Friday, November 07, 2014

Location, location, location - for writers

Recently, two writer friends and I went to the movies and saw "Love, Rosie" (when you have been doing 14 hour days and working really hard, it's amazing how much a fluffy movie can brighten you up). Of course, we all came out of the theatre picking apart the plot! But we also stayed to the end of the credits to find out where the movie was filmed because certain scenes didn't "feel right".

The location scout would probably be disappointed in us. After all, he/she found wonderful locations to film in Toronto and Ireland. The only problem was that the key scenes were supposed to be in Boston and on the coast of England. We stayed to check out of curiosity, me especially, because I've found over and over that despite Google maps and street view and all the photos and videos on the net, actually being in a place makes a huge difference to how you write about it.

For one thing, you get smells and sounds when you are there. You get action, people and what the place looks like in different seasons. But you also get to simply sit and immerse yourself, or walk and explore. How long does it take to walk down that street or across that moor? What does it feel like in the rain, or the burning sun? What does it feel like to walk in a thick fog, or complete darkness?

So when it came to this movie, there was something about the dark green of Ireland, the old rock wall, and the house-hotel that didn't feel like England. OK, I'm being picky, but that last part of the movie was significant - it was where the main character finally followed her dreams so the setting was as important as the dialogue and action.

Of course, some movies do this location thing wonderfully. Think Lord of the Rings in the South Island of New Zealand, or Gladiator (this quote from Wikipedia - "The opening battle scenes in the forests of Germania were shot in three weeks in the Bourne Woods, near Farnham, Surrey in England.. When Scott learned that the Forestry Commission planned to remove the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scene to be shot there and burn it down.") On the other hand, I cannot imagine the Mad Max movies being shot anywhere except in the outback of Australia!

Setting is often the last thing that writers think about when they're in the first draft. It comes later, as the story is rewritten, but it's the choice of details that's telling, that shows you whether the writer really understands what's at stake. You have to help the reader feel as if they are there, and even more, you have to help the reader believe the character is there, seeing and understanding and reacting to that setting in ways that only they could. So maybe part of that being in your setting is also imagining yourself as the character and asking what they see, and how they feel about it.

So it may well be that in the next ten months, I'll be out near Broken Hill, or in the New Forest, or Chicago. All in the service of better writing!
(One day I'll figure out where to put this - below - in a story.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

New YA novels

YA fiction is 'hot' this year, with studies showing more than half of readers are not actually teenagers. There have been articles decrying adult readers as juvenile, and others defending YA fiction as 'telling great stories', ones that people obviously want to read. So I thought I'd write a little about three recent novels (and yes, I'm a keen YA novel reader, and also a keen MG reader!).
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass - Meg Medina

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass
Yes, I bought this book because of the title, but also because I had heard lots of great things about it. In a nutshell, it's a book about bullying, but it's not at all a 'do-good' story in the sense that these kinds of issues stories can sometimes be. The characters are mostly Latino, and the setting is a poor district high school. The main character, Piddy, has been forced to change schools when her mother moves them to a better apartment. When Piddy is greeted one day with 'Yaqui Delgado wants to kick your ass', she's flabbergasted. She doesn't even know who Yaqui is - but she is about to find out.

This is a story that takes bullying to a new level, the kind that frightens all of us. A girl who is obviously out of control and possibly psychotic decides she hates Piddy and becomes obsessed with beating her up. It reminded me of stories of women being stalked by an obsessive man - no matter what the woman does, he won't give up or listen to reason - and when reason fails, what are we left with? Nearly all of the characters in this story are female, and this is as much about Piddy's relationships with her mother and her friend, Lila, as the bullying. Piddy is a smart girl but when faced with personal violence, she is at a total loss. Of the two males in the story, one is an absent father (so absent that the mother refuses to mention his name) and the other is a boy whose own father is a monster. Medina weaves all of these threads together successfully, and the book kept me hooked all the way through.

The Impossible Knife of Memory - Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson never flinches from telling the hard stories. Speak was about rape, Wintergirls was about anorexia, and now this story is about a teenage girl, Hayley, living with her war veteran dad, who is suffering severe PTSD. Hayley's mother died, and when Dad's relationship with Trish broke down, he took Hayley on the road with him for several years. Now they are back in his home town, living in the family house, and she is at high school, struggling to cope.
The Impossible Knife of Memory
As Dad moves in and out of 'episodes', Hayley is finding it harder and harder to deal with him. She is so caught up in caring for him that she fails to see that he is steadily getting worse. Her whole life is about protecting him and making sure nothing sets him off. She begins a relationship with a boy at school, the only one weird enough to 'get' her, as her friend says, but even he can't be allowed to get involved with her dad in any way. When Trish returns, Hayley tries to blame Dad's worsening condition on her. Eventually, of course, things come to a head.

Although this is a story specifically about the father's PTSD, as do many strong novels of this kind, it speaks to a much wider range of issues. Mostly I thought that Hayley gives us a really good idea of what happens when you are caught up with 'enabling' someone's condition because you are in so deep you can't see what is happening. It could apply just as well to alcohol and drugs. It's also a frightening depiction of a world in which the adult is no longer capable of being the caregiver and it all falls to the child. Despite sounding depressing, the story is well-balanced by Hayley's relationship with Finn - their funny dialogue serves to lift the darkness at just the right moments.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneEven though I read this several months ago, it has stayed with me. I'm not an avid Neil Gaiman reader, like some people, but I liked the sound of this and so I picked it up. I'm not sure it's even YA, but Gaiman says it is definitely not a children's book because of the bath drowning scene. I would have to agree. He has said it is his most autobiographical book, set in the place where he grew up, with the family of Hempstocks who live at the end of the lane.

In an appearance at Symphony Space, he said, “While I was writing, it was like I was there. There’s a scene where our hero has to climb down a drainpipe to escape, and I was talking to my sister, and she said, ‘you know, we’ve got a photo of you on that drainpipe…’ And that’s the back cover of the book now!”

It's a story in which the boy is caught up in bizarre, almost-mythical events, things that terrify him and only Lizzie Hempstock is there to help. The pond is an ocean that holds terrors and monsters. But in the way that Gaiman often writes, it is the things going on in the family home that are more frightening. In a very different way, he raises the same question that Anderson does - what can a child do when his or her parent won't see reason and take care the way they are supposed to?
I can recommend all three of these books - they won't make you feel comfortable but they will catch you up and give you plenty to think about.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

It’s the words and sentences

Recently I went to a poetry workshop with Simon Armitage. While he said a lot of useful things, the one that was still ringing in my ears a few days later was this: “I might redraft a poem 12 or 15 times, and by the final draft usually every word that was in the first draft has been changed – to a better word.” He explained that he wasn’t talking about the words that join everything (and, but, the, etc) but the ones that are doing the work.

It reminded me of another event from a few years ago – four magazine editors talking about what they do as editors and what they publish. One, who had been writing and editing for many years, said when she first started, a lot of people were writing competent or very good stories that would get published. Now, competence or “very good” is not enough. You have to be a “stand out” in terms of character and plot and theme, but also in the actual writing, the craft.

These days a lot of people write and most of them want to be published. In a Brisbane Writers’ Festival session I went to yesterday, Isobelle Carmody said, “Lots of kids and teenagers write. They write whole books. So do lots of adults. But you get published because you rewrite and rewrite.”

So I think the question that comes out of all of this is – what do you do if you are writing and rewriting, and still not getting published? How do you work out what’s wrong, what part of the craft is still lacking? It’s too easy to say there will be an editor out there somewhere who loves your novel, because that means you disregard all those other editors who have said “not ready yet”. A lot of people also say that editors are wrong, or don’t understand what they’re trying to create, or only care about blockbusters, and so they self-publish.

Nothing wrong with self-publishing. If you do it for the right reasons and know what you’re doing (and paying some “publisher” $10,000 to publish your book is NOT self-publishing – you are getting scammed!).
But the question I’m trying to answer here is about what is lacking in your writing that means you are “competent” or “very good” but not yet publishable. You may not want to examine and change every word like Simon Armitage, but then again, maybe you should. Over the years, I have read many, many chapters of novels and some full manuscripts, sometimes for critiquing and often because they are students’ work for assessment. Sometimes it’s a plot issue (there isn’t a plot or it doesn’t hold together), sometimes it’s poor characterisation. But overwhelmingly what I see is a lack of craft at sentence and word level.

This might mean repetitions, redundancies, vagueness, bad grammar. But those are editing fix-ups. What pulls writing down into being something tedious to read are things such as:
·         * all the sentences are the same length
·         * the characters all sound the same
·        *  the writing and POV character have no “voice”, no rhythm, no cadence
·         * the writing is boring – no imagery, no metaphors, no fresh expressions

These things are harder to fix. They take a lot of awareness about the problem existing and acknowledging it is a problem (which is where the writers who realise it head for a good freelance critique or edit). Then they take a huge amount of work. Work at the word and sentence level, line by line, paragraph by paragraph. They take a revision where you might have to replace more than 50% of what you had originally written.


The bonus of this kind of hard work is that you will learn so much along the way that your writing will never be the same again (and it shouldn’t be – who wants to be just competent?). For me, every novel is about learning how to write that novel. Create that voice. Use that particular language, choose those particular words. The work I do won’t magically make the next novel easy, but it will help. And every novel that teaches me more about my own writing will make my writing better. I still think I have a long way to go with that, but the challenge keeps me interested, not just in the plot and characters, but the act of writing and then revising.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The end of the revision

I am currently 3 days from the end of the most intense fortnight of writing that I have had in a very long time. I’ve had a May GibbsFellowship this year, which has meant four weeks in a small, quiet apartment in Brisbane, far away from work, telephone, cooking meals and other daily distractions. For several reasons, I chose to take my four weeks in two lots, and the first fortnight included writing workshops in schools.

While I’ve done a lot of creative first draft writing (in both fortnights), this time I also had a major revision on a YA novel to do. Eight pages of detailed notes from a very good editor to contend with first (I think every writer knows that feeling of panic when you see notes like these and think, I can’t do all that!). Then it was head down, and total focus. Most days I have done at least four hours and sometimes six or more. There is no way I could have achieved this level of intense work and concentration at home.

A major character I added into the second half of the novel in the last draft? Gone again. Several large plot holes? Filled and expanded. Background world building and technology? Expanded and developed more deeply. Character arc? Carefully finessed. Then it was another pass of the manuscript for more polishing. Hour after hour after hour, right inside the world and the story and the characters I had created. I went out for walks to help my aching back and stiff neck (taking my main character with me) and coffee (taking a notebook to make more notes and write down new ideas and thoughts).

Now I’m done, for this draft at least. I’m sure there will be more redrafting to come. But I feel a bit lost, a bit … adrift. I’m looking forward to getting back to my new project, but first I have to reshuffle the headspace, tidy up, put away that world for now. It can be hard to change gears, from picky revision to free-wheeling first draft.


But I have several good ways to help that along. I can read a great novel in a different genre. I can write some poems or do some free writing. Or I can go and see a thought-provoking movie. I’ll miss my May Gibbs time! When I go home, I want to really try to maintain that sense of focus and keep the distractions away. Right now, I might just celebrate a completed new draft.


Friday, June 27, 2014

Writers in conversation

This blog has been sadly neglected this year, but for a good reason (well, good for me, anyway!). I'm studying again and the course work has consumed my every waking hour, almost. Between that and the reading for my topic, and working to pay the bills, even my recreational reading has suffered. It seems that gone are the days of reading 2-3 novels a week!

But I'm gradually returning to the world of reading and creative writing and imagination and story, and what has really helped is going out and simply listening to other writers talk about their craft. Last night was the best possible example of how inspiring it can be to hear a writer talking honestly and in depth about what and why they write. It was our VU Writers in Conversation event with Helen Garner.

You may not know Helen's work if you live outside Australia, but she is reknowned here for both her fiction and nonfiction. It seems that everything she writes causes controversy, and yet when you listen to her talk about her works, you wonder why. It's because of the depth of her writing. She tackles subjects that other writers might shy away from, and does it with such intensity that I think people shy away from what she reveals.

Her most recent novel I have read is "The Spare Room", which is about two women, one of whom, Nicola, is dying of bowel cancer and comes to stay in Helen's spare room. Nicola is pursuing alternative therapy and Helen ends up getting quite angry with her for a number of reasons. It's quite a confronting book about death and choices and the effects of both of those things. I think you would have to read it to understand why some readers reacted so negatively to it, but for me the key is Helen Garner's unflinching portrayals of characters.

When it comes to her nonfiction, she has again caused furores over both "The First Stone" and "Joe Cinque's Consolation" (do a search on either or both to see what I mean). Regardless of what you think of these books, Helen's nonfiction is as deeply affecting as her fiction. She talked last night of the experience of writing "Joe Cinque's Consolation" and how close she became to Joe's parents. Her re-telling of a huge literary lunch in Sydney, to which she took Joe's mother, was heart-stopping.

And her ability to then put these events into words on the page is astounding. She also spoke about meeting a Turkish man on a railway platform who showed her photos on his phone of his brand new baby, and how she ended up talking to him and becoming friends with him and his wife. It was hardly a surprise when she confessed to the audience that she "has no boundaries" and that maybe this is a fraught thing, but I think it's why she is able to write the way she does. She doesn't hold back, she doesn't hold people at arms-length.

All the same, we were fascinated to hear that her new book, out in August, is about Robert Farquharson (follow this link to read a summary). She has spent eight years on it, which is a monumental task. I came away from listening to Helen feeling inspired and in awe. I plan to read "Joe Cinque's Consolation" as soon as I'm able, but I know I'll be thinking about many of the things she said for some time to come.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing retreat notes #2


Week 2 of my May Gibbs residency. This week I’m going out each day to do writing and poetry workshops with kids in schools. I’ve been out near Ipswich, up towards the Sunshine coast and learned to work a TomTom navigator! (If you’re not going to be the driver, then the next job is navigating, of course.) Rather than stop me writing, this makes me more determined to write as soon as I get back to my retreat apartment.

It’s great to work with the kids – many of whom “hate” writing because they don’t know how to do it – and give them a bunch of tools for both poetry and story writing. Get past those initial blocks and we start having fun. And producing a lot of writing. I’ve mostly been working with Grade 6 and 7, and been glad to see plenty of volunteers busting to read their writing.

As for my own, I started keeping a writing diary, for several reasons. One was that I didn’t want to get home and think – what on earth did I actually write? So I know that as of today (Day 11) I’ve written about 11,000 words of two different novels, about 18 poems and a picture book. More importantly, I’ve done a lot of thinking, staring out at the church roof next door and the buildings in the distance. I’ve also done a fair bit of walking, to counteract the effects of writing on a laptop.

A retreat is definitely worthwhile considering. I know writers who book themselves into a motel or hotel for a weekend or a week, or go and stay at a friend’s holiday house. Others go away with fellow writers and use each other as “prods” to keep writing. Anything that takes you into a writing space is worth doing.

Life is over-full. For those of us who communicate for a living, the very things we use every day – the internet, email, phones – become the things that intrude into all our leisure time, the time we might use for writing, and suck it away. I’ve been internet-connected while here, but it has been so much easier to turn it off, to turn the phone off, to give myself quiet time with nothing else to do but create.

If you’ve been wanting to take some time out to write, now is the time to plan it. It’s funny how when you are on a May Gibbs retreat/residency, every time you explain it to someone, their eyes light up and they wish they, too, could do this. Well, all I can say is – do it. Find a place to stay for a week or a weekend, book yourself in, plan ahead with your writing project and GO!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Writing retreat notes #1


When I think of a writer’s retreat, I have this place in France in mind. It’s on the side of a hill overlooking a valley, the village is medieval and full of old stone buildings and painted shutters and pots full of brightly flowering plants (you know the kind), and the sunlight and fresh air and ambience lead to me writing these amazing novels in no time at all.

Hmmm. Anyone who writes knows even an inspiring French village doesn’t necessarily lead to outpourings of words and masterpieces. But all the same, the idea of a retreat is entrancing. It means you get to go somewhere that is not your home, and you get to shut yourself away from the world. You may not write thousands of words, but you are there to write, so stuff happens.

I am on Day 6 of my writing retreat in Brisbane (warm Brisbane while my home city shivers in early winter freezes) and to be honest, every day here has been different. Every writing day, I mean. The idea that I would come and sit in my chair every day for 8 hours and churn out words has not happened. But that doesn’t mean nothing has happened. Plenty has.

It took me a couple of days to get used to it. The peace and quiet, I mean. But also the idea that I had nowhere to be, no one to answer to, nothing urgent to do for other people or work. It was just me and my imagination and my laptop. I had taken the advice of someone else who had done this retreat* and brought several projects. The one I really wanted to finish? Done on Day 1. I’d spent the last two weeks trying to find the time and headspace to write that last chapter and suddenly, in one day, I was finished. I was a bit stunned.

So what next? I thought. I spread things across my large table and dabbled here and there, but mostly I just sat and thought. Words came, slowly. One project is a verse novel I have been working on for two years. It’s a big challenge, this one, and it’s been going very slowly. This week I’ve clipped pages and notes to the slat blind in front of me, and that has helped – to see it in note form all around me. 

I also had some picture books in mind, and worked on one the other day, without much success. Then I went to an amazing exhibition called Falling Back to Earth and suddenly something entirely new and different emerged. I’ve also been working on something new and experimental. This is normal for me – to have several projects going at once – but usually at least two of them are in “resting” mode. At the moment, all of these things are spread around me, and I work on whichever one is rolling around in my head and wanting attention.

Because this is what a retreat can do. Suddenly, instead of a head crammed full of other stuff with a tiny space for writing, it’s like this empty hall with a dusty floor and sun beaming through the high-up windows, waiting for dancers to come and dance, or practise, or do some pirouettes and grand jetes maybe. You put the music on and invite them in, and your head is full of dancing.

*This retreat is a May Gibbs Fellowship, and every year children’s writers in Australia can apply to have a residency in another city in order to have time to write.