Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Wisdom vs irrelevance in writing for young people

The other day I received an email from someone at my superannuation company, who pointed out that I would soon be reaching “the lovely age of 60”. Thanks for that. As if I hadn’t realised, or had somehow been trying to pretend I was still 40-something for the past few years.

Like a lot of people my age (and older) that I know, we never feel our age. Maybe people like us gravitate together. Maybe I just know a lot of people and hang out with a lot of people who take no notice of getting older. We travel, we go out and do stuff, we try new things, we still have plenty of dreams and goals and getting older seems irrelevant.

I started a PhD last year, something I never thought I would be capable of. Indeed, I feel like a toddler academic, staggering along, blundering into metaphorical chairs and couches, and struggling to understand language and how to communicate the way the grown-ups expect! I refuse to accept that my older brain won’t cope (and it’s doing fine). I have many years of reading and thinking to my credit already, so now’s my chance to put it to a more purposeful use.

But with the 50s comes other experiences: it’s harder getting out of the chair if I’ve sat there too long, and I have to wear glasses now, and take a pill or two for conditions I knew nothing about in my 20s. There are even people my age dying, enough to make me check my health and eat better and get more exercise and think about what I put in my mouth.

But I don’t think “old” the way some other people I know do. As in, eking out the days and weeks and months and wondering what the hell it’s all been for, and how much longer do they have to put up with this, and do they really have to get out of bed in the morning, and for what? Those people are already some kind of old where they can’t see anything ahead of them but an end. 

However, I know there are going to be issues with turning 60. Issues that arise from a view that I will be too old for many things. Not my view, theirs. For instance, that I can’t write anything new for children or teens because I am now “too far from those years” to be able to evoke them well enough, especially with the way technology has changed the world. For me, though, I have written and read so many stories for young readers that I think the struggle is about what “new” really means. I have seen series come and go, come and go. I’m much more interested in writing books that will last for years, hopefully decades, books that hold such deep resonance and meaning for my readers that they keep them for their own kids.
At my age, with my experience, I figure I know how to do that, and I’m damned determined to keep doing it, even if deeper stand-alone novels are not the flavour of the day. 
I used to worry about school visits, and looking way too old for kids to be interested in listening to me. Then I realised that everyone over 30 looks old to them, and over 40 looks ancient, so 60 is irrelevant. (And when a kid asks me how old I am, I give my mother’s answer – I’m as old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.) Besides, they don’t much care about me, they care about whether I’ve written a story that will entertain and move them, and why, and what it means to them. That’s my job, right there.

The other thing with “new” is that you really do come to understand there is no new idea. It’s how you write it, how you create your characters, what the story means to you. I love reading and I love stories that reach deep inside me and tell me something about life and living and people that I didn’t know before. Kids and teens know so little about these things but they are longing to learn, and books give them some of that knowledge in a safe way. Safe because they can close the covers and put it away if they want to or need to. Or they can keep the covers open and go back to the beginning and read the story again, because it speaks to them about something important and vital to them
So that’s my job, too, to write those stories. And I’m not saying a 25 year-old or a 35 year-old can’t write them, but I have all those extra years of everything it takes to write a story that has guts and is not afraid to speak out and says the things kids need and want to hear. So, 60 is both relevant and irrelevant. It’s what I write that counts.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Getting a grip on what copyright means to me

This is a long post - just warning you!

There are times when copyright feels to me like a slippery eel. One I can see but I can’t quite get my hands on what it really means. I’m a writer. I’ve negotiated a lot of my own contracts. Yet in today’s world it seems to me that more and more people are making copyright more and more like that eel. So I thought I would talk about copyright simply in terms of what it means to me, the implications and ramifications, and what I see as the worst case outlook.

Not that long ago, it was pretty clear. I signed a standard contract for my book, in which I retained copyright of the work (technically) but licenced it to the publisher. The clause in the contract that was my “out” was the termination clause. If the book went out of print, rights returned to me. From there, I might try to get a new publisher, I might publish it myself, I might not do anything. But because the copyright was mine, it meant I was still entitled to things like Public Lending Right money and Copyright Agency money.

Then came digital publishing, and suddenly the termination clause became a bit of an issue, because if a book could be kept “in print” forever via a digital file, when would I ever get my rights back? For some contracts I was able to negotiate a termination clause that still stipulated OOP (out of print) referred to print copies and so digital went with that. That is no longer the case. Now, if you licence a work to a publisher, they can keep the book in print via digital means forever.

I suspect this is where the rot has set in. Many publishers (and others – oh, the others) have worked on the principle that once you “sell” your work, the digital environment means it is no longer yours. It belongs to the publisher, forever and a day. It’s a work of words, easily copied, easily transmitted in a variety of ebook formats, and easily passed on to anyone who wants it for nothing.

I think the only reasons this hasn’t yet happened in the same way music and movies and TV shows have been pirated are twofold: one is that for many young people (the biggest percentage of illegal downloaders) books aren’t of much interest to them; the other possibly is that the perception of the starving writer is still pervasive enough that a small guilt factor comes into play. I also think the public and school library system means when people can get books for free by borrowing, they don’t bother as much with pirating. I know for myself, the easy availability of ebooks from my various libraries means my Kindle purchases have nosedived!

I’ve been reading this week about copyright issues, and how in the music industry, singers and bands with a profile can simply go back on the road and make their money from concerts. The “live” aspect can’t be duplicated, not really. But as one artist said, what about all the others in the industry – the sound engineers, the marketing guys, the producers – where do they earn their wages? Other areas of the arts have a similar advantage. Ballet, dance, theatre, visual arts – even good reproductions are nowhere near the same as the live event. Looking at paintings on my computer doesn’t compare to being at MOMA and seeing them for myself.

But films and TV shows and music and – I hate to say it – books? Easily reproducible with little loss of experience. So what the heck is a writer to do? Here comes that slippery eel again.
There are certain situations in which the words I write are already paid for and I lose copyright. I know these conditions in advance and decide whether or not to agree to them. Journalists and many magazine staff writers know that the work they produce as part of their job belongs to their employer. As a teacher at a university/TAFE, I know that class materials I write for my paid employment technically belong to my employer (which is why I write my own original materials first, which belong to me, and then write extracts and adaptive material for classes – because I know the conditions of employment). But for works I write myself, for my own purposes, the water is getting murkier.

When it comes to my contracted books that are out there in the bookshops and on sale online, if something is pirated, what recourse do I have? One. I can email the site owner/administrator and demand it be taken down. I’ve done this several times (as has my publisher) to no avail. Most of the sites I have found are operating out of South America or China.

As primarily a children’s writer, I do have the “live” option of school visits and library talks that I get paid for, but this is a small part of my income. (Some writers do many school visits and make a good living, by the way.) But mostly I have the works I produce, and I am in a marketplace that affects me in many different ways.

The first way is copyright territories. There has been much said about protecting Australian writers and their copyright. To a certain extent, I agree with this. Except the more we develop a digital environment where the consumer expects to be able to buy any book they want from anywhere in the world, I’m becoming more unsure as to how protecting Australian copyright benefits me. (But I will stay tuned and try to stay informed, all the same. Another eel swimming around me.)

To be completely honest, what I have found (now and in the past) is that Australian publishers demand world rights to my books, and very often cannot sell them. Meaning they publish my book in Australia and NZ, and try to sell it into the US, the UK and various other territories, and more often than not, don’t. It works the other way, too. I sold a novel to a US publisher, kept Aust/NZ rights but then nobody here wanted them because “world rights were no longer available”. The persistent (and probably true) perception that Australian rights provide a poor return on their own does and will continue to hamstring any Australian writer from developing their career beyond our shores. The other perception that e-rights will help to sell more copies of an Australian book is really only proving true for the best-sellers. I look at my royalty statements and e-books payments are minimal.

Too often, arguments about copyright territories are based on writers such as Tim Winton and Graeme Simsion and the like. Those very few who sell into multiple territories and win awards. They are such a small percentage of Australian writers that it makes me want to scream. While we parrot about copyright and what it “provides” for Australian writers, nobody seems to take a good hard look at what problems it raises TODAY. Not last year or last decade. NOW. The publishing industry, copyright issues and rights management is in turmoil, and everyone has their own perspective, and everyone wants to make money, but what happened to the music industry is acting like this tolling death bell and nobody is really talking about the ordinary writer.

He points to the key issue with copyright, which is more than just pirating and territories. It’s that if I create something – a book say – then it belongs to me. Forever. Unless I willingly and with full knowledge of the consequences (and you’d be surprised how many people don’t understand the consequences) sign the copyright over to someone else. Hopefully for a decent or large sum of money.

And the big, big, big point I want to make with this is – if I don’t create it, who will? Intrinsic to my copyright is my originality. My idea, my language, my choice of words, my voice, my hours and hours and hours of hard work to bring it to fruition. If it was that easy to produce a novel, why aren’t computers doing it? Why do best sellers happen? Any publisher will tell you they often have no idea. It is something about what the writer did that strikes an amazing chord with readers. It can’t be duplicated by others, and often it can’t be predicted. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t take away from all the other writers who are busting their guts to produce the absolute best original work they can. We are all very aware of the marketplace and that you only make money from what sells. That is not the issue.

From this comes my other big question. If writers don’t create original works (often for little or no reward), and their copyright and originality and use of words is not rewarded financially at least (because this is a capitalist society we live in), where will books in the future come from? Where will originality come from? Where will brilliant, life-changing books come from? Where will books that stir passions and cause uprisings and show us our own world in all its glory and horror come from?
Copyright is a slippery word these days, like I said. It’s being used to push a lot of different barrows by a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. But I’d like to pull you right back to the basic question. If I, and writers like me, are not being financially recompensed (through our copyright – the one thing we own) for the work we do, why should we continue to produce books for everyone else’s benefit but our own?

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Are you a first-drafter or a revisioner?

People often talk about “what kind of writer you are” – whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, for example, meaning do you write whatever comes into your head or do you create a detailed outline first. Or they might ask if you are a fowl or an owl. Do you write best early in the morning or late at night? I’ve always fallen in the middle for both. I write best after lunch, I think, and I’ve learned how to do outlines that are rough diagrams but that work for me.

I have a writer friend who is a revisioner, she says. She almost hates the first draft, the feeling of having to create something out of nothing, and lives for multiple revisions. I, on the other hand, had been cultivating a hatred of revision, until I learned what it could do for me if I approached it properly. Properly as in the same way I learned how to outline with diagrams and notes – the method that suits me best.

The first thing I realised is that just like every novel is different and has different issues to wrestle with, so every revision is different. What happens in the revision usually stems from what I can recognise I did wrong in the first draft. I didn’t plot strongly enough? I have multiple plot holes to fill, as well as character motivations and choices to think through more deeply. I didn’t delve into my characters deeply enough? I have to do that now before I start revising or I’ll be wasting my time. Spent too much time (or not enough) on setting and description? Got sidetracked too many times into minor characters? All things to fix in the revision.

I’ve discovered the key to revision is understanding what I did in the first draft. Did I spend the whole of the first draft trying to decide if my character is 12 or 16? Hmmm. That kind of doubt shows up in voice and is hard to fix, but not impossible. It means the revision has to focus on language and character, line by line, thought by thought. The strange thing is – understanding all of this about my processes hasn’t made either the first draft or the revisions more difficult. By working much harder over the past few years on revision, I’ve opened a “release valve”.

Now my first drafts are much more fun. I can recognise much earlier if I’m going wrong, I can stop and rework what I need to in order to be able to write the rest of the first draft more freely. I understand now why some writers have to perfect each scene or chapter before they can move onto the next. It’s like making sure your stepping stones aren’t wobbling under you before you move to the next one. (It’s not how I write, but I can use a bit of that to ensure my first draft is more solid.) I also have a bunch of writing exercises I can use to deepen the first draft – exercises for “writing around the novel” that mostly came from my Hamline advisor, Marsha Qualey.

I’m still not going to be like my friend and love the revisions. It’s more that I understand how to make the most of them, how to be a craftswoman instead of just a tinkerer. It means I am also more clearheaded about cutting, tightening, restructuring sentences and sentence order, and especially about reaching into the heart of the story to see if it’s really beating. Or just lying on the couch watching reality TV, eating chips and pretending.

I don’t think it matters whether you’re a first-drafter or a revisioner. What really matters is to know which you are, and to strengthen your skills at doing the other so you have a balance. Otherwise you’ll either always have first drafts of novels that never reach publishing standard, or you’ll be stuck on revising one novel for the next 20 years!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The brain and focusing on writing

Thanks to a blog called Brain Pickings, I often end up reading books I would never have considered or thought useful. Today I ended up buying a book called “Focus” by Daniel Goleman. Initially I read the article (by Maria Popova, whose site it is) because it was talking about how needing10,000 hours to become a master at something is a myth.

But the article led me into thinking about how that 10,000 hours needs to include practice at mastering new and higher skills, otherwise you just plateau. Of course, I can’t help relating this kind of stuff to writing and my battles with procrastination. So far, “Focus” is giving me plenty to focus on! And I thought I would share some of it.

One thing I like to do when I am struggling to write is go to a café, where I find I can write quite freely without a problem, despite the noise around me. This is discussed early in the book, where Goleman talks about attention, specifically selective attention: “the neural capacity to beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli.” It explains to me why writing in a café with a multitude of small combined noises is easier than being at home with two or three bigger distractions.

He talks about attention in a lot of different ways, e.g. how new terms have evolved to describe people who can’t hold a conversation without having to check their phones at the same time. “Pizzle” is a combination of puzzled and pissed off – how you feel when someone does that to you. “Away” is any gesture that tells a person you are not interested, so checking a phone is one of these gestures. 

He also discusses the two kinds of distractions – sensory and emotional. We’re used to tuning out sensory things like cars going past our house while we read, but emotional turmoil is your life can be so distracting that you can’t pay attention to anything, let alone the work you are doing. Those who can focus best are the people who stay on an even keel and don’t let emotional disturbance distract them. If you can’t do this, you end up in loops of anxiety. A study has shown that even top athletes are affected by emotional disturbance (hence Tiger Woods and how long it has taken him to get back to top level golf - that's my theory). So if you are having trouble focusing on writing, it could be very beneficial to look at how to control emotional disturbances in your life (and also look at whether you let them over-affect you). In fact, he says “the power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.”

He goes on to look at the effect of the internet and its constant bombardment of images, information, video, audio etc at us. It’s the enemy of deep reading – and here I would add it’s probably the enemy of deep writing. The momentary/constant elements and stimulation and movement of the internet is to the detriment of our ability to focus – “the shorter our reflections the more trivial they are likely to be”. Twitter, anyone?

He describes our attention as a pipeline, one with a limited diameter – multi-tasking splits what is in the pipe so nothing gets full attention. This led me to think about how distractions and constant sidetracking affects my writing and reduces focus. One thing I think was invaluable when I did my MFA at Hamline was the monthly deadline of packets of work I had to hand in that required sustained focus to achieve on time. I have also found that doing 30-day challenges with writing friends (writing for 30 minutes each day and checking in with each other) is great for focus.

Often books come to us just when we need to read them, even if we didn’t know it beforehand! This one popped up just when I was thinking about 2015 and my writing goals, and how to get better at ordering my time and focusing on what I was doing instead of being distracted. Maybe my subconscious was on the look out for something helpful!
I’m only a quarter of the way through the book so far, but already it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of how I use my writing time – I’m just now reading the section on day-dreaming, mind wandering and creativity, for example. 

So how was your focus in reading this? Did you get all the way to the end, or were you distracted? 
(This link takes you to Goleman giving a Google talk, and the book is currently $2.95 as a Kindle ebook.)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Creating my own Nanowrimo

How many of you did Nanowrimo this year? It seemed to me that fewer people I knew tried it, but maybe that's just in my part of the world. (For those of you who don't know what this is, you sign on - for free - to write 50,000 words during the month of November - see .)

When everyone else (I imagined) was madly writing away on their novels, churning through 1668 words a day, I was ... not writing. Well, I was, but I wasn't writing fiction. I was pounding the desk and rubbing my aching head and thinking I was probably more than a tiny bit crazy, and working on my candidature document. This is a thing you have to produce about your PhD project, and then you present yourself in front of a panel who quiz you to see if you know what you're talking about. (Considering I often feel as though I am talking gibberish about all kinds of things, you can see why this was nerve-wracking.) Plus I was writing a talk about verse novels to give at a conference.

Nothing was further from my mind than fiction writing.

Actually, I lie about that. Fiction writing was right there, like a friendly dog waiting to be patted (or written). The more I tried to placate it by saying, "Soon", the snappier it got. Finally, I decided I needed to make a promise. So I told it, "I promise that on the 15th of December, you will have my absolute full attention for a whole month." And it stopped growling at me. Yes, I write poetry and I love metaphors!

Tomorrow is the 8th. I have a week in which to tidy up my life (in more ways than one - my office could be a metaphor for the Apocalypse), finish the academic reading I haven't gotten to yet so I can get those library books back before more fines descend on me, file the 80 articles I have compiled so far and then find the 15,000 words of the novel I wrote on my retreat back in August. I know I printed them out, I just have to find them (see Apocalypse, above).

But during this week I plan to do more than just tidy away all things that have been interrupting my writing for the past 2-3 months. Just knowing that in seven days I will be writing again, I'm already thinking about the novel, the characters, and the plot holes that have emerged. I'm working through new plot ideas, daydreaming about the world I've created, writing down notes, collecting ideas. I want to hit the ground running, not just show up next Monday and go - Now, where was I?

That's the problem with having to put aside a novel for a long period of time. You have to find your way back into its world again, get to know the characters, wriggle back inside your main character's skin or brain, do some "writing around the novel" to feel its wholeness and real-ness again, in order to make it real as you write it.

Once I start on the 8th, I hope to keep working every day on it (probably even Christmas Day, yes), until I have a complete first draft. I have no idea how long it will be but it's middle grade so likely to be around 55,000 words or so. I'm conducting my personal Nano at a time that suits me, with a definite goal in mind. I've done 28 day challenges quite a few times, so I know now that with plenty of thinking time included, I can write 1000-1500 words a day with momentum. That's the key - make a promise and get writing, keep up the momentum and before you know it, you have a novel!