Friday, April 03, 2009

Evaluating Masterclasses - Part 2

Ken Follet’s talk on the history and development of the paperback thriller was a step beyond those of his contemporaries, providing nuggets of sound advice (namely, the ramping up of suspense or the change in the course of the story every 4 to 6 pages). However, the presentation was little more than a documentary. Even the Q&A session didn’t allow much of a two-way discussion. It was interesting and the ground work covered was clearly a “need to know” for those following in the footsteps of previous thriller writers, but it might better serve the general public as a one hour television programme.

Ken’s talk fell into the category of informative rhetoric, a category shared by the two agents (Ben Mason and Luigi Bonomi). Their formidable knowledge of the business and their statistical facts about professional publication were as brutally honest as Jim Crace. They shared advice that may be plucked from the pages of the Writers Handbook or the Writers and Artists Yearbook and discussed the steps from writing to publication. Guidance that, while essential to all new writers, I found had little significance to me at the time; having the good fortune to know a literary agent (who has answered all my questions) and currently being in no position to approach an agent, let alone publication.

Yet, they were of more immediate use to me as a writer (who would be looking for representation) than Robert Ronsson’s practical applicator masterclass on self publishing and how best to promote and market oneself. I don’t intend to self publish. So, while this talk was invaluable and its field of reference deep (information a writer looking to self publish wouldn’t find elsewhere), it was of far less importance to me.

Another practical applicator, Ann Lingard’s presentation on research, covered the collaborations between authors and the science community. It raised interesting points about the usefulness of SciTalk (her online project) and the importance and relevance of research to a manuscript as a whole. She explained that research should be used to enhance the world of one’s story not stultify it with detail. She discussed the creation of characters with a science background: they are human beings with human needs. The plot doesn’t have to revolve entirely or at all around their role. “A story about an accountant,” she says, “doesn’t have to be about accountancy”.

Ken Follet, too, discussed the level of research he has carried out for each of his books and how that provided an extra element for a readership to hang on: readers love to think they are learning something. However, his talk didn’t provide the moment of epiphany generated by Ann’s, which demonstrated how research can help us learn things about the characters. Where and how the character works can be a great way to show the character to the reader, providing the writer with many more scenes in which to develop their characters or themes – veritable gold dust.

By contrast, the hands on, tear-it-apart and look inside it, classes provided by James Roose-Evans (on playwrights) and Linda Thompson (breaking down a BBC script for ‘Casualty’) spent as much time on practical discussions as they did on anecdotes. These practical applicators could be argued as being limited in their appeal to one such as myself: not wishing to write for stage or television. But, that is to ignore the accessibility and opportunity presented by all the masterclasses, as I have mentioned above: ideas are transferable; media feed into each another.

When Linda spoke of ‘Casualty’ having one main plot and two sub plots, and that the themes of each mirror the others to create cohesion and synchronicity, her words were just as important when considering the use of subplots in a novel (mirroring subplots, in my opinion, not being essential though they do lend weight to an argument). And, when James suggested a playwright needs to know everything about his characters, not just from a background point-of-view, but also where they were before the current scene, and where they will be afterwards, he provided us novelists with insight: we have a vast number of considerations that may not reach the page but do provide depth (not just for the characters but for the scene and location).

Rather than having little regard for the messages and words of wisdom shared in some of the masterclasses, I understand that the presented knowledge feeds into each other. I’ve catalogued the discussions and will return to them when they become relevant to me.

That said, by far my most useful and informative masterclass has been the skills implementation of Jim Crace’s prose stripping. Hands-on writing-driven teaching holds, for me, the most essential learning elements. With Jim’s deep and extensive look at the inner workings of sentences, word choice and structural design, the relevance of his cynicism and realism from back in the January finally made sense. By getting the students to reconsider the way they critique and write, and their choice of words in any given sentence and then to apply that, he freed our understanding of the craft of writing in a way that the other masterclasses didn’t.

Skills implementation highlights something I have come to appreciate with regard to many of the questions I, and others, have posed to the agent I know. We cannot waste our time on decoration when the structure needs work. Neither my work nor my ability is yet ready for publication and I need to focus my attention there.

A masterclass’s effectiveness is dependent upon the mindset of individual students. Their variations of style are as important as what is said or shown on a slide. A set of stilted, classroom led lessons poring over cold hard facts and “how it has all been done before” does little to garner audience participation or memory after the event. Acting during James Roose-Evan’s playwright discussion, and stripping sentences of another student’s work with Jim Crace have stayed with me. And, while the practicalities and usefulness of each masterclass greatly differ, they each have their purpose and their place. Not just in instruction but in awareness and the suggestibility of how to open doors.

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