Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A WRITING TUTOR IN MY LAPTOP: Susan Price interviewed by Penny Dolan

For some months, my current writing project's been in a cold empty place. Then, explaining the plot in a pub to a play-writing friend, I suddenly saw how to re-imagine the setting of that last blocked third.  The wretched WIP may be coming to life again. 

Why did it take so long for me to see it? Mostly because it is quite hard to find both a good listener and good advice. A novel is bigger and longer than a chapter book, a picture book text or a folio of poems. I had no constant writing buddy or critique group on hand and even the courses at Arvon or Ty Newyydd seemed too general for what I needed.

During this time, I’d mulled about professional writing advice - the kind of services offered by Nicola Morgan, Emma Darwin and others - but felt way too wary. What was involved for the writer and the tutor? How did the process look from the other side? 

This post is an answer to such questions and. I’m really pleased to be interviewing author Susan Price, who is an award-winning writer and an experienced writing tutor. 
Susan Price signed her first professional contract with Faber at 16, and has earned her living as a writer ever since. 

Her best known books are The Sterkarm Handshake, which won the Guardian prize, and The Ghost Drum, which won the Carnegie Medal. 

She has taught creative writing in schools and colleges, and recently spent three very successful years at a university, as Royal Literary Fund Fellow, helping anyone who wanted to consult her, students or staff, to improve their writing skills.

You have helped students with essays and writers with novels, Sue. So I’m wondering if you find any similarity between the needs of the essay writer and the fiction writer? And how does this relate to the RLF?

Susan Price:
There’s far more similarity than I would have guessed when I started at De Montfort as a RLF Fellow. I soon saw that students struggling to write an essay or thesis face almost exactly the same problems as a writer struggling with a novel or play.

I think this is largely why the RLF Fellowship scheme is so successful. Writers have spent their lives struggling with these problems but – because it’s all part of the creative drive for them, and not just a chore – they’ve tackled them inventively and with verve.

Every writer comes up with their own solution but – as writers discover when they meet – they’ve often found solutions that are broadly similar, and have tested them to destruction on book after book. So when struggling students come to RLF Fellows, who are all professional writers, they come to someone who loves writing, who is practiced and fluent in writing, and has often already faced down any problem the student brings them.

The RLF sounds a very worthwhile service.  Are there any particular problems that both students and writers struggle with?

Susan Price:
From my own experience, and from seeing students, I’d say ‘writer’s block’ is a big one. Wanting to write, needing to write, but just not able to force yourself to do it. Fretting and pacing, chewing nails and pens and keyboards, feeling sick but still not getting a word written. I think every writer knows that feeling. It’s a huge waste of energy – and yet, if you can just break through that block, the words often pour out.

The second big problem, and one I saw often at university, was managing masses of material. It might be organising huge amounts of research so you can find the part you want – or the daunting task of pulling out the few relevant bits you need to answer the question, and shaping them into a lucid piece of writing.

Writers may be working on a novel rather than an essay or thesis, but they face exactly the same problems – for instance, this factoid I’ve discovered is fascinating but is it in any way relevant to my story?

Both writers and students often throw themselves on the rug in despair while struggling to turn research into a coherent work.

The third, and probably the biggest, is Structure, Structure, Structure – or, rather, the lack of it. I encountered this lack again and again in student’s work.
Everything else about your work can be outstanding, but if you don’t structure it well, you ruin it. It’s like hanging a beautiful painting in a dark corner, where no one can see it properly..

I saw many students who had managed to bypass writer’s block, and had hacked their way through the research and notes. They’d written their essay, and were despairing and exhausted when it was still marked low. It was nearly always because they’d structured it badly, making it hard to follow. They jumped from point to point, confusing the reader, or made an undiscriminating heap of points instead of structuring them to build a clear argument.

Can you give an example of this?

Susan Price:
Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at a novice writer’s work and finding much the same problems, even though she’s writing a novel. Her book had great characterisation, excellent dialogue with instantly recognisable voices for each character, brilliant and atmospheric scene-setting.

I enjoyed reading it, and often wished I’d written passages – but . . 

Penny: But what? (This isn’t my novel in disguise, by the way!)

Susan Price:
Her structure was faulty. She muffled the impact of many scenes by not preparing for them, and ruined others by telling us too much, too soon. She had scenes where characters wandered about aimlessly with nothing to do, because she hadn’t planned her story-line carefully enough.

How to explain structure? It’s like telling a joke. You don’t tell the punch-line first. And often a joke depends on very careful ordering of words, in order to plant a certain idea before the punch-line disrupts it. This is structure, and a story is much the same.

Once you’ve subdued your mass of research and ideas into more or less the right order, you then have to very carefully fine-tune the opening and ending of every scene, consider every line of dialogue, every hint you give the reader…What information do you give them up-front, what do you hold back? What do you cut, because you don’t want to insult your reader’s intelligence – what do you expand because you haven’t given their imaginations enough?

It’s very hard, and it nips your head! After a few hours of it, you can feel punch-drunk. But this is why writing is an art – it takes time, trouble, thought and the willingness to rewrite something more times than you ever thought you would spend on anything.

Penny: I agree. The writing and re-writing can take such ages and usually has to be struggled through alone..

Susan Price:
It’s very hard – as you know, Penny – to see for yourself exactly what restructuring and rewriting is needed. You get too exhausted with it. You become desensitised to your own writing, and so you pile on detail because you can no longer see that a hint was enough. Or, because you know your own story so well, you can’t see that the reader needs a little more explanation.

Then there are other things to consider, such as word rhythms, dialogue, description, but I’d say that writers’ block, rough-shaping large, daunting amounts of material, and the fine structuring are the three biggest bogie-beasts faced by novice-writers.

And I can help people overcome them all. I have done!

Penny: A satisfying feeling. But not everyone is able to travel long distances to meet a writing tutor. How effective do you think distance tutoring can be?

Susan Price:
Well, the Open University (OU) has been doing it very effectively since the 1960s! And I think most universities these days have distance learning courses.

Certainly, as an RLF, I saw foreign students who made appointments to see me as part of a short trip to the UK. They were living and working abroad, but taking a distance learning course. My cousin, for instance, did an MA with the OU in the UK, while living and working in Switzerland. He attended ‘virtual lectures’ on-line.

Penny:  I like the sound of virtual lectures, especially with the shorter days and how much frost there was on the car this morning. Online does have the advantage of being time-efficient for the busy student.. How exactly does the online process work with you?

Susan Price:
After our initial contact, writing students email me their texts, without any postage costs or using up expensive printer ink. As the tutor, I add notes and comments in Word, and email it back, again without any costs in postage or ink.

Additionally, using Skype, I can talk to students, using computer to computer software, so they only have to pay for my time and experience. Student and tutor can even talk face to face using Skype and web-cam, if they don’t mind looking ropey! This isn’t a beauty-contest, after all.

Also, it’s even possible, with a little fiddling, to use a shared Dropbox file, for both student and tutor to look at the same piece of writing at the same time. A high-speed broadband connection would be needed for this, and you need to log-off and log-on again to see any changes made in the shared folder – but it takes seconds.

Penny: And the tutoring is there, set up, ready for whenever a student or writer needs help, without any term-time boundaries? That’s a definite point in favour of online tutoring and mentoring as well as the way it can be shaped to the needs of the writer and the writing.

Thank you, Sue, for sharing your experiences on Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

You can find more about the writing critique service Susan Price offers at http://www.susanpriceauthor.com/professional-help-with-your-writing/

 Penny Dolan


Joan Lennon said...

This is great! Sue, do you do Christmas or birthday voucher cards? Maybe with your cat muse Blott on the cover? I would definitely buy those for talented, carpet-chewing young writers of my acquaintance.

What an excellent post - thank you both very much!

adele said...

Quite fascinating. Lucky students of Susan Price, I say. She's quite right about the importance of STRUCTURE,I reckon. And what a good scheme the RLF fellowships are.

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Joan and Adele - nnd Joan, what a brilliant idea! I didn't offer vouchers, hadn't thought of it, but watch this space...

Linda Strachan said...

Really useful advice, Sue. Often it takes someone else to see where you are going wrong and I am sure your students get a huge amount from your advice.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating. What you say about the difficulties of subduing a large amount of research, and of being able to be objective enough to fine-tune - these things ring painfully true!

Lynne Garner said...

Great post - thanks for sharing your experiences.