Monday, 18 June 2012

Stroppy's new venture: Book vivisection

No new post here today as I've been putting together a totally new Stroppy blog, all about reading. Book vivisection takes scalpel and probe to books to see exactly how they work. Critical, analytic reading is very useful tool for writers.

Please join in and add your own insights - the livelier the discussion, the more everyone gains. First post is all about Not Now, Bernard by David McKee.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Parents are not dinosaurs

Here is a fairly typical statement about parents' engagement with the 'new' technology their children use:

"Digi-phobic parents fearing that their swiping, oblivious kids will wind up in the late, great Ray Bradbury's lion-infested nursery, steering dangerous beasts through a landscape unnavigable by – and implacably hostile to – anyone over 18..."

The Guardian, June 2012

How old is a child reader? Anything between two (if we are thinking of something like Nosy Crow's Cinderella) to 16 (if we are thinking more of Celia Rees's This Is Not Forgiveness. How old is a parent, then? Anything from 18 to 50ish - bit more at a push, especially if a father. Or perhaps a bit younger if they weren't paying attention during those how-to-put-a-condom-on-a-cucumber lessons (or paying too much attention, and put it on the cucumber instead).

So what excuse does a person aged 18-50ish have for not being able to use an intuitive , user-friendly bit of everyday technology? We're not talking about building your own database/website/Flash animation here - I mean swiping a screen or clicking on a picture. If you can wipe a dead fly off a windowsill, you can drag a pig across an iPad screen.

My first computer
Yes, the children are 'digital natives' - they grew up with the technology. Actually, I'm a digital native, too. I was there at the start, using one of the very first personal computers in 1978, and haven't dropped behind. I'm not the only adult (and parent) in this position. So there are at least some old dinosaurs who weren't wiped out by the iComet.

More importantly, the parents of today's toddlers are in their 20s and 30s. They were born in the 80s and even 90s. My Big Bint is 21 this month. Some of the kids she was at school with have children starting school in September. Do you think those parents can't negotiate an iPad? Get real.

In the 80s, I was training teachers to use new technology in the classroom. They were obliged to do it. They had to teach kids how to use the BBC micro, which is 31 years old this year. Obviously the BBC micro is not the same as an iPad - if you swiped it, you just left a smear on the screen. But the first desktop computer appeared 28 years ago. (Or 29 if you were cool enough to use a Lisa). When did you first use the web? I used it in 1994 - 18 years ago, on Mosaic, which was released in 1993. That was early, but most people must have used it by 2000, surely? This stuff has been around for a long time. We must be running out of 'digi-phobic parents'. 

My really ancient v.1 iPad
The remaining digi-phobics are the older people (including journalists) who haven't noticed they are no longer the bright young parental generation being discussed. Surely there can't be many parents who don't have smart phones, Facebook, and the ability to book a Ryainair flight? At least, not those who can afford a broadband connection and an iPad and so are in a position to be out-techno'd by their kids.

There will always be some parents who aren't interested - who don't use YouTube or send texts because they don't want to. They are the equivalent of parents (like me) who never learned the rules of football or gave a toss about motorbikes because they find them unutterably dull topics.Now, surely, digi-phobic is just digi-averse, and is the same as being football-averse, or music-averse or fashion-averse - it's not a special state, just an expression of preference.

But perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the world is thronged with parents who have had their eyes closed for the last ten years. Is it, really?

Monday, 11 June 2012

Can you teach creative writing?

Hoary old chestnut. Or whory old chestnut, perhaps, as CW is the current cash-cow of the writing world.

I've always said creative writing can't be taught, so why am I spending seven weeks supposedly teaching it to a group of high-flying foreign undergraduates who have paid $nK to spend the summer at Cambridge University? Whoring? No. Because although I don't think it can be taught, I believe it can be learned. I don't intend to teach them anything, I just intend to help them to learn it.

What's the difference? There is a BIG difference.

I can teach you to use PowerPoint - it is very easy. (Really, it is.) Because it is the same for everyone - the things you need to do to make a new page, add a picture, draw lines, bla bla, are set in stone. All you have to do is follow the instructions. 100% guaranteed.

The same isn't true of creative writing. I can't teach you to write a novel/short story/picture book by giving a sequence of numbered steps that will definitely, 100% certainly, lead you to produce a book. Or not unless you count 'sit down and write the damn thing' as a useful instruction.

About as far as you can go teaching writing by the formulaic, PowerPoint-instructions method is: write down the subject; write down a verb; write down an object, possibly. Add an adverb between the subject and the verb if you really want to. Add an adjective before either or both of the object and subject if you really want to. Remember to use a capital letter at the start and a full stop at the end. It still might not make sense: Blue dinosaur painfully dived the cake. Nope - can't even get a meaningful sentence. Not foolproof, like 'click the New Slide button'.

Ah, you may say - we can teach someone to make a PowerPoint presentation, but it won't necessarily be any good. They need other skills for that: they need to know a bit about design, and about information design, and how people absorb information, in order to make an attractive and effective PowerPoint presentation. And that's true. Ditto creative writing - even if we tell people the principles of developing characters, plot, and setting, showing-and-not-telling, avoiding cliches like the plague and ruthlessly excising adverbs, they need some kind of insight and imagination in order to write something that jumps off the page.

So we have to help people to learn writing instead of attempting to teach them. Let them try first. Maybe give a few hints of things to think about, if your teaching model means you have to do lectures and seminars. Otherwise, let them write something and then explore with them why and how it works, why and how it doesn't work. This can be on all levels - why that sentence is ungrammatical, or why the structure doesn't suit their stated aims. I don't tell people what to do if I can avoid it. I ask them questions and challenge their answers. I force them to defend what they have done, or recant. I make them think of other ways of doing things, and ask whether that would be better or worse, how it would be different. If they can't see ways, I make suggestions. But I'd rather they worked it out for themselves.

This method takes a lot of time. It has to be done one-to-one, and it can feel brutal. But I won't tell them answers, I will only help them discover answers - because then the answers mean something to to them; they own the answers, they have invested in them, they believe in them, and they are answers that work for them.  If at the end I don't agree with the solution they have reached, I will say so and explain why. But more often they will come up with something that is at least worth trying. I think this is how it has to be. Once they are out in the big, wide world trying to make a living from writing, no one will be there telling them what to do. They will have to know the questions to ask of themselves and their work in order to improve it, not follow a formula or run and ask someone else.

So that's why, students, I am going to harangue you and badger you and not tell you the 'answer'. It's your job to learn, and my job to beat you until you do. I'm not being paid to teach you.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

How to speak publisher: E is for Epilogue

An epilogue is a bit that comes at the end of a book - but a particular type of bit. It's not the index, which also comes at the end, or an appendix, or the picture credits (which might come at the end), or a glossary (found at the end of some books).

An epilogue is a bit more; it tells you what happens after the end of the story, or sometimes sets the scene for a sequel by giving a tiny bit of narrative that suggests there is a lot more to come. Imagine a story in which the villain is dead and buried, everything is sorted out, you think it's all over ... and then there is an epilogue in which someone wandering through the graveyard sees the earth has been disturbed around the villain's grave. That tells you the story is not over. The publisher wants another £8.99 from you.

In a factual book, an epilogue might suggest some piece of future research or contain an update to the main part of the book (especially if some development happens after the book is ready or nearly ready for press). But it's much better to integrate that into the book, even deferring publication, if possible. With an academic book, the author/publisher has probably been working on the book for years or decades and it represents lots of work that the author is unwilling to throw out just because it's been proved wrong. So the epilogue becomes a type of apologia - a means of explaining why they are still publishing this book after its research has been superseded. It will probably take account of recent research and give some reason (possibly spurious) as to why the rest of the book is still valid.

So an epilogue in a fiction book means 'give us another £8.99 soon' and an epilogue in a non-fiction book means 'that £18.99 [or £58.99] you spent on this book was possibly wasted'.

This post is even more cynical than usual.