Wednesday 28 January 2009

The Joys of Marking

I’ve finished marking. I am surrounded by piles of paper and I no longer recognise what they are. Odd papers have been missing then turned up again. Occasionally you mark one and then put it down and you can’t find what you’ve done with it seconds later. They all look the same. Should we go to electronic submission? Would that be as confusing, or more so in fact? Then oddly, or perhaps predictably, all the missing bits turn up.
The marking / moderating process is an involved one. It always takes longer than you think, even when you rush it – maybe especially if you rush it.
I don’t mind too much. After all, I am reading what other people have written. It’s not that different from looking at martial from a critique session, except in that you’ve got to make a summative judgement about it. Judgements in week by week session and for your critique groups are more formative. When it comes to acting as reader / editor, you have to make a final one off decision. That, I guess is a bit different. I’m attempting to do that electronically. I’ll keep you posted

Saturday 24 January 2009

Short Stories

I’ve become rather obsessed with these recently. I actually mean the very short ones. I’ve just submitted on to Triond, and I had one published earlier this week on Rainy City Stories – “Wild Geese over Radcliffe”.

I think it’s a really interesting form. It has to be subtle with a bijou plot. My latest one, “Competition” was actually inspired by watching a cookery programme when I was at the gym.

I think they are also extremely subtle and the language can almost be like poetry. There often does have to be a certain amount of telling instead of showing, but there is still room for showing.

There is an “aha” moment. Sometimes it happens suddenly, sometimes it creeps up upon the reader. Sometimes it is the reader, sometimes the main character and sometimes both who have the sudden insight. It is only the reader in my latest two short stories.

Always – though I have come across one exception that worked well by one of my students – there is just one point of view.

Good short stories aren’t actually an easy read. They are a read so they are good for when you don’t have long to read – on public transport, last thing at night or over a cup of coffee. But they probably stay with you for a long time afterwards and you may spend many hours later mulling over what you have read.

They’re fairly literary – if you set aside those written for women’s magazines.

I guess it’s really this interest which has set me off on publishing short story anthologies for Bridge House Publications.

Friday 23 January 2009

Literature Training

I’ve received a DIY guide “Getting Where You Want to be” from Literature training. It’s in hard copy and I find it very satisfying to work with. I still love the feeling of making notes with a pen in my hand, though normally my writing goes straight on to the computer.

It is fascinating, though, working through this document. I guess it’s going to take me about six hours altogether and I’m working on it an hour at a time. It really is helping to clarify where I want to go, but it also helps me to celebrate where I’ve already got to.

I do know one thing – absolutely certainly and without any doubt – I now must focus all of my work and money-making activity on writing. My university job does that to some extent. Anything spare must now also go into the writing.

It is my research day today.

I intend to spend a couple of hours on the current project – “Creative Language Learning” for Continuum. Then, I’ll finish my proofs for Butterfly. After that. I’ll read the items for the SCBWI critique group on Sunday. That will be, I reckon, about six hours. I’m sure I’ll feel highly satisfied.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

CrEat!on Café

This is the new name, the subtitle name if you wish of my beloved Angel café. The place never ceases to amaze me. I’ve never had the same thing to eat there twice. I’ve never seen the same thing on the menu twice running. And it’s always so beautifully prepared, delicious and in enormous portions. If you can’t get a table to yourself, whoever you share with is friendly and you soon get talking about something.
I had lunch there today and I had a good chat to Andy, the manager.
The Creative Café is really taking off there now. They’ve installed a cosy reading area there now - low sofas and coffee tables and books and papers, just as I’d envisaged.
Andy showed me the ballroom. It’s a delightful square space, with a pale honey floor and light blue walls. It looks over St Philips Place and St Philips church.
“You could do performances here,” he said. “And in the café.”
We walked down the stairs. “And you could have an art exhibition here,” he said.
Absolutley. Spot on. That is the general idea.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Current Projects

Current Projects
Two lots of proofs arrived the other day. There wasn’t all that much editorial comment this time. It was just mainly copy-editing. As usual, I had several “forms” instead of “froms” and some of it was just stuff that had come about as the document had turned form Word into Quark or whatever it is that they use these days. There were some strange line throws and some strangely spaced lines. I actually only spotted one item not seen by the editor. Mind you, I’ve still just under half of the bigger text to go.
I’m more bothered that what I’d thought were perfect texts when I sent them off no longer seem to be. It’s that same old problem again – you never stop editing. Do you carry on getting better? Will that inner editor that chunters on not shut up even when you read a published text – yours or someone else’s? I’m at that stage now. I only really rejoice in the text that is so good that I stop editing.
Still, one just has to recognise that for what it is and get on, I suppose.
This was accompanied by the very necessary but very tedious chore of completing an author questionnaire. It is quite dispiriting to identify the few independent bookshops and all the local radio stations who might take an interest in your book. I guess, though, if just one does, then it’s worth the effort.
There’s the problem, too, of the photograph. The camera never lies. I can convince myself if I look in the mirror that I’m not aging too badly. But when I look at that photo … I’ll send them a soft copy as well. Perhaps they’ll touch it up.
It’s exhausting.
Still, I’m back to the real writing now.
My current project is “ Creative Language Learning” which I’m writing for Contiuum. It’s not the most exciting book to write, though the topic does enthuse and excite me. Some of the writing is a little tedious. Still. I’ve written 60 lesson plans out of 79. I guess it’s all downhill now.

Small triumphs

I have had a story accepted on the Rainy City Stories site. It is a small triumph. I feel quite pleased with the story. “It’s charming and subtle in its simplicity,” says a colleague. That was the aim.
That aside, the Rainy City site is great. It’s a smart idea – getting people to write stories about where they live in Manchester and then showing that location on a map. I’ve had a good browse through and there is actually some really good stuff on there.
Is this perhaps the new way we get published? We get our work out there and in small chunks. There has to be a way that we get paid for it. There are more and more of these sorts of web sites appearing now and they do offer opportunities. I’m not sure how they maintain quality control, yet this particular one does have a high standard and also does include well known writers.
It’s good fun anyway and a line on the writing CV. To be recommended.

Thursday 15 January 2009

Not only writing

I really am lucky in that I am employed because I am a writer and that sitting at my desk at work and doing my own writing is not a crime as it might be for some other people. Having said that, there are many tasks that I have to perform which aren’t directly connected with my own writing:
· Designing modules
· Writing handbooks and lesson plans for those modules
· Preparing and delivering lectures and seminars
· Seeing students about matters to do with their creative work
· Seeing students about other matters
· Attending meetings
· Admin, admin and admin …..
· Bidding for funds (another opening for rejections?)
· Marking students’ work
Then there are all the tasks I do because I am a writer but which are not actually writing:-
· Networking
· Critiquing
· Reading proofs
· Writerly research (all three levels)
· Sending out query letters
· Artists’ treats
· Being nosy
· Filling out a tax return
· Giving talks and workshops to schools and other groups
· Marketing
· Attending festivals.
All of this leaves little time for writing - maybe two hours or about 2,000 words on a good day. That’s what I actually try to stick to, weekdays at least. And I allow myself catch-up time at the weekends. That is glorious – a wonderful excuse not to do the housework. Interestingly, also, that is almost my optimum working pattern. If I try to write for longer on any one day or try to write more words, I end up slowing right down and the quality plunges. You can still do a great deal with that time / word limit. It’s not as if I hate the other tasks either. Though I could do without the admin and filling in the tax returns.

Sunday 11 January 2009

Reading Stories

I’ve spent the whole day at work today reading stories. Well, I had a couple of informal meetings with colleagues and answered the odd email but most of the time I was reading stories – course work pieces from my students who have completed their module on writing short fiction. It’s not a bad way of making a living - writing and dealing with other people’s writing.

Of course, many of the stories are very raw. Some have too much telling and not enough showing. Others have had weak or unconvincing plots. There have been examples of poor grammar and punctuation. But most of the characters and the dialogue have been good and no single story had been outrageously bad. All have potential. It’s just a matter of time and good editing. They will gradually learn to be their own best editors.

Our students have to write a self-assessment which should describe something of what they are trying to achieve. I don’t like it if they are too self-congratulatory but also I think it is wrong if they talk about their weaknesses. If they knew their story was weak in a certain area, why didn’t they do something about it? I’d rather that they gave a detached analysis of what they’ve done and why , outlining perhaps what they might try next.

They also submit a Writer’s Reflection, in which they discuss their more general growth as a writer. Some are touchingly honest. Others you feel pay lip service to what we have taught them. Most fall somewhere between the two. All of them are at least adequate.

I have to add that I myself learn something from every single one of them. I wonder if I thereby become a better teacher and writer? I hope so!

Ring-Fencing Writing Time

I’ve been rather bogged down over the last few days marking my students’ work. Most school teachers and a few other HE teachers would say my teaching load was light. I would probably agree. But the marking is a different story. Each script takes about one hour to mark and then there’s quite a lot of admin to do afterwards. In the middle of all this, various colleagues send emails with deadlines for reply. One even sends an email asking for information they’ve already had. We do have to keep repeating the same information, it seems.

So how does my writing fit into all of this? At the moment, it doesn’t. I haven’t written since the weekend, despite this being my most important work.

No worries, though, Today is my research day and everything else can wait. Write I shall.

There is a sense, also, that reading my students’ work contributes to my writing process. As I read and find their faults and triumphs, I learn more about the writing process, including my own work.

One of my publishers contacted me yesterday. Had I had the guidelines for submission? Could she check the submission dates?

Yes, I’d had the guidelines. The submission date remains the same. I’m on schedule. In fact, I’m actually a little ahead. Just as well. The day job is taking over a little at the moment.

Friday 2 January 2009

Writers – the most powerful people on the planet?

And God was the very first – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1 14, revised Standard version) Whichever supreme divine being created us did so through amazing visualisation and strong will to turn His / her dreams into reality. Our writing – our Word – is always more than just the words. It is the first step towards making what is imagined a reality. Amazingly good name for one of our main tools, Mr Gates.

It’s also interesting how we create facts by naming things,. This is what makes bullying so frightening, though there is a counter-charm: we can deny what is being said and say ti is untrue. More effectively we can also paint and manifest the opposite picture.

I remember once seeing a group of my students larking about in a local shopping centre. It was the end of term and they had just been let loose from school ready for the holidays. One moment I labelled them “hooligans” then I suddenly saw them as beautiful in their youth and vitality relabelled their activity “frolicking”.

But if all of this is a bit too new age, just consider this:

Think how much you have been influenced by what you have read and therefore how much power you have though your writing. Words are powerful enough. When written down they increase their power because they become more permanent. No wonder we talk about things being “set in stone” or that we always want things in writing.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Charles Dickens – a Role Model of a Writer

You tend to hear a lot about him this time of the year, and Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without at lease one version of A Christmas Carol. There’s usually one or two take-offs as well – this year included Holby City. I suppose also the people in the televised / filmed version of his stories remind us of Christmas cards.

We’ve been blessed recently with an excellent BBC production of Little Dorrit and a film of Nicholas Nickelby was broadcast this holiday. They also recently did Oliver Twist, which was repeated this year.

But set aside the slightly old-fashioned prose, the unfashionable omniscient and intrusive author, you are left with a fine story teller. Oh, sometimes the coincidences stretch the imagination, but we ought to remember that many a telling of a true-life story has been rejected because it seemed improbable.

You must forgive him too for his larger than life characters – Bumble, Mr Dorrit, Micawber, Betsy Trotwood and the donkeys, because they are actually such glorious caricatures and bring a much needed humour to the sometimes disturbing content. The important characters are natural and straight. They are fully rounded. Even the sweet-natured, new age Nick Nick has a vile temper and his wicked miserly uncle is reduced to remorse and suicide when he learns the truth about his son.

I have the ambition now that when I retire I shall reread all of his novels.

And wouldn’t he have been a good blogger if the technology had been available then? Aren’t his American Notes and Pictures from Italy glorious? It is good to note that he too, full time writer or not, had to do the talking tour, along there with Jackie Wilson, Philip Pullman, Alan Gibbons and lesser mortals like myself.

I love looking at the writing routines of other writers and I aspire to something like that of Dickens. He would write from eight until two, then take himself off for a walk along the shore, retiring to a pub for an hour or so, people watching I guess, and then dining out or at home usually in the company of friends. That would suit me absolutely. When I can have that routine or one pretty similar, I know I’ve made it as a writer.

And another thing. He would often talk to himself in the mirror, acting out the parts of his characters. Do you know, I’ve caught myself doing that now and then.