academic

Hopeful endings, vulnerable readers & research

The wonderful Michelle of Fluttering Butterflies has just published a post asking various YA authors (including me) the following thorny question: Do YA writers have a responsibility to provide hope at the end of their stories? Particularly when it concerns potentially vulnerable readers such as LGBT teenagers or those with mental illness? Read the full post here.

My answer got rather long, even before I tackled the second part of the question, so I decided to make it the subject of a blogpost where I could ramble at length without my contribution becoming a monograph. So here are my thoughts on  the issue of hopeful endings and the responsibilities of YA writers to vulnerable readers.

I think Literature should be inclusive so I fundamentally don’t believe that vulnerable young adults should be given stories with a different valance to their endings. There are lots of ways in which a person might be vulnerable – or not – and this often shifts with circumstances. Sometimes it is important to focus on someone’s vulnerability in order to provide assistance, but this can all too easily become an excuse for excluding people. Often the purported reason for this is to ‘protect’ vulnerable people, but few people need or want blanket protection from all things in all areas of life: it’s a short journey from there to marginalising vulnerable people even more.

I see no harm in having some system to help people avoid books with topics or approaches they aren’t comfortable with: an online database of trigger warnings that people can consult if they want to seems a simple solution. What more is needed in terms of protection? Do we really want to exclude vulnerable young people from stories that run the normal gamut from happy endings through hopeful ones to the odd bleak one? How will that help?

Surely vulnerable young people are hyper-aware of how often the world is grim and, at best, hopeful and sometimes not even that. Why would we even consider denying them a fictional representation of what may well be their experience of everyday life? Because they need an antidote? Perhaps, but if all they get is an antidote there’s a real danger that reading happy people getting happy endings will make them feel even more different, even further from supposedly normal people.

For me what is more important is to portray the truth of difficult circumstances.

Of course there is more than one ‘truth’ to every issue, but there are broad parameters within which the truth lies: that is the key to effective and responsible research regarding difficult things you’ve never experienced for yourself. Your character’s truth should fall within the parameters of what 99% of people in that difficult situation feel and think and experience. Because it’s a pretty wide field, getting it wrong is entirely avoidable and that means it’s also unacceptable.

Research failures should involve mistakes that aren’t easy to avoid: they should cover the tricky questions you don’t even know, from the outside, that you need to ask.

One of the things that is true for 99% of people in difficult situations is that one blow-up row, or one big revelation of trauma, does not fix things. It’s sometimes an important first step, but sometimes it’s a huge mistake. Either way, maybe it’s the start of things changing for good or bad, but it’s not going to be a simple, linear path from there to recovery. And the big thing is not going to go away. It may not control the person’s life in the future, but it won’t be gone. Nothing that big ever is. And that’s OK. That’s normal for 99% of people in the situation.

It’s so important that we tell people this: that we tell the vulnerable young adults who’re in the middle of a struggle and who think that success is 100% recovery or 100% happiness that it’s never going to happen, but that’s just fine. So long as life has happiness and things are better, it’s still a success. No one is 100% happy. No one is 100% OK with all of the things that have gone wrong in their life. In life, good enough really is more than good enough. We can reach for the stars, but if the message we’re getting is that anything less is no good, then we’re going to be pretty miserable spending our lives never achieving an unreachable goal.

Anorexics are never ex-anorexics even when they learn how to maintain a healthy weight, just as alcoholics are never ex-alcoholics even when they’ve been sober for forty years. It’s always there. But it’s not always there right at the front of everything. It’s not ruining your life and your relationships and your peace of mind all the time. Life’s happy and largely healthy and that is a huge achievement. It is more than enough. That is the goal, not the ‘perfect walk-off-into-the-sunset’ endings that too many books give us.

So if we’re going to have hope, it’s actually important that it’s not too hopeful: the hope needs to be realistic. It needs to be truthful. It needs to tell people that you don’t need all the hope in the world for your life to be good – you just need enough. All of this is just as important as trying to make sure that books are only bleak and nihilistic to a purpose.

Critically, this is true for all readers, vulnerable or not, young adult or adult. So I worry a lot less about whether my endings are happy/hopeful/bleak and more about whether they speak to a larger truth. Even in fiction, when we enjoy the ultra-happy ending, we tend feel uneasy. We know it’s not real. We know it’s not true. And the best fiction always make space for a truth beyond the story: a truth that speaks to what human beings are and what we can become. The truth is rarely out-and-out happy, but it’s also rarely without hope. Hope is the touchstone of the imagination: it’s where truth meets possibility, and surely that is what fiction is.

 

bluebell wood light and shadow

Reading and writing as democracy: response to Anakana Schofield

There is much in Anakana Schofield’s recent Guardian article that I agree with; she makes three key points, and I’m with her (for the most part) on the first two. However, the third I disagree with entirely.

‘Third: why is there so much fuss in the media about how to write a novel – “everyone can become an author” – when the more important thing is how to read one?’

Is it really more important to learn how to read a novel than to write one? For those who want to write, it’s important to love to read (and, as Schofield says, read widely) but does reading always have to come first? Can’t the two go hand in hand, lessons from reading supporting writing development and lessons from writing supporting reading development?

Is it so very wrong that one of the things that readers want from writers is guidance on how they might become writers too? On the one hand, as writers, we know that there isn’t room for everyone to write. Or at least not to write and get paid. (Bear in mind here that one of Schofield’s key points, which I agree with, is that writers don’t get paid for a lot of their time and work: often people don’t even think this is unfair.) Be that as it may, shouldn’t writers still support and encourage readers who dream of writing too? Should we let self-interest dictate what we choose to give readers… especially if this isn’t what they want?

I think there’s something wonderful and truly democratic about people everywhere, with all sorts of backgrounds, wanting to write. For me, it says a lot about our society that we’re finally in a place where writing doesn’t have to come from money and privilege or even extensive formal education. I think that’s amazing. And I think people’s drive to write is to be applauded and encouraged.

What I don’t think is wonderful is when people want to write for all the wrong reasons and don’t want to spend any time trying to do it properly. But that’s a whole other matter. And, yes, there will be more people in that category as more people see themselves as both readers and writers (or at least potential writers). But it’s more important for building a progressive, liberal, open society that we encourage everyone to feel that they could write if they wanted to. That writing isn’t barred to them. That everyone with the right skills and the determination to do the best they can has a shot at success and reaching an audience.

As someone who specialises, alongside fiction, in editing human rights non-fiction, I find the third part of Schofield’s article disheartening. Yes, it’s difficult being a writer. Yes, there’s a lot you don’t get paid for. Yes, what people want is to learn how to become writers, potentially increasing the chances that you’ll get paid even less…

But should writers really feel that their audience can’t ask for what they want? That they should stand, solemn and silent, as writers impart their pearls of wisdom about how to read… including how to read their own work? I think this view appeals to a particular type of writer: one who feels they have authored a definitive text. One who feels in a unique position to explain how that text should be read.

I don’t feel that at all. I believe a text, when it is read, belongs to the reader and is created uniquely in that reading by the unique person reading it. Of course I’ve created the book that is being read, but I don’t own the reading itself: the process of transformation in which my words are turned into pictures and sounds and objects in the reader’s mind. That’s something that is jointly owned: that’s where my imagination and the reader’s imagination work together. That’s where who I am on the inside touches another person in the same way: at a level that human beings often struggle to connect on.

That’s why books are so wonderful: they mediate that process. And they do so across time, distance, language, culture… across all the trappings of society, finding a meeting point in what makes us most uniquely, individually human. (Which is not to say that books always appeal across time, distance, culture and language… but it is possible. And it’s truly is a form of magic when it happens.)

I guess the heart of the issue is that I don’t believe that there is (or should be) some hierarchy of quality as regards readings, with the authors at the top of the pile. Yes, some readings seem more interesting and/or detailed and/or knowledgeable and/or creative than others, but that doesn’t make them ‘superior’ is a general sense, partly because it’s all so subjective: what’s superior in a reading for one person is inferior for another. It’s subjectivity building on subjectivity, so feeling a need to put readings on a scale whereby some become ‘low culture’ and others ‘high culture’ defeats the beauty of imagination: that it can be truly democratic. Otherwise, that scrambling for position and authority makes a mockery of all the best that is human in reading and writing and imagining.

So I don’t think writers should tell readers that their job is to shut up about their own writing dreams and listen to the ‘masters’ (gender implications fully intended) declaim about proper readings and how readers might be better readers while still being passive listeners and receivers of literature. Not creators. And not a threat to writers’ income or position. Just a source of money and admiration.

I agree with Schofield that ‘contemplation of literature’ is vital, but why can’t space for it encompass the links between reading and writing? Why can’t those boundaries dissolve and with them the ‘politics’ of literature that separate people into writers, learned readers and ignorant readers? Why can’t we just talk about literature both as text and as process, open to everyone?

Which is not to diminish the fact that readers and writers do bring different levels of skill and knowledge and imagination to both activities… But skills and knowledge and imagination are processes too. If we say to people ‘these avenues are open to you: if you work hard and progress you too will have a chance at succeeding’, we’re not also saying everyone will become a writer: it’ll depend on both the work they put in and their innate ability. As it always does. But everyone’s work and innate ability will qualify them equally to try.

Ultimately, Schofield argues that

‘It’s a great deal more fulfilling to read and think about a fine book than to attempt to write one.

Is it? Is it really? It isn’t for me. I love reading. Of course, I do! It’s one of my favourite things. And I wouldn’t, couldn’t and shouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t do a lot of it and love it. But I like writing best of all. And that is why I am a writer first and foremost in my own mind. And why I think others should be free to strive for the same. Free and encouraged. Because a society in which all people feel they are allowed to write – to speak to the world in words fixed on paper – is a society that says anyone may work hard and talent may be found anywhere, and whoever they come together in should have the same chance of success.

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

This post marks the start of a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of this blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

 

Technical Mastery: editing quality non-fiction

There’s something wonderful about editing a really good piece of work. With sub-standard pieces, ‘editing’ often comes closer to ‘rewriting’. Anyone who has been editing for a while will have come across pieces that can’t even be rewritten: there’s so much red that you slowly realise you’ve been writing the piece from scratch, keeping in the odd definite article and the occasional noun.

But when you get something wonderful to work on the process is energising and collaborative. Instead of writing twenty comments per page about what is lacking, what is unclear, what is illogical, you can ask questions and point out alternatives: you can engage with the writer as a colleague and partner. With good work, you remain an editor and get credit for an editorial contribution. When what you’re editing is a gigantic mess, you end up being a co-author, or even the primary author… but you don’t get any credit. This isn’t just frustrating: it brings some serious ethical issues into play. But that’s a discussion for another day.

So what does an editor do with a really good piece of work? I’m currently editing a fantastic PhD thesis. The examples below are drawn from this project, though I’ve changed the nature of the argument so that I can discuss the editorial issues while ensuring that the writer isn’t identifiable.

The above excerpt from AAAA is mirrored in the claim of BBBB that…

Coming directly under a block-quote, much of this clause is redundant. Why not ‘AAAA’s argument is mirrored in’ or even ‘This is mirrored in’? Why waste words pointing out the obvious: that the subject of discussion is the preceding quotation?

The other thing to consider is whether there is a good reason to use the passive voice here. Actually, there’s a good reason not to. You’ve just presented quotation A: why then say that this reflects quotation B? Surely that indicates that B is the primary quotation – in which case why not quote from B to begin with?

Instead of a 13-word clause in the passive voice that implies a somewhat dubious logical relationship between two key sources, why not use ‘This mirrors BBBB’s claim that’. This leaves you with 5 words in the active voice and a clear, logical relationship between the two sources.

The ways in which multiple, contradictory versions of this event are described will be explored.

This statement of the first chapter’s objective is problematic. Why use the passive voice? This is what the writer is going to do… or does the writer intend to indicate that she’s going to try to do this but isn’t sure she will succeed? Not a very encouraging start.

Be bold when laying out your objectives: say “This is what I’m going to do.” It’s for the reader to judge whether you’ve succeeded, but you can at least set out with conviction and determination.

Instead of ‘The chapter will explore’ – active voice but future tense – why not just ‘The chapter explores’? It’s best to use the present tense: the chapter has been written, so why go for the more tentative ‘will explore’ (as in ‘it will do this once it’s written’)?

AAAA and BBBB are critics, as well as authors, and this is the focus of the literary criticism in which they appear.

Beware pronouns. What is the focus here? What is “this”? Is “this” the fact that AAAA and BBBB have created two very different types of text or the fact that they are authors? It’s probably the former, but why not just say that? A lot of writers – of fiction and non-fiction – seem to have a fear of specifying: they seem to think it’s clunky to keep naming names. But pronouns are actually a huge headache for readers: the reader has to keep reminding him/herself what the pronoun represents.

Plus think about the psychology of what’s going on (this is more a point about fiction). Think about parents giving interviews about missing children. They keep saying the child’s name. Names help to make people real to us. Why not use the same principles in your writing to make your characters present to your readers?

Don’t go too far the other way and write ‘Richard went to the park. Richard fed the ducks. Richard went home and there Richard made a sandwich’. Instead, try something like ‘Richard went to the park. He fed the ducks and then went home. At home, Richard made a sandwich’. As a rule of thumb, don’t have more than two pronouns in a row: after two pronouns in a row, use the character’s name. Note, however, that this is a rule of thumb for he/she/it/this, etc., not for I/we/you… And only applies when there’s one person in the frame. Names are critical when the same pronoun could refer to more than one character.

This rule is a good one to follow for non-fiction as well. If you’re writing an essay, it’s much better to be specific: it helps keep your argument tight and clear. Better to err on the side of specifying more often than is needed than to use too many pronouns and risk confusing your reader (or, worse yet, your marker if you’re a student!).

This issue becomes significant when authors engage with the portrayals of different forms of Britishness.

Why “the” portrayals? Is the author talking about very specific portrayals or the portrayals created by a few specific authors? The use of “when authors” implies that a general view is being taken, so the writer is probably seeking to make a general point. The implied mis-match of specificity creates a sense of logical inconsistency, rendering the argument far less tight and persuasive.

Two books which make substantial use of these sources are…

The clause should either read ‘Two books, which make substantial use of these sources are’ or ‘Two books that make substantial use of these sources are’. This is because ‘which’ marks a clause as non-restrictive, while ‘that’ marks a clause as restrictive. This isn’t just a fancy, futz-y technical difference: it’s actually quite important in terms of the logic of what you’re saying. The ‘which’ version of the clause indicates that the two books in question just happen to use “these sources” but the fact that they do isn’t particularly important: it’s an extra bit of interesting but non-essential info. The ‘that’ version of the clause indicates that the two books are identified by the fact they use “these sources”.

It’s very unlikely that the author would want to use the ‘which’ version. I’m pretty sure the author wants to emphasise that these books rely specifically on “these sources”. If so, the clause must be restrictive, so the ‘that’ version must be used.

The line between “factual” and “fictional” literature, which is usually thought so distinct…

There should be single quotation marks around the words ‘factual’ and ‘fictional’. Save double quotation marks for actual quotations (NB: quote is a verb, quotation is a noun) and for dialogue. Single quotation marks are used when you’re simply trying to mark a particular word out: for example, to question its usual meaning (as here). Also note that ‘which’ is used correctly here as the clause after the comma is non-restrictive.

It doesn’t matter whether you use the terms restrictive/non-restrictive, but it is important to understand that, in this instance, good grammar can actually tighten the logic of your argument, while bad grammar can introduce a degree of logical inconsistency and weaken it. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you recognise this as a restrictive/non-restrictive issue but it does matter whether you made the right choice between ‘that’ and ‘which’. The same is true for all the other little, finicky things explored here: it doesn’t matter if you know all the technical terms, but mastering the technical aspects of good writing does matter. After all, who doesn’t want to get their point across as clearly as possible?

But even more than that, it’s important to understand how these little technical things can help you communicate more effectively, whether you’re trying to make a tight, persuasive argument or draw the reader into a fictional world. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished by getting these little details right. If your grammar is ‘good enough’, you can build a solid, basic structure: if it’s superb, you can create a unique skeleton to flesh out with wonderful phrases and spot-on adjectives. With true mastery, you can make technical choices that convey your unique voice as writer, adding a new layer to what is unique and interesting in your work. Above all, if you’ve got technical mastery, you can wield grammar as a tool, rather than having it control you: this opens up a world of different options and choices, freeing you  to focus on the higher level (and far more interesting) issue of content rather than the basics of form.

 

Where to start with polishing your writing

Three good places to start but not to finish: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style ; http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/search.php; and http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/resources.html.

Like the three resources above, this strange-looking site is a good place to start if you’re going to be teaching writing: http://www.uefap.com/writing/writfram.htm.

Three good resources for once you’ve got a handle on the basics: The Penguin Guide to English Punctuation; The Penguin the Guide to Plain English; and The Penguin Dictionary of English Grammar.

An excellent ‘home study’ guide that’s also a really good reference and ‘brush up’ tool: Trevor Horwood’s Freelance Proofreading and Copy-editing.

Never underestimate the value of thesaurus. Roget’s is online here

Although not very professional, both of these sites have some pretty good resources: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/index.htm; and http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/semicolons.asp.

Finally, for Harvard-style referencing: http://libweb.anglia.ac.uk/referencing/harvard.htm?harvard_id=53#53.