Thursday, July 27, 2006

There's nothing worse than knowing you have to take another look at a novel and rework it again, and a new, exciting idea launches itself and takes over your brain. I was reading something the other day about writers who pay "ghost" scribes to write some of their novels (I think James Patterson was one) because they have so many great ideas that they can't possibly write them all themselves. And you must never let a good idea get away.
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

Painting continues. And writing continues. That's a good thing. A meeting with the publisher today (actually my editor but she's very cool) and I handed in a major rewrite of a manuscript. Fingers crossed that they won't hate it.
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

Yes, I have changed the template. They do say a change is as good as a holiday, and since my holidays are well and truly over ...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Writing in this household has been, temporarily, put on hold in favour of the dreaded paint brush and paint roller. Kitchen and bathroom renovations are nearly complete, and we are down to the nitty-gritty of it - painting the ceilings and walls. I've been trying to put it off as long as possible, until finally it got too much and I've been attacking it all week. My greatest joy was to finish the kitchen ceiling after 3 weeks of scraping, sanding, sealing and 3 coats. It knackers the neck and shoulders far more than laptop computers ever do! But we now have everything undercoated - and if you think that's slow going, well, yes ... but top coats are smooth sailing in comparison. Kind of like writing that first draft, just keeping at it and at it, ignoring the obvious bits where the paint got a bit streaky (or the language got a bit pompous or a plot hole opened), until finally there it is. Done. Awful, especially if you look it too closely and critically, but now you have something to work with. Fill a few holes, sand back smooth, choose the colour and keep working.
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

Several weeks ago I wrote an article/opinion piece about children's publishing, which will never appear in its present form, as I was given to a bout of whinging at the time (but it made me feel better to write it!). Nevertheless, the bells I heard ringing at the CBC conference in May, about the advances of technology and the need for us to consider new ways of presenting content (i.e. our stories), are ringing louder. In the email newsletter I get from Publisher's News weekly in the UK, apparently publishers there have been running briefing sessions for agents on how they (publishers) see the digital future evolving, and how they plan to explore and exploit new technologies in the way they publish books.
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.