Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Present tense

Is v Was... fascinating session with my advanced class on using present tense in fiction. I began with brief readings out from a selection of books written in present tense that I'd recently read, with discussion of various points along the way:
  • Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Peter Hoeg)
  • The Resurrectionist (James Bradley)
  • When I Lived in Modern Times (Linda Grant)
  • The Sportswriter (Richard Ford)
  • And one in traditional past tense, Burning Bright (Tracy Chevalier)

It quickly became apparent that the challenge is how to get the past of the story told while being in the present on-going story. Gap-on-the-page or new chapter and shift into past tense are trad methods. Interwoven past and present is masterful and technically tricky, and effective.

I chose two small 'shift' sections from The Sportswriter and we modelled these, sticking to the sentence structures and tenses, but swapping in our own invented characters, actions, places, feelings. We surprised ourselves with the power of our little pieces -- nothing like walking in the shoes of a master, thank you Richard Ford.

The general conclusion was that past tense is best for good old storytelling, and present tense is edgey, tricky and sometimes downright annoying to read. Now on tense-alert, I've had two quotes along these lines sent by students:

  • Philip Pullman: 'the common mistake of thinking that using a present-tense narration conveys immediacy. It doesn't; it converys arty self-consciousness. It is a clanking, thumping, steaming cliche. There is far too much of it about...' (source unknown)
  • Philip Hensher: 'the odd and general belief that writing in the present, rather than the past, tense is somehow more vivid... Writing as vivid and localized as Motion's doesn't require this journalistic twist.' (Telegraph 20/09/08)

Don't want you to get tense about it, but what do you think?

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Name games

[I'm back now from a week's travel in the splendid peaks and dales of England; returned to plunge into bowels of my computer due to connectivity problems. Apologies for delay, and thanks for the book orders.]

Of course you started your course by getting people to get to know each other, simply by pairing, or pairing with a mini-interview task or a discussion focus.

Here's another idea, not in the Matrix book: name mesostics. That's right, not acrostics (every first letter), but a puzzle poem made from words that pattern the name letters randomly. Like:


I learned about this word form via Alex Finlay on a visit to the Baltic art centre in Gateshead. It's not as easy as it looks!

For beginners, a straighforward acrostic, possibly only giving descriptions of themselves (even silly ones) would be the way to go. Getting to my mesostic took a bit of a think, a rough go, a break for a broody stage of dissatisfaction leading to an eventual mild eureka moment (eg class coffee break), and then revision. Caution your students who might lose confidence if it doesn't come perfect all at once -- it's an experience in the creative writing process.

Here in blogland, the arrangement is wobbly; in reality the letters of the name or key word line up in one vertical column. See http://www.alecfinlay.com/ for more on what the master is up to with the mesostic form.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Second session & still warming

[Preamble: Met some lovely teachers of creative writing at a Brunel conference Saturday; apologies to all trying to purchase the Matrix book this week -- I'm away in Peak District & York, will answer queries on my return 15 Sept -- Susan. Meanwhile, on with tutor tips blog...]

One week later, and the class still won't have fully gelled -- especially because, in adult education, newcomers continue to join in week 2 or even week 3. Unsettling to you and the class, but hey, that's adult ed for you.

So you did a questionnaire to keep 'em busy and suss 'em out last week. Here's a summary of one of my classes, which I incorporated into the content of the second session. Students themselves like to know about the group and it helps in the bonding process. Out of a class of about 12 (remembering that they could give 3 choices each, see last week's blog), the kinds of writing they wanted to work on were
  • Novels - 7
  • Short stories - 6
  • Memoir - 5
  • Feature articles - 3
  • Poetry - 2 (and those were as 2nd & 3rd choices)

So guess what's not going to feature very much in this course. There was also some demand for info on synopsis and letter-to-agent. You can tell that this is a pretty grown-up group. For beginners I'd take a sampling, but also set an agenda to guide them through a range of disciplines.

More on how I shaped the course to these needs as I go along. As for which exercises for these first few classes -- aha. See my book the Matrix? Or... one exercise per term for free on the http://www.paxtonpublishing.co.uk

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Start of term

Welcome to Creative Writing class! Tutor _________ (your name).

It's always good to settle the first-day nerviness of your students by letting them know they are in the right classroom for the right class. Settles your nerves, too!

Besides writing a welcome note on the board I provide some busywork to fill up that awkward silence as you wait... and wait... for the stragglers to arrive. Soon you'll all know each other well, but meanwhile, I give out index cards to collect my own set of name-address-email and, much more interesting, a questionnaire.

More than mere busywork, a questionnaire starts the writers thinking about their individual pathways AND gives me information on how to tailor the course to this particular batch of writers. Bonus: I feed a summary back to the students (next class) so they know who they are, too. So here are some of the questions I put on an A4 handout questionnaire:

1. In order of priority, list the kinds of writing you prefer to do and would like to work on this year (for example: short story, novel, poetry, drama, memoire, feature articles etc). If you have equal priorities, adjust the list!

2. How long have you been writing, and how do you feel about your progress? Or, if you are brand new to creative writing, what prompts you to join the class?

3. Describe some of your writing needs and goals. How can this course help you?

4. Do you want to submit work for publication? Do you know where to submit?

5. List 2-3 favourite books or films you like.

Answers next week.
P.S. There still will be late-late arrivals to make the first session a bit bumpy.