Friday, March 30, 2007

Books about writing

There are really only two places to get books about writing in Melbourne - one is Borders, the other is A few other bookshops like Readings have a small stock but Borders usually has about 8 shelves of them.
However there are new ones coming out all the time. Writer's Digest Books publishes a lot of them, but I've noticed there are more now from small presses. Most books about writing are good, some are very good, and some are the ones you return to again and again. Even though Lee Wyndham's "Writing for Children and Teenagers" has been around for years (and has been through three editions), it is still a staple on my shelf. Her twelve points for plotting is a simple blueprint that is great as a starter or as a check when your story is not quite working.
Others on my shelf that I use often are "The Art and Craft of Poetry" by Michael Bujega, "Scene and Structure" by Jack Bickham, "Write From Life" by Meg Files, and "Solutions for Novelists" by Sol Stein.
One of my all-time favourites, though, is "Write Away" by Elizabeth George. Why? Because after reading this, in particular her chapter on plotting, I was able to come up with a method of my own to help me plot effectively at last.
What more could you ask?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Writing Time

The perennial problem of writing time has come up again this week, not just for me but for several writers I know. Most writers have to work at some kind of job to pay the bills and keep a roof over their heads. The average yearly income for a writer in Australia is around $6000 (I imagine that's for writers who file tax returns as writers - it wouldn't include those the Tax Office consider to be hobbyists). $6000 would barely pay the rent on a small apartment. So we work at "real" jobs, ones our families acknowledge because we get money for them each week.
Therein lies part of the problem. Families (including spouses, children and parents) usually consider writing to be either a waste of time, a nice little hobby, or something annoying that takes the person away from what they should be doing - looking after everyone else. Women suffer this more than men (and you can argue with me about that until the cows come home, if you want, but it's true).
How do you carve out writing time in a day that is probably filled with work, cooking dinner, cleaning up, paying bills, organising things to be fixed, quality time with family, relaxation ... you can add your own time-consumers. I've read lots of those articles where famous writers talk about writing their first novel by getting up an hour earlier, or writing on the train, or running away on weekends - snatching any kind of time they can to put words on the page. And it's true. Until you sell your first novel/book, that is exactly what you have to do.
No one is going to knock on your door and offer you two hours a day to write. If only. It's also unlikely that your family is going to offer to go away and entertain themselves for two hours a day, or do half of your chores and errands for you (oh, if only!). The only person who can find that time to write - wrestle it barehandedly out of the 24 - is you. You have to want and need it badly enough to do it, or it won't happen.
I probably learned this lesson through participating in NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago. Suddenly, because I had to write 50,000 words in a month, I found the time. Half an hour here, an hour there. Leaving my computer on with the file open helped a lot. No down-time waiting for things to boot up - I could just sit and go.
But I still have to remind myself of this lesson every so often. Especially when life crowds in and it becomes almost easier to give in, to say "maybe next week I'll find time to write". No, you won't. That's like saying "I have a big bill to pay - maybe next week I'll find $200 lying around". Won't happen.
By the way, we've started a blog for our writing students, a place for them to post their writing or thoughts about writing. We've given them some jumping-off points, and hope they will all contribute - that includes our fellow writing students in Tucson, AZ.
Check it out at

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Last week I tried out a new crime writer (from the library, of course) called Meg Gardiner. The book was "Jericho Point" and it was OK. Lots of action and I particularly liked the details when her main character was beaten up - it's hard to write fast, real action and injury scenes. But the beginning was a bit confusing. I know, it might just be I didn't pay enough attention again, but we talk a lot in class about opening chapters and what they need.
Obviously they need action and story questions to keep the reader hooked and wanting to know what happens next. They also need a sense of the main character and what is going on - I call this "situating the reader". You want to know where you are in the story, and feel confident that if you read on, the promise of bigger and better things will be kept. You don't want to feel like the writer is keeping you in the dark and trying to be deliberately mysterious or misleading. I don't, anyway. I think "Jericho Point" is the second book featuring this character, and the writer had chosen to only gradually reveal what she does for a job, and why she's involved in this situation. If I'd read the first book, I would have known a lot of that. But in this book I was floundering for a while.
Sue Grafton always tells her readers upfront who Kinsey is - in fact, in "O for Outlaw", which I picked off my shelf, she says on Page 2: "Those of you acquainted with my personal data can skip this paragraph." Then she goes on to give a potted life history of Kinsey to date. If the O book was the first Grafton novel you'd ever read, I imagine you'd appreciate the information and would read on, not needing anything more.
Some would argue that what Grafton does is throw in an info dump, but I think a new reader does want to know that stuff.
Fantasy is a different problem. Not only do you have to do all those first-chapter things, but you have to let the reader know lots about the world of the novel without big chunks of explanation. How much is too much? Too much is when it interferes with the flow of the story.
I also read "Allie McGregor's True Colours" by Sue Lawson this week. A younger YA novel, Australian, not heavy on plot but focused more on relationships and the family vs. friends thing. Who is a real friend? How can you tell? What happens when your family faces cancer? An enjoyable read, a bit emotional but very real without being soppy.
And finally, I finished Peter Temple's "Black Tide" last night (I've got to do something while I'm lying down doing this "resting" thing). Very snappy dialogue, and a plot with lots of twists and turns. I do like Jack Irish as a character.
Writing (which can be done very well sitting down, while thinking about writing can be done very well lying down) has proceeded this week to the point where I wrote what I think is the final dramatic scene. The climax. The end of the search for the grail, if you like Hero's Journey references. Now for the resolution, the tying up of loose ends.
And then the rewriting.
It takes a long time before I can truly write THE END on a story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Too Much Information

How much do you tell the reader? How much can you assume they know? In a fantasy novel, for example, you pretty much have to tell them everything about the world they need to know in order for the plot and setting to work (e.g. if this society has an outcast system, the reader needs to know how it works and how it affects characters, motivations, plot elements etc.) But what about a genre such as crime where, in this day and age, much of the basic background information on forensics and detection would be known by the reader, either from other books or some of the dozens of crime TV shows such as CSI and SVU?
This was the question I puzzled over as I read "The Murderers' Club" by P.D. Martin. I read a lot of crime fiction, and I found the author's info dumps on things such as rigor mortis, how an autopsy is performed (yes, there was dialogue in that scene but it was contrived) and how a computer boots up and with what operating systems to be quite tedious.
Are there crime readers now who need these things explained? I'm not sure. As always on this blog, I put in the disclaimer Maybe it's just me!
And I know it's just me when I say - please stop writing in first person, present tense. Some kinds of novels suit fp/pt wonderfully well, but Patricia Cornwell's latest efforts in this style are clunky, and I felt Martin's fell into the same trap. Fp/pt doesn't always add immediacy and drama to a story, and it often means that if you aren't good at sentence construction and variation, you end up with an awful lot of sentences that start with I.
On the other hand, I did read a YA novel with pace, great voices and a story that kept surprising me. "The Long Night of Leo and Bree" by Ellen Wittlinger. It was short, but that was OK. Although the premise sounded familiar (rich girl meets violent poor boy), it defied predictability and was full of depth and complex insights that left me thinking afterwards - always a good sign.
Yes, my brain is returning to some semblance of working order at last. My feet are still up, I'm still walking very slowly, but that's OK. I feel like a living embodiment of the Slow Food Movement, with time to savour the small things for a change.
That's includes time to watch a movie or two. "The Good Shepherd" was slow but totally involving, and even had me pulling out the encyclopedia to check what happened with the Bay of Pigs and Cuban missile crisis. I liked it a lot.

Monday, March 12, 2007

More (Unintentional) Research

You can tell when a writer is sick because if they are really, truly sick, they not only can't write, but they can't read either.
Imagine being stuck in a hospital bed for 3 days with nothing to do but stare at the wall. Perfect time to read and relax. Except my brain was mush, and the last thing I was capable of was creativity. Pity. I could've read at least one novel, or written a good 5000 words. Instead I lay there (with holes in me that connected to tubes with drips and medication) and did nothing. Well, I have to admit I did "listen" to dozens of conversations. Not eavesdrop, because it wasn't deliberate, but I was in an open ward where the only thing between me and all the others was a curtain. And voices carried quite clearly. Nothing I think I'd ever use in a story or novel, but impressions and emotions, and some funny incidents. Grist to the mill, as a writer friend said to me.
Other unintentional research? I got to ride in an ambulance, and see bunches of trainee doctors trailing around after the surgeon on rounds, just like on TV, and hear lots of medical terminology being used.
I also discovered that when you disappear unexpectedly for three days, all those things you had scheduled are suddenly up in the air. Discussing final editing/proofreading of your new book from your hospital bed is difficult. Deadlines sometimes can't wait.
If you ever have to rush off to hospital (public, not private), don't forget your toothbrush and toothpaste. It's not supplied. Not being able to brush my teeth was horribly disgusting, and it was the first thing I did (twice) when I was finally allowed to come home. And then I went looking for a good book to read.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Truth in Fiction

Why do people read fiction? The most common answer I get (I ask this in class) is for entertainment or escape. But after that, people often answer that they are looking for the truth about the world - not necessarily their world, but a truth. Maybe it's a truth that they want to hear, as in crime fiction where the villain is always caught (and if he/she's not, the reader feels cheated!), or romance fiction where the girl always ends up with the hero who turns out to be perfect for her.
Books that tell the truth too clearly are often the ones that cause a stir and end up being widely acclaimed. I'm thinking of "We Need to Talk About Kevin", in which we have a mother's burning need to be totally honest about her son's life, and her relationship with him, in order to try and figure out why he became a mass murderer. It's a scary book, and I wonder how many people saw their own relationships reflected in the story, even if only in small ways.
How do we write something "true" when we are writing fiction? I still believe you have to write from what you feel deeply about, even though I know lots of people who don't, and are published. But maybe the books that make a mark in a reader's life come from somewhere else in the writer. Something that has to be expressed, a story that has to be told. Will Charles Frazier ever write something as good as "Cold Mountain"? Lionel Shriver wrote and published many novels before "Kevin". I think back over books I've read that had an impact on me, and very often that author has written others, but there is that one book that stands above the others.
Where does that book come from?
Another aspect of this is the need to produce, of course. A first novel can take years to write and rewrite, and it has to be really good to get published (the first-time author is, I believe, the marketing department's nightmare!). But then there is pressure to write another, and another. The next books don't receive the same care and incubation a lot of the time. Sue Grafton wrote a stinker half-way through her alphabet crime series, and she was able to say to the publisher, "Enough. I will write at my own speed from now on, thank you." (not a direct quote!)
One book does not earn you enough to quit your job and devote your life to writing, unless you like bread and water. That's another truth about fiction.
Note: The Varuna fellowships are announced today. This is the scheme where writers submit fiction manuscripts and five are selected by HarperCollins editors for an intensive 10-day workshop up in the Blue Mountains. This year, the editors received a shortlist of 26 manuscripts, and I bet most of them are publishable. However, Australia's literary fiction scene is getting smaller and smaller, and all of those writers not in the 5 will have to call on every ounce of that vital quality - perserverance - to keep going with their books.
That's another bit of truth in fiction!

Friday, March 02, 2007


If I had a choice of what I'd like in my research library, it would start with the Greater Oxford Dictionary (13 huge volumes) and two or three different encyclopaedias, include texts on every subject I was writing about (which would require an ongoing outlay of many dollars), and probably the entire set of Norton's anthologies. Just for starters.
But as a backup, the internet is a pretty good alternative these days, as long as you triple-check your information and learn which sites are likely to have errors. I've done a huge amount of research on pirates over the years, and there are lots of websites created by pirate fans, but quite a few of them are wrong. They repeat common assumptions rather than accurate facts. That's OK, I've learned to research widely enough to find out where the errors lie. Books can be wrong too. It depends who wrote them, and what their agenda was. There are different versions of Australian history, depending on whether the author believed that white settlers and soldiers massacred Aboriginal tribes or not.
What I love about the internet is that I can rustle up some needed information in a flash, and the kind of thing I often need is short and simple. This week it has included how the 'jaws of life' work, how the board game Cluedo is played and what the cards and playing pieces look like, at what age a child can be toilet-trained, and what are the stages and ages of little kids learning to understand and to talk.
So along the way I discovered that people are selling sets of the 'jaws of life' on Ebay, that Cluedo has been around since the 1940s and is still being made (I think it's even in a computer game version!) and that even in an article on toilet training, the Americans still talk about teaching a child to 'go to the bathroom'.
Just finished reading the fourth and last 'Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants' book. I think I'm glad it's the last one. I'm waiting for the pants to turn up in my mailbox. It would be lovely to have a pair of jeans that actually fitted me comfortably.