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 cafĂ©. 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.