Rankings = money = the value of education?

At The University of Nottingham we are committed to providing a truly international education, inspiring our students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia. Our purpose is to improve life for individuals and societies worldwide. By bold innovation and excellence in all that we do, we make both knowledge and discoveries matter.

p.4 Strategic Plan 2010-15, University of Nottingham

Of course, and hooray, and it does! There is so much to commend the University of Nottingham, and I’d happily advise anyone to consider studying there. I feel sure they would, in the main, have a brilliant time and a rich experience. It is a particularly good university for folks like me with disabilities of any kind. But…

The students and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing course continue to try and establish the reason or reasons for its closure in 2017. Perhaps current students will receive clearer information at a meeting next Friday.

The University’s statement about the closure says:

“With shifting patterns of recruitment and recent changes in staffing, it was an appropriate time to reconsider the strategic fit of the course with the School of Education’s longer term plans. Following a thorough business review, the School leadership decided the programme should close; the final graduates will complete in 2017.”

The first sentence was addressed by Thursday’s post. What of the second (apart from the inaccuracy: for graduates read undergraduates)? Any institution needs funding, no quibbles there. The course was not making a loss, but perhaps that was not enough. One source of income for a university is research. In product and financial terms it forms part of the life and business of a university. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) ranking of a university matters both because it demands excellence in research, which has to be beneficial to the teaching of students as well as the big, wide world, and because it influences funding, income and earnings. Such is the belt-tightening age we live in that monetary value matters increasingly, though hopefully in partnership with educational, personal and societal value. Is a lack of research the cause of the closure? Well, it might be but perhaps need not have been.

I am told that research happens in faculties at Nottingham. The course’s misplacement in the Faculty of Social Sciences, which requires all research to have a social science focus, made it impossible for the course leader to generate research that was valid for creative and professional writing AND a fit for Social Sciences. If, however, the course were moved to the School of English, or its research location made more flexible, a different picture would emerge. Look at the English staff research lists and you’ll find listed the writing of poetry collections, a radio drama and plays. To the best of my knowledge, the CPW course leader wrote and had published two novels during her employment in Nottingham. But, unlike in the School of English, where staff can provide teaching cover for sabbaticals etc, she was the only permanent member of CPW staff, her colleagues being employed sessionally.

So the question remains: Why will the course be closed rather than moved? I emailed the very pleasant Sir David Greenaway, Vice Chancellor, to ask him simply that. He replied quickly and kindly but did not answer the question.

If we receive an answer that explains the closure, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, thank you for reading and for your response. A bit, though nicely, overwhelmed by it up here in my study to be honest. But I have writing to do to send to my crit group and a new publication to celebrate.

(In case you were wondering, look also at de Montfort Leicester or the University of East Anglia to see that is is eminently possible to undertake varied and valuable research in the field of creative writing beyond the production of new writing, but it takes time, and staff, and yes, money.)




Writing in music

relaxed-writer_1This week I’ve completed a first full draft revision of my radio drama. It’s left me feeling hopeful because the writing has relaxed. I know where I’m going and what needs to be said, it’s no longer a case of that first write-itis where everything (for me) has to be in, clear, overtly stated.

Snip, snip. Less really is more.

Next task. Radio (sorry to state the obvious) is a listening medium, and listening to a radio drama perhaps somewhere between hearing a story and listening to a piece of music.  We listen to stories and music with cultural expectation, cultural training, we respond to it emotionally, assess its quality, its aesthetic, the way it resonates with us and becomes memorable (or not). We latch on to its shape and structure with its rises and falls. When listening, I think, the sound and sound shape of the story grabs and compels us more than characters.

Part of my editing process will be to consider and apply this understanding to the musicality the words, syntax and structure. Musicality in writing is poetic, a major aesthetic component. Can I recommend a book to you? The Poetry of Radio by Sean Street.

Critiquing Unfamiliar Genres

This week my writing group very kindly gave me feedback to the middle section of the script of my radio drama. None of the other members have written scripts in any script writing genre. Two are many-times-published fiction and memoir writers, and the other has a fascinating memoir well underway which anyone WILL want to publish.

They made astute comments and helped hugely.

We talked about setting. One member could not imagine how a soundscape could do the same job as descriptive writing of setting, or at least make it very specific, e.g. a study. Another couldn’t see how you could convey such sudden switches in location by sound alone. We discussed collaboration – the drama being completed by the sound engineers, the actors and director rather than the writer – and this was a challenge to some – much bigger additions, they felt, than by those of an agent or publisher who altered rather than finished off the work. (Though I think that raises interesting questions about what cover design, book layout, marketing etc does to the book’s aesthetic.)

One writer felt there needed to be much more of what could be termed backstory. We talked about whether that was as necessary, and if so, how would it be conveyed in a medium where narrative exposition is and audio challenge within a 44.14 minute time limit. We concluded it was not so much about the history of the characters as wanting the characters to be rounded.

The absence of narrative also showed how tricky it is to convey information purely through dialogue – though I think there are creative alternatives to the conversational – interior monologues, announcements, advert style, broadcasts. I’m now looking for the radio equivalent of the flashing up in lights of Bridget Jones weight, cigarette and alcohol consumption in the background of the places she was shown walking in London. Any suggestions?

Someone wanted to know why two characters weren’t married to each. Well they’re just not, they’re neighbours. But what does that serve in the drama? Actually, nothing. I have married them. Just like that. It makes the writing easier, loses a question that might distract the listener’s concentration, and, as less important characters, they are less in the way of the more important.

I’ve realized that writing a radio drama is a great medium for honing editing skills and focussing on the essentials of the text, on what MUST be there to tell the story and show the characters in an as alive a way as possible, and the kind of material and information that’s completely unnecessary to achieve that end.

baftaApart from the very helpful feedback from the group, there was a huge surprise. MAJOR, MAJOR BONUS. One member of the group’s son is a Bafta winning script writer. His mum asked him to read MY script to help HER!!! Location changes? No problem, he said. Information imparting? Needs a bit more work. Characters? Pretty good. Dialogue? Some very good, well on the way. Story? Great.

It doesn’t matter what you look like

David Tennant and Kenneth Branagh talk about the challenges and pleasure of acting in radio drama


You produce a piece of work very quickly.

It’s a different technique from theatre or film – there’s a very technical aspect to radio, everything comes down to the voice and you’re relationship with text in front of you.

On radio you can sort of be anyone that your vocal cords will allow.


I feel I both go back in time [at the BBC] every time I do a radio play, and I also feel I’m at the cutting edge at the same time.

It’s unique, different, fun and very, very, very, very enjoyable.

Who is she?

My mentor made a particularly helpful point about characters yesterday. When creating characters for radio, the writer’s first priority is to establish characters who engage the listener and build up the character listener relationship. The content of the dialogue is secondary to but supportive of that.

simonWe want to know the people for who they are as well as for what they say. Our understanding of, for example, the protagonist is developed through the other characters who populate the story. The listener weighs up the evidence from them all and  forms an opinion. The characters encountered by the protagonist proffer different insights into the him or her, they bring out characteristics that might only emerge within a particular relationship, and stir up emotions in the protagonist which illustrate their personality and generate those conflicts we listen on for. Action, setting and sound effects illustrate the characters as much as they enrich the story.

The mind wanders during listening. We don’t take in every word, we lose the thread. The characters and the story must grip us and cause us to tune back in. When they do, the sound needs to enable us to identify and locate the characters readily.

It seems so obvious. Cathy has articulated something instinctive and true for character writing in general. If we have an emotional response to the character, from empathy to anger with interest, we are more likely to listen attentively to what they are saying. We are, after all, basically nosey!

(Image from an interesting  webpage about Lord of the Flies)

Oh Happy Day!

You know the radio drama that’s been knocking on the doors of my brain for ages saying, ‘Let me in! Let me out!’? The Afternoon Drama I’d written a few lines for in a Word document, others in a notebook and fragments on scraps of paper?

Well. Out of the blue this week the writing has flowed and flowed. 8300 words (and three hours of carol singing plus one Christmas dinner) later, I am the proud owner of a complete first draft. Whoop, whoop!

Oh Ether, you had better have delivered the script to inbox of my mentor safely.

However, good Reader, completeness is merely a fact and no indication of quality. Now for the nervous wait until Friday to hear Cathy’s response to my baby.

For your enjoyment and in memory of Nelson Mandela, who led people around the world, including me, to believe it is possible to walk to freedom, even if it takes many hard and trying years, here’s the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Creative Brews

The coffee is filtered, the dark ginger cake is being cut, we’re ready to write.

The truth is more that we write a bit, chat a bit and discuss projects or aspects of writing. Such are Thursday 11am-2pm Creative Brews’ sessions at Nottingham Writers’ Studio.

This week we talked about the challenges of finding THE perfect name for a character. Does the character suggest a name? Does a name modify the writer’s perception of a character? What is conveyed when the form of address is not an actual name?

The radio drama I’m writing needs to identify a person by how the protagonist perceives her and not by her name or relationship. So ‘Mother’, ‘Mum’ ‘Sylvia’ just won’t do. I asked the group to say the images that came to mind for a female character called ‘The Magpie’ by one of her daughters but not by the other.

‘Well the bird. And that character with long hair on the telly.’
‘The TV programme.’

magpi_tcm9-327596(image from RSPB)

 ‘The rhyme – one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl etc.’
‘Yes, it’s the one for sorrow, three for a girl and seven for a secret never to be told that underlies my choice of The Magpie, or just Magpie.’
‘Thieving magpie, magpies liking shiny things to build nests.’
‘Is it the male or the female that builds the nest?’
‘There’s something purely instinctive though in them doing that, it’s not a moral stance. Isn’t it about courtship?’
‘That lack of morality fits the character well. As a conscienceless psychopath she’d probably want to make out that she couldn’t help it, that what she did was some mysterious force’s responsibility, or indicated something wrong with her brain that negated her ability to take responsibility and left her blameless (in her eyes).’
‘They steal eggs, all kinds of things.’
‘They’re a bit sinister, not as much as crows or ravens.’
‘Those birds are rather clichéd, more of the horror genre or witches and wizard tales.’
‘They pick at wounds on animals, they’ll even prey on small creature, baby rabbits, they eat dead flesh.’
‘They’re not popular birds, we don’t get sentimental about them.’
‘As a name for someone, it doesn’t suggest the daughter is wanting to be vindictive, there are many alternatives that would give the daughter a viciousness.’
‘Yes. That’s what I want to avoid, the daughter is not going to stoop to the level of the mother who refers to her elder daughter as the Devil’s Whore and other similarly vile epithets.’
‘It conjures a visual image, which has to be good for radio.’