bikes came as no surprise. Bikes are all but holy in the Netherlands.
There can be an accommodation problem for students in Groningen. Local by-laws prevent too many student properties being created. There are no real halls of residence though there is an accommodation office that is independent of the university and which is reliable. I thought it might be best for my students to aim for the first semester, therefore, but no, I was told, the second one might be better: some students will have dropped out by then. But getting everything sorted out early is always a good option.
The students dominate the town – even in non-teaching weeks because as most of them live in private accommodation, they have to pay rent all year round and probably also have to work to support themselves. There is an odd culture of taking four years to complete what is supposed to be a three year degree, which university regulations allow. This all adds up to even more bikes than in a normal Dutch city centre and goodness, doesn’t Groningen get a boost to its economy. Pedestrians beware, however!
It must be a charming place to study. The Arts building are in the middle of this historic town. This is such a contrast to Salford and the A6. The university buildings are not all that old, but they have a sense of integrity and blend well with the older architecture. And, as a percentage of building costs in every new building in the Netherlands must be spent on art, the new buildings have their pieces of sculpture. The owls on the Harmonie building are an example of this. “The twelve golden owls in the tympanum are a mark of honour to the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. She symbolizes the Faculty of Arts. Pallas Athena is attributed with the characteristics understanding, courage, beauty and loyalty. She was worshipped as the goddess of wisdom, of war and peace and of the fine arts. The goddess is often represented by an owl. Homer even gave her the epithet ‘owl-eyed’. In Roman times Pallas Athena was equated with the goddess Minerva, the patroness of the fine arts.”
Whilst there, I gave two Creative Writing seminars – one on building characters and the other on shaping story. I also talked to Masters students about the state of publishing today and looked at some of the issues to do with digital publishing. I think all three talks were well received.
They don’t really teach Creative Writing at Groningen. Few universities on mainland Europe do and even where they do, it’s actually quite difficult to get information about them. Many students and faculty members do nevertheless write, – often in English. I did have a very mixed audience.
There is some welcome academic rigour at the university. 80% attendance is expected and even illness is not always tolerated. However, there is no PMC system like our own. The colleague I visited had sole discretion about individual cases and other tutors would know about certain students and refer them on. English proficiency 4 is very similar to our Wordscope, with an emphasis on producing well-structured language. We smut remember that for Groningen students, English is a foreign language – although most Dutch people do speak English very well. Certainly, their courses would suit our literature, language and linguistics students.
Much was familiar: I watched my colleagues chasing students who had not completed assignments, making allowances for those who had a disability statement, and worrying about cut-backs. One of the rooms I was in was double-booked.
Yet there were differences, too. Students pay a lot less in fees: €1700. Until this year, mature students had to pay a massive €7000. There is the 80% rule. There is no internal moderation or external examining, though this does not prevent a high expectation. They are facing cut-backs but not as severe as ours. Only full professors may wear robes. Both similarities and differences are sometimes, though, just between two different universities and sometimes between two systems. Either way there is much we can learn from each other – which after all is the main point of an exchange. One idea that intrigued me was the week long, 10-ECTS-credit-bearing course on Shakespeare – a residential course in Stratford – with a 3000 word essay as an outcome. A concept to be thought about.
A highlight had to be seeing the beginning of a Ph D defence. The viva takes place in a hall full of family and friends, other academics, and the Ph D committee. It is extremely rare to fail at this point – you would have to crumble to the floor in a pool of jelly – but you may be promoted to “cum laude” if your defence sparkles. And there we go again – pomp and circumstance, with the committee and the examiners(s) processing in an out of the hall- twice! Here are a couple of descriptions: and
It was a great trip. I learnt a lot. And if someone told me I had to go and work there, I would not be a bit put out.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

“Leap into Books” at Laisterdyke Business and Enterprise College

Yesterday I worked with four different groups of mainly primary age children on this wonderful initiative run by the college. Children mainly from the college’s feeder primary schools come into school during the Easter break and spend three days engaged with story and reading.
Several publishers support the event by offering books. Sponsorship is also gained from other sources and hard-working Adrian Thompson engages creative practitioners to deliver high quality workshops to the children.
So, there I was talking to my four groups about story. We looked at the standard forms of character – hero, friend, enemy and mentor, and talked through how stories work because of the tensions between the characters and follow a pattern of hook, complications, crisis, climax, poke and resolution – though I didn’t quite use those terms.
The children had lively imaginations and were engaged throughout.
One very intelligent young man pointed out that the story of Cinderella was flawed. That shoe could probably have fitted many feet. And anyway, how come it didn’t turn back to rags when the rest of Cinders’ costume did? I then remembered Philip Pullman’s I was a Rat. This is about a boy who had been a rat who wasn’t around to get turned back.
We had shades of Hamlet too, as one girl had the ghost of a dead father talking to a son and requesting revenge. Well, that Billy S. always was a good story-teller. And anyway, aren’t there only seven stories after all?
One group invented a Popeye-like Captain Cucumber who imbued his mentees with superpowers if the ate their vegetables.
I had a great time, and I think the students did too. Their creative energy was strong and they invented some great stories. Behaviour and concentration were fantastic and I was very impressed at how confident they were about telling their stories to the rest of the group.
Read more about Laisterdyke BEC and Leap into Books.
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Friday, 15 April 2011

The Big Edit
In the final teaching week of my Writing Novels for Young People module, we looked at editing in general, laying emphasis on editing the novel and in particular the young adult novel. I encouraged students to forward their work so that I could photocopy it and circulate to others. Only one student did, and sent ten pages. Some students thought they did not have a class as they hadn’t in many other modules. So, a rather elite group of six gathered.
We talked through my customised list of edits. This is listed below.
Stages of Revision Young Adult Novel
1. Is the overall structure sound? - hook, inciting incident, increasing complexities, crisis, climax –
2. Is the resolution satisfying?
3. Overall time scale
4. Check format and length against target market / reader
1) Mixed genre
2) Emotional closeness
3) Leaving reader to decide
4) Pushing boundaries
5) Fast paced / high stakes
6) Characters resemble young adults
7) Bildungsroman
5. Characters. Are they consistent? Do they develop? Do you know everything about them that you should?
6. Is it convincing? Is there cause and effect?
7. Is there conflict and tension? Are there peaks and troughs?
8. Does the pace vary?
9. Dialogue
1. It should not be too natural
2. It should only say important things
3. It should differentiate characters' voices
4. When angry, becomes childish
5. Should take 2/3 of popular book
6. Should convey mood, character and reaction
7. Every speech should give information
9. Detail and description should be slipped in small chunks.
10. Show, don’t tell.
11. Kill off your darlings.
12. Get rid of clichés
13. Overall flow
14. Copy edit
Interestingly, we added one more as a result of that workshop: Point of View. I cannot imagine why it was not there before. I consider it pretty important.
Each student took a different edit and worked on the text for about half an hour. I gave a general edit and tried to cover the stages the students hadn’t covered. They chose:
1. Check format and length against target market / reader
2. Characters. Are they consistent? Do they develop? Do you know everything about them that you should?
3. Is it convincing? Is there cause and effect?
4. Is there conflict and tension? Are there peaks and troughs?
5. Does the pace vary?
6. Dialogue
7. Detail and description should be slipped in small chunks.
8. Show, don’t tell.
We then fed back to the writer.
So, he had a two hour critique on his work. If he can respond positively to everything that was said he should get a good mark. And so should the others. I often find I learn from my students. I see strengths and weaknesses more readily in their work than my own, but I can then use what I’ve seen as a yardstick for my own work. I’m sure every single student there benefitted from the process.
Of course, they may have learnt even more if they’d all brought work along. So I’m now going to adopt the Big Edit in the final week of all of my courses. Everyone brings along a sample of their work and we each do one edit on the work in front of us. We change the script and the type of edit we’re doing every ten minutes or so. We do a page together at the beginning and at the end of the session. Everybody takes their heavily annotated work home and the sample pages of everybody’s work discussed at the beginning and the end of the session.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Writer's Notebook

At the Higher Education institution where I teach Creative Writing we are very fond of the “Writer’s Journal”. We remind our students to use one at the beginning of each module and when they write their “Writer’s Reflection”, a reflection on how they have progressed in their writing during the module, we remind them to tell us about how they have used their journal.
I have just read a Reflection - a very good one – but one where the student admits to not having used a journal this time but did say he made lots of notes. Is there some misunderstanding of what we mean by “journal” here?
Until very recently I used to think I had to have a smart 8 X 6 notebook for my journal. It had to look like a Moleskin (shop’s own brands are MUCH cheaper) and it was best if it had a ribbon and / or elastic to keep your place. I carried it around to confirm that I was a writer.
I’ve seen some great journals in my time – one friend has a gorgeous notebook covered in all sorts of buttons. I used to like ones that looked as if they were covered in wrapping paper. I almost prefer ones without lines.
BUT: such beauties can be heavy to carry around. And half the time when you do need them you don’t have them.
I’m getting much more out of my journal now that it’s miniscule and fits neatly into my equally miniscule handbag. How do I use it? I jot down ideas as I think of them. The little book is always at my elbow. Alone in a café I’ll thrash out parts of my novel in bullet points. I’ll note down the name of a new book or a new author as I come across it. It’s a real hotchpotch.
I still use the Moleskin look-alike. I make notes at talks in that. Note-taking actually, for me, reinforces understanding. I rarely look at the notes again afterwards, though I force myself to after a conference in case there is something that needs following up.
One side issue is that I’m terrible with pens and tend to leave them on the desk where I’ve been working. So, I may need to note something down and have a note-book but no pen. Well there’s always the iPhone, though with that one misses that all important brain-hand-pen-paper connection. Many students, however, now bring work to the creative writing workshop on their phones and several writing colleagues read their work from theirs. Why not, indeed?
Writer’s journals, then, come in many forms and guises and are used in a variety of ways. Almost anything goes. One thing is certain: they are immensely useful.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

An Odd Experience with a Jar of Macaroni

You need to be careful when making school visits that the teacher who has invited you does not have a really peculiar agenda.
When my novel for 9-11s, The Lombardy Grotto, came out, I went on a school tour. I offered a free visit, though asked for travel expenses to be paid and to be allowed to sell copies of my book. In most cases this was fine. I read a little from the book, asked the students questions and allowed them to ask me questions, then sold and signed a few copies.
But then there was the school with the macaroni jar.
I guess I should have been suspicious when the class teacher informed me the Literacy Coordinator was going to be present “So there shouldn’t be any problems.”
The children sat quietly and attentively on the mat. I introduced myself and my book. I was slightly distracted as the classroom teacher was holding a huge empty jar and a packet of macaroni twists.
“That was really good, children,” said the classroom teacher. “You listened really well.” A few pieces of macaroni clattered into the jar.
I asked a few questions. “What do you think has happened to Michael?”
“He’s been gobbled up by monsters,” shouted out a small boy with curly blond hair.
“Don’t shout out, Joe,” said the teacher, “or I’ll have to take some of the macaroni out of the jar.”
Several children had their hands up. I tried to be democratic as I picked who should answer.
“That’s it,” mumbled the teacher. “Hands up and wait to be asked.” Plink, plink, plink as more macaroni fell into the jar.
I moved on to the next passage I was going to read.
She sat there nodding to herself and plinking macaroni into the jar.
There was the odd fidget and the odd attempt at what those in the trade call low level disruption. Well, they’d been sitting still on the floor for quite a while. It’s only to be expected.
Low level disruption is best ignored and if one disrupter is persistent, it’s best to give them the distraction they crave but turn it round and focus on their potential good behaviour rather than on the disruption.
But did the macaroni plinker know this? Oh no!
“Joe, careful, or I’ll be taking some of this macaroni out,” she said, as I caught Joe’s eye and had begun to pretend that I was talking just to him.
Most of the disruption was the sound of macaroni hitting glass.
“Well, that was good, wasn’t it?” said Macaroni Plinker. “You listened really well and look,” – she paused to hold the macaroni jar up high – “the jar’s almost full today.”
“I think we should thank Gill for her visit,” said Literacy Coordinator.”
“Whooh ooh!” shouted Joe.
The class teacher’s had strayed towards the jar. Literacy Coordinator frowned slightly and shook her head.
The other children clapped.
I guess, then, the visit had been successful even if the classroom teacher had thought it was more to do with good behaviour pasta than having a real live author in the room.