Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Narrator’s Voice

We have so many choices when it comes to the narrative voice for a piece of fiction.  Should we use a first person narrative or a close third person? Can we have one point of view or should we include several? Is it still all right to have an omniscient narrator or has that totally gone out of fashion?
There is no simple answer and there is a sense in which each text needs the voice that is most appropriate to it. The art is in recognizing what that is and the craft is in getting it right.
In some ways the first person and the close third are more straightforward. They are reasonably easy to keep under control. We know fairly quickly when we’ve drifted away. It’s not too difficult getting them back in line. The voice of the piece will easily represent the viewpoint character and will have his or her personality.
“Who is seeing this?” I sometimes write on my students’ work.
This puzzles them. “The omniscient author, of course,” they reply.
But who is that? And how much will s/he reveal to the reader? How much does he or she actually know in any case? Rarely is the narrator actually the writer of the story.
The omniscient author can be intrusive or neutral. They can be distant from or near to the reader. They can have an overpowering personality or they can be unfathomable to the reader (but never to the author.) But the creator of the text needs to know exactly who it is. They also have to have a fair idea of who the reader is. A consistent voice will then emerge as the writer keeps both narrator and reader consistent.         

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Students behaving well – and making the most of the creative writing workshop

I’m impressed and delighted by students this semester. I’ve been running three workshops and my students have really entered in to the spirit of what we are doing.
Workshop general principles
The general idea is that students write, then share their work and critique each other. Each workshop is run slightly differently and we put together sets of rules that every member of the group agrees with. There is the proviso that these can be revised at any time that the group members or the lecturer in charge thinks they’re not quite working.
Two general rules that really apply to all workshops are:
We are always critiquing the work and never the writer.
We should avoid the word “like”. This implies that what is said is just the opinion of the critique. However, we can’t help using it. In reality it is fine as long as this word is justified.
Writers’ Workshop
This is a Masters course and most of the participants have already visited several workshops either as part of a BA or as an aid to putting together their portfolio of work if they have been admitted to the course with less conventional qualifications.
The members of this group have been very efficient in emailing work to each other in advance of the class, annotating the work in depth, and giving positive criticism as feedback. Each member had much to say and we easily fill the session up with 25-30 minutes per script.
We encourage the person being critiqued to remain silent, though we do not make the rule too hard and fast. We had originally intended to go round the class in turn but we found this rather formal and less productive.  We now have an open discussion. It is the “chair’s” job to make sure that everyone is involved. To date the chair has always been the lecturer. However, students are encouraged to chair also.
I’m delighted too that many of them are working on the type of text they have not tried before.
Final portfolio
These are third year students. They know each other well. I know them quite well also. They too are very good about emailing work in advance. They also have much to say about each other’s work. At times I feel that I’m not actually needed in the group. The conversation keeps going.
Students don’t always bring annotated texts. They will bring a list of notes. However, they will annotate the electronic copy and email that to their classmates.
As undergraduates, many of them also have to work and can’t always make the work shift avoid the class. Illness also happens of course. They are very good about letting me know and will send feedback to their peers even if they can’t attend the class.
Often students will bring an idea rather than a finished piece. This is very useful at this point in the semester as they may not be sure what they want to do for their portfolio pieces(s).  
Creative practice

Students bring work to this class. We spend the first half hour of our two hour class looking at what they have produced in response to what they learnt in the lecture and discussed in the seminar the previous week. Each week I ask two or three student to share their work. They never hesitate and often have it on a memory stick so that we can show it on the screen.
They are beginning to comment usefully on each other’s work.
Later in the class we’ll do a creative writing exercise. They then share this with a partner.  Again, there is a lot of willingness and little hesitation. In fact, then some are happy to go to share this rather raw work with the rest of the class.
How I prepare for the sessions
I annotate in detail the texts I receive electronically. I use “track changes” for this and always correct formatting, spelling and punctuation, though I don’t discuss this later in class. I use the comment function a great deal also. Many of comments appear as questions.
At the end I’ll summarize what is good about the text and identify what is working less well. I’ll make a suggestion about what they might do to improve the text.  I don’t overwhelm the students at this point – I try to identify what will make the biggest difference to their text.
They all know that if I have to spend a lot of time on nitty gritty – punctuation and such – I’ll have less time and energy to identify the bigger issues.
In the workshops the students are willing to go first.  Often the points I have to cover have already been made. I’ll just add a comment or two or emphasize one already made at the end. The students do seem to appreciate me “rubber-stamping” their opinions but they don’t actually need it. Their work is solid.
No wonder I’m pleased!              

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Watch and Learn: how lecturers can learn from each other

How it came about

I watched a colleague teacher yesterday. We are supposed to peer review our teaching but this wasn’t what I was doing yesterday.  Now that I’m in charge of a programme on which I don’t teach, and a programme on which I do teach has a side totally unknown to me, I thought one of the most efficient ways to find out what goes on would be simply to go and see a class in action.

What I saw

I watched a second year Drama and Creative Writing students in their The Method class. I arrived half way through the session. I found a large group of young people sitting in a circle totally absorbed watching a couple of their peers rehearse a scene. Later another group of three was chosen for another scene. The lecturer prompted them to think of various aspects of their performance. Next came a set of questions related to what had been happening in the class so far. The students were then assigned roles. Some were to rehearse the first scene we had studied. Just two groups will rehearse the scene with three: there are only two males in the class and this scene involves a male character. They had a short time to start on this in class.
They will spend another two weeks on this. Then they will rehearse another scene from another play, finally completing one on which they will be assessed. The class starts with warm-up exercises that are also very educational. They look at various ways of getting into these characters.
Expectations are high. They have quite a bit of homework. Not only must they come to class next week able to put the books down, they must make notes in their journal and they need to produce a one-page autobiography of their character.

The familiar

This lesson was not actually so very different from some of our creative writing ones on character. Before I arrived the class had completed an exercise involving looking in the mirror and trying to make themselves look like the character they were representing. I have been known to do this when working on characters in my fiction. Charles Dickens did it too.

Some observations

I now know a little more about what happens in our Drama classes. But there were some general points to ponder anyway. I saw:
A well-structured course
A firm but relaxed manner with the students
High expectations of student engagement
High expectations of independent and collaborative work by students       
Were there any negatives? I couldn’t see any though no doubt if I’d had a checklist I could have found something.
Could I see any room for improvement? We talked briefly at the end about rehearsal space for the students. As I’m our Technology Enhanced learning champion I did wonder whether we could make use of the electronic journal supplied by Blackboard 9, our Virtual Learning Environment.
What did I see that I could use? The warm-up, the gradually letting go that leads to independence. I guess I do that but not so smoothly.

Some more thoughts about peer reviewing

This visit wasn’t quite about that but it does make some suggestions for peer review. I used to be a Head of Modern Languages in a secondary school. Peer observation was high on the agenda.  It can feel threatening. It is very easy to dwell on the negatives.
Maybe it is less threatening and in fact more useful if we simply ask ourselves these three questions:
What is working really well here?
What else might this teacher do?
Is there anything I can adapt for my classes?