20 October 2007

The bum end of the semester

Well, we're coming up on the bum end of the semester -- a rotten time for students who have lots of assignments due, and a rotten time for teachers who have lots of marking to do. My marking looms over me like a spectre. When I want to write, I think about my marking. Marking hangs over everything. Really, I should just sit down to do it, but this week I don't have much. I have a few late assignments, and even a couple of early ones, which is a surprise. Next week, though, I will be eating, breathing, and sleeping marking. I've had years, when I've had big classes, where I finished at 3 am the night before I had to hand it back, and then got up again at 5 just to make sure it was all done. But I try not to manage my week like that. Partly I've managed to reduce my end-of-semester load by pulling some of the word limits down by making some of this work due earlier. It's all a matter of time management.

As a 0.4 teacher, I get paid 3.15 hours of marking and preparation time a week. In all likelihood, next week I'll spend more than 20 to 30 hours marking. So it really is a matter of doing it bit by bit. But to compensate I'll have the long stretch over summer with no marking. If I'm smart, I'll use this prep time to make a big leap into next year's preparation, especially as I look likely to be teaching a new subject: Poetry. (Well, new for me.) Some of my friends teach the same subjects every year. Some teach new subjects every year. I must say I fall more into the first category. I am one of two Editing teachers, and coordinate the subject. And Novel makes a great counterpoint. I've taught a few other subjects along the way (though none put me out of my comfort zone like the one over in Liberal Arts did last year -- but that was a great experience in its own way). I think Poetry will complement the other two nicely and am quite excited about teaching it.

It's always more work teaching a new subject, but offers me a boost in other ways. The extra prep keeps me up-to-date with something I might otherwise have let slip. And makes me get back into the practice of it. For example, I haven't looked at any poetry theory for a few years. Now I'll be digging out my texts, and even better will have an excuse to go out and buy some more books! Yay.

17 October 2007

Line lengths and endings in poems

In workshopping our poems, Western Women Writers have had several discussions about line lengths and what dictates them. We've had visiting poets talk to us about how long lines should be. Some are of the Peter-Bakowski-keep-em-short school, and some are not. Line lengths do dictate flow as does enjambment.

None of us are of the a-poem-is-just-a-bit-of-prose-with-really-short-lines school, and sometimes our criticism of why a poem is not working is that it is too prosaic. Poems are their own form, and need to be working on their own terms.

In our professional development day the other day for work, a PWE (Prof Writing and Editing) teacher from another institute was talking about telling her students never to break a line after the word "the", and then the next week teaching a poem that, you guessed it, ended a line with the word "the". Of course students are invariably pleased when they see something like this, and will take great pains to point it out. "But last week you said..."

Yeah, we know, but that doesn't mean it's still not a good "rule" (and I use that word loosely) to observe. And it doesn't mean we didn't think that line might have been better served had the line been broken elsewhere. Or perhaps that this is a particularly effective breaking of the rule. Or that the teacher had an oh-shit moment when considering the poem, but decided to use it anyway because, though that line detracts, there's other elements that make it an excellent poem to study. Or that the teacher wants the students to remember that people break rules all the time.

The thing about breaking rules is that some do it well; some not so well, and the general rule of thumb is that the more experienced you are, and the more aware of the rules, the better you'll be able to break them. That's why I take great pains to teach my Editing students the grammar and punctuation rules -- not so they'll always write grammatically perfect sentences. Gotta love that sentence fragment! But so they'll learn how to break rules, how to tell if what they're doing is working and how to tell if it's not.

But, I'm digressing. Line lengths. What I find really interesting is whether we think poems with long lines are quicker or slower to read. Some say slower, because the lines are longer, and some same quicker because the lines aren't broken up as much. It is interesting because I think the reality is that they are quicker, but that there is a psychological thing that goes on when we seem them on the page that makes them feel slower. Does that make sense? Maybe it's dependent on whether we sound them out in our heads or not? I usually do when reading poetry.

The other aspect of line lengths is from the typesetting point of view. Can you tell what I've been doing this week? Yes, I'm typesetting Poetrix, and I had one poem with two lines that didn't fit on the page. In the old days I'd just carry the line over to the next, but I hate the look of it. I think it does disturb how the poem reads on the page. After all, poets put a lot of thought into where they should break their lines. Then I discovered WordPerfect's typesetter functions and learnt how to adjust letter and word spacing. This can often be done with no perceptible change on the page, so that things are squeezed up and I can get that last letter in and so the taken-over word moves back. But this time I had one line with three taken-over words, and I squeezed the text, but it was too much. The changes affected how the poem looked on the page, how readable the text was. It didn't work, so just as in the old days, I have one poem with a broken line.

As a poet myself, I wouldn't be happy about this, but it makes me think more about what magazines I'm targeting when I am sending poems out. For example, I have one poem that sits inside a diary entry of twenty years ago (before the fall of the Berlin wall) -- that poem needs a journal that's at least A4 size, and I wouldn't send it anywhere else. Poetrix is A5. As a poet I wouldn't have sent it to us. I'm not suggesting don't send us poems with long lines -- far from it. What we want to see is everyone's best work. But I'm saying, as a writer, not editor, that we should all be thinking about our line lengths, what best serves the poem, when we're sending out to markets, and most importantly when we're writing.

14 October 2007

More on how much to reveal

This is really a postscript to my last post on how much to reveal. I think I mentioned that one of my published stories had been criticised because I hadn't explained one of the key points of the story, but in my mind I had left room for the reader to do the work. Of course, I'm always left wondering after such criticism whether it's the reviewer or the story or both, and usually it's likely to be both.

I used that story for an editing assignment, taking just the first two pages and introducing a range of spelling, grammatical errors and some wordiness that I wanted students to cut out. One student came up to me afterwards saying she was very keen to find out what had happened. "Clearly," she said, "the main character is one of those other beings..." Yes, yes, yes! She'd only had two pages and had drawn the conclusions I wanted her to draw (though, really, making the connection wasn't necessary to understand the story, just opened out another layer). So at least I'm left knowing that it's not completely the story at fault...

13 October 2007


Yesterday, we had a get-together with a lot of other Prof Writing teachers from around the state. Such days are tremendous -- a chance to talk about what we teach and how we teach it, to throw around ideas and glean insights to what goes on in other campuses (and how well off we are or are not sitting in all sorts of areas). We had a couple of guest speakers, one from Lonely Planet, to talk about working there as an editor and one to talk about managing students who are having problems. But perhaps the most useful part of the day was when we got into subject groups to talk about our subjects.

I was astounded in the novel writing group to hear one teacher say she was yet to be convinced that doing workshopping in class was at all useful. At all useful? I think it's vital! Mind you, there are a different number of ways workshopping can be done, and not all of them are as useful as others. Here are some ways I've been part of a workshop:

(i) the writer reads out their work and, after listening, people give comments back. Really, as a means of getting constructive feedback, this is useless. Great if all you want is a pat on the back, but I always find it's difficult to maintain concentration, and to some extent my engagement with the story is determined by the writer's reading-out-loud voice. A bad writer can mangle a great story. I've seen it poems too: a performance poet who makes a dull-on-the-page poem sparkle, and a monotonous reader who makes a thoughtful poem come out flat and boring.

(ii) the writers read each other's work on the day and make comments on the page. Often the writers work in small groups (and in a classroom situation, this usually means that the teacher hasn't read the work). Sorry, but I don't think this works well either. It might work if you have great workshoppers who know what they're doing, but for new students who need guidance... Nope, you're not going to sell me on that one as a method. And as a teacher I like to hear what everyone has to say, which I can't do if I'm moving from group to group. Plus, I like to take part in the workshopping -- it's a great chance to discuss what's working and what isn't and to use this as a further, real-life teaching tool. And I think you get far better comments when people have time to take home a story and let it digest. Doing it on the spot puts some people under too much pressure.

(iii) writer's take copies home (or email it to each other). They write notes on each other's hard copy and then come and discuss it -- either in a whole class (my preferred method because the more voices you have, the more things will get picked up), in small groups (necessary sometimes in big classes) or in small groups in front of the whole class, which can work. I loved the whole-class workshop best as a student, and I love it best as a teacher. Again, I have the control and can monitor how much effort everyone is putting in. And I get to hear everyone's comments, which can be informative for me too!

My classes always use method three. I have variations -- special directions that they can follow for intense workshopping, and use the Clarion variations: the "ditto" and "anti-ditto" rules to stop unnecessary repetition, and also in forbidding the workshopee from speaking until everyone has finished discussing their story. Really, I think this works well.

06 October 2007

Changes late in the draft

I love the shower as a thinking place, but of course these days with drought and water restrictions, standing under the warm water to think is a luxury I can't really afford. However, this morning, I had a little extra time because I'd been scrubbing out the mould that had begun sprouting in the grouting (dreaded internal rhyme!) and was washing off the bleach, and thinking about my novel. Most times when I'm doing menial tasks, or just sitting about daydreaming, this is where my mind wanders. I call it working on my novel. If I daydreaming, my family call it slacking. We have to agree to disagree on that one.

Today, I had an idea for a character change for one of my major characters. Trouble is I'm late in a draft, so do I go with it? In truth, it probably doesn't make much difference to how her character acts because it's something that she keeps secret, but it does make a difference to her internal landscape, most particularly in matters like self-esteem. A major pro is that it's an issue I haven't seen dealt with in a fantasy book before, but the con is that it's an issue usually dealt with in YA, not adult books. Should that matter? Probably not. Will I implement the change? I'm not sure.

When I have an idea for a radical change, I usually like to sit on it a few days, mull over it, turn it over more in my head. Change is what keeps a redraft refreshing, keeps me interested as a writer. Change usually sees a deepening of the characterisation, and that's always a good thing.

01 October 2007

Walking out the novel

Today, I was out walking my dogs on the dog beach. My son had come along and had found a piece of pipe and was busy constructing a sandwall with the pipe embedded to stop flooding of the imaginary city he was going to build. He was in fantasy land and so was I. While he did that, I walked along the beach for a while, turning over my characters in my mind. I became one character, and had an imaginary conversation with another, which resulted in me going home and belting out a scene, though it wasn't for the novel I'm currently writing and probably won't make it into the final cut because it's too inconsequential. I'm rather loving the idea of one day having my website with links to the chapters that have been culled, rather like the deleted scenes on a DVD. I love the deleted scenes.

I also love walking along and being with my characters, being inside their heads, being them. Doesn't mean I pick up a sword and slash away -- rather I'm thinking about their personal lives, the stuff of subplots, the romance elements (yes, I do have a romantic thread, though it isn't so apparent in the first book). All of this helps me enrich the characters -- helps me believe in them as people, living in my created world.

So, it was interesting to read my friend's blog (Forge and Brew) and find she was blogging about the exact same thing, though in a different way. And then to read a comment that Snail had posted about what she's thinking about during staff meetings. And also that when our past student came to talk to my students about her novel, she talked about holding conversations with people when you're really thinking about your characters. Quite funny really, if you then consider a conversation between two writers. Who knows what they're thinking? (Unless they're talking writing, of course -- in which case they're fully focused.)