Publishing/Writing: Insights, News, Intrigue

09/17/2013

Have Creative Writing Courses Killed the Experimental Novel?


“But, my creative writing course says I can’t do that.”

The publishing industry is in existence firstly (purposefully) to make money and secondly (accidentally or as a by-product) to mentor new talented writers/authors.

As such, the agents keep looking backwards to determine profits. “What sold last year is what will sell this year; don’t mess with the formula, even if it isn’t working” — You might think that the rise in self-published novelists getting to the public via print on demand and e-readers would have increased creativity – according to Digital Book World, half of the top 10 bestsellers in April 2013 were self- published – but it apparently hasn’t.

This will be explained later in this post.

What is the difference between creative writing and experimental writing? Try the given links – but, feel free to google these terms and select other definitions.

Key thought excerpts from below featured lesson article:

Experimentalism in the novel virtually died in the 1980s, but was it killed by the rise of the creative writing course, the conservatism of the publishing industry, or are they both linked?”

“…but the industry is dominated by a small number of large publishers and access to them is increasingly through agents. Most publishers are reluctant to even read unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers. Agents have close ties to creative writing courses and their tutors; they also are reluctant to accept manuscripts from writers who have not been recommended.”

“Publishers need to make money to survive, even if they are run by booklovers, and although they have been faster to respond to the digital revolution than the music industry, they have still been hit hard. In 2006 the Booksellers Association listed 4,495 bookshops in the UK, including 1,483 independents – by June 2011, the total number had fallen to 3,683, with only 1,099 independents. Waterstones, with around 350 stores in the UK, lost over £37m in 2011.”

“The corresponding rise in physical books bought online has by no means plugged the gap for the industry. This is no climate for encouraging experimentation. As agents are entirely dependent on the success of publishers, they also need to find, on the publishers’ behalf (they are agents for publishers as much as agents for writers) what they think will sell.”

“And, like the Hollywood film industry, they keep looking backwards: what sold last year is what will sell this year; don’t mess with the formula, even if it isn’t working. You might think that the rise in self-published novelists getting to the public via print on demand and e-readers would have increased creativity – according to Digital Book World, half of the top 10 bestsellers in April 2013 were self- published – but it apparently hasn’t. If anything, it has increased the adherence to popular genres: teen vampire; dark fantasy; choc-lit and so on. Self-published writers don’t want to be self-published; they want an agent and a publisher. So they stick to the advice given in books and online, and, of course, they go on creative writing courses and join writers’ groups — but, “Both of these are forms of writing by committee. There is usually a moderator – him or herself a published writer – and a peer group who regularly review the attendees’ efforts in detail. Peer pressure, and the assumed wisdom of the (published) course leader will naturally tend to smooth down any rough edges as groupthink takes over; regression to the mean kicks in and all the work begins to conform to the same norms.”

Francis Booth writes this for The Guardian (an excellent lesson in experimental and creative writing and how the TP publishing industry responds to and shapes both):

When did creative writing eat itself?

Was the experimental novel killed by the creative writing course, the conservatism of publishing and awards – or are they linked?

Mark McGurl’s recent book, The Program Era, analyses the American novel in terms of its relationship to the explosive growth of creative writing courses in universities, from their beginnings in Iowa in 1936. McGurl writes that in 1975 there were 52 university-level creative writing programmes in the US – by 1984 there were around 150, and by 2004 more than 350 postgraduate courses and around the same number of undergraduate degrees.

The UK is behind the US but rapidly catching up. The university-based creative writing course in the UK arguably began with Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia in 1970, an inspiration to me when I was doing a DPhil at Oxford in the 1980s on the British experimental novel.

In 2012 I decided to publish this as a book. I wondered if I should update it to include experimental novels written after around 1980, but there weren’t any – well, hardly any. Experimentalism in the novel virtually died in the 1980s, but was it killed by the rise of the creative writing course, the conservatism of the publishing industry, or are they both linked?

More novels are published today than ever – around 150,000 books in total were published in the UK in 2011 – but the industry is dominated by a small number of large publishers and access to them is increasingly through agents. Most publishers are reluctant to even read unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers. Agents have close ties to creative writing courses and their tutors; they also are reluctant to accept manuscripts from writers who have not been recommended.

Publishers need to make money to survive, even if they are run by booklovers, and although they have been faster to respond to the digital revolution than the music industry, they have still been hit hard. In 2006 the Booksellers Association listed 4,495 bookshops in the UK, including 1,483 independents – by June 2011, the total number had fallen to 3,683, with only 1,099 independents. Waterstones, with around 350 stores in the UK, lost over £37m in 2011.

The corresponding rise in physical books bought online has by no means plugged the gap for the industry. This is no climate for encouraging experimentation. As agents are entirely dependent on the success of publishers, they also need to find, on the publishers’ behalf (they are agents for publishers as much as agents for writers) what they think will sell.

And, like the Hollywood film industry, they keep looking backwards: what sold last year is what will sell this year; don’t mess with the formula, even if it isn’t working. You might think that the rise in self-published novelistsgetting to the public via print on demand and e-readers would have increased creativity – according to Digital Book World, half of the top 10 bestsellers in April 2013 were self- published – but it apparently hasn’t.

If anything, it has increased the adherence to popular genres: teen vampire; dark fantasy; choc-lit and so on. Self-published writers don’t want to be self-published; they want an agent and a publisher. So they stick to the advice given in books and online, and, of course, they go on creative writing courses and join writers’ groups.

Both of these are forms of writing by committee. There is usually a moderator – him or herself a published writer – and a peer group who regularly review the attendees’ efforts in detail. Peer pressure, and the assumed wisdom of the (published) course leader will naturally tend to smooth down any rough edges as groupthink takes over; regression to the mean kicks in and all the work begins to conform to the same norms.

Continue to read rest of article

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06/23/2010

Books’ Power Still Potent!



I walked into my study and plopped down at my desk…I was tired and a little dejected from a hard day of thought and mental gymnastics. Just sitting still was a treat…And then a book that had been lying on the desk flipped open and started talking to me!

“Snap out it, John,” the book said, “your trouble is you have been away from books too long; you need to curl up with a good book and learn of the world by escaping yours.”

I shook my head and rubbed my eyes and peered again at the book…Yes, it was opened.

The power of books is potent and far-reaching indeed…This point was, once again, driven home to me by my talking book and the following article by Susan Straight for the Los Angeles Times:

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling a small wave of despair about being a writer and teacher at a time when common wisdom holds that “no one reads anymore.” But then some of my UC Riverside students sought me out on campus to thank me for introducing them to a book.

“‘Winesburg,'” one student said. “That was the book.”

“Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson, published in 1919, is one of my favorite novels. But I’d always been hesitant to assign it. My students are often first-generation children of immigrants, and the book is about Midwesterners in a small town of brick buildings surrounded by cornfields. Last fall, though, I decided to give it a try.

It was a rough year for the University of California, with strikes, pay cuts, crowded classrooms and borrowed chairs. The senior seminar in fiction that I teach was more than twice the size it had been the previous year, with 34 instead of 15 students.

I gave them several novels to read. And I tried a new approach. Instead of standing before them, proclaiming what I believed about the books, I broke the students into four groups and asked each group to present its book in a way that would make their classmates pay attention and feel something.

Initially, the students couldn’t believe they were being given such control. They wanted guidelines. But they quickly settled into their task.

The first book the students read, by Los Angeles author Cheryl Klein, was “The Commuters,” which is told in numerous voices by people living and working all over the Los Angeles area. Each narrator is connected by geography and friends and work.

The group decided the book was about home. For their presentation, they stood in front of us and drew maps of their hometowns – Fallbrook and Hemet and La Habra and others – and how they intersected. A Loma Linda native talked about growing up among crowds of medical-coated health professionals and vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists; then a student from San Jacinto explained that she was connected to Loma Linda because it was where her infant was on life support for three days before she died. The whole classroom became silent.

“Still Water Saints” by Alex Espinoza, the second novel, is set in fictional Agua Mansa, which resembles Colton, Calif. The characters are all linked by their visits to a Mexican-born curandera, or healer, who runs a botanica. This group talked about belief. One student laid out an altar of cures from her grandmother, who was born in Mexico’s Michoacan state – teas and herbs, foods and prayers. The student’s mother had died when she was a baby, and her father raised eight children alone, in a small house in San Bernardino, with the help of the abuelas. Another student told of a horrific car accident in which his car rolled over and he should have died. Instead, he told the class, the Buddha hanging from the rearview mirror split in half and absorbed his spiritual death. He told the class how his Chinese-born parents kept him away from windows at night so that wandering ghosts wouldn’t see him. A young woman from Rialto told of taking her mother home to rural Cambodia to be healed of a jealous rival’s spell; the healer prayed and rubbed the mother’s skin, pulling out embedded shards of broken glass in different colors for different agonies.

And then there was the book I’d worried about. “Winesburg, Ohio” is about secrets, shame and guilt, and the students loved it, passionately and argumentatively. On presentation day, I couldn’t imagine what the “Winesburg” group would do. (A naked woman runs through town in one story – that had gotten a lot of attention.) The group presented us with small pieces of paper and a leather satchel, and directed us to write down the most shameful secret we’d always held inside. Something we’d never told anyone. The folded pieces of paper were mixed inside the bag, passed around, and we each read one secret aloud.

Students had poured out their guilt: about a pregnant cousin who had been ignored when she was desperately in need of love and counsel, about a lizard burned alive in a jar, about a childhood injury inflicted on a relative who never fully healed.

Even now, I can hear us reading aloud, in our desk chairs, all facing forward. A 90-year-old book brought us there.

Humanities are under fire at the moment. Teach students something practical, many Americans say, something to help them get jobs and support themselves. But I believe that to thrive in the world, we must also understand what it is to be human. As Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living. And right now, when retreat and distrust and anonymity divide us, it’s more vital than ever to examine not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us.

The students in that seminar learned some things about literature, and a lot about writing. They wrote detailed essays about each book and a long, final paper that tied the books together. But the most important things they learned, I suspect, had little to do with the course subject matter.

They got glimpses of the world through the eyes of their fellow students. They saw life from the vantage point of a mother whose newborn died; or a quiet young woman from East L.A. who has witnessed surreal violence.

My seminar students graduated last weekend, but I keep thinking about the way they reacted when I read aloud to them the first week of class. There was nothing on the board, no PowerPoint. Just an old book, held in my hands. They were initially skeptical, questioning. Who needs books, in this age of digital technology? their expressions seemed to ask. But then their eyes met mine while I read.

Who needs humans to tell secrets and listen and watch wide-eyed as their compatriots reveal their lives? We all do.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Susan Straight’s latest novel, “Take One Candle Light a Room,” will be published this fall. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

06/14/2010

Where Stories Come From

Filed under: creative writing,Ditchwalk Blog,stories,storytelling,writing — gator1965 @ 4:00 pm


Where do we get our ideas for stories? How do they jump (or creep) into our heads? Do they come from real life or our dreams or both? AND do all people have the same mental mechanisms for processing events and dreams into stories?

Mark Barrett, a freelance writer, storyteller and publisher of Ditchwalk blog, delves into these questions today:

Many moons ago I found myself in a bar called Green’s Grocery just outside of Nashville, attending a wedding reception for an old friend of mine. After wishing the newlyweds well I found an empty chair and struck up a conversation with a very nice man who turned out to be an accountant. When he asked what I did for a living I told him I was a storyteller. His eyes widened a bit as if I had confessed to alchemy.

From that moment it was little more than a hop, skip and jump to the question that every writer is asked sooner or later: where do you get your ideas? It was a question I’d been asked before, but until that day I had never fully realized that the human ability to invent stories or cobble them together out of life events is not universal.

As I talked with the man, and struggled to explain how ideas came to me, it became clear that he had never had the same thing happen to him. The more I tried to abstract the process, or explain it by using analogies, the more he insisted that the kind of narrative genesis I had been familiar with since childhood was simply foreign to him. The absurdity of the thought almost convinced me that he was pulling my leg, but it was obvious that he wasn’t. He simply did not think that way.

I remember, too, a similar moment from my youth, when I learned that an acquaintance of mine was unable to think in three dimensions. My brother and I and a good friend of ours had grown up talking about machinery and mechanisms, describing them to each other in our heads, and from that anecdotal experience I had extrapolated that all human beings can hold a six-sided die in their mind’s eye and turn it to any perspective. But that isn’t true. There are a lot of people can’t do that.

For the purposes of this post I’m going to side-step the question of whether such mental abilities can be taught. I have an opinion in each case, but I will save them for another day. What I want to nibble at here is the relationship between events and stories, and how different events may suggest narrative threads that are either plot-driven or character-driven.

The Trooper

A few weeks ago I had occasion to take a long, unexpected road trip on Interstate 80, from the East Coast to the Midwest. Toward the end of the trip, as I crossed northern Illinois in the wee hours of the morning, I rounded a sweeping bend to find a patrol car swinging it’s side-mounted spotlight onto my rapidly-closing pickup truck.

I was confident I wasn’t speeding, but as I passed the patrol car pulled out and attached itself to my flank. I was too tired to care much, so I held my course and waited while the officer ran my plate. When he finally pulled me over it was more a relief than anything else.

Fully expecting to be informed that I had been traveling 66 in a 65, I was caught off guard when the officer informed me that I had twice drifted over the fog line. What’s the fog line, you ask? Well, I asked the officer the same question, and he informed me that it was the white line on the right side of the road marking the transition to the paved shoulder.

(What I did not say at the time was that whatever else I might have been doing, I was one hundred percent sure I had not drifted across the fog line twice. In dealing with authority it is always important to choose your battles, and debating what an officer of the law believes he saw is a guaranteed losing argument.)

Further confounding me, the trooper asked what year my truck was, to which I responded that it had been manufactured in 2001. After showing my license and registration I was surprised when the trooper asked me to get out of my vehicle and follow him back to his car. Fully expecting to have my breath checked, or to be put through a field sobriety test based on my wanton disregard for the fog line, I was again perplexed when the trooper directed me to take the passenger’s seat in his patrol car.

I spent the next fifteen minutes or so wedged between the passenger-side door and the trooper’s sprawling array of center-mounted computers and gadgets. During that time he asked me what seemed like a wide-ranging, repetitive and inane series of questions. The only nugget of information that interested me was that the trooper had pulled me over not simply because of my fog-line abuses, but because my license plate had come back as belonging to a white, 1998 truck. (My truck is silver, although a number of people have told me it looks white to them.)

When I later expressed puzzlement that my registration could be so wrong, the trooper said he would show it to me on his in-car computer. He then went back to peppering me with questions about where I was going and who I was going to stay with when I arrived, and forgot to show me the errant registration information. He did mention that registration information is often incorrect, however, which I found both oddly amusing and not at all reassuring.

Finally, as the trooper began to ask the same questions for the third time, a second trooper strode past my side of the patrol car. As he walked into the headlights I could see he had a dog with him, and moments later the dog started working the truck, sniffing here and there. When the trooper I was sitting with asked me if I had any drugs in my vehicle I just smiled and shook my head.

In short order the dog gave my truck the canine seal of approval, and a few minutes later I was on my way again with a simple warning about drifting over the fog line. Three hours later I reached my destination.

Read more at http://alturl.com/irdn

11/23/2009

Bad Writing Habits You Learned In School


Is a new paradigm for teaching “writing” developing? Or has one already evolved out of the crushing current of new generation need for time-saving shortcuts.

Jon Morrow, an Associate Editor of Copyblogger and Cofounder of Partnering Profits, discusses the bad habits that we probably learned in school:

What is good writing?

Ask an English teacher, and they’ll tell you good writing is grammatically correct. They’ll tell you it makes a point and supports it with evidence. Maybe, if they’re really honest, they’ll admit it has a scholarly tone — prose that sounds like Jane Austen earns an A, while a paper that could’ve been written by Willie Nelson scores a B (or worse).

Not all English teachers abide by this system, but the vast majority do. Just look at the writing of most graduates, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s proper, polite, and just polished enough not to embarrass anyone. Mission accomplished, as far as our schools are concerned.

But let me ask you something:

Is that really good writing?

I think most good writers listen to the way English teachers want them to write and think, “This isn’t real. It has no feeling, no distinctiveness, no oomph. You’re the only person in the world who would willingly read it. Everyone else would rather chew off their own eyelids than read more than three pages of this boring crap.” And they’re right.

Compare an award-winning essay to a best-selling novel, and you’ll notice that they are written in almost completely different languages. Some of it has to do with the audience, sure. It’s natural to write differently for academics than you would for everyday people. But my question is: who are you going to spend more time writing for?

My guess: everyday people — your family and friends, your blog audience, your boss at work, maybe even a Letter to the Editor every now and again. None of them are academics. None of them want to read an essay.

Personally, I think good writing doesn’t have to be educated or well supported or even grammatically correct. It does have to be interesting enough that other people want to read it. Much of what comes out of high schools and universities fails this test, not because our students are incapable of saying anything interesting, but because a well-meaning but flawed academic system has taught them a lot of bad habits.

Let’s go through some of them…Read more at http://alturl.com/evpt

06/21/2009

Phelicia Brown Said:

Filed under: book marketing,creative writing,publishing,self-publishing — gator1965 @ 2:25 pm

John,

You always seem to hit the nail on the head. That is so true. Like even myself, I am giving away my short story because I want people to read it and hopefully they will say, “Hey this girl can write a good story line”. I have been telling my friends, who want to write their life stories, to make it fictional with interesting characters and names because who wants to buy a book about the girl or guy next door who isn’t famous? You have a better shot at making a book about your life but create characters. I could be wrong. What do you think? Sure family may buy but the general public book readers? That’s different.

04/10/2009

The Tense World of Writing Tense


Should I write my story in present or past tense ? A question often asked. (We won’t talk about future tense in this discussion.)

Why not write your story in both tenses, if that’s what it takes! As long as it’s done without confusing the reader. I like to think that authors can zip between tenses freely if they want to establish different times and eras to connect actions, make a point, show growth or connect resulting outcomes.

Example: A writer of his memoir narrating as an adult about actions in the past he is describing in present tense as if the actions were unfolding in real time and seen through his eyes as a teen. I hope this makes sense !

Word tense can get complicated, so in my research of this topic I will first direct my readers (the few I have!) to a “Grammer Girl” site that will describe exactly what kinds of present and past tenses there are…Surprise! There are more than “simple” past and present tenses, remember ? How about present perfect, present progressive and past perfect tenses, etc, etc ?

Go to http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/present-tense-novel.aspx for a brief review…and we will continue this discussion with the next post.

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