Sunday, April 29, 2007

Away with the Penguins

I have been away. At Phillip Island, which is about 2 hours south-east of Melbourne, and is famous for its Penguin Parade, where thousands of Japanese tourists (and lots of others too) go down to the beach and watch the penguins waddle in at dusk, heading for their burrows.
I was originally asked to run a writing workshop at the inaugural Ibis Writers' Festival, and then organised a school visit to Cowes Primary School. The whole weekend was given over to the writers' festival and people came from all over the area for workshops on writing for children (me), writing poetry (Kristin Henry), writing fiction (Bruce Pascoe) and writing plays (Ian Robinson). I first ran a writing workshop in Cowes about 16 years ago, and there were people at this weekend who attended that original workshop of mine. Amazing.
On Friday night, we went to a dinner featuring Dorothy Porter as the guest speaker. Her new book Eldorado has just been published, and it's another crime novel in verse. I've heard her read from it twice now, and it sounds fantastic.
Dorothy also talked about what poetry can do that fiction can't, and some of the other themes and subjects she has tackled. A great presentation.
On Saturday night, local performer Maggie Millar was to give a presentation of fairy tales for adults, but she bowed out due to illness so Kristin "dobbed in" herself and me to fill in. Now, fairy tales for adults is not our thing, so we decided to continue on with the theme of the afternoon forum - Identity and Family Storytelling. The forum ended up being more about stories as a way of perceiving and understanding national identity, so Kristin and I brought it back to the personal, reading our own poems about family and discussing where they came from and why and how we write them.
I read a few poems from my new book Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) and got an excellent response from the audience.
Did I do any writing while I was down there? No. I did nearly lose my voice, mainly through getting a bit carried away with the school kids on Friday with practicing our pirate Arrrrrrs. And I have a new idea for a series of poems, but haven't started yet. Still thinking.
And still reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is amazing. Some of the typographical images alone provoke much thought, let alone the characters and story.
I did get to mark a great pile of student assignments while sitting in a nice coffee shop down near the water. And hear a lot of rain falling on the roof on Friday night. Yaaayy!

Sunday, April 22, 2007


Yesterday and today, it has been raining. Not a huge amount, but enough so that when I went for a walk today, people's lawns and gardens looked thoroughly soaked. And the birds and butterflies were going berserk! I'm used to going up the bush and having butterflies drift around me or rise up from in front of me as I walk. Not so much in the city.
Yesterday, in the bush, before it rained, all we saw/heard were two kookaburras. But there's been some earlier rain up there because where we've cleared away some dead bracken, green things are growing!
Finished Jonathan Kellerman's new book "Obsession" while sitting under the gum tree. It's good - I liked how the villain developed, how the story started as a possible crime and grew into something so much worse. But this book did a lot of what the last one did - characters sitting around talking the investigation out. I enjoy the actual investigating and questioning of the minor characters so much more. Kellerman has some great minor villains in this book, including a nose-picking sleazy PI and a tattooed guy who is a health nut.
It's easy to become so involved with your protagonist and antagonist that you forget about the other characters and they end up being one-dimensional. On the other hand, some writing books warn you against minor characters that are too colourful because they can take over the story. After reading Kellerman, I vote for the colour and variety - they can add extra layers to the plot and the theme and make the story so much richer.
I'm now back reading "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer. I've kept at this book because it's written in such an interesting way (also has pictures and graphics) but I'm at the point right now where the dialogue is giving me the irrits. He doesn't use paragraphing for a lot of it, so there are long blocks of short dialogue with "" all jammed in together. Example (main character talking to Grandma on walkie-talkie): "Are you home? Over." "Yes. Over." "Have you had dinner? Over." "Not yet. Over." "Where is your mom? Over." "Don't know. Over."
OK, so I actually made up that dialogue but that's how it reads on the page. And it goes on and on, and a lot of it is of the "please pass the butter" variety. I'm waiting to see if this has any other purpose than saving pages.
My friend G listened to this book as an audio, so I will ask her how it came across without the speech marks and jamming together. Probably a very different experience.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

A couple of good blogs/sites

There's nothing I like more than to spend a little time (not too much) following interesting links on the internet and finding new sites and blogs.
Julius Lester is a terrific writer whose book "When Dad Killed Mom" is one of my favourite middle grade novels. He has a regular blog, but this one:
is an offshoot, just one entry where he talks about the importance of children's and YA books, and how it is possible to change a child's or teenager's life with a book. He also talks about the concerted efforts of many adults to control what kids read.
The other thing I found is a website devoted to Australian crime fiction, which also includes an online crime fiction magazine (short stories). For someone like me, who likes to use the library to try out new writers, this site is going to be very useful.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Value of Silence

I love silence. Silence is usually what I get in the bush. No phones, no television, no cars roaring past, no neighbours fighting, no kids screaming. Occasionally I get motorbikes or chainsaws. And last weekend I got wasps. Lots of buzzing. Quite lulling really, as long as they didn't hang around being annoying. European wasps here are a blight. We seem to have a nest that may need eradicating. If I ever find it.
Sharon Gray is a columnist for the Age newspaper and her piece this week was on silence. She did a 10 day silence retreat over New Year - I try to imagine that but I can't! But she quotes a saying which I am requoting here: "Before you speak, ask yourself: is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence?"
Thinking back over some things I've heard people say recently, I reckon that's a very good question.
In fiction, I often see student writers who forget the value of silence in dialogue. Silence can be an effective powerplay in an arguement, it can be a turning point, it can win or lose the fight. If you watch too much "talking heads TV", the kind where words just fill in all the airtime and give the glamorous heads something to do other than exchange long, smouldering looks, I think you can fall into the trap of thinking that your characters have to do the same thing. But I do love great dialogue in a book. Snappy. Smart. Funny.
I've read two of my three "desperate shelf picks" from the library so far. Interestingly, both had main characters who lived on the fringes. "Keeping Bad Company" by Ann Granger features a young woman who has been living in squats and gets involved in a kidnapping via a conversation with a homeless man. "Beautiful Lies" by Lisa Unger has a young woman who is a freelance writer (although she seems to get pretty good writing assignments!) and lives in a crumby part of New York, in a building that is falling down. Apart from an incredibly slow beginning, where Chapters 2 and 3 are nearly all backstory and explanation, the novel was a good read. Lots of twists and turns and surprises. A lot of it felt guessable but I resisted. I don't like having the solution too easy to work out. I have to say, though, that now I've finished it, I can't remember exactly who the villain turned out to be. There was more than one, but who was the real baddie?
I am currently making lists of questions for my crime novel rewrite. The kinds of questions that you ask a policeman or a doctor. Luckily I will be able to ask the right people. And then I need to go for a drive to some of my locations and take photos and make description notes. It may mean I have to rewrite some parts of the novel if I guessed wrong in the first draft, but that's part of creating a credible world.
Now if only I could travel to Charleston and North Carolina for location research for my historical novel...

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Nothing at the Library

It was time for a library visit (this usually means if I don't get my books back right now they will charge me a humungous amount of money, commonly known as "late fines") so away I went, anticipating many shelves full of books I just had to read.
Not that there were no books - there were just no books that I wanted to read. I wandered, I picked up books at random, I looked for familiar names in case I found something new, I even got desperate enough to check out the Large Print section. Nothing appealed. Nothing jumped out and said "Read me! I'll be good, I'll keep you hooked for hours on end!" So I came home with three kind-of-OK-maybe-readable books. At least when this happens in the bookshop, you can go home feeling virtuous about how you didn't spend any money (for a change).
Maybe I'm anticipating my trip to Tucson next month where there are not only several Borders and Barnes & Nobles, but three branches of a second-hand bookshop chain called Bookmans. And a great independent bookshop called Antigones.
On another tack, maybe I was put off the library because the first book I picked up inside the door (it was on a display) was "The Idiot's Guide to Branding". There are writers' conferences now where they run sessions on branding. I know it's becoming part of publishing now, I know for lots of authors it helps them to sell more books, but I haven't got to grips with it yet. I equate it to words like "pigeonholing" and "nice little box" and "you shouldn't write anything else". But I guess that's why pseudonyms were invented.
A couple of days ago, I started "Best American Short Stories 2006". I say started because this yearly feast is not something to be raced through, it's like a 20-course meal. I like to read two or three stories, then put it down for a few days. Then two or three more. The stories are so different, and often demand time and reflection. What I also like about BASS is that in the back of the book, each writer has a bit that explains where the story came from, how it was written. I never read this until I've read the story. Other friends of mine always read that bit first.
Short stories ... here in Australia it seems there are a million competitions (usually with a 3000 word limit, which can act like a garotte) and not many publishing outlets. Another handy extra in BASS is a list of magazines/journals and their submission addresses.
Long live the short story!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lunching and Present Tense

This being the mid-semester break and all, it was time for a literary lunch. A real literary lunch, not one of those ones where you pay $55 for a big plate with a little bit of food on it, a glass of wine and a famous writer who seems too bored to prepare an interesting talk and instead does a ten minute self-promo and then waits to sign a billion books (all right, I've only been to one of those but it was pretty disappointing, especially when the book was only available in hardback so I didn't buy it).
By a real literary lunch, I mean eating nice food, drinking champagne (to celebrate my new book) and then spending nearly three hours talking books, books, books and writing, writing, writing, and a little bit of other stuff for variety.
My friend G and I love to swap recommendations (today we had a great discussion about "We Need to Talk About Kevin") and I often come away with my notebook filled with titles and authors to find at the library or buy. I introduced her daughter to Louise Rennison, and G has just given me "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" - Jonathan Safran Foer. I had to take it to lunch with me to show her the internal layout of text and photos/illustrations as she had experienced the book as an audio book.
And we talked about this first person/present tense thing. Having recently read M.J. Hyland's novel that was shortlisted for the Man-Booker "Carry Me Down", G made a really good point about why she found the fp/pt in this novel so difficult to read. It's relentless. Everything has to happen in the now, and so everything has equal weight. Pouring a cup of tea is as important as demanding a divorce (as a quick example). The reader never gets a break from being "always in the now". Things go on and on.
Simple past tense seems to allow for more variation in pace and tension, and events are able to be given their proper importance in the scheme of things.
Now, of course there are writers who use fp/pt to great effect. Anything can be used to great effect if you understand what and why you're doing it. I think a lot of YA is written in fp/pt for exactly that reason - adolescent angst/rite of passage stuff can be portrayed extremely well in fp/pt. But not always. And it also tends to "disallow" genuine reflection by the main character or narrator. Instant analysis of current or just-past action tends to be fleeting or shallow - time and some distance is what allows us to think more deeply about meaning and consequence.
OK, this was a small topic in a lunch spanning many books and writing quandaries and challenges. G is off to find "The Red Shoe" by Ursula Dubosarsky, and I will be hunting down M.J. Hyland's first novel, "How the Light Gets In", which she did recommend.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Rocks and Writing

After waterfalls, I have to say I like rocks. I like the coast and the beach too (especially in New Zealand) but there's something about rocks that appeals to me. These are three at Lancefield, about an hour north of Melbourne, and there are quite a few more of them around the place. Some much bigger. These rocks looked very patient, and old, and rugged. Many of the rocks in this area are rounded - I'm not a geologist but I imagine this is from glacier movement a very long time ago.
It's a calming experience to sit by these rocks and listen to the birds and think about whatever comes into my head.
The rest of the time that I spent near these rocks in the past two days went on reading, staring at gum trees, looking at birds through binoculars, and reading a finished novel draft that now needs rewriting. Thinking time is writing time just as much as typing time is. I like to ponder a draft as I read it through and look for holes and glitches in the plot, and weaknesses in description, character motivation and dialogue. And write comments to myself for later in-depth re-thinking. This is just the first stage but it gets me going on the long road of revision.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Blogging about writing

My friend and fellow writer, Tracey, now has her own blog - Speculating About Fiction - and it's interesting to see what people you know choose to blog about. Tracey has been posting about things we have done together, such as shortlisting for a local writing competition, and the joys of submissions.
Another writer friend, who is also a scientist and naturalist (and teacher), blogs about all of those things. I always enjoy her posts on birds and insects - not so keen on the spider photos, but at least I know what to avoid in the garden - and her comments on teaching and writing are fun for me too.
Both blogs are listed in the side column here.
Other blogs by agents are always useful for current information and advice. Kristin Nelson has just been in New York and commented on what children's editors are looking for at the moment. Miss Snark covered stamps and postage rates this week, among other things! And for something to make me think, I read Julius Lester's blog.
I still subscribe to Writer's Digest magazine, despite some disparaging comments recently on various blogs about their advertising policies. I find the articles are useful for my students to read, and this month's issue listed 101 top websites for writers - also very useful when you don't have time to trawl the vast reaches of the internet.
One comment in an article about writers promoting themselves and their books caught my eye - the writer said that blogs are no longer seen as a promotional tool for writers because there are so many of them now. They've lost their novelty (or something like that). I'm not so sure about that. Particularly when another article in the same issue was by a writer who had been connecting with book clubs via phone links and visits. He talked about the desire of a reader to connect to the writer, to understand more about the book, to be able to ask questions and receive answers that helped them to engage more deeply. To me, a blog can provide something of this experience via the comments column, if you want a blog that works that way.
Years ago, I hosted a community radio show called "Writers At Work", which gave me the perfect opportunity to ask writers, not just about their recent book, but about their writing practise, their ideas, their ups and downs, their problems and challenges. In seven years I must have interviewed 400+ writers, and had a wonderful time along the way.
This is what I look for at writers' festivals - not the writer and interviewer who collude to put on a big promo-fest for the new book, but an interviewer who is able to draw out the writer, ask them interesting and involving questions about writing and craft, and a writer who is willing to be honest and open. (And then, of course, an audience who asks good questions too instead of pontificating, "look at me" dumb question/statements!)
And I now take this opportunity to warn you in advance - very shortly I will be shamelessly promoting my new book on this blog!
Title? "Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!)"
Coming soon to a bookshop near you - I hope.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

More on Books about Writing

I always say to students: "Have a good look through a writing book before you buy. They often cover similar topics but in different formats or with a different style. See what 'speaks' to you before you hand over your $." For example, some people love Kate Grenville's "The Writing Book", whereas I don't. I find it too "bitsy" and I'm not keen on books that use dozens of quotes to illustrate points.
Robert Olen Butler's "From Where You Dream" is a series of transcripts of his talks to students, many of which I find kind of interesting, but the best part is a story he wrote twenty years ago (one which he considers stinks) and the new version written twenty years later. The new version is not a simple rewrite - it's a whole new re-visioning of the material, the idea, the characters and the POV. When we looked at this in class last year, some people could see nothing wrong with the first story, until we began picking it to pieces. Principally, the main fault was that too much was told, and there was little depth in the story.
The new version required the reader to think more, to work things out; there was less telling, and the style was definitely more literary. The class was divided over whether they liked it or not, but most could at least see what Butler had done with the material.
What have I read this week? A crime novel from Erica Spindler, "In Silence", which I think would be labelled a cosy. The main character was a journalist, returning to her small home town and getting involved with solving murders. I did look up the definition of a cosy, and it seems to have expanded from the traditional "set in a small village with puzzle/murder to solve" into something much wider. I enjoyed this particular book although I guessed the villain before the end (which I don't like to do - I love being surprised - but not tricked).
I'm also reading "The Red Shoe" by Ursula Dubosarsky - great voice and characters, and it gives a real sense of the era - 1950s Australia.
On Saturday my poetry class and I visited the National Gallery of Victoria to write poems about artworks - these are called ekphrasis, to give them the correct term. You are now allowed to take photos of the paintings and sculptures (new rule) as long as you don't use a flash. This is a great help if you want to write a poem, although the gallery shop also has postcards of quite a few of the paintings.
It was quite strange to see the "Weeping Woman" by Picasso, just hanging on the wall along with all the others. (It was stolen a few years ago and eventually found in a left-luggage locker.) Somehow I expected it to be huge, but it's not so big after all! In the Contemporary Art area there was a very long painting by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. It's all in black, with lots of writing on it (all of his work that I've seen has words on it) but this one began with a panel that was subtitled "Rain in Northland". Seeing as how my family live in Northland in New Zealand, and they've just had the worst floods in 200 years, I thought that was very apt. And took a photo for them!
It's posted here at the top (the glass over the painting means you get a silhouette of me too).