Thursday, April 29, 2010

Can you "Grade" Creative Writing?

The answer to this question presupposes that you believe creative writing can be taught. You can assume I do, because I teach in a creative writing course! But I like the way we emphasise the word "professional" in the title of our course, because we all believe that part of our job is to teach students about the real world of writing and publishing - not in order to put them off, or make them give up, but to be realistic about what it means to be professional, and to become published.

I had a conversation today with two students about their Thursday morning subject, Industry Overview. We have a number of guest speakers in to talk about various writing and editing "jobs", and we also talk about getting published. Today we had two publishers/editors talking about what they do and how they do it, and it's entirely understandable that students go away feeling a bit depressed about how hard it all seems.

My answer to them started with "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and it wouldn't mean anything". We all get rejections, especially in the beginning, and understanding how it all works, and how to get better - how to get "publishable" - is part of learning how to be a published writer. The exceptions really are the exceptions. Most writers spend a lot of years learning how to improve, and if you don't go in with the willingness to learn, you may have a very short writing career.

But the issue of grading comes into this, too. As teachers, we wrestle with this constantly. You could say "who are you to stick a grade on a short story or a poem?" and that is a good question. But we're teachers because we've been out there in the industry, we're published, we have (usually) a lot of years of experience behind us, and most importantly, we want to share that knowledge and help others (yes, there are some teachers who don't, so steer clear of them). We talk about assessment criteria, about that indefinable "wow" factor in a piece of writing, about revision and craft, and about students taking risks rather than writing safe.

What I have discovered over the years is that nearly all students want grades. They may not like getting a C instead of an HD, but they want to know where they are. It's human nature. In a professional course, regardless of all the helpful comments a teacher might make, or all the feedback in a workshop, a grade gives a writer an indication of where they are with that piece and what more needs to be done with it. I can't tell you how many times students have left their assignments in a box in our office, disregarding all the feedback we've spent a lot of time writing, all the suggestions, and just wanted THE GRADE. And the reality is: the grade is only one part of it. Every piece submitted is still a work in progress.

The grade tells you where you are now with that piece. But you as the writer decide where that piece will be in the next draft, the one after, and the one after that. I was at the Association of Writing Programs conference in Denver this month, and I went to all the sessions on grading and assessment. I was really interested in what other writing teachers thought about this, how they approached it, and discovered we all had similar experiences. I did get a lot of great ideas about how to further refine my processes and relate this to students. But someone raised a really good question - how do you grade a work in progress?

And the answer is - you grade it as a work in progress. We often see students workshop a story or a poem, then put it in for their final assignment with hardly anything changed, despite having received some really good feedback and suggestions. I liked what one person suggested. She gives first drafts a grade based on that version, and discusses with the student how they can go about revising in order to improve that grade. Yes, a bit of a carrot and stick process. But it feels like the process you go through in order to get published. Yes, this draft has potential, but it needs this and this and this, and then it might be publishable. That's a carrot most writers understand!

Have you ever done some kind of writing course? Did you get grades? What did you think about grades and the value you placed on them? I'd love to hear the student's point of view. (And yes, I have been a student - I love being a student - and I like getting grades, too. But I like constructive comments even better.)
And by the way, you've got one more day to put your hat in the ring to win a picture book - see the post below.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Win a Posse of Hammerhead Sharks!

Yes, I'm giving away a copy this week of my picture book, The Littlest Pirate and the Hammerheads. Posted anywhere in the world, or Australia.

All you have to do is respond in the Comments here, and tell me the answers to these two questions:

1. How many hammerhead sharks feature in the story?
2. Does your local bookshop stock any copies of this fun picture book? (Yes, you might have to go and ask!)
Or I guess you could say Fishpond or Amazon or Boomerang was your bookseller!
The Littlest Pirate and the Hammerheads

You've got until next Friday (30th April) to enter.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Best Part of Research

There is nothing quite like writing about a distant place through many drafts of a novel, imagining how it might have looked 300 years ago, placing your characters there and having them walk, listen, watch and engage - and then getting to go there yourself. I have just returned from a trip to the U.S. where the first week was a conference, but the second week was all about on-the-ground research for my big historical novel, Pirate X (due out August 2011).
One of the first places my character, Will, goes to is Bath in North Carolina. It's up the Pimlico River, and it situated between Bath Creek and Back Creek (photo of Back Creek above).

In my head, I imagined there to be hills and forests around Bath. The only illustrations I have found have been of streets and houses. So when I finally drove into Bath last week, I was a bit astonished to find it's flat! No wonder they chose this place as the first capital of North Carolina. It was on water deep enough to dock largish ships, and there was plenty of room for houses and taverns, as well as a forest of pines that they harvested for turpentine and pitch. We spent most of the afternoon there, going through the four old houses and churches still standing, while I imagined Will walking along the creek and hearing the sound of wood chopping and sawing. Fantastic!
Earlier in the week, I had been in Charleston, South Carolina, and the pirate and dungeon walking tour I went on was terrific. Thanks to a great tour guide who answered all my questions and gave me some extra information for my novel. (No thanks to the guy who was our guide on the ghost tour that night - he was so bad that it's a wonder someone didn't leap out of their grave and thump him!) The Pink House above - literally called that - was one of the first taverns in Charleston, frequented by pirates in my era (1718) and well-preserved.

I think I took more photos of houses in Charleston than anything else. They were so amazing, and I would have loved to go through them all. The mansion above is one of many similar on the Battery and East Bay Street. I did visit the Rhett-Aitken House, which was fascinating, and reminded me a little of Ripponlea here in Melbourne.
South Carolina was full of blooming azaleas everywhere we went. These glorious bushes are at the entrance to the Boone Hall Plantation near Charleston (there is some great video footage on their website that will show you some of what we saw).

I made this research road trip with my friend, Kristi Holl (her blog on the trip is here) who was researching the Civil War, so I got to learn about that, too, including seeing an original field hospital at the Bentonville Battleground. I think we both went home with our heads full of the 18th and 19th century, totally re-inspired to start work again on our novels. What a way to write!

Friday, April 09, 2010

Denver Writing

First day in Denver and it snows. Now, it has never snowed in Melbourne as long as I've lived there so this was fun!
One free day, so we took a tour out of town. Too much snow to go up to the Rockies, but we went into the foothills, and to Red Rocks, where there is this amazing auditorium made out of the natural amphitheatre. The acoustics are amazing. Huge rock formations all around. You could do a poetry reading here without a microphone and be heard right up the top! Also saw elk eating grass on front lawns around houses, and some buffalo. And went to the Buffalo Bill museum. Hey, that's a tour - you go where they take you, and very often things you think will be boring are quite interesting!

The Association of Writing Programs conference started today. Non-stop sessions from 9am to 5.45pm and then more stuff on after that. Sue and I have tried to make sure we don't double up on sessions (there are so many to choose from, and sometimes there are three things on at once I want to go to). Today I've been to sessions on: getting students to write more fantastically, writing as smart girls, issues in grading creative writing, student mentoring partnerships, how to create poetry lovers in high schools. Plus the book fair,which I barely touched on - just wandered around for a while and talked to a few people.

I'm taking heaps of notes, and then Sue and I talk afterwards and write down all the ideas that have sparked for us from the sessions. Sue went to one this afternoon about using social media in the classroom - lots of great suggestions there for Facebook and everything beyond. Tonight we picked the brains of some of the great people who run various Writers in Schools programs. It's such a wonderful opportunity to meet other writing teachers and writers, let alone the information gathering. All I have to worry about now is the weight of my suitcase on the way home with all the magazines and books I'm collecting!

Friday, April 02, 2010

Getting Your Books Back

One of the fall-outs from the economic troubles of the past two years has been publishers allowing books to go out of print (and, of course, remaindering books that aren't selling well). A book that may have been a small but solid part of your backlist is scrutinised with an eagle accountant's eye - how many copies are left? How many were sold last year? Will we reprint? Sometimes the answer is no, and lately the answer has been no quite a bit more often. The author has little say over this, and is then offered the remaining books to buy. Unlike remaindering, where you can buy a large number of your own books at a very cheap rate, in this situation there are few left and you tend to get normal discount only.

But what do you do then? With e-books growing by the day, you could republish as an e-book for little cost, and be selling your book on Amazon or on your website. However, the first thing you have to do is get your rights back. This is a process laid out in your contract - you have to request that the publisher either reprint (within the time stipulated) or return your rights. If you signed away all rights for a flat fee, forget about it, unless you can somehow negotiate with the publisher again.

Joe Konrath has been posting a lot of interesting information about e-book publishing on his blog lately. He's e-published several of his out-of-print and never-published titles as Kindle books and is doing really well out of them. However, he also has a number of titles in print, and a substantial web presence. He knows what he's doing, and warns against writers assuming that e-publishing is going to be the next big opportunity - if nobody knows who you are and the quality of your writing is not there, don't bother (he's very straightforward!).

Farm Kid One of my books, Farm Kid, went out of print last year. And there were NO copies left anywhere. With other books, I haven't worried too much, but this one was different. It won the NSW Premier's Award in 2005, but more importantly, it was the first of three verse novels I'd written. I considered it part of a particular "body of work", and with the third one published very recently - Motormouth - I wanted to have all three available.

The other aspect is that I do school visits, and often schools want you to bring books to sell to the kids. I had a market, even if it was only a small one. So I negotiated with Penguin to buy the use of the digital files (thank you) so that the book could be reprinted with the same cover and page design. At this stage, I have only printed 100 copies, which is the huge benefit of digital publishing, and can print more if I want to.

The next step is deciding whether I want to publish it as an e-book. I've come across two new websites that look to be the way things are going (if you decide to sidestep Amazon, for example) - Smashwords and Enhanced Editions. EE is already publishing e-books for the iPhone with lots of nifty extras. Smashwords seems to be more for the self-publishers, so we'll see how well it survives.

So now anyone can buy Farm Kid again if they want to (hey, you might have missed it first time around!). Either from me, or from Fishpond, who stock copies in their warehouse. Compared to the self-publishing I did (and taught to others) twenty years ago, this has all been unbelievably simple.