Saturday, October 28, 2006

Something Happens to Someone

It's coming up to that time of year when I have three classes worth of writing assignments to mark and give comments on. Around 100,000 words worth of short stories, about 100 poems (which can take as long as stories to comment on), and probably 30-40,000 words of children's chapter books.
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 Whole Research Thing

Recently there was an article in the weekend newspaper about Kate Grenville and her novel "The Secret River" - apparently she has upset some historians by claiming her book is a new kind of history. One comment focused on how Grenville used a small anecdote from Governor Phillips' diary and transposed it 25 years ahead to give it to her main character.
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

Rebus and Rankin

If you like Ian Rankin's Rebus crime novels, try this site:
http://www.publishingnews.co.uk/bookbeat/orion/rebus/exclusive.asp?#
(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

Horses for Courses

I've been trying to read a Martha Grimes novel, "The Blue Last". It's not doing it for me. Slow. A thousand seemingly irrelevant sub-plots (no doubt she'll weave them in sooner or later but I skipped a whole chapter to avoid one sub-plot I thought was stupid and pointless). A main character who seems to be the world's most dithering, inactive policeman, and whose idea of investigation is to put his friend, Lord Something-or-other, on the property (undercover) as a forelock-tugging gardener.
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

RSI never went away...

Another day of procrastination on the rewriting. Instead I did my tax. I must be getting desperate.
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

Floods of Words

I think I'm having a mental revolt against rewriting. I have at least two things I need to be looking at seriously right now and rewriting, and I can't bear to go near them. Not that the rewrites are necessarily that difficult (especially when you have comments to help you along) but I just feel like I have spent nearly all of this year on rewrites. So I keep launching off into new stuff.
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:
www.staff.vu.edu.au/profwriting
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

What is Good/Bad Writing?

In 2002 I went to a summer school at California State Uni at Fresno. It was two weeks devoted to children's writing, with tutors such as Janet Wong, Bruce Coville and Pam Munoz Ryan, among others. A fabulous two weeks, during which I learned much and was inspired to later write my first verse novel for children.
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

Celebrity Picture Books

First Madonna, now Kylie. And this latest from Publishers Weekly (4/10/06):

'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

Spring in the Australian Bush




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.

When Your Voice Changes

Voice in fiction is a strange thing, almost nebulous. You hear editors say, 'I'm looking for a strong voice,' but they can't define exactly what it is. I've tried to define it in an article I wrote - needless to say the article is still in draft form because I'm not happy with what I came up with.
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.