Friday 28 May 2010

A Feeling of Summer

Yes, there has definitely been the feeling of end of term about this week. Our students are starting to drift away. The last exam was on Wednesday. A few late course work assignments are coming in and a few students are dropping by to pick up ones which have been marked. The staff, of course, get a little short tempered when friends from outside of the academy remark: “I suppose it’s getting quieter now that the students have finished?”
Well, not really. Have you seen our offices lately? Mountains of scripts on every floor. We have the marking, the moderating, gradebooking (putting the grades into an electronic system) and the exam boards yet. Already, also, we have emails making demands about what needs to be done for next year.
Yet there was something about this week. Even though a temporary bout of hot weather came to an end on Wednesday, it’s picked up again and is now actually just right.
A colleague and I went as usual to our choir practice on Tuesday. That is always such a great contrast to the day job. A university lecturer can be quite isolated… an expert in a narrow field working alone in an office, and no one really knows whether you are there or not.
On Wednesday, the whole of our school, academic and support staff were invited to the home of our Vice Chancellor. He has insisted on living close to the university in a house he wishes to share with his colleagues. It is a beautiful place with a lovely garden – yes there are beautiful places within five minutes’ of our drive of Salford University. The VC entertained us for two hours. He knows us all by name now.
Then Thursday two of my creative writing colleagues gave readings at the Chorlton Festival. Several colleagues from our school and even a few students turned up. It was a lovely evening.
Today the VC has excelled again and organised a party on the greener part of our campus from 12.00 until 4.00. There was good food and live music provided by community groups. A pity our choir wasn’t there. But we scored. As I walked into the marquee with a colleague another choir was singing a couple of our songs. I immediately phoned the other choir member who had not yet come down. At that very moment the VC walked up to greet us.
“Hello there, again,” he said, addressing us both by name. I was impressed.
I hurriedly got off the phone and explained what I was doing.
“Which choir is that?” he asked.
“The Ordsall Acapella I told him.
“Ah, they’re good aren’t they?” he said.
“Oh yes we are,” I replied.
Lets hope we can do a gig at the university soon.
And despite that little frustration, the party had a good feel to it. Yes, there is definitely a feeling of summer.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Dan Brown as Benchmark

“I couldn’t get out of MA marking mode,” said my colleague form Australia. “I was trying to read The Da Vinci Code on the plane. I was so disappointed. I would have failed it.”
Just sour grapes, I thought. She’s jealous. Because with the sort of money that book brings in she could afford to do what the heck she liked the rest of the time. It can’t be that bad, can it?
A couple of years later I read it.
What a disappointment indeed. Where was all that promising intrigue about Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene producing a family? All exposed in a short fast-paced episode when unbelievably the detective involved in the case is one of the “sang royal”. Oh come on, if my undergraduates constructed something like that they’d get exclamation marks all over their scripts. Never mind failing an MA.
“It gets worse,” said another colleague. “The first one’s not so bad.”
“Isn’t it?” I say.
“The first is bearable,” she says. “But after that, it’s the same old story over and over. When you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.”
But he must be doing something right, mustn’t he?
Well, yes, he is and actually I wouldn’t fail him on a BA assignment. I’d give him 58. A strong 2.2. His plots are well worked out even if they’re infuriatingly formulaic and improbable. He handles dialogue well even if it’s often trite. His characters are consistent even if not well drawn and believable. He has control over his writing – or he’s well edited - because he doesn’t have the lack of consistency and lack of grammatical accuracy that so often spoils the work of our otherwise talented students. But oh my, their work is so much more exciting, so much more convincing most of the time.
So when it comes to assessing my students’ work I ask myself –“Better or worse than Dan Brown?” Of course, there are other components to mark than just the wonderfully innovative but often quite raw piece of creative writing, so sometimes our students arrive at even less that Dan by another route.
Nevertheless, he’s a useful benchmark

Friday 14 May 2010

How Networking Works

You do have to be entrenched in this world to get to where you want to get. The writing always has to be good. That is a given. But good writing on its own is not enough. Even great writing isn’t enough. At the simplest level, that’s obvious: write better than Shakespeare and it’s of no use whatsoever if you don’t show it to anybody. Naturally, we all do a little more than that. But it’s not just about talking to people; it’s also about talking to the right people.
If I’m honest, every bit of writing I’ve had published has been as the result of a tip-off. Sometimes it’s been because of something that everyone has access to – such as an article in Writers’ News. Other times, it has been through the recommendation of another writing friend and sometimes because I’ve rubbed shoulders with the right people. Often, it takes years to percolate.
Here’s an example:
I’m putting together a proposal for a text book. I have targeted one particular publisher because I consider them to be friendly. They have also published quite a few books which influenced my academic career. I’ve met the appropriate editor on several occasions, and significantly, five years ago, dined with her most evenings when we were at a conference together. She has constantly invited me to write something for her.
Well, now I have an idea that I think may suite her company. However I’m also aware that when I first knew her she was very new at her job. Now she is an experienced, confidant editor. I can’t really pull any strings. I just need to submit like anyone else and hope that she recognises my name and puts me at the top of the slush pile if the script eventually comes her way.
Except there is a fortunate question that needs to be asked. My book doesn’t quite seem to fit the series they describe yet I do know that they publish this type of text. I email my contact, asking if she is the editor to whom I should send my work.
Just a few hours later, I get a response. Yes, indeed, she is my chap. She even sends me some specific guidelines for text books. These are not on their site. She seems pleased to hear from me and indeed remembers me even though I am now at a different institution.
Of course, it is not yet definite that she will accept my proposal. It still has to be excellent and even then may not fit in with the sort of book they currently want, but I’m in with a fighting chance: I have the specific guidelines that will help me to make my proposal more fit for purpose. Without my contact, I may never have known about those. She also already knows that I am reliable.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Writers' Reflections

I have now completed my first batch of marking from semester two. I have actually enjoyed this very much. I was marking from two different year groups – our second and our third year. The third year work was of a better quality than the second. The writing was more fluid and more sophisticated. That is to be expected. The content differed less.
They have all submitted their Writer’s Reflections. In these, they talk of their progress as writers over a module or in the case of third years of their progress throughout the whole of their degree programme.
In part I mark the process they describe and in part I mark the quality of the writing. The former is extremely interesting. Different students find different points of interest in the course. My second years have been concentrating on writing novels for young people. Just like last year, they are all generally conscious of how difficult it is to write a synopsis and how important it is. Some have realised the importance of planning, others the importance of editing. Many have grappled with voice. I have been impressed by the number of drafts they have worked on. Many have read well and widely. And although I felt they did not use the workshop elements as much as they might have, they seemed to appreciate the opportunity they had been given to do this. I was impressed by how much they had absorbed and taken on from the course. It was fascinating reading of each student’s journey.
I have now marked one or two of the creative pieces and have looked at a piece of creative writing by a colleague. Some amazing work is coming to light.

Friday 7 May 2010

Writing Novels for Young People

This is the title of one of the modules I teach at the University of Salford. We are very close to the time now that they give in their final assignment. They have already submitted a synopsis of their novel. This means they have thought carefully about their plot and made an accurate précis of that.
It was a small select group today: assignments are due in every day at the moment, so attendance dips dramatically. In fact I’ve picked up their second assignment but we talked about the third one today.
We started off talking mainly about the publishing industry – how you submit to publishers. It’s a little surprising how much they don’t know as we talk about it on every module. And we also discuss how there’s also something about doing creative writing at university that takes it beyond the commercially publishable. There is room for experiment. This may be one of the only chances.
We did then go on to look at the editing process. I see editing in three basic chunks but actually go through eighteen processes myself.
The first stage is to do with overall structure. I include also roundedness, believability and growth characters. Then there is suitability for reader and conformity with the market. So, as we’re talking young adults, we’re talking about characters looking like their readers, emotional closeness, fast pace and stories of growth. I think it’s a good idea at this stage too to check that time works correctly. I actually pre-empt this anyway by knowing exactly when each scene takes place and how long it lasts. No three year pregnancies please!
The second stage includes many technicalities in the actual writing. Is there a balance of pace? Is there cause and effect? Are you showing instead of telling, knowing the difference and also knowing when telling is appropriate? Are the characters consistent? Does the dialogue work correctly? Is there a balance of narrative styles?
The third stage then is line by line. This is where you are looking at the language itself. Are there clichés that would best be replaced with something else? Or should you leave the cliché because it actually works rather well? Do you have a few darlings that you need to kill off? What about overall flow? This is the point where you should read it out loud. Lastly comes the proper copy edit with an emphasis on spelling, grammar, and sense.
My students seemed to lap this up and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them about it. This group is particularly responsive.

Monday 3 May 2010

Gentle Marketing for Gentle Footprints

“I think I’ll get my car washed at the gym today,” I say to my husband.
The door bell rings. There are two little girls standing on the step.
“Would you like to have your car washed?” one of them asks.
“Well….” Well, why not? And how did they know? “How much do you charge?” I ask.
“We’ll do it for free if you like,” the other one replies.
No, I can’t do that. That would be child exploitation. “Will a fiver do?” I ask.
They nod eagerly. I remember my daughter used to do exactly this for pocket money about fifteen years ago. She did a much better job than the local car wash.
They do too. I’ve already had the idea of giving them a “tip” in the form of signed copies of two of my books. We also give them all the Tesco’s school vouchers and because one of the girls keeps dropping everything we even supply them with a linen bag that advertises my web site.
“My mum likes books,” says the older of the two girls.
“Well, she’ll like the one that’s come out this week,” I say. I explain all about Gentle Footprints and that my story is about the swans on the Outwood Park pond just opposite the house.
“Oh, yes, they’ve got babies again,” says one of the girls.
Good. I hadn’t seen them for a while. The nest must have been well hidden.
Unfortunately, I have none of the Gentle Footprints postcards left. However, I find a couple from my other books.
“Tell your mum to look out for this book,” I say, writing down the title and ISBN of Gentle Footprints and the address of the Bridge House Publishing web site. “And tell your teachers I’ll come and do a free author talk if they’ll let me sell some of my books.”
Fortunately the girls go to two separate schools. One is still at primary school, the other is already at secondary school.
So, a good marketing opportunity and a clean car to boot.
Late, when I drive to the newspaper shop, I see the girls again. They spot me and immediately take out the books and start reading.