Friday, 22 October 2010

An Evening with Booker Prize Winner Howard Jacobson

Last night, I had the privilege to attend a talk from this year's Man Booker Prize winner, Howard Jacobson. I luckily obtained a free ticket via the university (though tickets were only £10 anyway). It was my first venture into the British Library(!) which, as it turns out, is a very impressive and welcoming place.

I haven't read anything by Jacobson... I must admit, I hadn't actually heard of him until the event, and I hadn't been following the Man Booker Prize... Prizes don't particularly interest me, because of their subjectivity and exclusivity. I'm no where near the stage when I can start to dream of nominations and wins...!

But he was a fantastic public speaker. Very insightful, and very funny. I liked his views on literary prizes: they're not the driving force of writing, but once you know they are out there, you think it would be nice to have one!



Howard Jacobson's writing insights:

- Don't give your characters boring names. 'I don't want to read about Paul and Jane!' Some of Jacobson's character's names include: Sefton Goldberg, Julian Treslove, Sam Finkler...

- Plot is boring. 'I don't read a book to find out "who dunnit"' - for Jacobson, the best novels are character driven. A fan of Dickens, he said Great Expectations is a great novel, because even though it is driven by plot, the revelation at the end changes the character of Pip, and so it is more about character growth than anything else.

- Don't plan. Otherwise it sounds too much like plot, and you end up forcing the novel to direct it towards your pre-planned scenes.

- Know your characters by writing them. Jacobson says he doesn't know anything about his characters until he starts writing about them, and the novel then shapes around them.

- Edit as you go. This doesn't work for everyone, but I have heard this technique from many authors. Don't write a first draft and then go back and edit it, but edit each sentence as you write them. Jacobson says on a bad day, he will write one sentence.

- Write what you know. Now, Jacobson didn't directly say this, but it was implied. He said the only novels he had to abandon (after only writing a few pages), were the ones in which he tried to be like James Joyce or the like. Instead, he found himself writing about things that were much closer to his current situation. Sometimes so much so that he had to move after a novel was published because too many of his colleagues would recognise themselves in the story!


Of course, what works for Howard Jacobson won't work for everyone. But it was incredibly interesting being able to have a little insight into the way the Booker Prize winner writes.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Creative Writing MA: The Workshop


I can't believe I'm fast approaching the fifth week of my Creative Writing MA, and it will soon be Reading Week! (The university equivalent of half term... but with lots of reading to do.)

This first term is divided into two units: the workshop, and supplementary discourse.

Both these units are taught on the same day. Three hours for the workshop, a half hour break (across the road to the nice Italian cafe), and then one and a half hours for the supplementary discourse unit. The lessons end at seven o'clock in the evening, and then we usually head to the pub for a quick drink.


The Workshop


This is very much like the workshops I experienced as a third-year undergraduate, though the amount of work we submit is much greater. We take it in turns to submit 10-15 pages of double-spaced work, which we then have a week to read and comment on, before coming into class. The work can be anything we want feedback on.

People's projects are all at varying stages, depending on how much they have written, and how much they know about their own story. I feel sort of 'in the middle', as I haven't written a great deal, but I feel like I know quite a lot about the world I'm creating and its back story, even if I'm not entirely confident about the plot at the moment.

By now, everyone has had at least one piece workshopped. Things we have discussed have included wider topics such as point of view, how much information to use as 'hooks' and how much to withhold, tone, expectations and predictions from what we have first been presented with, and smaller details such as limiting dialogue tags, using layout to its full potential, and where and how to end sentences and paragraphs for the greatest impact.

We discuss the work, one piece per hour, and the writer is encouraged to remain quiet.

After talking to a few people from the other group (there are two Prose MA groups), it seems they have the opposite approach. The writers spend 10-15 minutes introducing their work, explaining what they were trying to achieve etc. However, it seems that the other group would prefer to adopt our workshop structure, as they feel that the introduction too greatly effects the type of feedback they receive.

I have to agree, I think the 'silent author' technique is the best way to go about workshopping.

Once the discussion is over, we all hand our annotated manuscripts back to the author.

I've found it to be a very constructive experience. Not only is it great to receive feedback, but it's also great fun discussing everyone's work, bouncing ideas of each other and looking at things in different ways.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Rising University Student Fees

It's currently in the news that student fees are to rise, yet again - rumour has it, up to £10,000 per year, and this time with interest on the loan. This would, of course, mean that only the more privileged people will be able to afford to go to university, or those who would be happy to leave with tens of thousands of pounds of debt hanging over them.

Though I believe in free education for all, I think a line has to be drawn when it comes to university education. The recent systems just aren't sustainable for our country.

When my elder sister went to university, her fees were just £1200 per year. By the time it was my turn, they had risen to £3150 per year. My younger sister has just deferred her place, and she might be facing £6-10,000 per year. It's criminal.

Yet I think the current university system is all wrong. Simply put: there are too many universities.

Back in the day, it was actually impressive to have been to university. Now, people see it as their right. Whereas only a few college students would go on to study at university in the past, it seems that most do now days. And guess what? It's devalued the degree.

It still seems that degrees from some universities are worth more than degrees from other universities, but sometimes it is hard to tell. There are the league tables, and then there are the league tables by subject... And it all gets a little blurry.

I say, cut the number of universities. Cut the number of places on offer to college students in the UK. Make students work their asses off to get into university, instead of just getting average grades and deciding to go to uni on a whim because they'd rather not get a job just yet.

Then the universities will be nurturing the best minds with the right attitudes. Just like the good ol' days.

The government can pour all of the funding into those few universities, and bam, tuition fees go down. People can afford to go to university, and degrees are worth something again. The trick is getting the balance of places right, and keeping all opportunities equal.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Writers Write

I'm always plagued by the same thought: how can I be a writer when I find it so hard to get the words out? Now, when I do get the words out, they usually aren't too bad (I hope). I quite like editing. I know about grammar and punctuation, and layout convention etc. I understand much of literary theory. But it's getting the words out in the first place that I struggle with the most.

When I see how much the other writers on my course produce, it makes me wonder why I seem to find it so difficult. Other writers I connect with online seem to punch out several thousand words a day.

I've only got about 3500 words down (and that's not even properly edited) for my novel, and I've been working on it for several weeks. I don't even have a full time job as an excuse any more.

I need to just let go and splurge. But I think there is an element of fear that stops me doing that. I need to get over this, or else how can I call myself a writer?

(Image by Shannon Runquist)

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Creative Writing MA: The Induction

Well, it's been a couple of weeks. I promised to keep everyone updated on the MA and share the experience, and I feel a little guilty that I've had so much to say and no time to say it! (Seems like a reoccurring theme in my life...)

I'll start at the beginning.

On Thursday 23rd September, I had my Induction. For this, I had to travel to the Royal Holloway University campus, which is in Egham. Quite far from my house. I was rather apprehensive about having to get there for 9am.

To make matters infinitely worse, despite having not been ill for the whole of 2010, the day before my induction I came down with a truly rotten, stinking cold. I could go into details - but I'll try to keep a dignified silence.

So, my face swollen to the point that my teeth hurt in my jaw, and the apprehension of knowing I had to get up at 5am and navigate my way through unknown train lines, I barely slept a wink.

I was so close to not going. But I forced myself up at 4.45am (I was awake before my alarm, since I barely slept at all), and pumped myself full of medicine and phoned the taxi. No going back.

Too tired and too ill to eat, I waited for my taxi in the dark. It was late. I just about caught my train. I had a bitch of a journey. The university was a 20 min walk away from Egham station (according to Google maps), but they hadn't accounted for the campus being up a huge hill, the fact that I was coughing up my own lung, and I hadn't had any food. And that it was raining.

So I barely made it to the introductory lecture - which started 20 mins late anyway!

Turned out, the lecture really had nothing to do with Creative Writing. Waste of time.

With four hours to kill before the Creative Writing meeting, it then became apparent that I was meant to register. Where and how, no-one seemed to know!

After being sent on several circular journeys, and realising that I (as well as many of the other Creative Writing students) hadn't been sent any information about registration and therefore didn't have the right documents with me, I finally got it all sorted, but not before seriously considering yelling 'Screw your damn MA!' and going home.

I'm a grumpy, impatient (and at that moment, self-pityingly ill) person. I can't help it.

BUT, the Creative Writing talk reignited my faith. It sounded good, it sounded fun. Everyone on the course seemed really nice. There was a 'welcome party' in one of the conference rooms with wine and nibbles, where I chatted to some people in my group. It was all good, apart from the fact I was losing my voice and sounded rather like a teenage boy whose voice was breaking. Good first impressions, I think.

We then had a (pretty pointless) computer session. I was invited out for coffee afterwards, which I would have gladly gone to, but by that point I could barely whisper, and had a 3-hour journey home ahead of me, and was ready to fall to the floor, so I made my way hurriedly home.

The following Monday, we had our first seminar. Of course, I got lost on the way to the central London-based building, but got there in the end. The building is rather shabby (the campus was much, much nicer!), but one of my classmates commented on how typical it was for a University of London building...! Fair enough!

We have two seminars each Monday. My tutor is Susanna Jones (author of The Earthquake Bird among other novels), for both the workshop and the Supplementary Discourse modules. There was some confusion about which group was getting what tutor for what module due to conflicting paperwork, but the tutors seemed oblivious to this! Susanna seems like a great tutor. I'm happy.

My group is 8-strong, though we have been 1 short for the past few weeks. A good size, I think.

The first Monday was quite introductory, but we had our first 'real' seminars this week. But I'll leave that for another post...
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