Friday, April 16, 2004

Madly trying to read more and more as time runs out and I am back to work sooner than I want to be. That's my dream life I guess - free to read and ponder and write and do what I want all day every day.
Amazing how when I have all these days to myself that I even manage to start sending things out again. When work takes over, all the little extras (and sometimes those extras are what get you published - the perseverance part) get pushed aside.
Finished "Lucas" by Kevin Brooks - a UK author. The story is set on an island, the narration is first person. It provoked an interesting conversation with a writer friend this week about when does first person voice NOT work. At times in this book I felt it was too explanatory. The voice that tells the story - looking back and using the storytelling as a cathartic thing - does a little too much of the "if only I'd known that this would be..." It becomes annoying. You feel like you just want to read the story, thanks, so quit reminding me that it will all end in disaster. Overall I liked the book. The whole idea of an island being an enclosed community that could go feral if given the right circumstances ... hmmm. Felt a little contrived but maybe I am just being way too picky.
Also read "Thamberoo" by Jane Carroll last night - Australian. A good story, well done, not as complex as Lucas in terms of what the author was trying to do but it still was very readable. I liked the main character and could identify with the need to have a place of your own that's special. I wasn't very convinced about the father's redemption - in fact the author may have done too good a job of portraying him and the reality of family abuse! This one was in third person. Raised the whole issue again of how to make third person feel close to the reader. I think she does it well.
How to do it better myself is the big challenge.
After having read YA fiction almost non-stop (thanks to the local libraries) I am now tackling "Lighthousekeeping" by Jeanette Winterson. Time to move back to adult fiction for a while (although I did finish the last few stories in Best American Short Stories 2003 in the past 2 days). So far I'm finding the language very musical. The style and the voice remind me of someone else - Annie Proulx? Joan Clark? The story is the whimsical, almost magic realist kind. Interesting contrast to recent reading.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Finished "Watermark" - it had a dramatic, quite satisfying ending but I still feel the initial premise didn't convince me. Oh well.
New issue of Writer's Digest has a big section on copyright and internet stuff, where they talk about the various options if someone puts your stuff on the net without your permission (or payment). There is a piece also about Harlan Ellison and his law suit against AOL. He sure is out to make a point.
It is a big issue now, I guess, especially if you write articles or the kind of thing which is easily "pinched" - shorter pieces obviously, like stories and poems. What I have a bigger problem with is the scams via vanity publishing and people who promote themselves as agents etc when all they do is take your money and run. There have been several big court cases in the US lately involving these "agencies" but it doesn't seem to stop them, just slow them down a bit. The desire to be published often overrides common sense.
I have noticed that at the top of this blog there tends to be ads for writing stuff (not under my control - sorry - in order to have a free blog site I get the ads too!). The bottom line, which people don't usually want to hear, is that if you have to pay to have your writing published, then you are, 99% of the time, being scammed so don't fall for it.
The hardest thing in the world is to accept that your writing isn't being published because it isn't good enough, or sometimes because there isn't a big enough market for it (publishing is a business, never forget it). If you believe you have something worthwhile, then self-publish. You retain control and make all the decisions, and you get to keep all the money.
I often talk to people who write poetry who have had a poem or two in one of the International Library of Poetry anthologies (or similar). Yes, it is exciting, but you don't get any free copies like you would if it was a real publisher. Instead you get to buy copies at around $60-70 each. Now, if they are paying a printer in Asia to produce those books at, say, $5 each, and they cram in 1000 poems, and each poet buys a copy, or two or three .... you do the maths.
That was all pretty much of a downer, wasn't it? But I too have a huge folder of rejection letters (and some acceptances, thank goodness, so I don't get too depressed!!!). It goes with the territory.
What makes a published writer? Yeah, some talent. But mostly perseverance - the drive to be better, to improve your craft, and then the sending out, and sending out, and sending out.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

At the moment I'm reading a YA book by a NZ writer, Penelope Todd. The book is "Watermark". It's a library book and I was interested to see that a reader before me has gone through the first couple of chapters (with a pencil) and underlined all the multi-syllable words such as traipsed and stupefied. I don't know whether the reader was doing it because she/he didn't understand them or because they were annoying?
It's a strange book in some ways, a story of a girl who has never taken any risks and then decides to go to the West Coast of New Zealand to stay in a hut at the invitation of two people she doesn't know. She is mostly on her own, apart from the two who come and go and another man who turns out to be ... but I don't want to spoil the "surprise".
After all the stuff I have been working on since the last SCBWI conference where my novel got ripped to shreds (oh thank you ms critiquer who put me off rewriting this novel for 2 years!! but I did learn a few things) - the emphasis was on character arc and plot arc. I am much more aware of these now, and I guess for me this is where this book falls down a bit. Rather than an arc, it feels to me like a series of dips. Maybe it's like the Gantos book - the initial premise didn't work for me. Just a bit too unbelievable. And so the rest of the book never quite makes it. A personal reaction. Others will probably disagree.
Character arc. Hmmm. I am 7500 words back into a new rewrite of that novel and already the arc rears its ugly head! Time to stop and regroup. I cannot write a 40,000 word version of a novel that struggled to get below 100,000 words. So I have to replot the first half and make it into two books. I know this but I had to start the new draft before I could fully get to grips with what was going to be necessary.
That's OK. I can do this.
Amazing how much of the original material I have forgotten. I wasn't going to use the old draft but even some of the minor characters have faded so will reread it and take what I need. And the language - all those great words (this is a historical novel).
Blogs are interesting. I look at other people's and wonder what we get out of it. Like an open diary?

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

A friend emailed me today - she had just been to a children's writers' conference in Sacramento. Very interesting as all the speakers were publishers and editors. This is the kind of conference I wish we had in Australia - where you get to hear editors talking about what they want, how to submit etc. At least one of them works for a publisher that doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts, yet at the conference she told attendees how to send to her directly.
One issue that came up is that of writing for middle grade. It seems that the preferred page length is 80-140 pages, no more, no less. This seems like a big leap to me from chapter books up to middle grade. Ms pages for a chapter book would come in at around 40 tops. Is there a middle ground between these two? If so, who is doing it?
Finished "Breaking Point" by Alex Flinn today. Very good, with a redemptive ending that didn't make things turn out all happy. There is something about having a main character who learns something about themselves. The whole change/growth thing. And she manages to also send a message - all those kids who get picked on and harrassed at school because they're different, i.e. don't fit the mould, well this author makes one of those kids real and presents a believable point of view. "Desire Lines" felt unreal to me, almost too excessive and yet it is probably based on a true event. I've struggled long and hard with that problem before - to say "but it really happened" just doesn't cut it in fiction.

Monday, April 05, 2004

I've been inspired by Judith Ridge's blog of her trip to the US, meeting all kinds of writers and visiting libraries, so here goes!
I'm not a fan of diaries - my focus is books and writing, obviously. I read a lot of children's and young adult books, I write children's and YA books, but I also read adult novels, poetry, and short fiction. I write poetry and fiction, and this is what I teach.
My writer friends and I grapple with the writing stuff all the time. Some of my friends teach with me.
Can writing be taught? I think the craft can. I have seen students make huge improvements in their writing. Some to the point where they eventually get published, but they have to work really hard at it.
Others just have a gift. Even without attending a class or course, they would get publiished if they persevered.
Ah, perseverance! I have also seen a lot of talented writers give up. It's hard, it's like being stuck under a huge rock. The rock is often other people's expectations - why don't you get a real job? it's a nice hobby, dear, but... You've probably heard a few of your own. And then there are our own hopes and dreams. It's about keeping your own dream alive, long after everyone else has given up on you. It's about the rejection letters, and not taking them personally. About sending that manuscript out again and again and again. And if you are still getting rejected, then taking a good look at the words on the page and rewriting - AGAIN.
No one asks us to be writers. No one comes knocking on our door, saying "Please write poems and novels and stories - I'll pay you a million bucks no matter how bad it is."
I try to teach people the basics. Plot, character, dialogue etc. Then I try to push them deeper into what these mean, what they need to do to make a story "grab the reader by the throat and not let them go". I said that to one of my classes last week and they just looked at me. Oh well, I'll keep on saying it, because if you can't do that, if you don't understand why you have to do it and then work at your novel until it happens, then you won't get published.
I remember at the SCBWI conference in LA 2 years ago, three different people (agents, editors) saying that if you have a great character and a weak plot, it can be fixed. If you have a great plot but the character doesn't engage the reader, if the voice isn't working, it can't be fixed. So I tend to teach character and voice first, especially in my Writing for Young Adults class.
Enough about writing. Books? Just recently read "House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer. Is it just me or are there quite a few books about clones out there at the moment? I enjoyed this book. It made me think about what a clone might be (we don't know yet, do we?). How much is cloned? Just the body or the mind and experiences too? I agreed with some of the reviews - the ending was a little too neat and happy. But I thought the concept of the story, the themes and characters, were all well done.
At the moment I'm reading the second Alex Flinn book, "Breaking Point". I'm interested to see how it goes, having read "Desire Lines" by Jack Gantos not long ago. DL was a book that really unsettled me. No happy ending, no redemption for the main character. Chilling. BP is heading along the same track - loser/loner kid who teams up with troublemakers in order to have friends and fit in. We'll see.