Old notes from the classroom...

So. I got a new phone, and as part of the setting-it-up rigmarole, along with the minor awkwardness of shifting contacts and whatnot over from old device to new, I came across a load of pictures that had been backed up onto the SD card in the old phone. 

I spent a happy hour or so going through the images, deleting many of them as I went, backing a few others up, and then I found a sequence of pictures that I took to make a record of some notes given in class to email onto the students after the session. 

I was good like that, you see. 

So here they are. They're a partial record of some notes (mostly crowd-sourced from the group, though with some guidance in places from me). These were undergraduates studying short story as part of a wider degree, and IIRC, were at the beginning of their second year of studies. So they'd had a first-year experience to reflect on, and some regrets and success as part of that first year to inform the discussion.

I can't be certain if these images are in the same running order as the notes made on the whiteboard in the session, but they're a not-bad reflection of a couple of hours' worth of discussion.  

First up, some observations from me. These notes were capturing general observations on issues with year one work. These observations were entirely consistent of what I'd see year after year from first-year undergraduates, and, I'd extrapolate, from people whose adult creative writing experience was comparatively limited.  

Technical issues. A lack of attention, basically. Many were the times when stories handed in bore little relation to any story anyone might have seen printed in the history of anything, ever. I'm not talking publication-quality work (which was never the objective). I'm talking work that if you squinted at it without reading it, you would know, in a single rush of cognizance, that the author had a shaky-at-best grasp of what a story looked like. 

The main issues are as indicated above: 

  1. The lack of a focal character. "Whose story is it?" I would ask in feedback. And also, oftentimes the lack of a character who we might be inclined to empathise with. Not necessarily a "nice" character, just someone who we are allowed to understand a little and perhaps become involved as to their predicament.
  2. Dialogue punctuation. Weak stories are invariably punctuated poorly, and dialogue punctuation is where it shows up most. Top tip: if the dialogue punctuation is off, then the story is seldom worth your time. 
  3. Tense control. Present to past. Now to then. Often patchy and spasmodic; little nuggets of writing from different sessions stitched together without the courtesy of a readthrough for the barest bones of consistency. 
  4. Detail. Often too much. Adverbs and adjectives a go-go. A lack of understanding/appreciation of what's the important aspect of the item being described. And conversely, sometimes the important thing was hidden, sometimes because it was buried in extraneous detail from elsewhere, sometimes from a misguided sense of craft - because this item was being concentrated on, it got the care that the rest of the writing also needed but didn't always get.  

And then some promises to selves based on the previous writing experience (and sometimes the feedback as well, I'd have thought). Apologies for the blurriness of the image; posterity wasn't my aim. 

Managing writing time is so important. All too often, tyro writers make the assumption that writing is easy. That assumption comes from a straightforward though tricksy observation; that because I already know the alphabet and have seen stories before then it can't be too hard. You see, many other creative and/or artistic endeavours come with a practical competence in a skill. Compare playing the piano, for example, or painting watercolours. Or juggling. Writing doesn't. It's easy to mistake the observable skill for the creative/expressive practice. The two are not the same.

This leads to the second observation: stories take time. They gestate. They fester. They lurk and pounce. So you need time for that to happen.

Third:  originality. Too often, what would come out would be rehashes of stuff the writer liked. Emulations, not stories. Don't copy. Make something up. Imagination is free and your pockets are full of it, even when there's nothing else in your pockets.   

But don't be reckless. What we meant here was the notion that stories aren't complete until they're read. And it's useful to have a readership in mind. That ideal reader might be a specific person, a genre fan, simply "someone like me". But work to evidence some control in the writing and in the planning of the story so that your ideal reader can be challenged and surprised as well as entertained/entranced. Don't give them exactly what they want, but don't piss on their chips either.

The last one was the "use the tutor" reminder to self. Weaker stories tended to be written late, sketchy, and entirely un-workshopped in class. That way madness tended to lie.  

The next pic was a summary of what students thought of their own submissions from the last year, given time and reflection. They're all reasonable observations. "Unfair marking bastard" was my interpretation of their comments, and not meant wholly seriously... 

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The next image; a recapitulation of the idea that writing is a process, and that story-drafting is iterative. It takes a few goes over the work to get it as good as it can be. So, a sample way of working: 

  1. Sketch an idea. Get the ending if you possibly can.
  2. Plan it out. Work backwards from the ending if you can.
  3. Write a first draft.
  4. Edit it. My suggestions were invariably that first time around, just fix the typos and punctuation issues so that you're left with a clean first draft.
  5. Then redraft, and re-edit. Do this as many times as is necessary. I'd usually suggest going in this order structural fixes / character consistency / scene fixes / paragraph fixes / line fixes. Adverbs and adjectives to be scrutinised.
  6. Then proofread. Get opinions from critical friends if possible.
  7. Then leave the story be, and come back to it after time has passed. Then see what you think.  

An initial shopping list. What ideas have you got? What kinds of people are you interested in writing about, or who would work in the context of the story that you're interested in telling? What do you need to research (research here is interpreted pretty widely - anything from books and libraries kinda research to going on a mooch down the promenade to get the atmosphere of a seaside setting, to making a mood board for ideas on locations and the like.

And then reading needs. It might sound counter-intuitive, but many creative writing students that I worked with weren't very well read. And I don't mean in the classics / the literary canon sort of reading. In everyday "I always carry a book in my bag" reading. Many were quite cine- and tele-literate, but not necessarily with the written word. And that, as you might imagine, could cause issues from time to time. 

And now a set of promises from second-time-around creative writers. Most of them are very sensible suggestions and ones that derive from hard-won experience; a couple perhaps need a little bit of fleshing out. 

Write what you know. Maybe this should be a bit broader, but the sense is there in the bald statement. Too often, people wrote about stuff that they hadn't got a clue about, or situations and perhaps whole genres they knew only vicariously. This is the "Don't set your story in a US high school if you've not been to the US, let alone an American high school" commandment. Your John Hughes movie expertise is insufficient here. All too often, stories were clearly TV and popular movie franchise emulations; as a consequence, the stories felt second-hand. Several times, and in several different situations we had conversations along the lines of "You can't learn anything about fantasy from reading Harry Potter". What you have to do is read the stuff that JK Rowling read so that she could synthesize those materials into a new universe. That kind of thinking. 

Start the story as late as possible. Often, the first thousand words or so of stories would be world-building, character set-up and/or establishing an equilibrium. Or the student didn't yet know what the story was going to be except in its most general terms, and was writing out from an uncontentious start point and hoping that the story would design itself along the way. 

The story starts when things go wrong. Why not start there? In short fiction especially, each word is both a vital word and a luxury. Let's not waste it on the "character gets up out of bed so we can observe them about their morning routine and so learn something of them including what they look like when they check themselves in the bathroom mirror" malarkey. Let's crack on.  

The last one's a companion piece; things I'm not going to do this time out. Some of them are pretty obvious, but that's not to say they don't bear repeating. The first draft is simply that; a good start. Not good enough to hand in / submit to a competition / send off to a magazine.

Check your damn work; if the dialogue punctuation is inconsistent, then I know that you don't know what you're doing, or you don't care about what you're doing.  

Don't cock it up: tell the story.

Don't be too ambitious: tell a story that fits in the word count. Don't try and fob me off with a cliffhanger or make out that "it's a story, yeah, but it's also the first chapter of a novel".   

Use the word count. If you don't need it all, fair enough. But better to over-write word-wise and cut back than find yourself struggling. 

And an oldie-but-goldie to round things off. A bit of tell is okay, but if you can show, show. Reserve tell for those occasions when you've got no other option. 

Hopefully, it's all common-sense stuff. Teaching creative writing, I found, isn't really possible. What is possible, though, is that you can encourage / support / nurture other people into learning for themselves. You have to work it out for yourself. I'm still doing just that. Creative writing is a set of processes; it's not a straightforward A to B sort of journey. Which is why, I think, I find myself coming back to the first principles over and over, and why I've got a fascination with the mechanics of writing and the how and why of their communication.  

A second pair of eyes

Many folks out there (and perhaps even you) will be into the annual Nanowrimo writing marathon - 50,000 words in November's thirty days. If you're first-drafting no matter what the context, then that's probably not the time for second thoughts. Get it written. Get it done. That's what matters.

But there'll come a time when you have to face up to the horrors of the word-count at some point, and you'll have to go back and sort out your first version.

So here's a collection of ideas about how to approach that, focusing on the sentence level of writing. I'll put up another blog post in a few days that'll look at wider issues to do with redrafting, such as more structural matters.

  1. Give yourself time. The longer the better. At any point in time, there are two versions of what you've written. The version you think that you've written, and the version that actually exists. So give yourself a buffer to let you forget. The longer you can allow between the first and the second draft, the better. That way you'll forget what you think you've written and focus instead on what's actually there.
  2. Change your mode of reading. If your first draft is on a screen, then print it out. Or upload it to a tablet or an e-reader. Change it; make the reading experience different to the writing experience.
  3. It's OK to make little fixes as you go (or have a quick re-read the next time you come back to write to sort out obvious issues) but keep your brain either in drafting mode or in editing mode rather than shifting between the two.
  4. Leave yourself notes. I'm a Word user, so I use the comments facility (in the Review menu) to leave myself virtual Post-Its if there's something that I know I'm going to have to come back to. This has the effect of reminding you where to start when you're making your revisions/additions too. 
  5. Use the spell-checker. If you don't know how to, then find out. Your word-processing program is your primary work tool; it's only reasonable that you should know what the main buttons do. Yes, there are arcane functions that you'll never need, but there's plenty of assistance and support built into even the most basic of WP programs these days. 
  6. Make sure you've got your spell-checker configured appropriately (I'm in the UK, so I don't want it toggled to US English settings, for example).         
  7. Add to your spell-checker. Frequently-used words (character names and the like) can be added to the dictionary. 
  8. But don't overly rely on your spell-check facility. You're the writer, not the computer. 
  9. Use print dictionaries and a thesaurus; use online alternatives to these also. There are also online supports such as Hemingway and Grammarly that some might find useful. 
  10. Use different fonts for different processes. I saw this tip in Joanne Harris' Twitter feed. It's the work of seconds to change fonts, so why not use one for the drafting and another for the second draft? Again, this will make the words unfamiliar, and so you'll focus on what's actually there, not on what you think you've written.    
  11. Sit in a different room to your writing room when you're revising. Or if you write in coffee shops, do this at home. Or swap inside for outside. Again, shake up the routine. 
  12. Get a second opinion. A critical friend; someone who'll take the task of checking your work seriously, and yet won't beat you unnecessarily over the head with your manuscript for having dropped the occasional apostrophe. 
  13. If you're stuck, ask. There's plenty of help out there. 
  14. If you're really stuck and can't get help, make a decision and be consistent. That way, changes can be made easier if need be, plus it shows that you're in control of the manuscript. 
  15. This is an iterative process. It'll take a few goes to get right, but it gets easier over time, and next time out, you'll have learned from this time around and so you'll make fewer errors/typos etc.

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My historical thriller The Prospect of This City is out now. It's available in paperback from this website and also in ebook and paperback via Amazon