Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Artist's Life

What a way to end the year. Last night we went along to Hamer Hall to a Tina Arena concert. Those familiar with her would remember her start way back in about 1975 with Young Talent Time. Even then, she had an amazing voice, and you would have thought instant, enduring stardom was on the cards. Not so. The music business chews up and spits out the gifted just like any other business that is about using talent to make money. Like many artists, she has had to work long and hard to "stay around" - she is one of Australia's top-selling singers yet for many people she's definitely not a household name.

The concert was fabulous, and went for over two hours. Her voice is absolutely amazing, and it was great to hear some older songs as well as plenty off her new album (above). I remember in high school that any time we had some kind of talent concert/contest, at least two girls would have a go at a wobbly, out-of-tune version of To Sir, With Love. Tina Arena revives it with her beautiful voice, as with several other classics.

In between songs, she chatted a bit, which was nice, and one of the things she talked about was being at school and singing professionally at the same time. Her mother wouldn't allow her to work in Years 11 and 12, but at the school's last assembly, her friends persuaded her to sing To Sir, With Love - I can imagine what that must have been like! She also talked about teachers who had nurtured and supported her, which made me think about my own high school teachers.

If you haven't heard her sing before, this is a link to a YouTube video of My Heart Will Go On
and another to Sorrento Moon. Anyone in France reading this will be very familiar with her - she is famous there and has released an album in French, although she now lives in London because she said in Paris she can't even go to the supermarket without being recognised. She is now 40 and, she says, has finally got to the point where she doesn't care what anyone thinks anymore. The new album is all her own - she decided what would go on it and how it would sound. She sounded more pleased about that than anything!

Thinking back to seeing her in YTT, and of her career since then, I feel that she epitomises the artist's life, whether it's in music, writing, art, acting, composition - you're in it for the long haul. There's a joke about how overnight success usually takes at least ten years, but it's true. I've been reading recently about writers who achieve success early and how many of them burn out or just fade away. They haven't done the "hard yards" that most people do, being rejected for years but persevering nonetheless, moving one step forward and being shoved back three, developing the thick skin you need to survive things like bad reviews. So here's to perseverance, to finding your place in the writing world and sticking to your dreams, no matter what.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Too Much Information

The trouble with people being on holidays, and not having work or study to consume their brainpower, is that they seem to feel the need to enlighten me on things I have no interest in, or that I actually know more about. Thus I have been lectured on locusts in Australia versus locusts in India and Africa. I have also been lectured on security measures when travelling to the US (by someone who has never been), among other things. No wonder I escape into fiction!

My reading, however, has been slowed down by a stick, specifically a bamboo stick that took it upon itself to poke me in the eye. OK, so I was holding it at the time, but I'm sure it had a mind of its own and decided to "get" me. Maybe someone slipped some paranoia into my drink over Christmas. Needless to say, I didn't let it stop me too much and finished reading one of my presents, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray. It's a YA novel, described as Gothic, but it's historical crossed with magic stuff. I did like it more than Twilight but that's probably because the main character had a bit more "gumption" and there were no vampires in it!

After sticking to one of my goals for 2007 (which was to only work on one project at a time), I've now decided that that is not working well for me - I feel like too many things are left unrevised or incomplete. So for 2008, I'm going to try to manage my writing projects better, and use my writing time more effectively. Sometimes I feel like half an hour is not enough to work on my novel project so I end up doing nothing. Now I'm going to try to use those smaller bites of time to work on poems or picture books. The forms are different enough that I can keep them separate in my mind.

Other goals are still in the mulling stage. There's no point setting a goal like "Get my novel published" as this is out of my control - it's someone else's decision. But I can say "Send my novel out to X publishers" instead. Mostly I think I want to manage my time more effectively. It seems to just dribble away. Having two new subjects to teach in 08 won't make it easy, but becoming more organised is probably the sensible thing to do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Recent Reading Highlights

At this time of the year, I tend to read so much that I go cross-eyed, but I didn't want to end 2007 without commenting on some of the best of the past few weeks. A big cross-section, starting with Louise Rennison's latest, Luuurve is a Many-Trousered Thing. The cover above is the US one - do they think the American readers won't understand Luuurve? But it is a nicer cover than my plain purple one, I must admit. Although Angus looks very benign. Needless to say, this new addition to the Georgia Nicholson diaries made me laugh out loud. Five stars for readers under 14 (and me).

I also loved Val McDermid's new book featuring Tony Hill, and since I've commented on this before, I won't do so again. It's strange, but Sue Grafton's new one, T is for Trespass, had me yawning for the first four chapters, then I got into the swing of it. She has quite determinedly kept Kinsey, her detective, back in the 80s, so no mobile phones or GPS units or anything very technological. Just plain old detective work. When you read a lot of crime fiction, it's a jolt to discard the CSI expectations and move back in time!

While I loved Meg Rosoff's first book, How I Live Now, I thought the second, Just In Case, had such an annoying main character that I almost didn't finish it. With the third, What I Was, I was blown away by the wonderful writing, and the way in which the quiet plot unfolded. Another main character on the outside, but this time he had enough complexity and self-awareness to create an empathy that grew as I read on. Highly recommended.

I've just finished Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. He wrote one of my favourite kid's books, Millions, and I was sorry that so many of the character and story bits that made it stand out for me were lost in the movie. Framed is similar, in that there is a narrator/main character who is totally convincing in his naivety and view of the world. Like the character in Millions, Dylan has his own passions and obsessions even though he is only about eleven, and these very subtly drive most of the story.

Anything disappointing? Well, yes. The Alibi Man by Tami Hoag. I guess I never really warmed to the main character, the mystery seemed a bit flat and predictable, and I'll no doubt study this one again to see what it was that didn't work for me, and try to work out why. On my pile or being read now I have The Writer's Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes (am reading a couple of chapters a day) and the latest issue of Blue Dog, which is one of Australia's best poetry mags right now. I'm also dipping into a collection of short stories by Nancy Kincaid, and the Lonely Planet guide to France. And looking forward to reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - nabbed it in a book sale. Will it live up to its hype?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Get-togethers

Even the birds down at the beach are doing it. The pelicans looked like ministers delivering sermons! There's been the usual talk this year about not saying Merry Christmas because more than half the world is not Christian so it's not appropriate, etc etc. It was good to see this morning's paper showing lots of people from all kinds of backgrounds, getting together and having a tree and decorations and presents, just because, whether you're religious or not, it's great to make time to talk and share and celebrate life in general.

Over on Kristi Holl's new blog, Writer's First Aid, she's been talking about fitting writing into a busy life - how do you manage it when you aren't a full-time writer? How do writers with jobs and kids and family find time to write? I've been reading The Writer's Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes this week, and he devotes several pages to this. What's interesting is the number of writers who say they wrote their first novel by finding half an hour or an hour here and there, and sticking at it until it was finished. When you really want to do something, you'll do it. What was even more interesting was how many of those writers said that now they're writing full-time, they're not getting any more words on the page.

Keyes says, "In addition to having to schedule time effectively, writers with day jobs have access to a rich, ongoing source of material." He also suggests that when you are driven to write and don't have time to squander on too much worrying about what you're writing, you write from the heart, giving it all you've got, and you stop thinking about the censors. By censors, he means all the people who would rather you didn't write, or want you to write something "nice".

It's true that when I'm not working (i.e. on holiday), I probably don't write a huge amount more than when I am. But what happens is my brain frees up for other things, like coming up with new ideas and new ways of tackling revision. It also allows me headspace for revision - because true revision means seeing the work in a new way that includes those brilliant flashes on how to fix or change things and make them better. Sometimes I get frustrated and feel like I'm writing the same old thing, and having several weeks free often means that suddenly I discover new story ideas.

The free time also means I can read with more effect - a strange thing to say, but I mean that if I'm reading writing books, the information sinks in better. If I'm reading fiction, I'm more aware of reading it as a writer. Somehow, even if it's only for two or three weeks, writing full-time makes me feel more like a writer. I'm making the most of it!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Favourite Quotes

In today's Sunday Age, Angela Pippos mentioned that she'd given all of her female friends a fridge magnet that said: Well Behaved Women Don't Make History. Snap. I have that on my fridge already, along with a few other gems. I love quotes that say something to me, even if it's dark or silly, but especially when they make me laugh. So my favourite on the fridge is I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day. Tomorrow is not looking good either. I retyped that one and put it above my desk at work.

A friend has given me Don't annoy me. I'm running out of places to hide the bodies. And my other fun one is If you can't be a good example you'll have to be a terrible warning.
For a couple of years, I've had a quote from Clint Eastwood stuck on the front of my work diary: I tried being reasonable. I didn't like it. And another near my desk from Eudora Welty: I'm often asked if universities stifle writers. I don't think they stifle enough of them.

Another favourite was a car sticker: My only domestic quality is that I live in a house. Someone stole that one off my car! And I still have one in my home office that says: It's always darkest just before it goes totally black.

I have to admit I can see a theme here, and no doubt budding psychologists would have a field day with most people's choice of quotes and homilies. But for 2007, this is what I've had stuck on the front of my diary: Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan "Press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. (Calvin Coolidge)

I haven't decided what will go on my diary for 2008, but I'm on the look-out for something both funny and inspiring. All suggestions gratefully received!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Agent Article

After being a speaker at the Pima Writers' Workshop in May this year, and meeting and listening to two great agents - Emmanuelle Alspaugh and Stephen Barbara - I put together all my notes and information and wrote an article called Tips on Getting an Agent. It's just been published in the AbsoluteWrite newsletter.

Writers' Retreats

Over on my other blog, Bush Notes, I have been posting more photos from the bush at Lancefield, but this beauty doesn't belong there because I saw it in Hong Kong. It was almost as big as my hand and obligingly sat still long enough for me to photograph it. On this particular day, I was in Stanley on my own, wandering around and enjoying some quiet hours.

At this time of the year, the desire for silence and solitude is almost overwhelming for me, especially after such a busy year. I planned three days alone - reading, walking, sleeping, daydreaming, meditating. No writing unless I felt like it. No work. No appointments, not even social ones. Except for a trip to Borders first thing where I bought a wonderful book (more on this in a moment). By 2pm yesterday afternoon, I was fully into my little retreat, relaxed and contemplating a massage at my local Chinese massage place. Then my daughter arrived unexpectedly, with her usual dramas going on, and my retreat disappeared.

However, today I am back on it again, daughter dispatched to the outside world, while I take the phone off the hook and retrieve my reading books, preparing to settle down into the silence again. The book I am reading is called A Writer's Paris by Eric Maisel, and I was immediately taken into it when I read about the art of flânerie - strolling. "The flâneur is an observer who wanders the streets of a great city on a mission to notice with childlike enjoyment the smallest events and the obscurist sights he encounters." He calls flânerie "delicious, dreamy strolling" but he also calls it ambling, which is what I love to do in Hong Kong.

In fact, as a writer, I love to do it in any place that intrigues me. I am planning a personal three-week writer's retreat in France next year, and I intend to spend as much time as possible on strolling/ambling and simply being there. Writing will no doubt happen, but I am beginning to feel that a retreat needs to have a different purpose. I am used to having time off work and cramming in as much writing as possible before deadlines descend. This is not a writing retreat. This is a writing frenzy. A retreat restores the imagination, silences the everyday babble in the brain and allows ideas and dreams to emerge.

I haven't yet formulated any goals for 2008. But if you're a writer and feeling out of touch with your writing, maybe you can put a retreat on your list of goals. It may mean you rent a hotel room on the coast for a weekend, or borrow someone's house in the bush. It may mean you send the family away and you stay home with the phone off the hook. The key to a retreat is solitude, and allowing yourself to indulge in it. I'm planning for my next one already.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Book Reviews as Blood Sport

Somewhere on my desk (don't ask - it's been my goal all year to have a clear desk and tidy office) there is a quote that equates book reviewing to fox hunting and other blood sports. I was reminded of this by some reviews in this weekend's Weekend Australian Review. Glyn Parry used to be a YA writer, a writer who told it as he saw it, warts and all. And got roundly slammed for it by various reviewers and librarians, to the extent that at a Children's Book Council conference he kind of told them all to get stuffed.

So it was no surprise to me to see he'd written his first adult novel, Ocean Road. If you want to write realistic, hard-hitting stuff, you may well turn to adult fiction if the gatekeepers in YA have given you a hard time. However, Parry might well have listened to Garry Disher, who writes adult and children's/YA fiction, who once said that the world of children's/YA publishing was much kinder and supportive, and he preferred it.

In a review of Ocean Road, Richard King has seen fit to make comments such as "The problem with the book is the lack of an interesting voice at its core." This after quite a few nice comments. And "the narrator's internal life seems to be almost non-existent". Somehow, I can't imagine Parry, whose original YA voice got him into such trouble, writing an adult novel that has apparently been deemed dull. I'll have to go and have a look for myself.

In other sections of the Review, Graeme Blundell manages to spend nearly all of his meagre eight column inches rabbiting on about a series of male crime writers' new books, and gives Sue Grafton 16 words. Hello, GB, try having a look on the latest crime writers' display of books in any bookstore and it'll be at least 50/50 male/female. Wake up, lad. I read Val McDermid's latest while in HK (I love Tony Hill - how could you not when VM finally starts to give us some wonderful, intriguing backstory), Grafton's T for Trespass was good but not brilliant, while Tess Gerritsen never gets a mention. Shame!

But the Review did give us a piece on Kathryn Fox, Australia's latest answer (so they say) to Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs. Fox talks about starting her first novel and taking herself off to writers' workshops (presumably to find out more about writing???) where she was "amazed at the outright amateurishness of many would-be novelists, their lack of appreciation of the industry's fundamental conventions." Sorry, Ms Fox, but I take issue with your scorn. Everyone has to start somewhere, just like you, and it's not as if the publishing industry puts out a guide for amateurs.

In fact, the course I teach in takes pride in educating new writers into how the industry works, how to be professional, how to rewrite, take editorial advice, workshop, edit, negotiate, etc. It's part of the learning curve. Expecting beginner writers to understand how it all works from Day One is like expecting aspiring professional tennis players to understand what it's like to play at Wimbledon. You have to learn as you go, work your way up to it, take on board every bit of help and guidance you can as you go along.

The writers that make me cringe are the ones who have been around for a long time and refuse to understand it's a business. They are pining to be discovered, and blame everyone else for the fact that they are not published and famous. Ms Fox may well have come across some of these in her own quest to write and be published. Get used to it! It happens in every industry, and most particularly in the arts. Don't disparage other people's dreams. Get on with your own.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Writing Over Christmas

In a discussion loop I'm in, the topic this week is writing over the holiday break (Christmas-New Year). I was surprised at how many people seemed to be locked into writing in order to meet deadlines, or editing to meet deadlines. Why? The editors are unlikely to be in their offices, waiting with bated breath for said manuscripts to turn up. And this time of year, most people are in a state of chaos in their everyday lives, trying to fulfill family obligations, deal with kids off school, buying gifts, cooking etc. Who needs to be writing/editing? Who could guarantee to do a great job of it?

I wonder all of these things because I have no deadline, other than some I set for myself. For the first time in many years, we have no plans for Christmas Day (other than maybe finding somewhere to feed us and then do the dishes, i.e. a restaurant). There are places we could go, places we have been invited, but we might possibly stay home, take the phone off the hook and veg out. I might write. Read. Sleep.

The urge to write is always there, but I recognise when the brain is out of action. And that's now. Instead, I am reading, planning to watch some movies, walk, relax, maybe get a massage for that troublesome neck problem my poor computer use created. I know the time will come when I'll have to write because I can't not write any longer. Sometimes it's good to just stop pushing the words out and wait for them to want to emerge on their own. In the meantime, I'm thinking about my two current projects - both novels - and allowing myself to ponder over some new ideas for them.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Poetrix Launch

One of the things I do is help to produce a magazine called Poetrix. We publish it twice a year, and have done so for nearly fifteen years. This is a long time in the world of small mags, especially when you consider that we put it together by hand (because the binding would cost us at least an extra $1 per copy). For each issue, we receive and read between 500 and 600 poems, and the editorial group all read everything. Then we have a big meeting where we make final selections.

Earlier this year, the FAW (Fellowship of Australian Writers) asked if we would be interested in reading at Federation Square sometime, so we thought December was a great opportunity to launch Issue 29 of Poetrix. We invited all the contributors who lived in Victoria to be guest readers (and eight of them came along, which was terrific) and several of us read poems by interstate poets.

The venue is quite inspirational, in the Atrium in the area above the BMW Edge theatre. They had a great sound system there that meant outside noise became irrelevant, and people wandered in and out of the space (some even stayed to listen). The photo above is of one of our readers, Helen Cerne, and part of the audience, with the background of the glass walls and ceiling. This triangular web is characteristic of Fed Square, and is also on the walls outside. Thanks to everyone who was involved - it was a very enjoyable afternoon, and ended with an even more enjoyable Western Women Writers' dinner! It's going to be hard to top this with our celebrations for Issue 30.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

What I Learned From Reading Fiction

When I was a teenager, I learned an awful lot of British history from reading Mary Renault, Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Catherine Gaskin. I also learned about shipping dynasties and Cornwall mining from Winston Graham. I started reading fantasy based on the Arthurian story when I discovered Mary Stewart, and who wasn't introduced to dragons via Anne McCaffrey? Of course, my passion for crime writing started early too. I had a teacher at high school who offloaded her old books onto me (thanks forever, Kay) and my early reading included Mickey Spillane, Ed McBain and Raymond Chandler. If you still like reading those books and want more, the Goldfields Library has a great page of "If you like this writer, other writers like this are..."

These days, we are often expected to read nonfiction if we want "reliable" information, yet I know many fiction writers who research their material just as deeply as nonfiction writers do. I commented recently on a book by William Dietrich about Attilla the Hun. While I was away, I read a crime novel by Barry Maitland - Silvermeadow. It told me a huge amount about modern shopping centres or malls, how and why they are constructed (leading to demise of the high street shops) and the theory behind them.

Silvermeadow is a fictional shopping centre that could be any huge centre near you. There is quite a bit of information about the Gruen transfer theory, and the following is from Wikipedia:

In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer refers to the moment when consumers respond to "scripted disorientation" cues in the environment. It is named for Austrian architect Victor Gruen (who disavowed such manipulative techniques) and lately popularized by Douglas Rushkoff.
The consumer's decision-making consciousness subsides and he or she is more likely to make an impulse purchase because of unconscious influences of lighting, ambient sound and music, spatial choices, visual detail, mirrored and polished surfaces, climate control, and the sequence and order of interior storefronts, etc.
The effect is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.

Being a crime novel, of course there is a murder and a body found in the rubbish compactor at the back of the centre, but the information in there about how huge shopping centres are designed to be like little cities, with everything planned to lull people into a sense of wellbeing so that they give in to impulse buying ... well, it sure made me think twice about what I do when I go into one! This is the kind of thing that fiction does so well. By creating characters you care about, you also become interested in the information they discover along the way.

As writers, we have to avoid info dumps and shovelling in huge dollops of the factual material we slaved so hard to discover in order to make our stories "real". But by giving the info through the character, having a character who needs to find out this stuff, it makes the job easier.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Unlikeable Main Characters

This was a question that came up several times during my classes in Hong Kong - even in those I did with school kids. What happens when you create a main character who's not very likeable? Does it matter? Isn't it interesting to the reader to find out why he/she is unlikeable? Wouldn't the fact that the character changes and becomes OK by the end of the story make the reader keep reading?

Mostly, no. There are always exceptions, and the one that everyone tends to quote is the guy in American Psycho. Because lots of people read that book, or said they did. But did they read it to find out what happened to the main character, whether he came good? Or because it was so violent and disgusting that they were waiting for him to get his come-uppance? Some people read it because it was cool to say you had. I've never heard of anyone, even reviewers, who said they liked it, and liked the main character.

Like is probably a misleading word. What we usually talk about is empathy - we feel something for the mc, perhaps pity or some kind of identification, and we grow to care about them. But that usually only happens if the writer gives us something in the first few pages to latch onto. Something hopeful. Something that suggests this character has another side that we might like if we're let into it a bit more. We keep reading because we hope the character will redeem him/herself, show they aren't so bad, show they can change, show that they will come to understand the world and themselves a little more. (OK, my him/her and them is a bit mixed - please ignore it.)

The most common reaction to an unlikeable main character is to stop reading. Who cares if he/she dies? Wins through? Changes on Page 299? If we're up to Page 20 and the character is awful or stupid or apathetic or depressing, we stop. Plenty more books out there.

The villain, of course, is a different animal altogether that I've talked about here before. This issue came up because of a book I've just read. The Watchman by Robert Crais. If you're a Crais fan, you'll know that his detective is Elvis Cole, whose sidekick is Joe Pike. Inscrutable, iron-faced, unfeeling Pike. Now Pike gets a book all of his own, with Cole as the back-up. If you want to read something where the main character is unemotional, cold-blooded, and acts like a machine, and then see how the writer gradually unpeels him, little by little, to reveal his vulnerable side, this is the book for you.

Crais never overdoes it. All the way through, Pike remains the consummate soldier of fortune, able to kill without compunction when required. Yet every so often, we see a little crack of light, and even though most readers probably won't finish the book "liking" Pike, I think they'll understand him better and feel that empathy I mentioned.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

A Writer's Health

Day Two after returning from Hong Kong and I've gone down in a heap. Exhausted. Yet there is a pile of mail to open and respond to, bills to pay (how come they don't stop while you're away?), paperwork to fix, and then there's work tomorrow. Yet the topic of writing and health has come up several times with friends, in different ways.

My friend K has said many good things to me about being overtired, unwell and not eating properly, all of which are sound and excellent reminders. The great thing about HK was eating lots of fresh food and walking miles every day. I have come back feeling physically good, and want to continue. Hence regular drinking of Chinese tea, walking, and buying fresh fruit etc for eating. But the mental tiredness is a big issue. December is a good time to evaluate the year.

I have written around 110,000 new words, rewritten about 50,000, and edited probably another 100,000. For my teaching, both in Melbourne and in HK, I've put in about 100 hours of writing on class materials, manuals and online modules. I've helped to produce two issues of Poetrix magazine, reading around 1000 poems and then proofreading. I can't even begin to calculate how much student writing I've read and graded and given feedback on - probably 80-100,000 words.

Good gracious - no wonder I feel so stuffed!! And no wonder some recent rejections (of various writing kinds, not just manuscripts) have depressed me more than they usually would. A writer has to develop a thick skin to survive, and an ability to say, "OK, how can I make this better?" When you're really deep-down tired, it's much harder to get up off the ground and fight back.

It's also harder to write new words. My friend T, who managed her 50,000 words for NaNo by way of writing 15,000 of them in the last two days, said on her blog that there were times when she was so tired that she was writing absolute nonsense, not even connected with the story. As writers, we tend to think that because we sit all day, we don't need to look after ourselves as well as someone who does labouring work, or who plays top-level sport. That's not true at all. It's the lack of sleep, bad eating habits, coffee/alcohol/ciggies (pick your poison) and lack of exercise that affects our writing more than we realise.

There was an article in the Weekend Australian yesterday about the effect of less sleep on kids - one hour less a night can mean a sixth grader learning at the rate of a fourth grader (just one example). Sleep is vital to writers too - it's where we restore our imagination and creativity, either by dreaming or simply giving our poor brains a rest.
There's a great recipe for better writing - sleep more! I'll be in that.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Memo: Writing Zen

After my day at St Catharine's School (where I talked to over 1000 students, plus did writing stuff with about 300 more), my friend A took me to a nunnery to calm down! Actually it was the garden next to the nunnery, with wonderful rocks and trees and a huge pond with fish and a waterfall. Just the best thing for zoning out for a while.
However, there was one thing that struck me as something to remember as a writer - the gold temple above is called the Temple of Absolute Perfection. Never a state I'm likely to achieve in my writing, so no point stressing about it. We always just write the best story we can, and maybe perfection is over-rated! We finished our visit with a cup of tea in a restaurant behind a waterfall.
This is my memo to myself about concentration and focus. This man paints pictures on bottles and domes - but he is painting on the inside. He uses a long, thin paintbrush and does it very, very carefully. Again, however hard I work on my writing, he puts my level of concentration to shame, but maybe it's something to aspire to.

In the last few days of my Hong Kong trip, I read the latest Louise Rennison/Georgia Nicholson book Luuurve is a many-trousered thing... and, true to form, she made me laugh. All of the books in this series look deceptively simple to write, yet she manages to create the point of view of a self-obsessed teenage girl while being funny and portraying really effectively what it's like. There's not much around in YA that's humorous so I'm not surprised these are so popular with both teens and their mums!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Into China

Rather than venture into Guangzhou (Canton) on my own, I decided to do a tour. This was mainly because our sortie to Dong Men quickly showed me that past Shenzhen's shopping area, hardly anyone spoke English so if I needed to find out how to get somewhere (or even catch a taxi) I'd have no hope. The tour was great - once I got over feeling like a sheep being herded everywhere - and I saw lots of fascinating things, including five of the terracotta warriors, a huge jade ship, one giant panda stuffing her face with bamboo, and a backstreet local market in Guangzhou that was astounding. I have restrained myself from posting my photo of the pile of gutted frogs. Instead here is a nice photo of a cage of snakes. Everything in this market was being sold for eating, and that included snakes, frogs, turtles, eels, scorpions, toads and fish.
While I did get some photos of the giant panda behind a window, this guy was outside eating an apple - lesser panda (red) - and not at all bothered by us lining up along the fence to take photos. In fact, he looked kind of bored.
We also visited a kindergarten to hear a bunch of little kids sing to us, plus the Six Banyans Temple and a memorial to the founder of modern China. Plus a few other things.
Today I had a "time out" day and went to the movies. Quite a few people here had recommended Lust, Caution and said I should see it in its original version as it was likely to be cut for Australia. It was directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) and was wonderful. One of those movies I shall be thinking about for days.
Yesterday I visited the Correctional Services Museum at Stanley. Lest you think I was desperate for entertainment, I actually thought it was the police museum. Instead I got the history of prisons in Hong Kong - very interesting, even if some of the photos made me feel a bit sick. Back to Australia tomorrow. Feels like I've been here for six weeks, not two!
For NaNoWriMo, I think I've managed about 12,000 words. Nowhere near 50, but a lot more than if I'd never bothered to try. I'm now a fair way into a new novel, so we'll see if it's any good or not when I'm back in work mode and feeling less critical and more clear-minded.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hong Kong Diary - more

Like many cities in the world, Hong Kong has its Christmas decorations up, and some of them are truly amazing. This is a centrepiece in a large building in Central, (the photo only shows one part of it) with twirling chandeliers and a massive tree covered in coloured balls and these things all around it. I think they are meant to be poinsettias. In front of the big shopping mall in Causeway Bay, the decorations are purple and silver, with angels and glass domes.
On Friday morning, Sue and I went on a Chinese cultural tour, which began with a one hour tai chi lesson on the harbour front. This is the "experts" group giving us a demonstration - note the backdrop that was our view as we scooped and swayed and stepped. The tai chi master leading the session had a Madonna mike on his head and kept us all moving (not necessarily in time, mind you) - it was fun and invigorating. And amazing to be doing it while looking across at all those skyscrapers. City views here are terrific, even better at night with the light shows. A lot of the buildings have neon Christmas pictures and images on their fronts. We also learned about feng shui, and drank lots of tea in a tea house (I have now got a nice store of lovely teas to take home, including lychee and rosebud tea).

On Thursday we ventured across the water to Macau. A one-hour ferry trip and you're in another country. Well, still part of China really, but we still had to do the immigration thing at each end. Nothing more painful than standing in a queue in front of a group of businessmen off for an "anything goes" weekend, and having to listen to the pontificating.
We arrived too late to see much, unfortunately, and only managed to look around the cathedral ruins just before they shut the gates. The streets were still fairly lively, but apart from the casinos, Macau seems to close down much earlier than Hong Kong. This photo is one of many shops selling the local nougat and shortbready cakes - this woman is actually selling slabs of meat (like jerky?) but we weren't tempted by that. The nougat was another matter.
We ended up at Fernando's, a famous restaurant on the southern island, and I ate drunken steak (drowned, I think, in red wine and a ton of garlic) and Sue ate Portuguese grilled sardines. Macau still has quite a Portuguese influence, especially in the old buildings and food in many of the restaurants. It'd be good to go back in daylight and see all the historical stuff that we missed out on.
The ferry back was "interesting" - whatever ticket you booked, you could go back earlier if there was room, so each ferry sailing had a standby queue. If you missed out you had to run for the next standby queue (and I mean RUN). We used a bit of strategy and went three ferries ahead to get a place! Long day all the same.
Our classes have all finished - I have a day at a school on Monday. Everyone has been great - lots of enthusiastic students, very different from having a class for a whole year. I have done hardly any writing since I've been here (NaNo is pretty much a wipeout for me - I'm trying not to let the failure depress me too much) but I am gathering such good material for poems and stories again that I figure I am still being a writer!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Day in Shenzhen

On Sunday we ventured into China, and went a little further this time, past the Lo Wu shopping centre and on to Dong Men. This is an older area but only by about ten years, I think. It was a very busy shopping centre/streets but here the shops were much better in terms of brands and quality (much of Lo Wu is copies). One huge store sold nothing but shoes and boots. We also found a Starbucks, a McDonalds and a KFC. I have noticed that in the 12 months since we were last in Hong Kong, coffee chains like Pacific Coffee and Starbucks have sprouted everywhere. (Starbucks in Australia note - wireless internet here is FREE.)
I have no idea what this huge bell is all about - something historical, I imagine. The streets were full of people, mostly strolling and looking in shops. Hardly any signs with English so even in the railway station we had to ask for help. Lots of interesting people to watch and listen to. Sue took a photo of a noodle shop that had about thirty people outside, all eating bowls of noodles with their chopsticks.
Lo Wu was less overwhelming this time because we knew what to expect. Hundreds of shops but mostly selling the same things. I was looking for a new wallet but there were only about 6 different kinds (all copies) and when none of them were what I wanted, that was it. No point looking further. I did buy a Tshirt and jewellery, but that was it. Very restrained!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

More Hong Kong

Today, we had our first sessions with the Women in Publishing group here - they're a professional organisation whose members are either editors, publishers or writers (or connected with the industry in some way). We use the Helena May Centre which is a wonderful club with a long history of women's activities in Hong Kong. Today I was looking at a World War I first aid/bandage rolling group. Late this afternoon we went to the Flower Market north of Mong Kok. There are four streets (a whole block) of flower shops, selling every kind of flower you can imagine. There was even a shop selling those plants that catch insects in gourd-shaped flowers (can't think of the name of them) and a few shops selling deep blue roses. The orchids were beautiful - one table full above, but there were many, many more.
This woman on the street corner is shovelling charcoal to cook chestnuts and yams, and was not happy when she saw me taking her photo. The smell of the charcoal was not nice at all!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Letter from Hong Kong 1

I'm back in Hong Kong again for more teaching and training. A busy two weeks ahead, with some R&R planned too. Today I spent the day at Yew Chung International School in Kowloon Tong. Did NOT get the day off to a good start when I got off at Kwung Tong station by mistake. A very kind man directed me to the right station, and I was only five minutes late, but luckily my sessions had been rescheduled so I had time to catch my breath and calm down (I hate being late!)

Hong Kong is the same as always - busy, busy - and the streets are more packed with people at night than during the day, even rush hour. Everyone loves being out and about, and the shops stay open till midnight usually. Although we are staying further towards Central on the Island, we are still in Wanchai and found ourselves yesterday going back to familiar places for photocopying and eating out. But we will venture further afield once things slow down a little.

Sue has lined up a cooking class (she really wants to learn how to make dumplings) and on Friday we plan to try early morning tai chi in the park and learn the art of Chinese teamaking. We are near Lockhart Road which has a large number of bars along it - a lesson in names and titles. Try Devil's Advocate, Old Chinese Hand, Wild Coyote, Typhoon and Agate. Most of them are full of tourists. We think we will avoid the Kangaroo Bar.

I am hoping to write while here - NaNo is hanging over me and my word count has come to a grinding halt. But there's not much I can do about it when I am totally brain dead by the end of the day. Maybe tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Research Sideways

I've just finished reading The Scourge of God by William Deitrich - a historical novel about Attila the Hun. I hadn't read a big historical novel for a while, but I wanted to do some research on that era and thought I'd start with a novel - one that came highly recommended for historical accuracy. At first, there was so much information that I struggled with it, but once I got to know the characters a little, the story started to take off. There are several point-of-view characters but the main one is a Roman called Jonas. As with many historical novels, this person never actually existed, but most of the other characters did. A fictional narrator gives you a bit more leeway with the novel side of the project.

Deitrich did a great job of depicting both the cultures and life of the time, as well as the geography. Jonas begins in Constantinople, and then travels north into what is now probably Romania, then west into France where the huge final battle between Aetius and Attila takes place. His description of that battle, which some estimates put at over half a million soldiers on each side, is terrific, both in the single viewpoint of hand-to-hand combat and the overall fighting of hundreds of thousands. Some say three hundred thousand died in one day.

At the back of the book, there is a chapter on how he researched the story, and how little evidence there was of what really happened. The Huns didn't believe in reading and writing, so there are no written accounts from them. What there is came mostly from Romans. Deitrich talks about how he visited a number of museums and sites, trying to gather as much material as he could, but there isn't even a reliable picture of Attila, just a portrait made many years after his death with no evidence it was created by someone who knew him. Still, the level of detail in the book shows that Deitrich found enough to enrich the book immensely.

We are so used to having everything at our fingertips these days - TV, 24 hour news, internet, research libraries - that to write about a whole race of people who had no interest in recording their 'doings' is a real challenge. Which brings me to my research. I've been struggling for a while with a story, thinking it was fantasy but gradually realising that somewhere in my subconscious I've dragged the story up from a historical base. But what? I didn't do ancient history at school, and while I've read historical fiction over the years, I couldn't figure out why I could 'see' this story but had no idea where it was set. The word barbarians kept coming up, though.

Then I did some research on weapons, and immediately found that the ones I had in mind were used around 400-500AD, which led me to Goths, Vandals, Visigoths and Huns. Aha! I had my era at last, and my location - southern France. Now, this is a very weird way to go about researching a story - write a third of it before you know where and when it's taking place! But that's the way it happens sometimes. As for reading novels as a form of research - I can highly recommend it. You gain a 'feel' for the place and time in a way that normal historical reading rarely gives you, and you can then move on into more factual stuff as you need it.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

NaNo Pros and Woes

I wonder how writers around the world are coping with NaNo. Why did the originators choose November? As my friend T says, why wasn't it NaJoWriMo? Except the No actually stands for Novel, so that doesn't pan out. However, it does seem that November is not a good month for Southern Hemisphere writers, due to study/marking/VCE exams/uni exams and anything else you can think of that signals the end of the year approaching (including the dreaded Xmas decorations already up in the shops - and no one has yet produced a plastic tree that comes anywhere near the real thing).

In the US, it's only the almost-end of their first semester. No exams, just that funny celebration called Thanksgiving. My best memory of Thanksgiving is working at the American Club in Sydney (much younger days, thank you) and carrying out massive turkeys on platters, then watching various men with their knives, both electric and manual, hatcheting said turkeys into lumps. Their dads taught them many things, but obviously not how to carve a roast properly.

So I imagine all those US writers beavering away (because of course there are no beavers in Australia), free of student encumbrances. What about the UK? It hasn't snowed there yet. Are they all still drowning their sorrows over their World Cup loss? Or do they not bother with NaNo? Are they instead off to the soccer, I mean, football? Are any writers in Asia or Africa doing NaNo? If you care, check the regions on the site, I guess. I'm just wondering...

And of course trying to excuse the fact that I am sadly behind in my word count. At Day 11, I should have racked up a tidy 18,000 words or so, but I think I'm up to around 8,000. Today, I had oodles of writing time, but I was in the bush (literally) and, having worked out, miraculously (or not so miraculously, if you are one of those people who reads your instruction manuals all the time) how to do ultra-macro photos on my camera. And the first results are up on my Bush Notes blog. What a beautiful day it was. And to top it all, I came across two fox cubs. Do not say the words vermin or extermination, please. Not yet. Let me just marvel at the experience.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Time to Read

A lot of people say to me, "How do you read so many books? I don't have time." As many of these are writing students, I don't have much sympathy because I believe you have to read widely in order to write better. Reading as a writer teaches you lots of small but vital things about writing that you don't really learn any other way. I'm always thinking, Wow, that's a great piece of dialogue - I must give that to my class to read. And sometimes I give them a writing exercise based on it.

How do I read so much? If I'm working at home, I read at the breakfast and lunch table. I read at night instead of watching TV (or as well as - most TV shows don't require 100% concentration!). And I always read for at least half an hour when I go to bed. On the weekends, if I'm not working, I read as relaxation. When we go up to the bush for the day, I spend a lot of time sitting under the trees, reading. I always take at least three books in case I run out. I am a fast reader, I guess, but only through practice.

Being a fast reader means that books I don't like so much get read pretty quickly, but if they really don't appeal, I toss them. Once upon a time, I'd persevere but not any more. Too many other good books out there to read.
I've just finished The Day the Gypsies Came by Linzi Glass. It's set in Johannesburg in the 60s, and has an awful cast of characters, nearly all of whom are very unlikeable. The main character is weak and doesn't act until the end, when it's too late. I struggled to finish this, but in the end I was glad I did for one reason - the relationship between the main character and the Zulu gateman, Buza. It was wonderfully written, and made the ending, despite all the other horrible things that happened, worthwhile.

Monday, November 05, 2007

NaNo vs Research

I decided to sign up for NaNoWriMo, even though I know I won't get anywhere near the 50,000 words. It's an incentive, mainly because two writer friends have also signed up and we are going to compare words. Mind you, one of them has had a head start by going off for a four-day writers' retreat and she'll probably come back with 20,000 words under her belt. But that's not what it's really about for me. It's more that I want to get back into the writing habit. This time of year is the hardest in terms of finding both headspace and motivation for writing. I'm just spending too much of my time reading and commenting on other people' s stuff.

But I have managed around 6,000 words so far (not all of them in NaNo time - I started early), and have come up against a small wall - the one called research. I'm at a point in the novel where I am about to make some things happen to the main character, but I'm not sure of the details of the situation, and I need to know them accurately, so the outcome works (otherwise what follows on will be "wrong"). It's a bit like in a crime novel, where you want someone's arm to be crushed in a certain machine, but if that machine doesn't operate in such a way for that crushing to happen, you can't write the scene. Sorry if I'm being confusing. I'm one of those paranoid writers who can't bear to talk about exactly what they're writing about.

So do I stop and go away and do research? A bit hard right now as it will probably mean interviewing an expert, and I don't have time. I could resort to books - I've already tried the internet and it doesn't have what I need (amazing but true!). I might just have to fudge it and hope that what I guess to be the correct situation is pretty close to accurate. And race off to the library as soon as I can.

My other option is to stop working on this novel and go back to the YA novel I was working on last month. Except I have no idea what happens next in that one either. This really is the biggest problem, I think, for many writers who can't do it full-time. The physical writing is not the issue - I type fast enough to do 1000 words an hour. It's the place inside my head where I plot and experiment and go what if? It's too full of other mush. Patience, I think, patience. NaNo is not a stick, it's a carrot!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Writers and Printers

Where would we be without our printers? Even in this age of the "paperless office" (yeah, right!), and even though quite a few publishers now accept email queries, if not email submissions, we still live and die by our printers. Gone are the days when a dot matrix printer was acceptable - now most people expect laser quality. It's hard to believe how disposable printers are made to be, as if our whole intent now is not only to use more and more paper, but to also have printers that are incredibly cheap and if the drum wears out, it's cheaper to buy a new printer than a new drum. Hello, landfill.

Everyone has their most-loathed manufacturers, both in printers and computers. Many years ago I had a Compaq laptop and the service provided when it broke down was so abominable that I swore I'd never buy anything with Compaq on it again. (Try, for example, being told that the power unit had to be sent to Scotland to be fixed! It'd only take 4-5 months.) And the fact that HP bought Compaq didn't improve things. I and my friends have a long history with HP's inkjet printers that defies all logic.

A printer that will print page numbers only at the top of the page, not the bottom? A printer that ignores all page settings and always gives you 1cm margin at the top? A printer that sucks up extra pages whenever it feels like it? And we all know that the reason printers are so darned cheap these days is because the manufacturers are making billions out of charging us megabucks for the ink refills. And most of the time, the ink hasn't actually run out, it's just down to about 20%, which is "below operating capability".

But a recent purchase by friends really wins first prize for manufacturer sneakiness. They bought a fairly expensive model so they could print photos and things for school projects. As the supplied ink cartridge ran out not long after purchase (because of course you never get a full one with a new printer), they took it up the street and had it professionally refilled. Before they knew it, the computer screen started showing messages warning them that since they hadn't used a manufacturer's cartridge, their warranty was now voided. (Same cartridge, mind you, just new ink.)

You might say, fair enough, because there are people who use ultra-cheap replacements and then claim there's something wrong with the printer. But hang on a minute, even HP produce a slightly cheaper version of their own cartridges. What is so bad about using a different brand of replacement anyway? Aren't we entitled to find a cheaper brand?

However, the final straw has been that now the printer won't print at all. It keeps telling them there is a paper jam, when there isn't. There is nothing wrong with this printer, other than the fact that somehow HP have found a way to make it shut down if you use the "wrong" ink. Bad move, HP. You have finally, irrevocably, joined my list of manufacturers whose products will never grace my office again.

And if all the people who have been badly treated by BigPond ever get together and boycott them, they'll be out of business in a second. We need effective complaining campaigns, we need to make manufacturers get their act together and we need to stop buying plastic crap that doesn't last the distance. OK, I'll get off the soapbox now.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nearly Cross-eyed

This week is marking week (or grading, if that's what you call it). Giving students a number or a letter for their writing is always a tricky business - after all, I'm not a publisher, so how will my HD or Credit or 15/20 really have any bearing on what a publisher might accept? But it does, somehow. As a professional writing teacher, part of what I am supposed to know is the elements of good writing. I would hope also that I recognise great writing when I read it. The one thing I try not to be is subjective. Therefore, although a horde of really bad vampire novels from students a few years ago completely turned me off the genre, if a current student wants to write a vampire novel, I'll give it my best as a teacher in terms of comments and constructive critiquing. I must say, though, that anyone who still doesn't know how to use commas and fullstops after two years drives me nuts!

One of my favourite quotes is "All the colleges in the world cannot turn a bad writer into a good one. But good teaching can teach you how not to write." Alistair Cooke. I've seen quite a few students over the years who have started out as fairly ordinary writers, but worked hard and eventually found their own voice and style, and then surged ahead in terms of producing very good writing. I've also seen students who have talent and can write terrific pieces, but don't have the persistence and stamina to complete a whole novel, or even rewrite a short story to a publishable standard.

It's as if they thought it would happen like magic - that they'd come into the course, write a few gems that would gain instant acclaim, and then a novel would appear. Without having to actually sit down for hours and days and weeks and write the darned thing, of course, or (heaven forbid) rewrite it several or a dozen times. I've also seen one or two talented poets who have written some great poems that everyone has raved about, they've had a couple published in magazines, and then decided they don't need to rewrite anymore, or even take much notice of comments. And their poetry has started to die on the page and become messy or unfocused.

After a whole year of working with three classes (an average of 40-50 students usually), it's interesting to sit back at the end and think about each student and where they might be heading and what they'll do next. There are some who never surprise me - a couple of years later I meet up with them and they're often doing some job like shop assistant or takeaway cook. Nothing wrong with that, but they're not writing either.

So it's this time of year also where I ask them - how are you going to keep writing after you graduate? Who is going to make you write? No one. No one except you. If you want to be a writer or a poet, now you have to set your own goals and deadlines, practise your craft, read widely, and continue to feed your inner writer with words and images and writing. Self-discipline and perserverance are the hardest skills to acquire and, in the long run, may well be the most valuable. Your writing will continue to improve, forever and ever, if you feed it regularly and write on a regular basis.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


On one of my Yahoo group lists, there are posts at the moment discussing what you can do about awful reviews, apart from jump off a cliff. Some people have suggested extracting one sentence (the most positive one, even if you have to take it out of context) and using it on your website. As in "While the beginning of this novel was heart-stopping, the rest of it put me into a coma" - you take out the "this novel was heart-stopping" and discard the rest.

Another tactic was to make the reviewer a character in your next book and kill him/her off. It's easy to understand why famous writers who get dozens of reviews simply stop reading them. It can become a form of self-torture. Reviewers have all sorts of agendas, hidden and open. Sometimes an editor will select a reviewer because they are known to have differing views on a topic (especially any kind of political book). It might be that in the past, the reviewer has been slighted or insulted in some way by the author, so it's revenge time.

The hardest thing is not to respond. Occasionally people do, especially when a review is patently unfair or biased, or just plain wrong in its assertions. But I've been in the position of being reviewed by someone I'd got on the wrong side of in the past, and when I saw that person's name on the review, my heart plummeted. With good reason. Friends commiserated with me, but to complain would have made me look petty. You have to take it on the chin, and move on.

In this morning's newspapers, there are two reviews of Alice Sebold's new novel The Almost Moon. You would think the reviewers had read two different books. One reviewer called it the worst second novel she'd ever read. She also said "this story is one hell of a sorry mess". Ouch! The other reviewer liked it. She didn't rave over it (so reading between the lines, you could think maybe it wasn't as good as she'd hoped) but she did say "a powerful study in the sadder, madder forms of love". After The Lovely Bones, I imagine any novel Sebold published next was going to suffer in comparison. Let's hope she ignores the reviews - by now she's probably half-way through her next novel, and just as well.

Friday, October 26, 2007


One reason I like competitions is because they have deadlines. Every year, the Age Short Story Competition acts like a carrot for me. Can I write a new story before the closing date? Often it happens simply because I've been thinking about it and the urge gets too much. With poems, I'm writing them on a fairly regular basis but sending them out doesn't happen often enough, so when the MUP competition closing date loomed, it was the impetus to look at what I'd written recently and send it off.

I often talk to students about competitions because they ask questions like, "Why do you have to pay an entry fee?" or "How can you be sure it's genuine?" Good questions. For a reputable competition, the entry fee usually goes towards funding the prize money and paying the judge. (Any competition with a goodly number of entries to read that doesn't pay the judge isn't playing fair.) But you will see some competitions where the first prize is $100 or $200, and the entry fee is $10. Whoa! Someone is making a nice profit. Those are the ones I tell students to avoid - and $10 is a lot for a student anyway.

Some competitions aren't competitions. The International Library of Poetry is one (there are several like this, including one that targets schoolkids) - they often don't charge an entry fee so they look genuine, and the $1000 first prize - sometimes bigger than this - is enticing. But what they do is publish the "winners" in a book. And everyone is a winner. The catch is you have to pay for the book. It's usually around $70+. It's cheaply printed, they cram as many poems in as possible (hundreds and hundreds) and sell it to the people whose poems are in it.

Now for many poets who haven't been published before, and may not even know of the many poetry magazines around, this is a thrill. They will say they don't mind paying the $70. Some buy more than one copy. But if you take a minute to do the sums, you'll see the problem. These books cost around $5 to print overseas somewhere, and even if only 70% of the people in the book buy one copy, that's a $65 profit per book. Sell 500 copies and you just made $32,500. And trust me, from what I've heard from people who've been caught out, this is a conservative estimate.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hong Kong Prep

Everything is happening at once. I will have tons of marking to do - signalling the end of classes - but at the same time I'm writing course materials for our classes in Hong Kong. I'll be teaching How to Write Picture Books again at the YWCA, plus other sessions on poetry and fiction writing. Then at the Women in Publishing seminars, I'll be talking about websites and marketing, and how to sell your writing internationally. Phew! And spending two whole days at schools, which I'm looking forward to.

My friend T says, "How can you finish a year of teaching in our course and then go off and do two more weeks of it?" But it's different. Short courses are full of energy and enthusiasm. You don't have to plan for 30 weeks, just several hours. You can throw yourself into it and you know that everyone who comes along is truly keen and wants to know every single thing you can tell them. I find in 30 weeks of classes that students struggle, their personal stuff gets in the way, their commitment (in some cases, not all) wanes and they often don't put in 100%. It can get dispiriting as a teacher.

In short courses, everyone does 100% - teachers and students. We all want to make as much great stuff happen in our allotted time as possible. And Hong Kong itself is such an energetic place - people out in the streets, enjoying themselves, eating, talking, walking until after midnight. The lights, the busy-ness, the combination of ancient and modern culture all serve to re-energise us.

This time I am going on a short trip into China (as well as the big shopping trip to Shenzhen!) and also hope to hop on a ferry to Macau for the day. It is such a different place to be, both mentally and physically, that at the end of the school year, it's a total pleasure for us.
Our YWCA classes are here (look for our Write Start! week classes under Language and Communications), and our WiPs sessions are here (our sessions will be up any day under Events). If you're in Hong Kong, come along!
(And the photo is of one of the great skinny trams in Wanchai - complete with Christmas paint!)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It's the End of the School Year

The end for us in Professional Writing & Editing, that is. Almost the end. The one thing that's left is marking. Tons of it. Truckloads of it. And for me, it all has to be done in a week. Usually I try to stagger it over a couple of weeks but I have two Tuesday classes this year, which means Melbourne Cup Day is not an option for final submissions, although it will be a day spent on marking instead of going to the races!

This time of year is hopeless for writing - usually. But it also coincides with NaNoWriMo, which is the thing you sign up for where you write 50,000 words in a month. For writers in the US, it probably works out fine. For me, with end of year marking, it's not good at all. One year I signed up, and used it to finish the last 40,000 words of a draft. I did try to start something new to reach the big 5-0 but the brain died on me.

This year, I am determined to do something! I feel like I have spent months of my life recently doing nothing but rewriting. Nothing new, nothing exciting (because I love the first draft, this is a terrible state to be in). So my friend K, who has signed up for NaNo, is going to work hard on her new novel, and I'm signing up with her (my personal NaNo - K, do I call you NaNNy?) and I'm going to be trying very hard to work on a new novel of my own. I may not get far, but it might just save my sanity while everything else is crowding in.

The other thing that saves my sanity on a constant basis is our bit of bushland about an hour out of Melbourne. I've been taking hundreds of photos over the past few years, and now we have applied for a Trust for Nature covenant. So I've decided to create a kind of photo record of what I see there. It'll be mostly plants, because I don't have a decent zoom on my camera to catch the birds and butterflies well enough. But one day... In the meantime, if you're interested, my first amateur naturalist post is up.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


I have two different novels that I have been or are currently reworking and editing for publishers. In both cases, I've been asked to rewrite the ending. In one, the ending I have at the moment doesn't work at all. Too "nice", when it's a YA novel that is dark and dangerous. I must have given in to the urge, in the early drafts, to make life happy for everyone by the end. In the second novel, which is for a younger audience, the editor has now asked for an "extended" ending. This is tricky, as a drawn-out "and then and then and then" can ruin what might otherwise be a concise resolution that already works.

How do you write a whole new ending? It's not just a matter of chopping off the last chapter and dolloping in a new surprise. It means re-reading the whole manuscript again, with the idea firmly in your mind that you are now heading for a different kind of resolution, so what might it be? The best way is to chop off the bit that has to go, so when you reach that point, all you have are blank pages, ready for the new words. One of my worries was that it's been a while since I wrote this novel so could I find that character's voice again? Another was that I did still want to leave the characters with an open door, a possibility of good things coming again. We'll see how I go with all that.

The other ending to be rewritten is, to me, more problematic. I do tend to agree with this editor that it needs a bit more, for several reasons. I just don't want to end up with an ending that drags out. Again, all I can do is write a draft and see what happens.

Funnily enough, I opened the latest issue of Writer's Digest and there was an article on endings, but it wasn't much use to me. I wondered if it would be much use to anyone really, as it was mainly about someone who was reluctant to write the ending of their novel. Nothing about endings and what they do and don't do. I find students agonise over endings - they're not easy to write, I agree. But in Short Story, where we do get to workshop a whole piece, often it's not the ending that is the problem. It's the build-up or set-up that's at fault. It's an architectural problem, where you have to look at the whole thing in order to see where you went wrong. Was it Hemingway who rewrote the ending to one of his novels 39 times? I believe that, even if it isn't true!

Friday, October 19, 2007

More Bizarre Spam

I'm starting to wonder if someone is trying to tell me something.
My latest spam email was for survival food (I haven't had any for Viagra or bodily enhancements for ages).

Be prepaired when you need it the most,

The Survival Food Store now offers long term storage food for times of emergency. Stock up now and be ready when man made or natural disasters strike.

They're offering me Military-Style MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Is it possible that Bush is pulling US Forces out of Iraq and is getting rid of extras? Mind you, when you're reading a fantastic book and don't want to stop to cook, they could come in handy...

Spam E-cards

Over the past few months, I've noticed a new kind of spam - greeting cards. Known as e-cards. Once upon a time I used to send an e-card occasionally to people I knew liked them - mostly I used Blue Mountain. But now I'm getting e-cards that I know are spam, so I just delete them.

How do I know? Well, the obvious sign is that they never say who they're from. Genuine e-cards say "You have a received a card from Joe Bloggs", and as this Joe is someone you know, you will go take a look. Spam e-cards never say who they're from. And the one I got today is a real giveaway. Can you tell how I knew it wasn't genuine?
You have recieved A Hallmark E-Card

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Poetry Online


The dull bronze creek water shivers
at the mites and evening flies
that dip and carouse in the sudden
stillness before dusk. A magpie peers
imperiously from the bridge rail.
Green finches snap and bicker
in the weeping willow; its trailing
fingers tremble and pollen drifts
like snuff spilt from a box.
High in the ironbark gum, galahs,
dark grey now, squabble and settle
then launch into the deepening sky
like ash blown onto water.
Ripples spread from under the broken tree
lodged tight against the bank.
A plump water rat, wet-sleeked fur
gleaming in the last light, glides out
and over the small dam of branches
and sodden leaves; his long white-streaked
tail rules a line at the end.

This poem of mine was published last year in Divan, an online poetry journal published by Box Hill TAFE. Not so many years ago, journals and magazines (ezines) were considered "not real publishing" by many writers - after all, if you can't hold the magazine in your hand, show it around to friends etc, what was the point? Direct them to a website? No way. But times have changed, and there are many ezines now with terrific reputations, starting with Slate (as a biggie) and covering a broad range of styles and poetry.

There are haiku journals, online versions of print journals, and even journals where you can hear audio of the poets reading. What has turned the tide, I think, is that poets are realising that with a print journal, you've maybe got an audience of a few hundred at most, whereas with online journals, you have a potential audience of thousands. Also anyone can Google your name and find your poems that way.

Divan 7 has accepted three of my poems, and will be launched early in 2008. I've also had two poems accepted by Mascara. I'm very excited about both. And what is even better, for both journals I was able to email my submissions, thus saving on postage and paper. Now all I have to do is buy a special notebook and when my poems are published, I'll print them out in full colour and paste them into it. Because, really, I still like to hold something in my hand.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Working with Editors

This is a touchy subject. You're not allowed/supposed to criticise your editor out loud (or on a blog) because it's bad manners or bad form or plain bad karma. A well-known romance writer did it a couple of months ago and was criticised roundly for it. If she didn't like the way her publisher and editor were treating her, then she should have talked to them, not whined to the whole world (was the general opinion). There have been occasions where a writer doing this has ended up being dumped by their publisher, but I suspect that the public whinge was only the tip of the iceberg.

On Friday, I attended a day for teachers of Professional Writing & Editing in Victoria (well, actually I organised the darned thing too, which is why I have more grey hairs this week). These days are always wonderful, and we always say "Why don't we do it more often?" but it does take a lot to organise because people are teaching or committed to other work things. This time we had teachers from several hundred kilometres away who made the effort to attend, which was terrific.

Our guest speaker was a supervising editor from Lonely Planet (who, if you haven't heard of them, are one of the largest publishers of travel guides in the world, and they happen to have their head office quite close by). She was a great speaker, and talked all about what they look for in editors, what the application process is - it includes a very hard editing test - and how the company works. She also told us how to become a LP author, which sounded very enticing! But the two skills she emphasised for their editors were project management abilities and being able to have a good working relationship with the authors.

Our students are learning excellent project management skills - this year, they are publishing two collections of writing (Lizard magazine and the student anthology) and in my class, ten of them are creating their own book, magazine or website. They've had to work out a production plan and timeline, and they have deadlines that I give them big nudges about, to check they're up to speed. We're having a multi-launch in 3 weeks.

Working with authors is another skill that we work on with them, but are about to do a lot more in this area. There's a tendency to think the author-editor relationship is adversarial - the editor says Do this and the author has to defend herself. In some cases, it can be exactly like that, which is a great pity, because it often leads to a bad book. A too-defensive author can dig his heels in and become extremely difficult, and foster a reputation for it so that editors actively avoid working with him. On the other hand, an overly-pedantic editor can also be detrimental to a book, forcing changes that might adversely affect voice and style, if nothing else.

The same is true of an agent - many agents these days are expected to act as first editors for their clients, but I've heard of one agent who persuaded a client to rewrite, and then the publisher preferred the original version! It's tricky, there's no doubt about it. As authors, we spend hours and days and weeks and months and years on a book, and having someone pull it apart and tell us which bits aren't working can feel like they're ripping out our guts. But the bottom line is - once it leaves the cosy safety of your home and goes on a journey out into the real world of readers, editors and critics, it has to become the best book it can possibly be before it gets glued irrevocably into a glossy cover, ready for sale. If it's not your best, it won't survive. And maybe neither will you (bad reviews make people want to open veins).

Your editor should be your working buddy, the person who is on your side, the person who wants to help you make your book fantastic, and is probably the best person to see its weak spots. It's very likely you won't be able to! So cultivate your editor, work on the relationship from your side as well, and hopefully it will be constructive and inspiring. And if you have an editor you hate? Don't diss them in public. Don't even diss them to friends unless you trust them. Work on that book, and move on.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


One of the most obvious forms of collaboration is the picture book, where one person writes the text and another illustrates it, although the usual situation is that the two don't meet, and the illustrator takes the text and interprets/illustrates with their own ideas. The editor is the go-between. There are famous collaborations in fiction - Nicci French and P.J. Tracy, for example (NF is a husband/wife team and PJT is a mother/daughter team) - where two people work together to write a novel. It's an interesting question. Who does what? Do they take turns writing chapters? Does one create the plot and the other write the words?

My writing group has been working on a novella together. It started as maybe a long short story, is now sitting on around 33,000 words and will probably end up about 50,000 words, the rate we're going. Or more. We originally thought we'd do it as a different way to create a group anthology (the Victorian FAW has a yearly award for writing group anthology), but the characters and story have kind of taken off, and we are having a load of fun.

First step was to come up with a situation that could involve a number of characters, and put them in conflict with each other. We settled on a family funeral (like weddings and Christmas, these occasions bring out the worst in some people). Each of us writes one of the characters, in first person, and there are some other characters who appear in the story too but don't have their own voices.

The best part is the plotting. We sit around the table and throw ideas around about what might happen next. What will X do? Why is Y behaving like that? What will happen when Z finds out the truth about ...? Having plotted out the next few scenes and decided from whose point of view each scene will be shown, we go away and write, then bring back our bits and read them out. Often our characters will throw in something new (that just came out of nowhere in the writing!) which makes everyone else say, "Wow, that's great, that takes it in another direction. Now, how about ..." And we start the next round of plotting.

Some characters are behaving badly and so the feedback might be, "You need to show why he's doing that", or "Your character has been observing - now she needs to act and stir up trouble". We've introduced an unexpected romance, and someone else who thought they were in love is about to realise they were wrong. Other characters are getting desperate, or looking for reconciliation. It's all inspiring and energising, and feeds into our other writing as well.

What will we do with it? Well, we are over the word limit for the award so we'll rethink that, but probably we'll make it into a book and print enough copies so we can all have one each and some for interested friends and family. We're not expecting it to be published commercially - it's going to be too short, for one thing. But mostly we're going to continue having lots of fun!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hollywood, Why Do You Bother?

I've just been to see The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and found it very disappointing. It's one of those movies where they've tried really hard but it hasn't worked. The warning signs were in the first few minutes, where we are shown various things to ensure we know this is an American family in the depths of England (this is not in the book) - the flashing around of iPods and mobile phones was weird, and they're not seen again. The main actor has been to the Daniel Radcliffe School of Acting (show all emotion with wide eyes and slightly open mouth), and he's fourteen. In the book, Will is eleven, and that age is significant.

There are other things I won't go into - suffice to say that the movie felt insubstantial, and tried to make up for it with special effects and scary music. Instead of recreating the feel of ancient England's steady encroachment on the present, the movie seems to try to stay in 2007 and then jump suddenly into sets that look like leftovers from a 1950s horror movie. I remember the books as having depth and real creepy suspense. In the book The Dark is Rising, for example, there is another character called the Walker, who appears as a dirty old tramp. He creates tension for Will right from the beginning. He's not in the movie. I'm now going to go back and read the books again - I'd resisted until I'd seen the movie - and am starting with the first one, Over Sea, Under Stone, which has entirely different characters.

It's strange how a book can affect you so strongly, and then the movie is so shallow. I thought the same about The Bridge to Terabithia, that the fantasy element they introduced wasn't necessary. Maybe there are just some books that will never translate to the screen and evoke the same emotion that you have when you read them. It's something I talk about with writer friends now and then - is it better to have read the book first or seen the movie first? Because I hate knowing the ending, I prefer to read the book because then all the anticipation is still there. If I see the movie later, it doesn't bother me so much to know how it ends if the journey is interesting.

I only re-read books when I've forgotten how they end! Or if I am looking at something in particular, such as dialogue or setting. I rarely watch a movie more than once, unless I've forgotten how that ends too. But I know a couple of people who, once they've read the first few chapters of a book, will read the ending before they continue. Maybe that's why I love poetry - it's not about the ending. And I can read a poem many times and see more things in it each time. My husband says that's why he watches movies several times, because he sees new things. Just as we all like different kinds of books and movies, we also seem to get different experiences from them.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Block and Your Block

Writers talk a lot about writer's block. How you get it, how you get over it, what it means (deep down), whether it's about fear or laziness or trauma, who's had it the longest, which famous writers have suffered from it... but really, for every writer, their block is their own. No one's is ever like anyone else's. If you really want to write, but you can't, it can be hell. You sit at your desk and nothing happens. Mostly, you don't sit at your desk if you can avoid it, because then you really know nothing is happening, whereas if you are busy doing chores or school work or housework, you don't have to admit you're blocked. You're just very busy.

Writers who are gaily writing pages and pages of stuff heap scorn (even if only privately) on writers who say they are suffering writer's block. "Just write anything" is common advice. "Free writing works" is another, because if you're free writing, even if it's awful, you are at least writing. There's a belief among some people that there is no such thing as writer's block. If you are a writer, then you write. If you have a book due on 31 December, then you write. If you have two articles due next week, then you write. Writer's block? Rubbish!

To some extent, this is true. If you are a writer, then you write. Do you hear of plumbers having plumber's block? "No, I'm sorry, Mrs J, I can't fix your toilet today. I have plumber's block. Can't tell you when I'll get over it. You know how it is." My own theory is that it often has to do with confidence. Writer's block is not about not being able to write - after all, you only need to pick up the pen and start scribbling and technically you are writing. Writer's block is about believing you can't write. And that's a whole different issue.

What does can't mean? It may mean "I can't write anything good so I might as well not try." It may mean "Everyone rejects what I write so I may as well give up." Plus some of these: "I never have any original ideas", "My husband/mother/teacher says I'm not a good writer", "I sit down to write and my mind goes blank", "I try to write but only garbage comes out". None of these are actually about writing, they're about what the writer thinks their writing should be.

It should be (pick one or any): brilliant, publishable, approved of by everyone I know, inspired, full of wonderful language, totally original, perfect, prize-winning, exhilarating. The truth is that none of these things occur in a first draft. On rare occasions, you might get close. Those almost-perfect first drafts are a gift to be treasured, but not to be constantly emulated. It's not possible. The more you expect that your writing will be wonderful and perfect and amazing in the first draft, the more you are setting yourself up for disappointment and disillusionment, and yes, probably a case of block at some point.

The one thing I've learned over the years is to keep writing. It's why I often do the writing exercises that I set for my classes. This year, along with my Poetry 2 students, I've written about 100 poems. Many in class, more outside of class because I'm "in the habit". But I have to admit that over the mid-semester break, apart from poems, I did very little writing. And I realised that the reason was I was waiting to start a new novel. I'm not quite ready yet, so I wrote nothing else, despite the fact that I have other projects to work on, or rewriting to do. I just plain avoided it because I was waiting for the perfect moment to begin.

There is no perfect moment, except for right now.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Put Your Eyes Back

On my friend's blog (Speculating about Fiction - link to the right), she has been talking about a few grammar things that bug her, where people use the wrong words without checking their meaning. I've mentioned some here in the past, such as I thought to myself - unless you're writing about someone with telepathic powers, who else would you think to?

But I have recently noticed a physical tag that is absolutely being done to death. It's in everything I read, not just YA, and it's starting to annoy me big-time. It's the eye rolling thing. OK, it can be hard to show emotion, especially sarcasm or exasperation, rather than telling - it's the rule we have hammered into us, over and over. Show, don't tell. But I'm here to tell you - stop the eye rolling!

I've just finished Kathy Reichs' new book Bones to Ashes, and if Tempe Brennan rolls her eyes one more time, they'll pop right out of her head and disappear under the bone table. Next day, I'm reading a feature article in the weekend newspaper and someone starts eye rolling in that too. Is nothing free of the eye rolling phenomena? Is this a new disease that no one told us about? Or have writers everywhere slipped into using it without realising it's about to become a huge, fat, horrible CLICHE?

Friday, October 05, 2007

What They Said

The other night, on the ABC, there was an interview with Yvonne Kenny, who is a famous Australian opera singer. When asked about her early life, especially when she was first starting out trying to be a singer and win roles in operas, she said the family would often ask her when she was going to get a "proper job". It's only now, after many years of being a professional singer, performing all over the world, that she seems to be able to look back on her accomplishments and laugh, and say, "See? I followed my dream."

I've talked to several writers about what drives us to write. Or more usually, what drives us to write for publication. Anyone can write journals or diaries or poems to amuse themselves, but there comes a point where you step over the line and start sending your work out. For many, the first few rejections are enough to stop them. For some, it proves to them that it was "only a silly idea" and they go off and do something else. I often warn students that once they graduate from the course, they are on their own, and that's a hard thing to come to terms with. No more deadlines, no more feedback or workshopping - quite a few now form their own writing groups.

Sometimes writers say they want to be published to be validated in some way, and it's amazing how much of that "validation" is about family - whether it's mother, father, sister, or someone along the way (often a teacher at school) who has poured scorn on the desire or the dream. Getting published is a great way to say "Now you can go and get ***". Sometimes the validation is simply about self-worth, and with publishing being the way it is these days, that's a rocky path to tread.

Lots of new writers that I meet have trouble with the idea that publishing is a business. They point to people like Raymond Carver, who had an editor who helped to shape his early work, or someone like Frank McCourt, who wrote about his terrible childhood and made a million from it. But Carver and McCourt aren't famous because a publisher thought their book was "worthy". They're famous because they wrote something so good that people would pay money to own a copy and read it.

When I was a kid, I was, of course, extremely well-behaved and quiet (not). My mother's favourite saying, when I got too much for her, was, "Stop creating!". (Mother translation: stop carrying on or you'll get a thick ear.) My mother is no longer around to tell me to stop anything, but she was a voracious reader, and a writer of diaries, and I can't help wondering sometimes if she was still alive, what she'd think of me now. Stop creating? Not likely, Mum.