Saturday, February 25, 2006

I've found a great new stress reliever - it's called a mulching machine. After cutting down what seemed like a mountain of bouganvillea plant (complete with giant thorns that snagged me every minute or so) I was able to feed a lot of it into this machine that chewed it up into little bits. Never mind that I now have mulch for my pitiful garden (I'm afraid gardening comes way down the list from writing, teaching and reading), I got rid of my bad mood via a great amount of vicious, thorny plant fed without mercy into a munching machine.
Seems like a great remedy for one too many rejection letters too! although we won't mention that the plant got me back with a huge thorn stuck in my finger which took me three tries to get out. Ouch.
Still working on the novel (historical middle grade) and after two critiques, I've now started on an analysis of my own. Specifically, chapter by chapter, I am working out: 1) what happens in each scene, 2) what the purpose of the scene is, 3) does it move the story forward?, 4) what are the character motivations in the scene, 5) how does this scene fit into the overall story/character arc.
See, ARC is one of those words that I'd never heard of up until about 4 years ago, when a critique person (not an editor or agent) at a SCBWI conference in LA tore the first 40 pages apart and kept rabbitting on about ARC. Character arc, plot arc, 'why don't I get a clear sense of this character's arc from Chapter One? Seeing as how it was the first time I'd heard the term, I couldn't answer (and she, unfortunately, didn't bother to explain it to me - which is why I nearly threw the novel in the bin when I got home, and it took me nearly two years to return to it).
But enough whining. Ultimately she was probably right, she just didn't provide any help or suggestions or directions to make me feel that another few drafts would see me right.
Still, here I am, and it's Draft Nine, and I think I'm finally seeing the light. I sure hope so anyway. I'll get this novel right, any way I can.
In the meantime I have other writing to do. Finished my short story for a competition in the UK and nearly forgot to email it off (got too excited about finally finishing it!). Have written an article - too short and not sure yet how to expand. Was planning a book review but haven't got there yet. Too much mulching going on.
And finally (yaaayyy!) got a copy of Best American Short Stories 2005. Went right to the Joyce Carol Oates story first - really good letters story. It's hard to use that form these days and do it well, but then JCO, well...
Have read 3 other stories so far, and they've all been good. I especially like the bit in the back where the writer says what inspired the story. I never read that until I've read the story first.
I see there is a Kelly Link story - must read that next! Have heard a bit about her.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Being a bit short of spending $$ (the kind that don't have to go towards bills), I've been a regular visitor to my local library lately. And found it very disconcerting to try out a new crime writer, whose book is apparently their fifth, and put it down after less than ten pages because the writing was so bad.
I see problems with tense changes in students' writing all the time. They don't even see half the time when they've done it. Usually they slip from present into simple past and vice versa. Now when I see this in a published novel - and there was no way it was any kind of style thing or neat device - I cringe. A lot. It was so awful in this novel that I kept wincing, and wincing doesn't encourage me to keep reading.
Forty winces later, I chucked it. In case you're interested, the book was "Broken Bodies" by Sally Emerson. Maybe someone out there who has read it can tell me what was going on. It just looked very sloppy to me, or at the very least, a style thing that did not work.
Only writing this week was the rewrite of my friend's fantasy novel - one scene that I cut from about 8 pages down to 4, just like she did for mine. The first thing she said was that I had taken out a lot of her description and she was right. I had felt that the problem with the scene was it was too long and the tension was not maintained, nor did I feel inside the viewpoint character's head and emotions. It was too distant. Again, just what she'd said about mine!! A very interesting exercise to do, and to see the outcome when someone else does it on your work.
Classes start on Monday. Prep continues.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

From 78,000 words to 2,000 max. From a full novel to a short story. A nice, challenging change of pace. It's always a shock to come back to half a short story started two months ago and suddenly see that it is really, really bad. 1100 words written and maybe two lines of dialogue in the whole thing - a ton of telling and no showing, no action ... OK, plenty of character but again, mostly told. Well, at least I can recognise it now when I see it. And I didn't want to slit my wrists. In fact I saw right away how to fix it. That's a step forward!
After several hours of fixing and adding more story, now I have no ending. So I'll leave it to vegetate again and see what grows or dies in the time-out. Yes, a mixed metaphor. I can see them too. Sigh.
For a complete (sort of) change of pace, this week I read the new Dean Koontz. Now I know why I haven't read him for at least 15 years. My reading has moved on. I still love crime novels (didn't he used to write horror?) but they have to be great crime novels that are involving, entertaining and have strong characters. DK goes to the bottom of my list, even from the library.
I've gone back to a collection of short stories from Andre Dubus III (he of House of Sand and Fog). I must have read 60 short stories or more over the past few weeks, trying to find good ones for my class reader. Then I realised I only needed 10 for them to study, and that made it easier. I finally found the Alice Munro story I wanted and included it.
Classes start in one week. Arrgghhh! I'm not ready. So this week very little writing will get done as I madly create three weeks worth of class prep.
A writer friend and I are doing an experiment that we've talked about for ages - we are taking 4-6 pages of each other's novel and rewriting it the way we would write it if it was our work. The kind of thing everyone says you must not do if you are in a workshop - never, never rewrite people's stuff for them! But she did some for me first and it was such an eye-opener! Of course, the voice changed and she cut it by about 60%, but there was lots for me to think about. Now I am about to do it for her (after telling her that her scene felt too slow - out with with hatchet).
Half of last week was spent on sending out manuscripts and creating good cover and query letters. That is an art in itself, I think. And sending out feels like fishing, always hoping for the right fish, nice weather and not too many waves.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

From 'The Book Thief' I launched back into crime fiction with the new Val McDermid. She is usually a bit gory, with interesting characters (such as Tony Hill, the odd psychologist from 'Wire in the Blood') but this one 'The Grave Tattoo' is very tame. It's about William Wordsworth (yes, the poet) and his connection to Fletcher Christian from the mutiny on the Bounty. Of course, murders do eventually start happening, but not until halfway through the book, and the main character is a bit ordinary.
This books also treads the same ground that 'The da Vinci Code' and the latest Kathy Reichs books do - where the author takes a religious (or in McDermid's case) a literary/historical mystery and uses it as the basis for the story and why people keep getting murdered. McDermid includes the transcript of what really happened on the Bounty and afterwards (supposedly as told to Wordsworth by Christian) and thus plays with creating 'new history'.
I think I must be one of the few readers in the world who find it really irritating not knowing where facts end and the author's fiction begins. I end up assuming that the whole thing is fiction, yet McDermid includes a bibliography at the back. Does this mean she researched it enough to 'fake it'? I can only assume so.
Maybe the fact that I have been writing a historical novel for 8 years and have taken great care in trying to get my details correct makes me biased. And what is true anyway? The outcry over James Frey has been interesting. Are people upset because he lied in his book? Or because he lied about it being true? There is a line there between those two things, however faint.
I continue on with short story reading for class. Trying without success to track down an Alice Munro story where the main character stops during a long road trip and climbs the fence for a swim in a closed public swimming pool. I figure if I remember the story after 3-4 years, it must have been a good one.
No writing this week much. Life has been consumed by totally ridiculous council regulations and how to comply without busting a boiler.
Jane Yolen's journal has been so sad lately. Her husband has a recurrence of cancer and she writes about the daily small battles, while she continues to try and write. Today she said that for the first time, she has no urge to write. This is a woman who has over 300 books published. Her journal is a privilege to read.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

I've finished 'The Book Thief' and I did enjoy the second half more than the first, possibly because I made myself sit down and keep reading, rather than dipping in. OK, I think it would be considered a literary novel, therefore the term 'page turner' should not really apply. Literary novels have other things in them to enjoy. I've mentioned already what I liked and that continued. Other things I liked included the kinds of books she read (and stole) and the way reading those books led to other things. The ending was sad but understandable and credible. Maybe the fact that the ending didn't greatly upset me (unlike the ending of 'Brokeback Mountain'- the movie, which I saw on Monday) showed my lack of involvement and deep engagement with the characters.
It's hard. I wanted to love the book and I couldn't. I liked it, and would still recommend it, but it's not a 5 star book for me. Sorry, Markus.
And I also don't understand why your editor let you have a group of characters 'ejaculate' their dialogue. Although a friend pointed out to me today that JKR uses that word in one of the Harry Potter books. Errggghh. Worse than expostulate, even.
My writing group has started the year with goal setting, as usual. I told everyone they weren't allowed to include anything that had been on their list for 3 years or more. That caused a slight panic! But we all came up with great lists and feel very inspired by each other (or I do, anyway) and I hope I can achieve most of mine.
I always put in some hard ones as a challenge. My first goal is a short story that has to be in by the end of February.
Teaching looms closer, and I am reading lots of short stories in order to select some for my class to study. Have read dozens of flash/sudden fictions and found some gems. Am about to order Best American Short Stories 2005. It's usually a great collection.
I'm also teaching poetry this year to first-years, and trying to control the urge to give them 1000 Billy Collins poems.
One of my publishers, an independent Australian company, has been bought out by Time Warner. A friend who has a children's book with said small publisher has just had a statement to say her book (only published late last year) has had most of the 5000 copies deep discounted to someone/somewhere and she will probably not earn out her advance because of it. No plans to reprint. My book is due out in June and given the nature of publishing, am aware that anything could happen. Fingers crossed.