Friday, January 27, 2006

'The Book Thief'. Hmmmm. I think I am about halfway on it. I love the narrator (Death), I love the little device (headings and 'pronouncements'), I like the flow, the setting ... but I don't feel close to or intensely interested in any of the characters, not even the book thief herself. So I read a little more every night, but it has not been one of those books that I couldn't put down. But I would still recommend it because it is really well-written and I think my response is subjective. More comments when I finish it (and it's a large book).
In the meantime I am still reading writing books for my classes this year. At the moment it's the one on short story writing by Damon Knight. Lots of good advice. I have about 6 to go, but there aren't many that focus just on short fiction.
No writing. I am resting and becoming good friends with my new air conditioner (because it's very hot here at the moment) and hoping the bush fires get put out really soon.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Finished. For now. Like any book, as soon as I think I am finished rewriting, I start to worry about what I've missed and should I go through it again and maybe I should apply that bit of advice I've just read in a writing book and probably it's not working at all and ... really, I've done all I can at this point and have to leave it for a while.
I am lucky to have two people I can swap manuscripts with for feedback - two people who are different but whose opinions I respect - so I will wait until they tell me what they think. And by then I will have been away from it for long enough to see it with a fresher eye.
Instead I will write some poems, rework another story, try to finish two different short stories that have been sitting for a month or two, and think more about my goals for this year.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The rewriting continues - although I'm not sure I can call it rewriting as mostly I am deepening the research for historical authenticity. I use the authenticity word to mean "creating the world" rather than implying I'm going to be historically accurate. I am trying to get the details correct but I'm sure there will be small mistakes, and of course because many of my characters are fictional, they dictate the story so the timeline won't be exactly right either.
It's interesting, after all this time and with all the books and photocopied materials and website printouts I have gathered, to see what some people put on their websites and how much is just plain wrong! I found a website the other day that eventually I decided was mostly fiction - it was a site for a role-playing game but the person had put enough information there to make me wonder whether it was ALL fabricated or perhaps some of it was true. I've found that the most "trustworthy" sites are those from state governments and universities where they are using genuine sources and quoting them.
After a couple of false starts (lack of concentration) I am finally reading "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak. The narrator is Death - thankfully he has a sense of humour - and it has little heading-and-comment things inserted. An interesting device. The characters are gradually becoming more substantial but I need to read another 50 pages before I can work out if I like it or not.
The Stein book continues to be useful. I read a few pages at a time and then think about my novel. Keep having to find bits of paper to write myself notes (such as - make this clearer, check that, work on this minor character more).
Enough blogging - time to write/rewrite/edit.

Monday, January 16, 2006

I'm reading a book about writing - one of many around, but sometimes you just need a bit of outside input, one way or another. It would be great to have an experienced mentor, someone to read my stuff and say exactly what's wrong with it and how to fix it, but that's unrealistic so ... it's up to me.
The book in question is by Sol Stein - Stein on Writing. As a long-time editor, he has some good things to say, and what is useful is to read a book like this while reworking a draft. Not because it's a recipe, but because suddenly a lot of what he says becomes relevant to what I'm trying to do with the draft. Strengthen it. Deepen the characters and motivations. See where the holes are. So I keep a piece of paper handy and every time an alarm bell rings, I write down what occurs to me.
Example: he makes a point about motivation and gives an example. One of my characters jumps up and I think about what he's doing and why, and realise that I haven't really explored and shown that well enough. So I make a note.
Found a good website - - which has been helpful with finding out when a word was first in common usage (or recorded in a newspaper or book, etc). Can't beat the OED but as that is at the library, it's handy to have a quick check via the internet. Anything doubtful is still followed up in the OED though. One example is "troublemaker" - not an 18th century word, I have discovered. At that point, the challenge is to find a suitable replacement.
Another problem word was "toff" - not used until after 1800 so the best substitute was "nob", and it fitted the moment very well!
Took the opportunity to start goal setting today, something that becomes more and more useful each year, as long as I'm realistic about goals and keep focused. It's like a personal deadline or incentive. As a friend of mine said, you don't set goals such as "get my novel published" because to a great extent you don't have a lot of control over that. You set a goal along the lines of "research the appropriate publishers and send my novel out and don't give up". I've known a couple of people who worked on the principle of never letting a poem or story stay in the house more than 24 hours - get it out there again. Novels are a little different, but the perseverance principle is the same.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Three solid hours on Monday and the close edit is finished. I ended up taking out a chunk near the end. I had a feeling I would - I had added two more characters towards the final scenes of the story and they'd "got away" on me, trying to add their own story (about cocoa beans, believe it or not). So they got chopped back to walk-on parts again. And may eventually be reduced even further.
I was worried about the last 2 chapters, whether I'd given them enough emotional resonance, but they seemed OK. Not too fast (I often hurry the ending and have to watch myself!) and time to link back to earlier stuff without being too obvious. Well, that's how it feels to me, but other readers are a whole new ball game.
I am still dismayed by the middle grade novel I had rewritten 5 times and the responses I received, when I thought I had solved the problems. The author's perennial problem - how to "see" what you have written through a new reader's eyes.
This always leads me back to the value of a solid outline before I start - I resist doing them but time and time again, when a novel isn't working, it's because I haven't worked out what the story is about before I start.
This is not just plot - this is character arc/journey/need ... whatever names you want to give these things. I just call it the "thing that drives the main character through the story" and it still doesn't really capture what I mean. But other writers will know!
My next step is to read through all my research materials again, some of which I haven't looked at for over two years, and add some more historical detail to the story. Not a lot, but what Michael Connelly calls "the telling details" - the ones that bring the setting alive without going on too much.
And I have to check words for authentic usage - via the Greater Oxford Dictionary. I'm pretty sure nincompoop is early 18th century!

Monday, January 09, 2006

There are so many well-known blogs these days (Miss Snark and other agents, political blogs, ones that make the news) - then I read in the news that there are so many million blogs on the net now, people everywhere publishing stuff about themselves and their lives. So it always comes as a bit of a shock when someone emails me or says they've read my blog!
After a while, with no comments forthcoming, I tend to think of this blog as a journal more than anything, forgetting that it's available to anyone who's interested. Then I wonder how much rubbish I've raved on about, and how boring I am! Oh well... It serves a purpose for me. It's often a reflection on my writing, how things are going, a bit like a sounding board. And it's a reflection on my reading. I'm not in a reading group, I couldn't be bothered doing full-length reviews, but it's good to comment on what I thought worked in a book (or not as the case may be). Again, it's all part of writing.
Editing on the pirate novel continues - it's as if I can't stop. Sentence by sentence editing, and always thinking about the main character. Is that scene strong enough? Do I need it at all? How does he react? Have I shown this well enough?
Always reminding myself that action shows, telling doesn't. I'm up to page 102 (I edit single-spaced so I can see more of the text on the screen) with about 23 pages to go, but this last section will be the hardest. I made a lot of changes in this new draft, altering the story more and more as I went along, so it is quite different from the previous draft (which is over a year old). The question is whether I have left any plot threads hanging, one of my weaknesses, and whether I have rushed the ending.
I've just finished reading a book of poetry I was given for Christmas by my sister - "The Art of Walking Upright" - it's by a doctor in New Zealand, Glenn Colquhoun, and I've read another of his collections before and loved it. That one was about being a doctor - this one is about his experiences as a Pakeha in New Zealand and about Maoris he knows and his connections to them. Some great images and he's not afraid to experiment with structure, which creates little surprises in the poems.
Also read most of the latest issue of "Famous Reporter", a literary mag out of Hobart, Tasmania. Lots of good poems.
Now reading Sara Paretsky's "Blacklist" and finding it heavy going. Not enough action? Not sure what the problem is yet but I keep wanting to give up on it.
"The Book Thief" is still sitting there. I think it's next, when I either finish "Blacklist" or give up.
I am strongly resisting any urges to start preparing for this year's classes. As my night class has been cancelled, that means I don't start teaching for another 6 weeks yet, so while I'm reading poems and stories and deciding whether to include any in my readers, I am not preparing class work.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

And while I was away, Miss Snark began her synopsis crits. I caught a few but am looking forward to reading the rest.
If you haven't seen this blog yet, go to
Christmas and New Year - traditionally that time when everything stops, people here go to the beach or on holiday somewhere, spend time with family (or avoid them), and generally laze around. I managed to do nearly all those things. 10 days away in Tasmania (island state of Australia off south coast of Victoria) which included husband's family, a little touring around, a lot of food and wine, and a huge amount of sitting outside on the verandah (patio to you in the US) gazing at the Tamar River.
But all that downtime on the brain gave the cells a real rest and I managed to then spend many hours working on the pirate novel. Mostly fine editing/fine tuning but I had a rethink about the main character's arc and have rewritten little bits here and there that I think strengthen the story more.
I read lots of books - Sue Grafton's new one (S is for Silence), a Kathy Reichs I'd missed, and a historical mg novel called "Powder Monkey" which is set on a Royal Navy frigate in 1800. I was very interested to see how the author handled the historical details, and mostly it was good. In the first 40 pages or so, the main character took a while to grab me but after that it was an enjoyable read.
I also took photocopies of two novels (a few pages from each) and did some analysis, looking at language and rhythm and voice. It all sounds like work, not holiday, doesn't it?! But I had a great time and fitted in the lazing around with the writing very nicely.
Back to work tomorrow - it's called paying the bills. But I hope to keep up the holiday mode writing, giving it lots of headspace.