Monday, September 24, 2012

Writing How-To Books

The other day, a student told me how much she was enjoying Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing, and I had to admit I'd never read it! It's a bit of a classic, and I know a few writers who love it but I just hadn't got around to it. I plan to rectify that soon. But there are a lot of writing books out there. I often take some of mine into class. When I teach Story Structure, I use Vogler's The Writer's Journey, as well as Jordan Rosenfeld's Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time

And I often talk about Write Away by Elizabeth George. She does a great job of showing you how to use setting and description, but mostly what I got from her book was my own method - finally - of how to plot and outline. She talks about thinking through her story until she comes up with at least 15 major dramatic scenes. Somehow, that caused one of those weird connections for me, and I came up with a plotting grid that works. But it might only work for me. I show it to the students and some nod, but most look mystified. I can see them thinking: how could you plot with that? I just do. It works for me.

It's the same with writing books. There are some I would happily give away because they don't "speak" to me at all, and I disagree with their methodology. Writing books are not cheap. You can often pick them up secondhand, but if it's not the book for you, you've wasted your money. If you look at all the books on plotting, you'll see there are plenty. Same with characters, dialogue, structure, and just general writing stuff. So many to choose from that you hardly know where to start. Our library at VU where I teach has a good range of titles, and even more as ebooks. I tell students - use the library. Read a few. See which ones work for you.

It's a funny thing - you can go to several classes about fiction writing, or poetry, or writing picture books, and they will all tell you similar things. But one day you will go to a class and somehow the teacher will say those things in a way that zaps you, that makes you understand the theory in a whole new way. It's the same with writing books. When you find one you love, buy it and add it to your shelf. You'll find you come back to it every now and then, just for that "shot in the arm" that gets you writing again.

Now, where can I get a copy of Bradbury's book?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Learning the Craft of Writing

How do people learn to write fiction and poetry? The obvious answer is - by writing. But it's not that easy. Gifted storytellers are few and far between. Most of us take years to learn the craft. I believe I will keep on learning as long as I keep writing. That's why I'm doing an MFA in writing for children and YA at Hamline University. So if you're someone who doesn't think writing can be taught, I guess you can stop reading!

But most people I have met over the years have benefitted greatly from the classes, workshops and courses they have attended, including me. I'm talking about everything from a seminar to a short course to a full Diploma or even a degree. The course I teach in at Victoria University TAFE has been around for about 20 years or more. I've had many students go on to be published, to get jobs as journalists, copywriters, nonfiction freelancers, picture book writers, editors ... we once brainstormed all the jobs our students could get and came up with more than 30. That was before all the web writing jobs came along.

The days of writing alone in a garret are gone. Yes, you can still write alone, but the support networks now are tremendous - writing groups, mentors, writing coaches - even just to get together regularly with a bunch of fellow writers is a great boost. And if you are in a network where your writing can get critiqued so you can improve and grow as a writer, even better. These valuable networks often start in writing courses.

So the news filtering in over the past few weeks has been incredibly depressing. Our esteemed Diploma (and Certificate IV) in Professional Writing & Editing here in Victoria is in real danger of disappearing. For those of you who don't know, TAFE is funded by the state government (higher ed is funded federally). Massive changes in TAFE funding started a few years ago. First was the move to full fees for anyone who had a prior qualification. This meant that many of our keen mature age students were forced out of our course because they couldn't afford $6000 for a Diploma. Then the criteria changed again, and now for the Cert IV and Diploma it will cost you around $10,000-12,000 if you have a Cert IV or higher qual in anything. And I mean anything, including horticulture, sports training, cookery - anything.

For those still able to access a "government funded" place, the fees have been steadily creeping up. Now the Victorian state government has brought in a new categorisation of courses. Professional Writing sits in the middle to lower bands, so for TAFEs to continue to offer these courses, fees will rise. In the Diploma, they will come very close to full fees. A few TAFEs are throwing in the towel. They already anticipate that no one will be able to afford those big fees, or will want to pay them. After all, why pay $12,000 for a two year diploma when you can do an Arts degree for a similar amount? (And don't forget that degrees are federally funded and there are no more caps on HE places so unis can take as many as they want.)

The fact that our Diploma is industry-based and teaches a huge range of job-related writing skills seems to be beside the point these days. It's all about the state government saving money.
Well, you might say, isn't that the reality? Money is tight. Sure. But only because we now have a gazillion private training providers in Victoria who are so lightly regulated that it's laughable. If you want some evidence of this, look at the two damning reports on the ABC's 7.30 Report (most recent broadcast 5th Sept 2012).

As a TAFE teacher I am sinking under the amount of paperwork required now by the government to "prove" I'm teaching what I say I am. Like many other TAFE teachers, I am at a loss to see how this helps me or my students. I'm teaching better now than I ever have. I pay for my own professional development a lot of the time, I read, I write, I am published and I take my PD seriously. And then I pass on what I know to my students.

To see our course strangled by what is happening with government funding and pathetic policies is so sad and depressing, well, I don't know what to do anymore. Except keep on fighting to keep our course going. I know how good it is, and I hear it from present and past students all the time (thanks to all of you who posted on FB). And to answer what I asked at the beginning - people learn to write better in courses like ours, and what they learn contributes to our literary culture more and more every day. But what would a bean-counting politician know about that?