Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Writing from failure



To paraphrase a famous quote (I think about light bulb invention), “Every failure teaches you a little more about what doesn’t work, and gets you a little closer to discovering what does.” In other words, you probably have to fail a few times to work out what success is or how to succeed.

How does this work with writing? It’s not quite so simple, I suspect. It’s why teaching creative writing is a lot different from teaching, say, plumbing. In plumbing a teacher can tell a student to join two pipes together, and if the join leaks, it can easily be pointed out why it failed. Then the student tries again (and maybe again) until they know how to do it successfully.

In teaching a student about writing a short story, there are a number of skills that can be learned. How a story works, structure, characterization, good dialogue, setting and description etc. The student can write a competent (or not so competent) story. But if the story isn’t really good, if readers don’t enjoy it or engage with it, that’s where the real work begins. You could say the story “failed”. Or you could say the story didn’t “fail” in some ways, but overall it didn’t “work”. Then other people, like family, might read it and love it, simply because they love the person who wrote it.

See how “failing” at writing starts to get really muddy?

I think the issue is in relying only on the audience or reader/s to determine failure. In a class, the teacher should be experienced enough to be able to tell the student where the story fails, why, and – most importantly – give suggestions on how to improve it. To get it closer to “not failing”, closer to publication perhaps.

But really failure begins with the writer. Acknowledging that we begin from a place of failure. As long as the story is just in our heads, we avoid failing. As soon as we put it on the page, we have to understand that we have very likely “failed” to write it as we imagined it. That’s where a lot of other writing skills have to come into play.

The first is reading as a writer. If you read critically, you learn how and why other writers’ stories succeed or fail (or partially fail). It might be plot holes, shallow characters, poor dialogue. The more you can pinpoint these through your analysis, the more you learn. I can’t tell you how many writing students either don’t read enough or don’t read widely and critically. We see examples of critical analysis in other areas, such as coaches who analyse how other players and teams work, and writing is the same, if not more so.

Then you have to learn to read your own work critically, and work out what is wrong and how to fix it. This is incredibly hard. Being in a good workshop group can help. But mostly it is about understanding that your first draft will have “failed” in some way, if not many ways, and then tackling revision from that starting point. It requires faith that you can do it, faith that despite the time it will take, you’ll eventually succeed, or at least get closer to success. And belief that every revision will teach you to see what wasn’t working. 

That’s why writing is a craft, more than a special gift or talent. I’ve seen many talented writers in my classes over the years. I can count on one hand those who have persevered, learned from their failures and reached a level of major success. And many more who have succeeded and been published because they kept going, kept learning and kept moving forward.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Wrestling with the one-line premise



Since one of my goals for this year is to write more blog posts more regularly, here is the first one! (Yes, I’m one of those tedious people who do goal setting every year but I’ll write about that another time).

If you have read any books on screenwriting, you’ll be familiar with the ‘log line’ or the one-line premise. What is this movie about? Sum it up in one pithy sentence that not only gives us the heart of the story but that will entice people to go and see it (and publicists to use it). I’ve been reading Save The Cat recently, after having it on my shelf for about four years, and the one-sentence premise is in there, too.

I often set this as an exercise in novel writing classes. I often set it for myself, especially if I’m struggling to nail the answer down. Yeah, what the heck is this stupid novel about? Why can’t I sum it up the way other people can? The answer I tell myself is: if I can’t sum up the heart of my story clearly, it will show in the work. I end up with something that feels either slightly or majorly unfocused. The narrative drive is not strong enough. I feel like I can’t convince even myself what question I’m trying to answer.

It would be a lot easier to say I could leave this premise thing until the end of the draft. Until the third draft maybe. I could even leave it to the publicist, if it got published. Except … it niggles at me. I need to know the heart of my story, or else how can I find it in the writing?

I was reminded of this today while reading the Sunday Age. In there was an article about a Swedish writer, Fredrik Backman, and his debut novel, A Man Called Ove. It talked about his rejections, about how he worked as a forklift driver, but also that he was writing as a freelancer. Now that first novel has sold 2.8 million copies around the world, etc etc. Ordinary man into Swedish superstar writer. Yawn.

Except … I read the summaries of his novels (three of them were just one line each) and I wanted to read them all. One is My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You, about a girl named Elsa whose grandmother dies, leaving her with a batch of letters to deliver to people her grandmother had wronged in her life. Britt-Marie Was Here is about a passive-aggressive woman who leaves her cheating husband and ends up coaching a children’s soccer team in a backwater town.

I was dying to ask Fredrik if he came up with these one-liners before he wrote, after he wrote, or if somebody else did it for him. Within every one of the one-liners are more questions that only reading the book can answer. What’s in those letters? What did the grandmother do? What do the people who receive the letters do? How did that woman end up coaching a kids’ soccer team? What happened then?

I think the key to the one-liner is how many questions it makes you ask – how intriguing is it? It also, to me, includes theme like a refrain underneath. Redemption. Betrayal. Humanity (Ove). Creating a one-liner for your novel might take you a day or even a week. I know it’s taken me that long sometimes when I’ve tried to do it. But what I also have learned is that if I can’t do it after a week of trying, there is something wrong with my novel that I need to work out before I go any further.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Celebration of "One Minute Before Bedtime"

This is one of the poems that didn't make it into the book - but it was then accepted by Ford Street Publishing for "Rich and Rare". Lovely that it found a home!



Story World

Here in my shadowed room
one light spreads a cloak
across my bed.
Outside, the wind whines,
pulls at the leaves on the trees,
flaps the shutters back and forth,
but in here the evening is still,
the book lies open
near my pillow, promising
adventure and rollicking ramblings,
a hero and his dog,
a heroine and her speeding horse,
all racing to an ending I must hear
one more time
before I close my eyes
and venture into my world of dreams,
a journey there and back
all the way to dawn.


If you'd like to read some more poems on the blog tour, go here to Jackie Hosking's blog.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

What I've learned about writing - Janet and Lucia!



JANET STAPLETON

Five points I now know after completing my writing course — that would have made life infinitely easier at the start.

1. There is a naturally progressive order to learning how to write — ignore it at your peril. I scanned the timetable for subjects that would ignite my upward trajectory to the dizzying heights of fame in the least amount of time. Novel writing? Tick. Short stories? Tick. Wrong — so very wrong! Okay, what is the main thing a story has? Hello — a plot! And what does a plot have? A premise, a theme, characters, dialogue, scenes, point of view, grammar and punctuation. I could go on, but I’m breaking out in a sweat just remembering it all. A story is a whole made up of the sum of its essential parts. Get a firm grip on those essentials from the start. Choose your order of subjects with as much care as you would take to edit a selfie!

2. I found it almost impossible to write an assignment unless I was under the pump, deadline looming, when I, having exhausted all other excuses, could quite possibly self-ignite to avoid the chore! What I realised was the fear of failure was stopping me from even beginning. ‘It’ll be crap! Why start?’. And just to compound the issue, my editing voice would take charge as soon as the first sentence was down on paper. ‘Seriously? That’s your opening sentence? Open that Thesaurus stat and let’s spend ten hours looking for a better adjective!’ In the end, I had to work with my deadline addiction and had ideas, notes and research completed for that last minute race to the finish line. Begin as soon as you can — don’t wait for the optimum time, it’s exhausting!

3. Finding my voice. I tend to write the way I talk and initially I felt I wasn’t writing properly. It didn’t seem ‘writerly’ enough — literary enough. I doubted its veracity. ‘I’m just writing down what I’m ‘seeing’ and thinking, how can that be enough?’ Now I know if my voice could be recognised simply through my writing, if no-one knew it was mine, then I’ve nailed it. It has a distinct character, its own personality, as does everyone’s, but if I can find that point of difference, that EDGE that makes it unique, then I have a chance of success. Find your voice, find your power.

4. Like many students of the course, I have the unfinished novel. At the time I thought it was great. I enjoyed writing romantic comedy and found a natural fit with dialogue. Perfect — straight to the big screen adaptation. Rose Byrne and Kristen Wiig, you’re on my list! Four chapters in, I had no idea where it was going, how to write a sub-plot, have more than two characters or avoid the typical RomCom recipe. Fast forward to my first encounter with creative non-fiction. At last! I didn’t have to find ideas, they’re everywhere. Memoir, essay, reviews, blogging, listicles — the list is long. Here I am finding a way to explore my own interests combined with my writing. And what about my penchant for RomCom you ask? Well, I did write about a comedy of romantic errors — my ‘romantic’ trip to America to meet an online love interest!

5. I am proud of finishing the course! Good on me. I don’t have the best track record when it comes to finishing things, so the completion of my diploma says as much about the course as it does about me. I loved the learning, the exploration of themes and ideas that truly interested and excited me. It also went deeper than that. It helped with depression, with structuring a new life in Melbourne, introduced me to a great group of people and I am missing it already. 




And from LUCIA NARDO, one of our great writing teachers!

Five things I've learnt about writing in the past 10 years

1.     Strengthen my writing muscle
Any muscle is built by repetitive action and the right nutrition. In my writing world, that repetitive action means regular writing, even if I have to do it five minutes at a time. I leave my PC on then come-and-go into the piece I'm working on. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to get a long stretch of time, which is a luxury but not essential to production. Everything is written one word at a time. I don't need to be fast, just steady. My writing nutrition includes reading widely, attending literary festivals and author talks. Mixing with other people interested in books and writing is my best sort of soul food.

2.     Be part of a workshopping/writing group
After point 1, a workshopping group is the thing that has improved my writing and confidence the most. At first, it was daunting showing my work to others but I gathered my courage and dropped my defences. I learn most when I allow myself to be vulnerable to feedback. The rhythm and trust didn’t build overnight and there were a few early bumps. These days, I know that my group has the best interests of my work at the core of their comments and a bonus is that my development as a writer flows from this. Their constructive feedback is the thing that propels my writing forward. It would be poorer if not for them.

3.     Stay a curious observer
Overheard conversations, interactions, events, news items all sparks story ideas and questions. Curiosity about what is behind these fuels my imagination be it one sentence in a conversation or an observation on a walk. Being an observer means paying more attention to the world around me than focussing on my own. That inquisitiveness has ever left me short of inspiration.

4.     Persistence and patience
Being published is a challenge. Where creativity meets commercial reality can be an uncomfortable place. It's easy to become dejected and want to give up. Rejection is never pretty and when it happens, it's hard to remind myself with any conviction that it’s the work, not me personally facing the thanks but no thanks message. Each time I tell myself it's too hard, I take a breather, come back to it, polish the work more and send it out into the world again. If I stop, I will have failed for sure.

5.     Remain gracious
When I see "everyone else" around me being published and celebrated, it can erode my confidence. I wonder if I will ever be "good enough". The antidote is to be gracious. Their journey to publication might have been fraught too. There is rarely a true overnight success. I've seen envy drain all the creative energy from some people when it's better spent on continuing to write. I try to learn what I can from successful writers and remind myself that if I work on points 1 to 5, I might find myself in the same place as they do.