Thursday, December 21, 2006
Today in Melbourne it is very hot and dusty, but not as smoky as yesterday, when we had the highest pollution reading ever (I think), comprised mostly of airborne particles, i.e. smoke from the bushfires. Right here in the middle of Melbourne, my house is not likely to catch on fire (unless someone is silly enough to leave Xmas lights going and they short out). But there are a lot of people out in the bush who have been on high alert for more than a week. As one said yesterday, "I wish the bloody thing would just come so we could fight it and be done."
Our house seems to be suffering from pre-Christmas bah and humbug (not me, I'm hiding from them all and writing). You would think the joy of being on holiday and not having to go to work would cause some level of happiness. Apparently not.
Having spent many $$ on gifts, I was reluctant to spend more on books (a good reason to hate Xmas actually) so I decided to do something I'd been considering for a while - get out some old Patricia Cornwells and read them and try to work out why I dislike the last two Scarpetta books. And I think I've figured it out. The recent books have been written in first person/present tense. The old ones are in first person/simple past tense. She seems to be one of those writers who can't handle present tense. She's not alone. It can be clunky, slow and verbose, the opposite of the immediacy you might be trying to achieve.
Go back to simple past, Ms Cornwell. Do us all a favour.
And I also read (in one day - you can tell I'm on holiday!) "Small Steps" by Louis Sachar. Terrific book. Great example of raising the stakes for the main character, making things gradually worse and worse, while you're biting your nails, hoping that this time the guy makes the right decision.
OK, back to the rewrite I'm working on. I've read Miss Snark's crapometer for the day - it'll be days and days before she gets to my entry. I can wait.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Writing? Never the same. Just because one story or novel worked out well, that's no guarantee that the next one will be easier, or even work at all. If you write the same story over and over, the critics will lay into you and you'll be labelled unadventurous or boring or predictable. If the new book is deemed of a lesser quality than the previous, you'll get it in the neck for that too.
Money comes and goes. Usually, it goes. Last year's bestseller is this year's remainder, and that healthy royalty cheque dwindles alarmingly, so that you start to think about going back to waitressing or driving taxis.
Output surges and dies. One year you produce three books, the next year(s) you strike a story that just won't work and several years later you have to abandon it. No product, no sales, no advances, no royalties.
The exciting flush of the first draft dies under rewrite after rewrite after rewrite. Your agent stops answering your calls. But you have to keep writing. What else can you do?
Actually, you can stop. I've known several writers who have written three or four novels, then gone off to do something else. I've known talented writers who decided it was all too hard. No one is knocking on your door, begging for your latest manuscript. No one cares much whether you write or not. Your mother keeps hinting that you should get a real job.
Not me. Not right now. Oh, there are times when I yearn after my old waitressing job (except now I'm such a cranky person I'd probably be a reincarnation of Carla from 'Cheers', only worse). But the lure and promise of the story idea not yet written, the vision of the story that haunts me for several years until I just have to write it no matter what, the high that comes from having written, the way in which my own words can surprise me at times as if it wasn't really me who wrote them ... there are a million reasons not to give up, and they are all to do with writing. Not with getting published. That's the honey bee on the hibiscus (well, you didn't think I was going to say 'icing on the cake', did you?).
That's my quiet Wednesday evening rumination after lunch today with my writers' group, the best group of women writers I'll ever know. They're my Christmas present every Wednesday afternoon, all year.
Write on, girls.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
But there is nothing more joyful than wandering along the shelves and finding a new book by one of your favourite authors. Such was the case last week when I discovered a new book from Louise Rennison. First of all I had to check it really was new (her books are often released in the UK and US with different titles, and here in Australia we get both), and then because it was hardcover, I had to hold my breath and check the price. US and UK hardcovers here often cost AU$35-40, which puts them out of my reach.
Lo and behold (a suitable Christmas expression), it was a "cheap" version at only $20. So it went into my shopping basket immediately. If you want a good laugh, try her books - YA humour written in diary form - they are guaranteed to make me laugh out loud.
I'm still waiting for Kate di Camillo's book, "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane", to come out here in paperback. That's one HC that does pass the $35 mark.
My holidays are looming so now is when I start stockpiling "good reads" for my time off. Christmas? What Christmas? Don't bug me, I'm reading. Yes, and writing lots instead of little bits. Headspace is gradually returning, filling with words instead of admin and chores and grading and enrolment stuff-ups.
Books I would recommend from this year's reading? I tend to go with the ones that stay in my head - to me that means they were strong enough to be memorable. "Whale Talk" by Chris Crutcher, "Dairy Queen" by Catherine Murdock, "Kira-Kira" by Cynthia Kadohata, are three I can think of right now.
I've enjoyed the new Ian Rankin, James Lee Burke and Tess Gerritson. And my binge on literary fiction in the middle of the year was great for thinking and writing. I've also got "We Have to Talk About Kevin" on my stockpile, along with "Thirteen Moons" by Charles Frazier.
All that reading will be wonderful, and it will keep me away from the computer which has caused my neck and shoulder to seize up again (serves me right for not doing something about the ergonomics). The laptop will be allowed on holidays with me as long as it stays on my lap and doesn't sneak up to the table (too high and screen at bad angle). I have to get this ergo stuff right, because the dictation software programs all hate my voice and make millions of errors.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Where I work, we are madly interviewing new applicants for 2007, and it's a very interesting process. These are people who want to be writers or editors or something like that (we once listed 34 different jobs our students could do after completing the Diploma, and novel writer was only one), but we have learned the hard way that we need to screen more effectively. So we created a grammar and punctuation test. One page long, three short sections. Some people still manage to make more than 20 errors. We have also learned the hard way that these people do really badly in our course and often either fail or drop out.
The bald, unvarnished truth is - if you want to be a writer or an editor, you have to know how to use the English language, how to make it work to its ultimate best, and if you can't punctuate properly or keep your verb tenses consistent or spell reasonably well (and know how to use a dictionary for the tricky ones), you haven't got much chance.
I sometimes feel very lucky to have gone to school when all that stuff was taught - I see young people coming out of high school who didn't get the early grounding and have very little idea of even where to put a full stop and end a sentence. I've come to believe that if you don't get it early on, it's five, or even ten, times harder to learn it later on. I have seen a few who have managed it, but not easily.
Fish shop in Wanchai on the left- most things are still alive (and moving - if something isn't moving, apparently you bargain for a cheaper price). And the other photo is of Tai O, a fishing village on the south end of Lantau Island. I caught the fast ferry to Lantau - a half hour trip - and then the local bus to Tai O. The village is famous for its shrimp paste.
Friday, December 01, 2006
We packed in a huge amount while we were there, running a wide range of classes and seminars, building our "client base" (feels strange saying that - I still think of everyone as students or fellow teachers or trainers - the difference between business and education, I guess, but don't get me started on the new university culture where business takes precedence over education).
We had classes at the YWCA, training sessions in editing and writing with Women in Publishing, more training in creative writing with secondary students with Chinese-school teachers, I had a great day with the Grades 4, 5 and 6 at Peak School and another inspiring day writing with kids in Repulse Bay. Also spoke to SCBWI members one night. Time off? Well...
One day in Shenzen, shopping in the madness that is Wo Lu - a building filled with five floors of little shops, all with sales people who follow you and tug at your arm while trying to persuade you to buy something (and offering lower and lower prices the further you go from their shop). We had a shopping guide book that helped us to find our way around what must have been at least 1500 shops.
Another day at Hong Kong Park in the huge bird aviary (and by the turtle pond), then over to Kowloon to look at clothes, ones which I was more likely to afford. The branches of Gucci, Versace, Chanel etc were avoided.
One afternoon at Stanley Market, which was a welcome change as no one pursues you down the street and you rarely need to think about haggling. I think only the strong and the brave can endure more than two full-on haggling days.
My favourite place was Wanchai, where our hotel was - lots of lanes filled with the local market stalls selling everything from live fish to dried seafood, all kinds of vegetables and fruit, and live chickens beheaded and plucked while you wait (no, don't look, Sue!). Once again, I ate many bowls of noodles and drank my favourite ginger tea with black honey.
My last night was spent at the Happy Valley race track with the EMB social club outing. All my chosen horses did dismally, so I came home with a lighter purse but a happy heart.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
The Blogger site is in Chinese so I'm not sure how to use it - am guessing most of the time!
The weather has been mostly grey with a bit of rain. Everyone keeps telling us how unusual it is, and we should be having cool sunny days. Hmmm. And the pollution is a huge issue. I went out to Lantau Island yesterday (climbed the 260 steps to the big Buddha, with lots of rest stops) and it was so hazy you could hardly see two kilometres. Apart from the fact that people living here are starting to think about leaving, and some big companies are looking at relocating so they don't get sued by sick employees, they will kill tourism if they don't do something. No point going up the Peak if you can't see a thing.
A lot of Hong Kong-owned factories have apparently relocated into China and the pollution is coming from there where there are few emission controls.
But Hong Kong itself is as lively as ever. I'm staying in Wanchai and have wandered through the local markets a few times, staring at live fish in tanks, meat being cut up and displayed on the street, huge piles of dried seafood and flower shops that sell a bunch of orchids for the equivalent of AU$1.20.
The tourist markets are the same - lots of Americans here this time, and not just because the Kittyhawk is in the bay and sailors are everywhere (you can tell them by the really short hair). I have become used to eating noodles nearly every day, haven't missed coffee at all, and haven't been brave enough to try duck tongues or pig's knuckles.
Bought a collection of Chinese short stories but haven't read them yet. I've been deep in Louisiana, reading James Lee Burke's new Robicheaux novel. As always, fantastic description and a good story with lots of flawed characters that make you think about who is who in the world, and how do we really know the inner workings of most people.
Food for thought.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
Cyber cafes where a million kids and teenagers playing online computer games and smoking and shouting and shooting each other via the computer doesn't make for concentration or focus.
Two days of seminars and thick pollution so far - can't see the Xmas lights across the harbour because of the fog/smog.
Not enough sleeping hours. Hotel sends wake up call 6am first morning - good. Leave it in the system. Second morning 6am again. No sleeping in here.
TV viewing - a documentary on plastic surgery of film and pop stars. Horribly riveting.
Dinner beckons. Smoke in here is awful. Gotta go.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
This is what you like to see at a magazine or book launch - the magazine arrives and everyone dives for a copy and is engrossed for the next ten minutes (ignoring the wine and food!). This is the launch yesterday of our new magazine "Lizard" - not a fiction and poetry mag but a collection of great articles about teaching and learning. You might think it sounds a little boring, but there's all sorts of topics - exchanges, the Clarion South workshop, model cars, the oldest student in the world, immigrant students experiences, just to name a few. And terrific images from our graphic arts students. By "our" I mean Victoria University. The launch was at Iramoo on our campus - Iramoo is where we have a sustainable environment precinct with 35 hectares of protected grasslands and also where we have a number of live-in lizards - the endangered legless lizard to be exact. Those people who have been to Building 10 on the campus will remember the strange yellow and brown exterior which is meant to represent the lizard also. And that's why the magazine is called "Lizard". If you live in Australia and would like a copy (yes, free!) just email Sue at firstname.lastname@example.org
Onto other bookish things - not surprisingly (to me) "On the Jellicoe Road" has just been favourably reviewed in the latest edition of Magpies, a journal of books for children/YA. The reviewer said, "Taylor's story is interspersed with out-of-sequence excerpts from Hannah's manuscript, weaving together the events of past and present - an effective technique that foreshadows events and builds reader interest." See - told you it was just me! The reviewer was obviously far more on the ball than I was ... no, actually I stand by my original comments.
And when I read a book like "Dairy Queen", which I did in one night this week (could not put it down!), I know that there are still books out there in the world that will capture me and hold me fast and give me huge pleasure and excitement to read. Quick synopsis - DJ lives on a dairy farm and is doing nearly all the farm work because Dad is injured. She's failing high school, feeling pretty unhappy (but not in a whiny, "why me" kind of way, which is why the voice works so well) and then Brian arrives. An arrogant football player from the neighbouring town who is sent to work on the farm as a test. DJ ends up training him in spite of herself, and discovers she is really good at it, and good enough at football to try out for her own school team. The only girl. Sounds unlikely? Catherine Gilbert Murdock makes it work, through the character and the voice, and also the details of farm life and footy training. Loved it. 5 stars.
I'm now reading Ian Rankin's latest, "Naming of the Dead". It was my bribe to get me through all that marking of student work. Nothing like Rebus waiting at the end of a million hours of reading, commenting and grading. I then dyed my hair to cheer myself up (hate to think how many new grey hairs I got from all that terrible grammar and punctuation) and dived into the Rankin novel. I mean, how hard is it to punctuate "I hate bad punctuation," she said. In case you're wondering, if I had a dollar for every time I saw a full stop after punctuation instead of a comma... and then, of course, Word gives she a capital S - She. Grrrr.
Am I writing? A new draft of a picture book - Draft No. 17 but who's counting? All that marking does give me a very critical eye to take back to my own manuscripts, if nothing else!
Saturday, November 04, 2006
So I went back and re-read the first few pages again, and decided it was a bit of both. No, I hadn't really been giving the book 100%, but I also felt the author could have made it so much clearer what was going on. For those of you contemplating reading this book, here are some useful clues:
1. The parts in italics are not the main character dreaming or talking or writing something. They are actually a novel written by another character about things that happened 22 years ago. I'm not spoiling the story by telling you this - I'm ensuring that you don't get totally confused.
2. The main character is in a boarding school for kids no one wants. One of the school girls is from the nearby town. Nobody else in the school is.
3. The whole basis of the action in the story is this kind of wargame between the boarding school kids, the town kids and another bunch of boys on cadet camp. Why 18-year-olds would be playing the kind of game that 12-year-olds get off on was a bit beyond me. That's my main "credibility gripe".
4. The main character, even though she seems to be the "dead loss/hopeless case" of the school, is somehow made the head honcho of all the kids (by vote). Another credibility issue.
I have no doubt that lots of readers will disagree with me on this book, but I really don't see what is the point of not making simple things clear to the reader.
Enough grumping and groaning. I've just finished last year's Newbery Award winner, "Kira-Kira" by Cynthia Kadohata, and totally enjoyed the voice and character of Katie. The story is mostly set in Georgia in the 1950s, and Katie is the younger daughter in a Japanese family. Mum and Dad work in the chicken factories, saving for a house, and the older girl, Lynnie, is Katie's idol. The voice is terrific - naive but genuine - and Katie's journey to understanding how to survive in a difficult world is gentle but profound. Good example of 'less is more' - very little overwriting (if any).
Marking? About 60% achieved so far. 30 short stories to go. It's a little like being a magazine editor, only instead of rejections or acceptances, I have to give feedback on what I think is or is not working. The kind of thing we secretly wish all editors would do for our submissions.
In the last class, I gave the students something I had written about getting published, what it means to write or just call yourself a writer (there's a big difference), how to improve, how to survive after you give up the support of classes and constant, immediate feedback, what perseverance really means - all that stuff. I might put it up on my website, if I can work out how to create my circles diagram in Word.
And in response to someone in the newspaper recently who criticised the use of the word "stuff" - it's a very handy word, useful in all situations. A bit like "thingy" - right, Sue?
Saturday, October 28, 2006
We've been through the workshop mill. Each student has workshopped their piece and received comments. But what happens in the rewriting? It can be difficult to sort out which comments are useful, and sometimes people go off in the wrong direction. I often think the purpose of workshopping/critiquing is simply to develop your gut instinct - that thing that tells you when a story or part of a novel is not working.
John Marsden said once that he reads through a draft quite quickly, marker pen in hand, and just highlights anything that doesn't 'feel right' as he goes. He doesn't stop to analyse, but comes back later and looks at each marked sentence or paragraph (or even word) and tries to work out where the 'not right' feeling came from. It's a good way to work on your own.
I have a couple of students who are having to start their stories all over again. Editing and fiddling is not going to fix the central problem, which is nothing happens. We all do it. Get carried away with the writing, the character, the voice, the pleasure of putting down lots of words. But the story still needs to be about something, it still needs movement forward, in most cases it still needs plot and story questions to keep the reader engaged.
I talked to the class a little about epiphanies and revelations, and it seems to me that many short stories these days focus on those two things. Not only 'something happens to someone' but whatever happens leads to an epiphany for the main character. It may only be a small epiphany, but that's what the story hangs on. Even genre stories can work this way, weaving revelation/realisation into plot.
I have finished reading 'Leadbelly' - the book about the doings of Melbourne's underworld crime figures. A scary book. With scary photos. But it did give me good background information and ideas for something I'm working on.
At the moment, I'm reading Marlena Marchetta's new book 'On the Jellicoe Road'. And I just can't get into it. I'm up to page 100 and ... and ... I keep thinking it must be me. Maybe I'm not paying attention so that's why I don't understand half the time what is going on, who the characters are. I feel like she has been so deliberately mysterious that she's left me almost completely in the dark. I will persevere (because I paid $$ for this book) but by page 100 I expected more!
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The historians seem to hate this kind of "licence" that fiction writers take. The other end of this spectrum is James Frey and his ilk who present their writing as the truth and then are caught out in a big way. What is truth in fiction? To me, a fictional world is "true" when the writer makes it so for me. I read Michael Connolly's books set in LA and the city comes alive in my head. "The Secret River" was the same, especially as I had been up the Hawkesbury River and could then imagine it 200 years ago through the book.
A good way to consider this issue is to think about the difference between historical fiction and historical fiction. The first is fiction set in a historical time and place - the author researches that era, and tries to make the setting as accurate as possible (to create the world of that novel), but many of the characters are made up, and some things may be changed to make the story better.
The second is history related as a story - all of the characters were real people - so it's reality via a narrative. This kind of historical novel requires a bibliography when used in schools (or at least the publisher requires a bibliography to ensure the writer got it right).
But let's face it - no matter how well researched a book is, how can you ever prove one way or another that people back then spoke, behaved and thought like that? That's fiction!
And no matter which end you start from, there is a huge grey area in the middle where anything can happen, where a good writer can work without rules and boundaries and create a terrific story.
The critics come later.
Friday, October 20, 2006
(You might have to add the ?# yourself - it won't go in the URL here). There's a little video of Rankin plugging his new book, but what is much more interesting (especially for writers and long-time readers of Rebus) is an audio recording of Rankin talking about his first Rebus book "Knots and Crosses" and how it was written. I especially liked how he talks about his writer's diary.
I've tried to get students to write a reflective writer's diary - it's interesting to hear Rankin relate what he wrote in his back then.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
I talk to students about credibility in fiction - the gardener thing was the last straw. Back to the library it goes.
And thank heavens for libraries where you can try out authors before you buy!
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
I have been spending a substantial amount of time and money lately visiting an osteopath. This came about because of neck problems (and shoulder problems, and lower back problems) and I finally decided it was time to take action.
Turns out that one of my significant problems is a knot of fibrous stuff on a muscle that, funnily enough, is the muscle most likely to be used when ... clicking a computer mouse. About 15 years ago, I managed to get RSI when I was working as a typesetter for a small printing company. A lot of rest, exercise, strength building, and care about keyboard use meant that the RSI has subsided to nearly nothing. Except ... now because I use the mouse a lot more for things like clicking on internet sites, email, online courses, discussion boards etc, I have managed to develop another problem.
And I've known for a long time that I tend to get "computer scrunch" which is generally caused by laptop use (bending the head forward over the keyboard while squinting at the screen). That cliche - all the chickens come home to roost - is taking on new meaning.
So now I will go and read my books on back care and Buddhism (because my stress/tension issues are making things worse), and then I will read my book on wombats (because we have one in the bush - poo piles are the evidence - and because I have a picture book about a wombat that I am working on).
Sunday, October 15, 2006
Finished a short story for the 'Age' newspaper short story competition. This is big deal stuff here. Writers who win this competition get asked by publishers for their (unpublished) manuscripts. Entry is free. The 'Age' is getting more and more secretive about advertising the closing date, hence this year they had to extend it because nobody knew about it.
Then a couple of different friends sent me information about a fantasy publisher in the US who is open to submissions of pirate short stories (for adults) for an anthology. I went to check out their website and discovered that they have another anthology/competition open right now, closing 15 October. I happened to have a short story that fitted their category guidelines, only it was barely half-finished. It had been sitting on my laptop for 6 months or more. Aha! I could surely write the other 1500 words and finish it in time?
Certainly could. Except when I started writing, it grew ... and grew ... and finished up at nearly 8000 words. Luckily their word limit was 10,000 - and I made the deadline!
Aren't deadlines wonderful things?
Now someone needs to give me deadlines for those rewrites.
On Saturday I ran another Children's Writers' forum at the uni where I work. We had 28 writers come along to listen to Lorraine Marwood talk about writing children's poetry (and teaching it), Carmel Heron from Harcourt Educational Publishers, and then a Picture Book Slam. That's where writers stand up and have three minutes (not a second more) to read their picture book to an audience who then vote for the winner.
It was a lot of fun, and was also a very interesting session.
The notes from Carmel Heron's talk will be up soon at our website:
Follow the links for the forum - other publisher's notes already up from previous days.
At the moment, for a little bit of research, I'm reading a few different books about Melbourne's underworld crime scene. There's a never-ending series called "Underbelly" by John Silvester and Andrew Rule, as a starting point. They cover other crimes as well as the "Melbourne mafia" stuff. I have to say the books are not nearly as well-written as the feature articles that both writers publish in the Melbourne newspapers. Makes me wonder if they've "dumbed down" the books for some reason.
However, they're perfect for taking into my Short Story 2 class as examples of straight non-fiction writing as compared to "creative non-fiction" and personal essays, especially in terms of style and language.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
I also wrote 7,500 words of a YA novel while I was there, and workshopped some of it. The greatest surprise to me was when Alexandria LaFaye, the course leader, told me, "You write well but with not enough variety and style - look at the actual words and sentences you are using." So my next question was - how? How can you do that using a method that will then change and enhance your own writing?
As a class, we did some close reading, examining two pieces of writing, word by word. I have since researched this more and developed it into a method I use with my second year classes. But I also worked out a method of how to use it on my own writing, and do this also with classes. Each time, I test a piece of my own writing and am always very interested to see what comes out of it.
I'm reminded of all this by a post on a blog called Lit Agent X, where X lays out the common elements of bad writing, i.e. writing that is not yet publishable.
Go to http://raleva31.livejournal.com/ and have a look at the entry "Not ready for representation...?"
I plan to show this to my students, as it's a really good list of the kinds of stuff we see all the time, yet find it hard to "pin down". Although maybe that's because we see it over and over, and just haven't had the time to compile it as a list. Whereas this agent has offered information that cuts to the core of what is going wrong.
Thanks, Agent X!
Friday, October 06, 2006
'Terrell Owens, the troubled wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, is the latest celebrity to stamp his name on a book for children. BenBella Books, the four-year old independent publisher in Dallas, has scored his series, dubbed T.O.’s Time Out, and is crashing the first title, Little T Learns to Share, to reach stores on November 15, the height of football season.
Little T Learns to Share, which is co-authored by the television writer Courtney Parker, depicts the travails of Owens as a boy learning to share his new football with friends. The initial print run will be 10,000 copies, with a $20,000 publicity budget. IPG is distributing the book and handling publicity. "
I'm sorry, but Little T Learns to Share? In Australia, our version would have to be Big Famous AFL Footy Player Learns Not to Assault a Member of the General Public (Especially a Female).
All of you writers who've been told over and over not to write moralistic stories for kids? Obviously if you're famous, you get to tell anyone you like how to be a "good" person.
Hmm, it's Friday. You'd think I'd be in a better mood, wouldn't you?
Thursday, October 05, 2006
Australian bush is mostly gum trees (in central Victoria, anyway). These photos are taken at Lancefield, about an hour north of Melbourne. Despite the green stuff, the government has just declared the bush fire season is off to an early start, and yesterday was our first total fire ban day.
The top photo shows you why gum trees suddenly keel over and land on stuff (including people) without warning. Inside the trunk, insects have been solidly at work. I could draw an analogy with writers in garrets, but I won't. Instead I have posted below about Voice.
Some would say it's a combination of tone and style. Yep, OK. But it's deeper than that, I think. It brings in elements of the writer's own voice as well. Some writers deliberately change their voice in each work - others don't worry about it because it becomes part of how readers recognise them. And when you are writing in first person, in particular, how do you separate the narrator's voice from the voice of the writing? Can you?
Our obsession with first person these days both muddies the water and adds to the possibilities of what voice can do. What if you can't change your voice through style and tone? Can you change it via a different kind of narrator?
A novel gives you a lot of time and words to experiment with voice, and a lot of space in which to be inconsistent if you haven't nailed your character well enough. In short fiction and poetry, one story or poem can have a very distinctive voice. It's when you put a lot of them together that problems might arise. The following is a comment from a review of Cate Kennedy's new collection of short stories (Kennedy is well known here in Victoria, if nowhere else, for winning nearly every short story competition, including the Age twice, over a period of 2-3 years):
This is the problem with collections. Placed together, stories can rub together to create chemistry and a cumulative sense of ‘life’, but the risk is that their proximity can reveal shared flaws.
This is from a review by Delia Falconer which you can read at http://home.vicnet.net.au/~abr/Sept06/Falconer%20review.htm
You may be very accomplished at writing short fiction, but when a bunch of stories are read together, what can sometimes happen is a 'sameness' of voice emerges. In poetry, it tends to be a sameness of phrasing, chosen words, similar subject matter rehashed.
What originally led me to think about this was reading 'Just In Case' by Meg Rosoff this week. Like many others, I really liked her first novel 'How I Live Now'. In HILN, the point of view is first person and the story is being told by a narrator looking back. The language is often lovely in its descriptions, and emotion is created with a tight rein that makes it more effective. 'In 'Just In Case', however, Rosoff has apparently decided to change horses and gone for omniscient POV, moving between characters' thoughts and emotions yet always keeping the reader at arm's length. This may well have been a sensible choice, as the main character, Justin, dives into madness and first person POV could have been both smothering and unbelievable. But it left me feeling disgruntled with the book, quite distant from the characters and the story and often tempted to put it down and give up. I'll be interested to read reviews of it, especially after the first book was very positively reviewed by all except those who objected to the narrator having an affair with her first cousin!
A writer friend is currently struggling with the new Barry Maitland crime novel, quoting sentences which are truly awful to read, despite the precise punctuation (Question: how many clauses can a writer fit into one sentence and still make sense? A: depends - if you're Annie Proulx, as many as you like). I, on the other hand, found a Maitland I hadn't read in the library book sale for 50 cents, and thoroughly enjoyed it, up until the last thirty pages. Then the author seemed to suddenly decide he was short of a plot twist or two and piled in two more that seemed rather ludicrous, and then a character who proceeded to do the 'now, dear reader, here is the explanation of how it all happened'. Tsk tsk.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
Listening to daytime soaps will also teach you about dialogue - how to be boring and repetitious and explain everything three times. That's the job of dialogue in soaps. It's not what you do on the page, because a reader who fell asleep and missed a bit can just flick back a couple of pages and read them again.
Watching movies with lots of silence in them - that's often very useful. Why? Because usually when there is some dialogue, it's packed with meaning and subtext.
Dialogue has a lot of jobs to do. I think that's why people freak out about it. It has to show character, provide information, move the story along, show emotion (so you don't need all those adverbial tags) and create action/reaction. And more. One way of looking at it is to think, Wow, dialogue is such a great tool. I can use it for all that stuff and I can avoid the dastardly disaster commonly known as [telling].
Why am I thinking about dialogue this week? Because this novel I'm playing with seems to have an awful lot of dialogue in it, and the suspicious, editorly part of me is shaking its head and saying, You need to watch that - remember how you complained about Jonathan Kellerman's last novel (Rage) because it told too much of the story through the characters chatting to each other?
Not to worry. I've run out of things to write for now, so I'm going to let that bit of fun and frivolity sit and contemplate its own toenails for a while. And go back to working on a rhyming picture book, just to make myself feel creative (not).
Finished Kathy Reichs (very enjoyable, apart from a bit at the end where the sheriff did a big explanation/info dump so us readers would know what happened - clunky). Am now reading "Fragrant Harbour" by John Lanchester. I've had it there for ages - lost under a pile of other stuff, like many things in my house - and suddenly found it the other day and thought Hong Kong! I have to read this. Because I am going back to HK in November to do more things with our new training business (writing and editing mainly) and would really like to know more about the history of the place.
How are my Mandarin lessons going? Very good (hen hao) thank you (xiexie). In last week's class I learned how to ask where the ladies' toilet is. And I know how to order two beers. Two vital sentences.
Maybe I should write my picture book in Mandarin. It might improve it.
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Short stories take more time. Often with a story what I will have is a beginning, and the abandonment happens because I can never come up with the rest of it - the middle and the end - in a way that satisfies me. If you read enough short fiction, you come to see how much has been done before and I find now that unless I can create a story that feels different to me in some way, that is at least new for me, it won't hold my interest long enough to be completed and reworked.
The other problem story is the one that starts well, moves into the middle, then launches off into something that threatens to become a novel and I can't figure out how to rein it in. Or if I want to. That kind of story (I have one that's been sitting on my laptop for about six months now) becomes "I'll tackle that one tomorrow".
But what to do about the problem child novel? If it's not working because you don't care about it enough to wrestle through the problems, it's easy to put away and forget about.
It's when you've written six or eight drafts of it, the story still won't leave you alone, but you believe that you've done everything possible to fix whatever is wrong with it - and somehow it still is not working ... What then?
One solution is to put it away for a couple of years. Then read it and decide if it's worth another draft.
Another solution is to re-vision it - make it into something else entirely so you can see it with new eyes. This might mean changing from first to third person (or vice versa), changing the POV character, changing the genre, taking out the first three chapters and starting in the middle. What is sometimes needed is a huge shift in how the novel is going to work. A huge shift in the writer's own perception of it. Not always possible.
A novel contains a huge number of words, a huge investment of time. You look at the pile of pages and remember all the hundreds of hours you spent on it. How can it not be "right"? It must be, you think. It's just little things that another edit will fix.
But your heart and/or your gut tell you that it's something fundamental, something that maybe is not fixable. The voice is not convincing, the concept is laboured or boring or been done a million times before, the characters never really come to life. These are major problems. The kind that cause abandonment.
Hmmm, that all sounds very heavy and depressing for a Saturday morning.
On a lighter note, a writer friend and I have been discussing, via email, two stories recently published in the New Yorker. One is "Black Ice" by Cate Kennedy (an Australian short fiction writer whose first collection is just out) and the other is "Kansas" by Antonya Nelson. We've had opposite reactions to both stories! Email comments such as competent but not totally engaging, too much telling, characterisation too obvious, have been really interesting - and a good reminder of how everyone engages with stories in different ways. This often happens in class. A story can divide everyone down the middle, sometimes into hate and love!
I've just started the new Kathy Reichs novel, and am very relieved that she's moved away from the current obsession with religious artefacts and "what they really mean". Ergh. Wasn't the Da Vinci Code enough for anyone's lifetime?
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
If only. In fact, I have been writing, but it's a letter to a planning officer about an application, and it's one of those things you have to psyche yourself up to, because it has to be diplomatic, direct yet polite, clear and concise - and all the while I just want to have a screaming hissy fit about it. But I guess that's one of the things that's good about being a writer - I can usually use words as my swords - the death of a thousand paper cuts. That's probably a cliche (two cliches, but who's counting?), but it fits.
I've also been finalising my tax (always a joy), and then having a little splurge at the wine supermarket to celebrate when all the icky, boring, stressful things are finished.
Writing? Yes. An adult novel. Just for a complete change. I have no expectations of it, I just like the main character, I have a good plot idea as a starting point (with a novel it's always just a starting point) and I am seeing where it might go. No pressure, just words when I feel like it. If I get stuck, I leave it alone for a while until a new idea emerges or the next scene develops in my head.
Unlike a certain other middle-grade novel of mine that a very kind, very experienced writer has just read for me and confirmed what I knew in my guts - start again.
But I have been reading - a book I have been meaning to get to for ages, ever since I heard its author, Kate Grenville, read it at last year's Melbourne Writers' Festival. Only took me a year. It is as good as I thought when I heard her read an excerpt - "The Secret River". Of course, it's already won tons of prizes but that's not something that makes me want to read something urgently. It was the words I heard last August. Fabulous language, strong voice, great description. A historical novel that totally captures the time and the people.
I am also still thinking about the Elizabeth George novel I read last week - "What Came Before He Shot Her". It is not an Inspector Lynley novel, so at first I thought, Huh? But once I got into it, it was amazing. Such an eye-opener about life in London in North Kensington - if I ever get to London again, I'll make sure that's one place I avoid. When a book and its characters stay with you for weeks afterward ... what more can I say?
Thursday, September 14, 2006
I've been having similar problems, and the most recent example was having to explain to a class what a canon of literature was. However, although I do see this as a problem for students who want to be writers, it's not a problem for me. I actually enjoy having to pull a definition out of my head (can't always guarantee one will be there, but then that's what dictionaries are for). I think where the issue lies for young writers is that without a good knowledge of the words that are available to them in creating their stories and novels, how are they going to write things that are a pleasure to read? Where do imagery, metaphors, similes, great description, style, tone etc come from, if not from your use of language? You can't argue that genre writers don't have to worry about that stuff, because the really good genre writers are doing exactly that!
In Short Story 2 I have recently inflicted a series of close reading and editing exercises on the students, amidst complaints. The exercises have been about examining language and sentence construction initially, delving into how a writer creates what is on the page by looking at a short excerpt, word by word (if you want to know how to do this, take a look at http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~wricntr/documents/CloseReading.html and also at http://www.mantex.co.uk/samples/closeread.htm )
One of the excerpts I used, which they had to examine in minute detail, was from the latest Janet Evanovich. It had plenty of description, a great voice, and interesting, varied sentence constructions. Evanovich might be writing humorous crime but she knows how to write well and dismissing her as a simple genre writer is a mistake.
This week I made them do close editing on their own work, just one page. I probably sound like a pedantic, boring nit-picker, but I am convinced that until you engage with what a writer is doing at the micro-level (and that includes your own writing), you won't be able to improve your use of language, your understanding of how good writing works, and raise your writing to the next level. I did get the feeling that when I told them this, there were still disbelievers around the room, but at least I tried!
The other thing that we discussed briefly was what I call "living as a writer". What you do in order to become a better writer. Under this heading, I listed: reading widely and critically; writing lots and then writing more; being in a good critique group; being aware of the world around you and finding ideas in it; giving up other things in your life in order to have a decent amount of time for writing; informing yourself about the world of publishing, how it works, who does what and why, and then updating your information regularly; researching markets for your work so you don't waste your time and money or the publisher's.
I also know from experience that people don't take in information and knowledge until they are ready for it (usually at the moment when they need it), so I recommend a good library of books about writing. Not to read slavishly, but to delve into when I want someone else's point of view on point of view, or setting or dialogue.
It can take a few years to build up to a point where all these things become a natural part of your writer's life, but it's worth the effort.
P.S. One of my favourite student misuses of language is still the novel where the main character put moose in her hair. After a rewrite, the character then proceeded to put mouse in her hair.
Friday, September 08, 2006
So I've launched into "Twelve Sharp", the new Janet Evanovich. The writing is clean, tight, funny (no, doesn't have great amounts of imagery but she does a great job of making me feel I'm right in that doughnut shop) and a welcome break for my brain.
It never fails to amaze me when someone who wants to be a writer says they don't read. I shouldn't be amazed because it happens regularly. Sometimes in classes I feel like I want to chain the students to a shelf of books and not let them go until they've read every one. Instead I set assignments where they have to read at least 3-4 books before they can write reviews or analyses or whatever, but hey - 3-4 books is so minimal as to be laughable. There are so many things that I gain, as a writer, from reading that I just don't understand those who refuse to take it on board. And the complaint (also heard a few times) that they don't want to be influenced accidentally is also wasted on me - the more widely you read, the less likely you are to accidentally "copy" someone. It's actually quite beneficial to deliberately try to copy someone's style as a writing "lesson". Hey, I had a Sylvia Plath period just like a lot of other poets I know!
What do I gain? Insights about style, about how writers use words differently, how sentences can be put together, how description can be threaded into a story without bogging it down, how dialogue can show character, how pacing works, how cliffhangers work, how much to put into a chapter, how to use different narrative devices and structures, how characters can be shown effectively, how to foreshadow, how to subplot ... need I go on?
The trick is to read like a writer. No, it doesn't destroy your reading enjoyment. Well, OK, it might for a while, but then you just get used to reading differently, and suddenly you are seeing all these other things behind the story - you're seeing the bones the writer used to hold up the flesh of "what happens". For me, it increases what I get from the book tenfold.
And when Miss Snark runs her Crapometer, it helps me see what is not working with those submissions, and why, and how I might fix that kind of problem if it comes up in my own writing.
As for the dreaded query letter, if nothing else, the current 100 victims of Miss Snark prove that less is definitely more. Now, if only my submission had been one of the 100...
Thursday, August 31, 2006
In the meantime, I'm about to film another interview for my Writing for Children subject, this one with a publisher. I already have a writer, an illustrator, an editor and an agent. If I could just master the video editing program, Premier Pro, I'd already have those videos finished and ready to show my class.
Yesterday, we bought an MP3 recorder in order to record the guest speakers we have for our industry class. I have it at home - my job is to figure out how to use it and download the files, and then I have to show everyone else and write instructions. If I do work out all the 'ins and outs', I may end up with a podcast of poems to put on my other site www.poetry4kids.net. We'll see how I go.
What am I reading? 'Diamond Dove' by Adrian Hyland. It's an Australian novel, set in the Northern Territory. The main character is a half-Aboriginal woman called Emily Tempest (yes, this is a white male writing this book). I think it is a terrific book - the descriptions of life in NT for Aboriginals are stark and vivid. The writer apparently lived up there in outback communities for years and it shows in the details. Emily is a great narrator, full of life and humour, and I'd give this one five stars (never thought I'd say that for an Australian novel!).
I have the new Janet Evanovich sitting there, and also the new Anne Tyler. The library sent me a note to say a copy of 'Winter's Bone' (Daniel Woodrell) is waiting for me. Where did all my reading time go? The trouble is, I'm used to spending at least an hour reading in bed every night. At the moment, I'm so tired I'm lucky if I manage 15 minutes. I need to get off the computer earlier, and have some time out for reading.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Launch 2 - the online journal Divan which is created by Box Hill TAFE students and teachers and IT people. The site is not quite up yet, but we saw it on the screen. I have a poem in the new issue and read three poems at the launch, which was part of the Box Hill TAFE's writing festival at the Victoria Hotel. The Vic seems to be the favourite spot for writing things at the moment - the SciFi/Fantasy convention a couple of weeks ago was held there.
Launch 3 - the Society of Women Writers' anthology, launched by me. A lot of familiar names and faces and a lovely collection of poems and stories.
Launch 4 - Saturday afternoon - "India Vik" a collection of short stories by Liz Gallois (another ex-student - by ex- I mean they've finished studying the Diploma I teach in -wonderful to see they have gone on to be published). "India Vik" contains stories set in India, and is published by Transit Lounge, a new small publisher filling a niche in the market very effectively. Liz's stories are evocative and thought-provoking - and not too obscure and clever - a pleasure to read.
Launch 5 - a little later that day - "The Music Tree", a picture book by Catriona Hoy, illustrated by Adele Jaunn. Catriona organised a great launch at a primary school, and some of the kids played music to go with the story. Sorry to say that publisher Hachette (who bought out Lothian, the book's publisher) made a point of saying they did not support book launches. Is that corporate-speak for "we don't give a stuff about our authors"? We had a wonderful time all the same, and the book is lovely.
Today I went off to my master class with Kate Thompson (who assured us she is not the Kate Thompson who writes chick-lit). Many in the class were beginners but were brave and read out their work. It was a very interesting experience for me. I'm used to workshopping student writing where the first thing I do (because I can't help myself and because so many still are pretty hopeless at punctuation and grammar) is grab the pen and start correcting stuff. Today all I could do was listen. No pages in front of me. And it was so much easier to focus on the story, the action, the characters and what was or wasn't happening. True - we couldn't offer in-depth critiquing, but for most people that wasn't what they needed. They needed to know what was and wasn't working in the story itself. It gave me much food for thought.
I read most of the first chapter of a novel I have been struggling with. Struggling in terms of getting it to say what I wanted, and also to work out what I was really saying. I've had other comments that have indicated the whole thing is confused and has too much in it. I just got to the point where I no longer knew if was any good, if it was worth rewriting yet again. Now I think it is. Some of the comments showed me what I already knew but hadn't got to grips with.
I've been reading a blog or two recently that have said things like "If you think editors or publishers might be reading your blog, that last thing you should be doing on it is saying how badly you are writing, or what problems you are having". So here I am, breaking the rules. I'm not writing this for publishers. I doubt any publishers would take the time to read this. I'm writing this for other writers who grapple with the stuff I grapple with - that we all grapple with. (All that grappling conjures up awful images!)
And I write it for myself. Like a sounding board. I hear what I say, and I move onward and upward.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
How on earth do you teach that muddling process to students? So I took myself off to a songwriting workshop that happened to pop up just when I needed it. It confirmed what I originally did all those years ago - it's about playing around, experimenting, trying things out until you find what works for you.
Great. And how do I teach that? Especially after finding out that only two people in the whole class could read music, none can write it in any form. So I spent ages choosing examples of classics for them to listen to, in order to look at how the songs are constructed, how the music figures in, what is a riff, what is a bridge, etc.
Well, either they're getting better at faking "blank and bored" or very little I said connected.
I am left wondering whether they thought I was going to give them a magic formula of some kind. After 8 months of poetry with me ... some chance.
Next week they have to bring in a song they like, with lyrics printed out, so we can discuss the writing process further. Then they're going to have to put their money where their mouths are (yes, we did talk about cliches too) and write something.
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
One problem with it is the word length - I need to get it down to around 1800-1900 words, and no matter what I do, the darned thing insists on sticking at 2200. There is one early scene I could delete, but it's a scene that at this point sets up a central tension builder. If I take it out, I'm not sure how else to create tension. An early comment from an editor was that the story was a bit "flat". So now I'm in crisis about how to create more excitement and build it up more.
Usually I'd go back to the main character and create more internal conflict and lead in from there. With 1900 words hanging over my head like a sword, I'm feeling stuck. So here I am, blogging instead (and having a long, whiney noise echoing inside my head - oh, that's not me - that's the guy cutting and fitting the skirting boards with his power saw).
In class at the moment, students are doing what we call "oral presentations". No, they're not sticking out their tongues and saying "Ah". They're giving a prepared talk to the class on a topic. Students hate them, but in this world where the author is expected to be a publicity machine, or at the very least be able to do press and radio interviews without sounding like an imbecile, it's a torture they'll thank us for later. I think. It's also a great way of sharing information. One class is giving talks on children's authors, another on poets. We get to hear about a lot of authors and poets that we otherwise wouldn't (especially when a student chooses someone whose books they love and everyone else has never heard of them).
Today the poetry students will be tackling the sestina. They've done really well so far - villanelles, pantoums, sonnets, prose poems. And after the sestina, the haibun.
I have inflicted close reading on my Short Story 2 class - I say inflicted because many of them have been quite resistant to the pleasures and excitement of actually being able to see how a writer creates voice, style and tone on a page. OK, so I don't get out much, but I think it's wonderful, and every time I do it with a class, I learn more myself. Last year's class loved doing it too. This year ... let's just say I'm not sure I have convinced them of the benefits. Yet. Maybe I'll ask them tonight what they think. They do tend to be honest.
All right, enough of this. Back to the chapter book.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Poetry4kids - my new website is finally up and running. There are still some items missing (because I haven't written them yet or compiled the information from my files, but I'm really glad I finally completed it. I had asked a student in the course next door (IT) if she would like to create the site for her class assignment. She did a good job, but in the end I decided to change the main page and make it tighter and cleaner. I did use her banners and links though, and taught myself hotspots and a few other things. Even wrestled with Fireworks a little (a fight I usually lose).
The site is designed primarily to encourage teachers to use poetry more in the classroom, especially in getting kids to have fun with it and write more, but also to promote children's poets as great visiting writers. Poets are usually good performers and have lots of writing experience with poems. So check out the site, if you like. There are also some poems there from my new verse novel "Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!)" which is being published in May 2007 by Penguin.
On the reading front, I've just finished "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri and loved it. This is one of the titles I got off Miss Snark's blog as a good read. I've also still got "The Kite Runner" there and will try it again.
One of my students (now ex- as she has finished the course) has her first novel coming out next week, launched at the Writers' Festival. It's "India Vik" by Liz Gallois. The publisher is Transit Lounge, and I discovered last year that TL is owned by an old community writing/librarian friend of mine, Barry Scott. He is specialising in travel books, either fiction or non-fiction. His first title out last year was the book on Mexico by Cate Kennedy. This kind of niche publishing is excellent, and makes good sense in a book market cluttered with ten thousand versions of the Da Vinci Code.
As for teaching, well, the honeymoon is over and the first lot of assignments are in, ready for marking. Guess what I'll be doing this weekend. I'll also be painting skirting boards (don't know what these are called in other countries but they're the boards that go around the bottoms of your walls that cover up all the gaps!), and hopefully will be reading Draft 8 of my pirate novel. A cut and polish read. Before sending it out. It has had enough time to settle, and now I can hopefully look at it with fresher eyes. This book has been through so many major changes, but it still feels a little too familiar. I hope I can be critical enough.
And the short chapter book was workshopped by my group this week and needs another rewrite. Of course.
Sunday, August 06, 2006
The topic initially was a short chapter book I am trying to rewrite, specifically because I sent it off in haste to a publisher, without giving it time to sit and time for me to get my critical faculties in order. The manuscript came winging back (as they do) and I realised that yet again, the urge to get it out there had taken over my common sense.
It's a common problem, I think. We get caught up in the rush of having not only written something but finished it. And we are so pleased and excited and are so sure it's wonderful, just the way we envisioned it ... so we pop it in the envelope (or attach it to the email) and away it goes.
And there it is, zinging right back again. With comments such as "the story felt a bit flat" and "the characters weren't different and developed enough". Luckily I have a good writer friend who had a look at it and made some helpful suggestions. The next step was to sit down and tackle it. That's when the little voice starts - "maybe the story isn't any good anyway" and "maybe your writing skill isn't going to be up to fixing it". I had just read an article about the golfer, Brett Ogilvie, and he talked about those voices on the golf course, and how you have to replace them with positive voices. Ignoring the negatives doesn't work well enough. So I put a positive voice in place - "just look at the story, work out some ideas on how to improve it, and leave the writing part for now - use some thinking power!"
Yes, I did just that. The rewriting lies ahead, but at least I know where to start. One step at a time.
I finished "The New Policeman" and decided I liked it. I didn't really "get" the music bits but then I'm not a musician and can't read the music so it was wasted on me! I have got one of the Switchers books from the library and am about to read it with great interest. As I'm doing the masterclass in 3 weeks with Kate Thompson, I had better read some of her other books.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
House renovations are nearly finished, which means painting is nearly finished. I am down to window frames, doorways and fixing up the little bits where I missed patches or did crooked lines. Or accidentally splattered a bit of paint where it wasn't supposed to go. Soon the fridge will go back in the kitchen where it belongs and I will stop wandering into the lounge room to get margarine, milk, wine etc out of the darn thing and then forgetting what I went for. It's not Alzheimers, it's renovation brain vague-out.
The Melbourne Writers' Festival is coming up in 3 weeks. A new director this year and lo and behold, the first thing she does is take the bookshop out of the main building to free up cafe room and standing/chatting room (and that takes those totally ridiculous book-signing queues out too), put the bookshop outside in a marquee, and put another cafe space in another marquee. Yahoo! This is after about 5 years of people complaining endlessly to the ex-director who seemed totally deaf to everyone's screams of frustration at the sardine-tin-like venue.
Another change - good gracious, there are several sessions on poetry instead of just one. And the session times are staggered so everyone is not coming in and out at the same time (creating an even bigger sardine can).
Not so sure about the guests this year though. Are they worth paying for? (Adelaide's Writers' Festival is still free). But there are master classes on offer - a first - and I have signed up for the session with Kate Thompson, whose children's novel "The New Policeman" won two big awards in the UK last year.
I'm reading it at the moment and am not exactly bowled over by it, but it's getting better as I go along. I'll have to find some of her other books to read as well.
I'm also doing a short workshop this week on songwriting. Not because I want to write songs, but because my poetry class all want to, and I don't know enough about it to tell them anything useful, even though I did write a number of songs for a rock musical about 15 years ago. Writing a few lyrics doesn't necessarily mean you can tell other people how to do it. Especially if, like me, you don't play a musical intrument of any kind, or read music. I was lucky enough to work with a great composer who helped me a lot. So off I go to learn some new stuff, I hope.
Finished the Nicole Krauss novel "The History of Love" and decided I did like it, despite the confusion she created over the time-jumps. There are mostly two viewpoint characters, Leopold who is the old man and Alma the young girl. A lot of the story is about their unrealised connection and how they eventually get to meet, but I thought that running the novel on two different timelines got too confusing. Alma's sections are dated, leading me to believe that Leopold's sections ran in the same time zone, but in fact most of the time I think he is ahead of her. But I'm not 100% sure about that! So when Leopold's son dies, it happens for L and A at different times.
It's a novel that needs a bit of concentration, and a fair amount of puzzling out who is who and what is going on. But overall I liked it, and thought it was worth the struggle. I especially liked Leopold and his ventures into life modelling!
I am trying to read "The Kite Runner" but am probably not giving it a fair go. For something different I'm reading a book called "The Human Face" which is about how our faces develop and why they are different, what we see in faces, how we interpret facial gestures. Great photos, and it is inspiring a series of poems.
Thursday, July 27, 2006
The other side of that is when you have a great idea and while you are mulling it over, planning and thinking where it could lead, plotting in your head, creating characters ... before you know it, someone else has published a book using that exact same idea. It's as if there's a great mass of brilliant ideas circling above the earth (or just over our heads) and someone else reached up and grabbed that idea and made it work before you did.
That's why ideas are not able to be copyrighted - and why you actually will see more than one book on the same subject. Often someone can have a completely different perspective and bring something original and new to the table. Often in class I'll set a writing exercise and then be amazed at how differently students write about exactly the same topic. And that's a good thing.
Today I filled in for a sick teacher whose class is on Scriptwriting. We looked at several short films from Tropfest and discussed what the scripts would look like, how the writer can indicate quite clearly to the actors and director what should happen (through actions, not dialogue). Several of the films we watched had hardly any dialogue at all, and it's interesting to imagine what the script would have been.
One of my short stories is currently being turned into a script for a short film by a young, independent film maker - Odin Dutton - he has promised to keep me updated on how it's going and when it will be filmed.
I gave copies of the story to the class this morning and asked them to discuss how it could be made into a film script. They had a few ideas (so do I!) which were quite interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with it.
Friday, July 21, 2006
I am still reworking a certain picture book, and am about to wrestle with Draft No. 16. Anyone who says picture books are easy can come and clash swords with me (and that includes Madonna of the moral message). I keep reminding myself that Mem Fox did 40 revisions of "Possum Magic".
I have three writing books by my bed at the moment, all different and all intriguing. The first is "Between the Lines", the one about subtlety and subtext in fiction and how to achieve it. I got distracted from that one (even though it is very good) because I was on holiday and, when I have a good amount of time off teaching, my brain says "Give me something to grapple with". And that doesn't mean work-related stuff. So I have been reading "The Dogs of Babel" by Carolyn Parkhurst. My Arizona friend, Meg, gave it to me before she returned to the States, and I have been reading it warily. Is the narrator mad? Is the story about to take a horrible turn into the bizarrely gory underbelly? No, she keeps the narrative going in two streams - the present day where the narrator is trying to teach his dog to speak so he can find out how his wife died, and the past where he relives how they met (him and his wife and the dog) and what led up to her death. Wariness gave way to deep interest and involvement in the story, and I give it 9/10.
After reading Miss Snark's summer books recommendations, and realising my credit card really doesn't belong to Borders (or any bookshop), I resorted to my local library and have been madly ordering books to be put on reserve for me. Today I started Tobias Wolff's "Old School", and have Nicole Krauss's book on the pile.
Writing books? The other two are "The Making of a Bestseller" by Brian Hill and Dee Power (Dearborn) and "Weinberg on Writing" by Gerald Weinberg (Dorset House).
The bestseller one is interesting, not that I will ever write a bestseller, much as I would love to write like Michael Connelly or Janet Evanovich. But it gives a very good insight into the commercial publishing industry. If you write midlist literary fiction, it may well give you nightmares.
The Weinberg book is interesting too, in a very different way. It's about the process of writing, via a fieldstone metaphor, and may be very useful for those of my students who struggle to write regularly, overwhelmed by either their version of writer's block or the need for perfection.
Reviews will follow, when I have finished them and had time to think and evaluate.
Monday, July 17, 2006
Sunday, July 16, 2006
I was talking to a friend the other day who writes wonderful stories, especially historical description and atmosphere, and we were discussing romance writing. As a career that pays a lot of money, once you get published and can produce good romances 3-4 times a year. If only. It's true what the editors say - you can spot a cynic a mile away.
Another friend flew off last month to the UK and was planning on attending a conference on erotic writing while he was there. We are all waiting eagerly to hear what it was like, what he learned. Another field in which there is nice money to be made (not just a rumour - this comes from a writer who does it) but is it the right writing for us? Can we be genuine and "real"? Or is all fiction writing just made up and it's all about how well you can fake it. That sounded very cynical!
Maybe I'm dreaming about lots of money from writing right now because I'd love to pay someone to come in and paint my house.
Classes start tomorrow, and I have done quite a bit of prep, but still feel like it's not enough. Mainly it's the photocopying. I hate using so much paper, but how else do I get the information to the students? I can't make them all buy ten or twenty books, and many books only have certain bits I like to use. This is the point at which e-books start to look good, for texts and classroom use at least. You could pay for single use by a student, on a computer or book reader, then delete at the end of the year. If the student loved the book, they could buy their own copy. In Australia we have CAL, which monitors photocopies made of texts and pays authors an amount in compensation, but do other countries have this? It would be good to use technology to advance this kind of usage on-screen and save the trees.
Tuesday, July 11, 2006
In case you thought Hong Kong was a distant memory, here is a night street scene. Colourful and lively (I think it's actually the Ladies Market in Mong Kok).
Critiquing. Workshopping. Manuscript assessment. Feedback.
Whatever you call it, it's about someone else telling you what they think of your writing. Family members are notorious for comments such as, "That's nice" or "Don't give up your day job". Good critiquing points out strengths and weaknesses, and makes helpful suggestions. But examples of terrible critiquing/feedback abound, and can virtually kill a writer's passion in extreme cases.
Case 1: a young writer, 12 years old, has been writing for some time in secret. She finally gets up the courage to show her teacher, who says very dismissively, "Yes, nice, dear", and moves on. Young writer doesn't write again for more than 40 years.
Case 2: Writer A has been writing very well and getting some stories and poems published for about 10 years, while working on her novel. She is an excellent workshopper, generous with her time and very good with comments. She attends a high-powered residential workshop with influential writers and editors, and a number of participant writers she already knows. In an effort to score points and big-note themselves, a number of participant writers move into "vicious workshop mode" and also make cutting personal comments. Writer A is unable to write again for 2 years.
Case 3: Writer B is a very good, committed writer with several notable publishing and contest credits against her name. She attends a high-level workshop and presents a story for feedback. After the workshop, Writer C approaches her and accuses her of stealing her idea and work. Luckily, Writer B knows that Writer C is a bit of a problem already, and is able to dismiss her accusations, but has it shaken her confidence a little?
Case 4: Writer D attends a big conference where manuscript critiques are offered for an extra sum of money. At the last conference, she was lucky enough to be allocated to a publisher who liked her novel and asked her to send it in (although it was rejected). This time, Writer D is allocated to another writer who tears her new novel apart, rips it to shreds, spends the whole 20 minutes criticising every inch of it and offers no helpful suggestions or encouragement at all. Writer D takes her novel home, throws it in the bottom drawer and can't look at it again for more than two years.
Case 5: Writer E attends a workshop that he loves, due to the unflagging support of the others in the group. Each month he reads out his writing, as do the others, they all congratulate and praise each other and feel wonderful about their stories and novels. Hardly anyone in the group is published. Writer E decides to attend a writing class and learn more about getting published. He finds his writing receives a great deal of feedback, mostly critical, none of which he wants or enjoys, and he spends each week arguing with the teacher over minor issues. He leaves the class at the end of the year, disappointed and disheartened, until he attends his group again.
OK, what point am I trying to make here? That writing groups and workshops suck? No, definitely not. But you have to decide what you're there for, what you want from the workshop, and how to sort out the helpful, useful comments from the personal agenda stuff. Everyone in a workshop has a personal agenda. Often it's "please love my writing because I really need help with my confidence in what I'm doing". Workshops are not about building confidence. I think the higher the level of critiquing you are expecting, the less shoulder-patting encouragement you will get.
You should be presenting writing that you've done your absolute best with, but there is something not working in it and you need help to find out what it is and how to fix it. A good workshop will do that for you. It won't tell you the piece is wonderful when it's not.
And workshops work best when everyone contributes. A member who arrives and has not bothered to read anyone else's work or make comments, and makes the excuse that they've been too busy ... would you want to spend precious time and energy on their piece? Me neither.
Enough of that. Reading? "Princess Academy" by Shannon Hale, which was a Newbery Honor book this year. Very enjoyable, a fantasy kind of setting (small mountain village where the girls all have to go to a princess training academy for a year as the prince is supposed to choose one of them to marry) and the action towards the end didn't hold back. Interesting to see that the bandits were very real and nasty, and the threat felt real - I won't spoil the ending if you haven't read it, but I thought it might have toed the PC line and been "nicer" at that point. Thank goodness it didn't and the author wrote it as it needed to be.
I've also just started "Between the Lines" which is a writing book about the more subtle aspects of fiction writing. I like the quote at the beginning from Thomas E. Kennedy - "There's no doubt that teaching is the best way to learn because it forces you to test your assumptions and see if they're really true."
And this one from John Gardner: "Though the literary dabbler may write a fine story now and then, the true writer is one for whom technique has become, as it is for the concert pianist, second nature."
Monday, July 03, 2006
As always, where does this leave authors? Regardless of where you stand on issues of copyright, when it comes to the new technologies they are talking about, publishing stuff on your website will become obsolete as a way to attract new "readers". You may need IT help to make your material attractive to the new breed of readers who want all the bells and whistles they will be able to get in the marketplace.
The speaker at the CBC conference advised authors to make sure their publishers were going to be capable of handling the new stuff - the briefings in the UK indicate that some publishers, at least, are not sitting on their hands about it.
No doubt some writers will be able to keep up. I'm keen to learn but the time to put it into practice is the issue. I have enough trouble making sure I contribute to this blog regularly. My website suffers sometimes.
On the other hand, I've been ruminating (makes me sound like a cow, that word does) about capturing ideas. I keep telling students to never let an idea get away, to grab it and write it down, even if it's only one sentence. I have reached that stage in my holiday break where the brain has finally stopped zigzagging its way through work chores and deadlines and settled down in creative mode (at last!). On the weekend I wrote two poems about Hong Kong and two 600 word children's stories. The question of "are they any good?" is irrelevant at this point. I am glowing in the "having written" mode, ready to write more. Feeling ideas bubbling, writing them all down, just in case. Who knows where things might lead?
And at this point, even rewriting seems enjoyable. New ideas for how to rework stories bubble up too, adding to the mix. And all the time, I push away the thought that if I didn't have to work for a living, I might be bubbling like this all the time.
Reality check - I actually think it would be similar. I'd have very productive, creative times, and then down times where I just had to keep slogging away and produce words, no matter what. Same as everyone else. Sigh.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Back from Hong Kong and still taking in all the sights and sounds (in retrospect). Between our sessions, I managed two little trips - one up to Victoria Peak in the tram, and the photo above is the view from the lookout. The tram line is so steep that you are jammed against your seat, and the floor has grooves in it so you can stand at an angle! I was lucky to go on a sunny, reasonably clear day. People kept telling us how great the weather was (after 7 weeks of rain) and how clear the haze was. Usually the smog is worse than LA.
The other trip was to Stanley markets on the other side of Hong Kong Island. These markets were much better than the city ones - less crowded and better quality goods. Also there was a lot of clothing, particularly linen jackets and tops, and tons of children's clothes. The bus ride back to Central was all along the beaches, very beautiful with little bays and blue water, and the ever-present high rises dotted along the shoreline.
While we were in HK, we met a number of the members of Women in Publishing, and attended their AGM. The guest speaker was the woman who is in charge of Penguin China, and afterwards I got to talk to lots of writers (not only editors belong to the group). Sue and I bought several of the member's books: 'Sweat and the City', an anthology of poems and stories (I can relate to the sweat bit); 'The Insider's Guide to Shopping in Hong Kong', a very handy title; and 'Thomas Beckham Wang and other stories' which is a collection of short stories for children. This last book I bought on the basis of reading the beginning of one of the stories - 'The boy who could not finish a' by Sam Jam.
There is very little actual publishing going on in Hong Kong. Most of the big publishers bring their books in from the UK or US. Two small presses I heard about were Chameleon Press (whose owner runs paddyfield.com, an online bookstore) and Six Finger Press, although I know there are several others as apparently they have all decided to form a kind of co-operative. Macmillan Asia has a very small line of fiction - Picador Asia - but that is about it, apart from school and text books. Not so encouraging for HK writers but they can always send their manuscripts overseas, lke we do here in Australia.
Now I am home, it's back to the renovations, which means lots of painting, and two library sessions with kids today at Werribee. I'll get to wear my fabulous pirate glasses I bought in Hollywood Road (where else) in Hong Kong.
Friday, June 23, 2006
It's interesting to see what people like to use blogs for - we have looked at a few examples that included A Dress A Day and someone who has a million different blogs on home security systems.
Stay posted for my students' blog addresses!
It has been 5 days so far of books, writing, speaking, getting people started on their novels and picture books and short stories. Meeting Hong Kong's Women in Publishing group and the Society of Children's Book Writers, talking to publishers and authors and checking out bookshops.
No time to read except last thing before sleep,and then only for a few minutes. Night after night of midnight bedtimes, crawling out of bed to go to the next class, fitting in sightseeing whenever we can, eating lots of Chinese food (but not beef gristle or beef stomach or ox intestines) and drinking beer. It is way too hot for me to contemplate wine. But gin and tonic is OK.
So many people here, thousands of red taxis whose drivers would do well in a Grand Prix. First time I have been in taxis where the driver controls the rear doors, letting you in and out. In the mini-buses there is a digital sign up the front that tells you how fast the bus is going. I'm not sure what you're supposed to do if he's exceeding the speed limit.
Have mastered the public transport system, using an Octopus card that you swipe over the card reader each time you travel on a train, tram, bus or ferry. The morning ferry ride across the harbour is a wonderfully calming way to start the day.
The down side is the heat and humidity. Both of my cameras have stopped working properly and I had to buy a new digital camera, but the lens keeps fogging up as I move from air conditioning to outside. My mobile phone is also having hissy fits, and my watch strap broke - but I have kind of fixed both of them for now.
The street markets are full of fascinating cheap stuff and a few bargains. And the number of designer clothes shops and branches of Tiffanys, Versace, Gucci etc is amazing. Am keeping a diary but almost too much to take in.