Thursday, August 31, 2006

Technology Tussles

It seems there is always something new to learn when dealing with computers. First I was introduced to Photostory which is a Microsoft thingy that is the next step up from Powerpoint. In fact, you could use it for a PP presentation and never have to say a word because it allows you to record a voice-over. Next will be a course on how to facilitate (jargon word - don't you love them?) online learning. In other words, how to create courses that people can study via the internet that won't bore them to tears and will give them what they want.
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 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


Five launches in seven days. Must be some kind of record (outside of conferences and book fairs, of course, where they happen every half hour). It's a record for me anyway. A combination of Children's Book Week and the Melbourne Writers' Festival. Launch 1 last Sunday was "Ebi's Boat" by Claire Saxby (ex-student of mine) and illustrated with beautiful water colours by Anne Spudvilas. A quiet, wistful story with plenty of room to enjoy the pictures and add your own thoughts.
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


My poetry students were keen to learn songwriting. Around 15 years ago I wrote about eight songs for a rock musical - I wrote the lyrics, a composer wrote the music. Neither of us had done it before. He wrote a lot of music for instruments only, especially keyboards and pianos. We muddled along, created some awful songs and then gradually got the hang of it. By the last song, I was pretty happy with the result.
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


I can use anything as a procrastination tool, but not usually blogging. However, I am still tearing my hair out over that short chapter book and instead of working on it this morning, I'm blogging. Sigh...
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

I'm Practicing Titles

Let's do the link first so if I lose the post, it's only a few words.
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

There is nothing more infuriating than creating a post and then losing it, which is what happened yesterday. All because I decided to italicise a word. Lo and behold, the whole post disappeared and would not come back. At least on your computer you have a chance at retrieval sometimes. So now I have to work on the memory cells and try to retrieve at least some of yesterday's post from my brain. Hmmm.
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

I seem to be stuck on reworking short things at the moment, while the two novels I want to revise hover somewhere just out of reach, and the new novel I want to attempt Chapter Two of seems to be over the mountain and far away.
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.