Thursday 27 November 2008

Ingredients for a story

We crash towards the end of our writing short fiction course. We have almost all of the ingredients now.
We have looked at where stories come from. We have found out how to hook the reader. We have discussed how to keep the drama going. We have constructed endings. We have examined different narrative techniques. We have considered points of view. We have looked at how character is created. We have seen how the textual ingredients – dialogue, exposition, description and action are mixed in differing amounts and in differing combinations, at the whim of and according to the skill of the writer. And you then need to sculpt and tinker. Finally next week we shall look at how to achieve the high dramatic spot. Then we’re done.
All there is left to do then is to write.

Friday 21 November 2008

Common Mistakes

I get to read a lot of scripts. There are my own, the ones I see as an editor, the ones my students have written and the ones I see in various critique groups to which I belong. You begin to see a pattern. There are, in fact, four major faults that people make, and if they could do away with these mistakes, their work would improve vastly.

First, and this is undoubtedly the one that needs to be put right first, is that a story or a non-fiction piece lacks structure. The resolution may be unconvincing and too quickly exposed because clues haven’t been left throughout the text. Often, the story takes too long to get going. Sometimes, there is a jump straight from opening to climax.

Then there is all that telling instead of showing. This probably comes from a need to get the story down. This is fine – but it should only happen in the first draft. Just so that you know, I actually do fourteen drafts of my novels. In each draft I check for one thing. I have one check which involves seeing whether I am telling instead of showing. To show, you need to write with the senses, have dialogue, inner thoughts of characters – but not too many, and actions, and certainly no moralising.

A third fault is shifting point of view. Omniscient author is currently unfashionable, unless you actually make him / her another character, but even when it was in vogue, good writers stuck with that point of view. It really does prevent reader engagement if one flits around from consciousness to consciousness. Slightly more skilled writers do attempt to stay with one point of view, but sometimes slip into a neutral stance, which makes the narrative distance clunky.

The fourth fault is poorly constructed dialogue. Dialogue should sound natural but not actually be too natural. It should always show character or move the plot forward. Many novices produce cliché-ridden dialogue. Sometimes, also, a slightly more experienced writer will produce very good dialogue but which takes us nowhere. The writer has enjoyed themselves. Whilst this is a good exercise for the writing muscles, that particular piece of dialogue may have no place in that text. This is possibly a darling which needs killing.

Get those four faults under control and you’re a step nearer being published.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Meetings, meetings

Meeting number 1.
I spoke to a colleague this morning about some of the things I’m involved in. I sometimes find it difficult to remember. I’m so close to these. They are so much part of what I do that I don’t see them as important. But there’s BBC Blast, where I delivered two workshops on writing flash-fiction, performing it and filming it. Then I’ll be involved in Aim Higher, working with intelligent but unambitious Y10s who come and stay at the university, just like students, and enjoy the sort of activities they might do when they eventually come to university. I’m actually working on producing a book in two days with them, and it may well involve some of my students as helpers. And of course, I had to talk about the Creative Café. That is the project that is so close to my heart. I’m not sure where it’s going, exactly, but it’s going somewhere, and it’s great fun.
Meeting number 2
I met with Scott over at the Angel Café, where I’m organising a read of Making Changes on 1st December, at 2.00 p.m. I talked to him about the Creative Cafés project. He had a few extra ideas and might also be able to find some funding. He seems to understand the basic idea.
I ate at the Angel as well. Their food is good. And filling and comforting and yet quite healthy.
I wonder, though, if I got too many of my colleagues from the university to go there, whether it might not change character completely. Moderation in all things, I think, is the answer.
Meeting number 3
Three of us met to standardise marking of the Intro to Creative Writing 1 first assignment. This really seems a good system – getting the marks right before we start on the bulk of the writing.
We annotated the texts and then marked together, homing in on each section. We pretty well agreed. Then having a well planned marking scheme really helps.
It was good, too, because we were able to discuss in detail what happens where elements are partly there.
Meeting number 4
Our MA students. We looked at the worlds through the eyes of Adorno. Is our work committed? Or are we adding to popular mass culture.

Monday 17 November 2008

Fabulous Weekend

What a weekend! I’m still buzzing.
First of all, there was the drive to North Wales. What a fantastic drive anyway, one that I always love. The way you follow the coast and then the drama the mountains coming down to the sea. I did my usual trick of allowing an extra half hour for every hour I had to travel. The journey went well and I arrived an hour before I needed to be there.
I went in search of my cousin. Well, actually, she’s the wife of my second cousin. But she ahs bought and renovated a café in the middle of Bangor. Blue Sky. It’s gorgeous. We had a chat. And it’s already running along the lines of the Creative Café. They’ve had a Poetry Wales meeting there. And the novel-writers group meet there for breakfast.
I then met up with the others who were in the Fat Cat, excited as can be. I’ve edited and published the book, Making Changes, in which three writers form North Wales feature: Debz Hobbs-Wyatt, Jean Lyons and Phil Thomas.
We made our way to the Museum and Art Gallery. It is really a nice space for a book launch or reading. The lighting is great. There’s a good atmosphere with all that art work around.
I somehow managed to end up being the one who sold the books. The entire stock went and I’ve had to order another 17 to fulfil preorders. The curator counted 53 people arriving and then was distracted. I think it may have been about 65. Two of my former colleagues for NIECI and it was good to chat to them.
The readings went well and those who hadn’t bought a book on the way in, certainly bought one on the way out. We hooked them. The readings were great, but I’ve a few ideas about how to make them even greater.
The catering worked well. The three writers paid £15.00 each and that bought wine and nibbles and various members of their writing group brought along home made cake. Delicicous!
Debz and I then went back to her place, taking one of the four bottles of wine left over – there had been twelve altogether. We chatted into the small hours and drank the wine.
The next day, we were back at the Blue Sky café. Novelist’s critique breakfast – in my cousin’s café. This is really living the dream. It was good to chat about their work and writing in general.
I had to go home eventually, but only so that I could go out again to get to the evening session at the NAWE conference in Manchester. Interesting journey through the middle of town on a Saturday night and then along the crowded Oxford Road and the Curry Mile. Then the place was hard to find. No matter, though. The speaker had the same problem. But it was all good in the end. It was good to catch up with some old friends, not least of all my former PH D supervisor, Graeme Harper.
Sunday was a choir day. We, the Ordsall Singers, an a cappella group, sang in the Salford museum where a lot of local groups were exhibiting. I found a writing group and chatted to the people from the Imperial War Museum North. But the singing. I think we did well. It was such fun. Well, it normally is. But we sang in the part of the museum which has been made into an old street. Such an atmosphere. I think we did well. Well, we have a good MD and a few good singers. And we sang three lots of twenty minutes. That felt great, but I had a sore throat afterwards.
What a wonderful weekend!

Friday 14 November 2008

A Still Small Oasis of Writing Calm

It is frantic at the moment. Course, meetings, seminars – two in one day, deadlines looming, writing my CV, for a probation review – I’ve had weeks to do that and tinkered with it now and then- quite frequently, actually, - and still had to hurry to finish it. Things to be checked. I was right, but if I hadn’t have checked, I wouldn’t have been – somebody or other’s law, I think.

Now, with gritted teeth, I am going to spend two hours of my “research day” on my own writing. Jabbering away at the back of my mind is the fact that I’m not quite ready for Monday, I’m not even quite ready for today – goodness, an important book came out yesterday, and I haven’t even told my colleagues – maybe you’re one of them and you’re reading this – MAKING CHANGES CAME OUT YESTERDAY. Back of my mind is that I have to get ready to go to Wales, that we’re having a book launch there, that I haven’t read the submissions for the critique sessions on Saturday morning – but that can be bed-time reading – must remember to print it off. And I don’t know where I’m going Saturday evening. Orders are pouring in for the book.

All of this screams at me.

Yet I shall write for my two hours. Because if I don’t write, none of the rest of it makes any

Monday 10 November 2008

Giving a Lecture

Is perhaps the most terrifying thing about being a university lecturer actually having to lecture? Lecture theatres are strange places anyway. You look up at your audience. You often have to compete with noisy heating or air-conditioning.
We have about sixty-five students supposed to be attending our core lecture. I actually counted over fifty today. That is not too bad considering that there are a lot of bugs going round and this is the week in which a whole load of assignments are due in.
My voice doesn’t carry well these days. The desk mike only seems to work if you stand on top of it. I elected to have a radio mike. I was able to collect it on the way for the audio visual department is in the same building as the lecture theatre where I was working. I really recommend them. Teachers at all levels need to preserve their voice.
Well, I think the lecture went okay. They seemed to hear me without straining, though I myself couldn’t tell whether the mike was working properly.
I posted notes for them on Blackboard, our VLE, which gave them the focus of the lecture. I used a version of this for myself, though I actually wrote timings on it as well. The slightly odd situation here is that I am a fiction specialist and I was lecturing on poetry. A colleague, who is a poet, actually lectured on autobiography. It had to be that way, as he is off on a project soon. The poet who wrote the lecture has put more detailed notes on Blackboard and some quotations. I gave them a handout of the quotations but highlighted some of them on a Power Point display I showed via the projector. So, they had plenty of hooks.
I always worry that I won’t have enough material to fill the time. Yet, somehow, it does last. Maybe because even when you’re using a mike, when you speak to a large audience you slow right down.
And I have to admit, I quite enjoy the experience, though I can be respectably nervous beforehand. The oddest part is just being in a room with so many other people hanging on your every word.

Friday 7 November 2008

Creative Language Learning

I’m now steaming ahead with this resource. It is remarkably easy to write, as it is based on twenty-five years of teaching languages and eight years of being creative. It writes itself to a large extent. I’m due to finish it by the middle of March, but I’m hoping to complete a first draft by the end of 2008.

It’s all based on students seeing the bigger picture, taking responsibility for their own learning and playing with the language, not being afraid of it.

I’ve also been in touch with a local school where I am going to pilot some of the materials and also do a little general work on creative writing with the students. It will be really interesting to see if it all works. I’m hoping I’ll also get a few more schools interested.

I am missing my fiction, but I guess a rest is good. Perhaps when I’m over the half way point, I might go back to one day fiction, one day non-fiction.

Wednesday 5 November 2008

The Children’s Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University

The Children’s Collection at Manchester Metropolitan University
I spent a fascinating time viewing this collection this afternoon. It is a very random collection and therefore leaves researchers to make up their own minds. There are modern books and books going back to the nineteenth century. There are collections of magazines for children. I was intrigued to see copies of the encyclopaedias that were my father’s and we have only just, sadly, disposed of. I was also intrigued to find a copy in paperback of a book I own in hardback. It was a Sunday School prize for my grandfather.
There is this strange relationship between trade books and education. Books are sold and produced along commercial principles. Yet they have an educational use, and that is part of their commercial value. Does that all come from the time that books had those two very specific educational purposes – to teach children how to read and also to teach them morals?
It’s also interesting to reflect how over time the child was invented, then the teenager, and now the young adult. Will there be something else?
There are some gaps in the collection. No Enid Blyton. Most of the collection middle class, or at least very moral. The collection is continued by picking just books that have got awards. That worries me. I know I too tend to read the books which have got awards or good reviews. But what of those that are not even reviewed? Thank goodness for Amazon, that great equaliser. I don’t know how it communicates with this collection.
Nevertheless, a fascinating place to browse.
It’s just a five minute ride form here, at Salford University to Oxford Road and a five minute walk at either end. I met my equivalent over there, Sherry Ashworth. We had lunch together in The Eighth Day Café. Fabulous food. Good company. And yet it’s great to get back to Salford which seems quiet after the bustle of Oxford Road.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

The Angel Cafe

I had a most amazing time over there this afternoon. The Angel Café is found in the Angel Centre which specialises in well-being and fitness for the ordinary people. I’ve embraced it as one of my Creative Cafés.
I went there to have a chat to Andy, the guy who runs it, about launching Making Changes form there. We’re actually going to do it on the 1st of December, as that is when the first story should be read. We’ve decided on an afternoon, and they’ll have tea and cake on the go.
I meet an amazing guy there, called Micky Docks.
“I’ve travelled thirteen miles to eat here,” he says.
I don’t blame him. The food is really good, Cheap. Good-sized portions. Healthy without being mean. Comfort food without being stodgy. Good hearted.
Micky is a playwright and song-writer. He immediately gives me a list of all the people I should contact.
“Can you cope if we have 200 here?” I ask Andy. I’ll secretly be pleased with twenty.
Andy shrugs and grins.
“We’ll manage,” he says.
Suddenly there’s great enthusiasm. I catch it too.
I decide to eat. The tuna bake is great. And there’s not the usual pushing and shoving and hurry there is at the university. My dilemma is: should I tell everyone or do I keep this little gem to myself?
Another lady joins me. She works locally and is pleased to have found this place. She becomes interested in what I do. She might be able to do our MA course. I give her the appropriate colleague’s details. We arrange to meet up there again.
Yes, I’m definitely going to carry on going there for lunch.

Monday 3 November 2008

Keeping Track of Royalties

Keeping Track of Royalties
Am I just about the saddest person in the world?
I received a royalty cheque last week. It was a healthy three figures and came from an educational publisher for whom I have not worked for about three years, though I wrote for them steadily between 2001 and 2005. They were the second publisher to publish me. They started off as a small press and now are much better known. I’ve probably earned more from them than from any other publisher.
Of course, a nice thing about royalties is that they generally represent a payment for work that you did some time ago. It is particularly nice if you receive them in September, while you’re still on holiday. Your books earn for you while you are doing nothing. And every time you pick up a new royalty, the amount of money an individual work has earned for you goes up.
I actually keep a spreadsheet to show this. That’s what might be sad, in case you were wondering. It shows each individual book’s performance It’s a bit of cheat, because I don’t include books which are not being sold yet. So there are some hours of work which will never earn me anything. It’s great fun, though, to add in the new royalty payments and see the end figure wiz up. The downside is that it plunges when you add a new title in.
Well, I’m above minimum wage now and I earn almost as much per book hour as I do per teaching hour. I still haven’t beaten the 1,000 word article which took me one hour to write and which earned me £100. I have just a few titles which earn me below minimum wage and one is still earning less than £1.00 per hour. I have some real goodies that go to £60.00 + per hour, with most books coming in between £15.00 and £25.00 per hour.
Well, it may seem a strange thing to do, but it helps me to prove to myself that I am a writer.