Thursday, May 31, 2007
At one of the large stores, I met someone (who shall not be named) who explained to me why books don't stay on the shelves very long. Apparently every month employees go around with a scanner and scan all the books and the ones that beep get taken off and sent back to the publisher. Each book is programmed in the computer as to when it was put on the shelf, so that 90 day shelf life we hear about really is exactly 90 days in most cases!
What's worse is that paperbacks don't even get sent back to the publisher because the freight costs aren't worth it. They rip off the covers and send them back and the rest of the book gets dumped in the rubbish.
If a book is selling well, it gets to stay longer, but we all know how many books are published every month here and what authors are competing against - well, they're competing against sheer volume before anything else! Now I have to do some sleuthing back in Australia and find out if this is common practice in bookshops there.
This is the Boot Hill Cemetery at Tombstone. The only grave in the whole place that has the traditional concrete around it with a headstone is that of the guy who spent many years restoring the cemetery - Emmett Nunnelley.
It's funny - you see all the movies that feature Tombstone and hear so much about it that it starts to seem like just a story, but when you get there and see the cemetery and the graves of the guys who were killed at the OK Corrall, you realise that it did actually happen, just not with Val Kilmer and Kurt Russell.
The town itself is, of course, very much geared to tourists. Meg and I saw the Helldorado Wild West Show that had more bad jokes in it than any show in the US, I think, but it was so bad it was quite funny (which was their aim!). There are lots of shops to browse in, some museums and some saloons for eating in. Including one called Big Nose Kate's. I thought it was all good value, unlike Bisbee which was a little further down the road and was kind of disappointing. It's an old mining town, and maybe we missed the best parts, but it seemed a bit rundown and a lot of the shops were more like junk shops than anything. It didn't help that some of them were closed. But it was cooler up there - Bisbee is in the hills.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Some quotes from the conference (paraphrased from my notes):
Think about how each character in your story or novel sees and experiences things - they will all see the same thing differently - Laila Halaby
A lot of query letters don't effectively convey conflict, plot and characters - if you can't get this down in a query, it often means your book isn't ready - Stephen Barbara, Donald Maass Agency
What will define the next ten years of publishing? Distribution. A number of large book distributors have already gone out of business, making it hard for the small presses - Kate Gale, Red Hen Press
Agents like writers who are well-informed about the publishing business - you can learn by reading industry magazines, websites and blogs - Emmanuelle Alspaugh, agent with Wendy Sherman Assoc.
All of the primary characters in your novel should change in some way during the story, not just your main character - Masha Hamilton
Have an ugly baby - Alan Woodman
(What Alan really meant was write an ugly first draft - once it's out there on the page, it can grown and mature and become more beautiful with rewriting. Get it out there as ugly, then you can improve on it.)
Monday, May 28, 2007
The one thing that came through for me over the three days was about being professional, not just in the way you present yourself to agents and publishers, but also in the way you think about yourself as a writer. Take your passion seriously, give it the time and energy it needs, keep reading and learning, and yes, keep the faith.
Too often we put other things ahead of writing. Yes, life does have a funny habit of taking over. Yet at least two of the published writers who were the guest speakers mentioned that they had to get up at 4am to write their novels - they made a commitment to that time before the day started to work and write. I think I could do that if I had to - even though at 4am I'm almost comatose. But if I had absolutely no other time?
I'm lucky that I can carve out 2-3 hours here and there in my week to write, but it is so easy to allow other things to intrude - to allow other people to consume your time and energy, to put errands or cleaning or even a favourite TV show before writing, to think I'll just do my emails first and two hours later your time is gone. Heather Sellar's new book Chapter After Chapter says "Writers will not finish their novels if they say Yes to other things." And it's true.
Self publishing came up quite a few times during the weekend, and for some people it is a perfect option. But sometimes, as Allan Woodman pointed out, you can be in too much of a hurry to be published. Your book is getting rejected so you say, "I have to get it out there where readers can discover it", but the truth is, you might be getting rejected because your writing and your book are just not ready yet.
It was interesting for me to hear so much from Kate Gale about small independent presses and university presses. It is a whole different level of publishing which we don't really have in Australia. We do have a few tiny independents, and one or two university presses, but not like in the US. There are many fine writers whose work is not going to have a huge audience, and the "small" option is a real option.
But as Stephen Barbara (agent from Donald Maass Agency) said, "Don't quit your day job until you have a large audience for your work." That means a sustained audience who will continue to buy everything you publish, so that you have a substantial, ongoing royalty income.
Not a hugely happy note to end on, but a practical, honest one that serves us well.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
On the first day, Stephen Barbara from the Donald Maass Agency talked about what agents do, submissions, queries and all kinds of agenty things. I thought it was interesting that his agency has boilerplates already negotiated with the large publishers. As he said, authors without representation who get the publisher's boilerplate are really starting at a disadvantage.
The very first session (yes, I'm working backwards) was Laila Halaby talking about truth in fiction - what is truth, what is real? And how do we create the real in something that is created out of our own imagination? She made good points about accuracy, and about the reader's trust in the writer.
Tonight, it was my turn to read, along with Donna Steiner and Richard Garcia. Donna read a wonderful non-fiction piece about a jeweller's loupe, and Richard had everyone laughing at his poems about his mother and his dog (dog as psychiatrist). How to follow two great acts? I read some very dark poetry - well, somebody had to be depressing! - and then we had a mini-launch of Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) with a little speech from Marge Pellegrino, a Tucson children's writer, and I read from the book (not so depressing... I hope). Then we had non-alcoholic cider and Vegemite. Meg is still trying to get rid of the jar of the stuff we gave her in Melbourne! Quite a few people tried it - "interesting" was one of the more positive comments.
I have met lots of wonderful, keen writers, and it is fascinating to hear people read out in the workshops. In my voice workshop today, everyone went along with my visualisation exercise and wrote a voice piece - the brave ones who read out were amazing. So different. For me, that means an exercise worked - when so many different voices emerged.
Tomorrow is the last day, and another agent is going to talk about query letters and first chapters - I will be taking lots more notes.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Instead (seeing as how I had seen most of the movies on offer in the distance) I read a Jack Reacher novel - "Tripwire" by Lee Child, and had finished it before I boarded the last leg to Tucson. No wonder my eyes are hanging out of my head. And I spent most of the Tucson trip asleep (probably snoring). Woke up in time for the approach, and was just wondering if the very spread-out area of buildings in neat patterns below me was an army base or something when the man behind me said, "Wow, that is a huge prison, isn't it?" Guess that answered my question about the fences.
I always forget how Tucson is in a desert. And then I see the brown land stretching far and wide, and I remember. It reminds me of the Australian outback.
My volunteer conference driver, Kate, picked me up at the airport and dropped me at the hotel, so after a shower that woke me up a bit, I checked emails and found a dinner invitation from the Gila Gang. They are a group of children's writers whom I met when I was here last time. So after some fast ironing of clothes and a wait for a cab, I arrived at the restaurant, and no one was there. Small moment of panic - the email had been dated 24th, but I'd figured it was a day ahead because of Australian time on receiving log - had I miscalculated? No, they were out the back and I did find them. It was great to meet them all again and talk a bit about books and writing. The restaurant was Guatemalan, food was lovely, and I had this yummy drink made from rice milk with cinnamon and stuff in it.
This morning Meg called in with all my conference bizzo - schedules and location maps etc - and the last manuscript for me to read and comment on. It is two picture books that the authors have already created as mock-ups, and they look good - hard covers and all.
Meg also brought me some books, including her new collection of poetry - "Love Hunter" by Meg Files. More excellent reading to look forward to.
I'm reading Sherman Alexie's new novel "Flight" at the moment, which I bought at LA airport (why wait to start buying books?). It is very weird but I am enjoying it - and waiting to see where it will lead me next.
Now I am off for a walk around Tucson's historic area - sunscreen and sunglasses at the ready.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
I know now why agents and editors hate it when people send in odd chapters of their novels, e.g. Chapter 1, then Chapter 5 and Chapter 23. I imagine writers think, 'These are the best chapters' or 'These chapters best convey what the novel is about'.
Well no, I can attest now that they don't. They create a lot of confusion and wrong assumptions. Especially when you send Chapter 1 and Chapter 4, and 4 seems to come right after 1, so what on earth could be in 2 and 3? (The assumption is - nothing worth reading that will add to the action.) And if the writing is good, which in the manuscripts I had was often the case, then reading bits instead of a decent slab is very frustrating. We all want to know what happens next - not ten chapters later. The story never gets a chance to work up a decent head of steam.
So here I am to tell you - send Chapters 1, 2 and 3. Please.
The great thing about this conference (Pima Writers' Workshop at Pima College) is that its focus is on writing. Yes, there is stuff on agents and publishing, but many of the sessions focus either on talking about craft or on actual writing. My workshop will be on Character and Voice in Children's and YA Fiction, and I have some good exercises lined up. I'm also hoping to attend some of the other sessions, such as the one on Deeper Imagery in Poetry.
What I'm really looking forward to, though, is the chance to spend four whole days talking to writers about writing and books, sharing ideas and experiences, and learning from others. That's what I love about writing - there is always something new to learn, and always I find new ideas bursting out of my brain as I spark off other writers' workshops, comments and suggestions.
So shortly this blog will go 'global' again. And I'll be in sunny Arizona, with my swimsuit instead of my warm coat.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
So, are they right?
Yes and no. Some stories emerge from voice. John Marsden says that he began the War series (which starts with Tomorrow When the War Began) when he heard Ellie's voice in his head - Ellie being the narrator. It's often the way it works for me. I started a story about a girl called Tracey Binns and her voice just took over - she was very demanding! But I have written other stories where the voice is not nearly so strong. With chapter books, it's not such an issue. In fact, I have a chapter book where the voice is probably stopping it being published, because the kid is pretty nerdy and weird.
In class, I try to get the students to do a lot of work on their characters, not because I think they need to know every single thing about their character's life (although it helps) but because in writing and imagining their main character, they can often "fall into" the voice. We do free writing, imagining our characters telling stories that begin, "Let me tell you how it happened ..." or in YA, perhaps, "This is how it went down ..." One good exercise I recommend is to interview your character via free writing, sit them down at a table, ask them questions and then let them answer. All kinds of strange and wonderful things can come out of this, including things that you didn't know were part of your character's life.
Back to the question - can you fix a weak/uninvolving voice? Yes, I think so, but it requires several things to happen:
1. That you put aside the manuscript and forget entirely about it.
2. That you focus on your character and spend a lot of time writing about them and writing things in their voice - role playing, imagining their world, and then working your way into seeing the world through their eyes. How your character sees/understands/filters/judges the world around them is, to me, an intrinsic part of voice.
3. That you create a whole, real life for your character - their family, friends, school/work, lovers, enemies etc.
4. And then you focus on their dreams, goals, ambitions and fears. Get your character to write secret thoughts about these things. Note I said "get your character to write" - by now, if you have really delved into who your character is, it really will be her or him writing about what they fear most, or what they want most in their lives.
If you haven't captured voice after doing all of those things, you need to ask yourself why not. And weird though it may seem, it might just be because you are too afraid to let your character be "real" to you.
Enough psychoanalysis-type stuff for one night.
I'm off to read some Peter Temple.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Why am I a book hog? Because I bought the new Stuart MacBride - Broken Skin - and I have been reading it non-stop for three days. I tried to slow down. I tried to make it last. But I just had to read, read, read, until it was all over.
Aberdeen is still raining, only not as bad, and it's still full of people living in poverty that turns them into criminals, who are then caught by McRae. If you want a crime novel that has the most bizarre, yet entertaining, police bosses on record, try MacBride. Between Steele, who looks like something dragged through a hedge most days, and Insch, who eats lollies non-stop and is 13 stone overweight and about to die of apoplexy, McRae couldn't have a better pair of fictional bosses. A great example of major characters (technically secondary, I suppose, but they both burst the boundaries) who add a million percent to the whole novel. And the plot is multi-layered, with several crimes going on at once. So rather than one serial murderer or rapist or whatever, MacBride deftly handles half a dozen urgent crimes with corresponding investigations. Excellent.
Now I'm just sorry I pigged out, and it's over.
And as for my Super 14 team, the Crusaders, losing their semi-final ... the less said, the better. Sigh.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
We also listened to a member who has spent ten years in LA, and she talked about organising events for writers in a city of 10 million people. I know myself from attending a couple of SCBWI conferences in LA how 900 writers and illustrators in one room can be overwhelming. A bit like my trip to Borders today, where I stood and looked at all those dozens of shelves of books and thought, How on earth are my books meant to even get noticed, let alone sold? Then I found The Littlest Pirate and The Littlest Pirate and the Hammerheads on their pirate display and felt much better. However, Sixth Grade Style Queen (Not!) was definitely wagging bookshop duty there today!
Third speaker was a CBCA (Children's Book Council of Australia) judge. As the shortlisted titles for their awards have been recently announced, it was fascinating to hear a warts-and-all description of how the books are read, dissected and whittled down to the Notables, and finally the shortlist. I think many people there were surprised at how lengthy the process is, and how, as in any judging panel of eight people, there is rarely a consensus on what should be a "finalist". Their points system seemed both fair and unfair but, as the judge pointed out, it has to take in a dozen different criteria as well as trying to avoid subjective or emotive decisions.
My predictions for winners? Well, I'm subjective too, but I'll stick my neck out:
Picture Books (Early Childhood) - Doodledum Dancing - Meredith Costain, ill. Pamela Allen (because it's great poetry for little kids)
Picture Books (Older Readers) - The Arrival - Shaun Tan
Younger Readers Award - Bird and Sugar Boy - Sofie Laguna
Older Readers Award - The Red Shoe - Ursula Dubosarsky
Information Book - Leaf Litter - Rachel Tonkin
Now I haven't actually read all of the shortlisted books, so I may change my mind later on, but you get the best bookie's odds when you predict early, don't you?
Friday, May 11, 2007
in class we learn
a new word –
it means who we are,
or the same
and how many
14 girls and 12 boys
8 blondes, 2 redheads and 16 brunettes
9 different nationalities
16 love The Simpsons
only 5 admit they watch
I do my own demographics:
5 computer nerds
5 soccer players
1 teacher’s suck
4 style queens
That's it for poems. If you want to read a couple more or hear me reading some of them (strange how the audio file uploaded on my site but the #@*% cover image won't cooperate!), head along to my website.
Normal transmission on this site will resume shortly! In other words, I have a book to review.
Thursday, May 10, 2007
Natalie and I used to wear
our Demons beanies
and go to the footy
now it’s just me
Dad gives me his scarf
and off we go
even though the forecast
is for sleet
‘we’re tough,’ says Dad
my bum aches
my feet go numb
Dad buys me a hot pie
that burns my tongue
a man shouts
in my ear
for two hours
but our team wins
and Dad and I
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
she still loves me
he still loves me
but they won’t be
it’s not my fault
they just don’t
want to live together
I’ve listened to this
on a dozen
anyone would think
they’d been to Hollywood
for a script.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
I look cool
in these glasses
in the mirror
I am tinted
my old glasses
made me look like
a bogong moth
big black orbs
instead of eyes
now I’m cool
In case you're wondering, this is a verse novel for 9-12 year olds (or anyone who likes poetry). The main character, Dawn, is in Grade 6 - while it seems like all the other girls want to be style queens, Dawn wants life to stay the same and be fun. But at home, her parents never stop fighting and soon the inevitable happens. How will Dawn cope?
Yes - available at all good bookshops in Australia! Overseas? You'll have to email me for how to buy it.
Monday, May 07, 2007
A lot of the time
I feel like I must be adopted
or my brain got wired wrong
or I’m secretly an alien
(but they didn’t tell me).
I don’t fit
in my family
or at school,
I have friends
but sometimes even they
think I’m weird.
I say dumb things
I wear stupid clothes
I can’t make my hair behave
some days the whole world
looks wrong to me.
I wish the space ship
would come back
and collect me.
(When I work out why the cover image isn't showing up, I'll post a link to the book on my site!)
Have just spent a large amount of my weekend at the local Willy LitFest, putting up a display of stuff from the course I teach in (and talking in a session about the course, and about writing groups - doing a hat switching trick), and listening to people talk about writing and books.
Joan Kirner opened the festival and then 15-year-old Alexandra Adornetto spoke about the novel she wrote over summer when she was 13, which is now being published by HarperCollins. It's a fantasy of course, and sounds like fun. I realised that the strange sound I could hear was all the adult writers in the audience grinding their teeth. Of course, how hard is it to write a book and then get it published? Piece of cake. We all know that!
Later in the afternoon, the winners and final ten entries in the Ada Cambridge Writing Competition were announced. I say winners, because for the first time, they awarded a joint first prize. My writing group, Western Women Writers, did the shortlisting of the final ten, and I understand the judges' dilemma over two very different stories (but I know which one I would have given it to!). The AC is a different kind of story competition because it's for autobiographical/biographical work, so you get a lot of people entering life stories who might not normally write short fiction. Some terrific stories which are now published in the anthology.
Sunday was a mix - the most popular session by far was with William McInnes, sometimes TV and movie star and sometimes writer. I didn't get to this session but I believe the masturbation story was very entertaining.
I did attend the crime writers' session with Garry Disher, Adrian Hyland and Angela Savage, moderated by Carmel Shute. A good session as Carmel prepares her questions with experience and thought, and the writers all write quite different stuff. Later, I got a chance to chat with Adrian Hyland, who wrote "Diamond Dove". He is working on another novel with the same main character, while teaching at La Trobe. One of the things that came up during the session was whether a writer in Australia can write full-time - most can't. But Garry said when he made the decision to do it, although his income dropped dramatically, he felt suddenly free (funny that, since he was teaching creative writing!). Now he is in the position of being contracted for two books at a time, and having to often write what publishers dictate, so there are ups and downs in every option.
The day was finished off with a book launch - Shaun Micallef launching Claire Saxby's new picture book. And as I was late getting there, I missed the story about nudity in the swimming pool changing rooms. But I heard about it later. A good small literary festival means you end up hearing all about the sessions, even if you didn't make it there yourself!
Thursday, May 03, 2007
It's called Love and Desire because that was the theme of the competition - at the time (June last year) it seemed like everyone I knew was writing a novella to enter. Prize was a few thousand dollars and promise of publication. I even thought about it! But didn't.
The discussion was very interesting and quite wide-ranging, involving the audience (we were all gathered in the coffee shop so it was cosy and easy to chip in) and throwing up some good quotes which I will endeavour to include here. Cate began by saying, "In the novella, it's like the short story - there is nowhere to hide. In a novel you can write your way out of trouble." Paddy's story was 45,000 words to start with, and was cut down to around 25,000. She only achieved this by taking out huge chunks rather than cutting sentences and paragraphs, leaving her with a story that has almost-self-contained chapters.
Cate, as editor, also had to cut one of the other stories quite a lot and work with the author. She said, "With the novella, you need to have the same satisfying experience as with the novel, but with less words. You also need to have your hands on the wheel in terms of imagery and metaphor when working with shorter prose." They both agreed that imagery and metaphor help you to say a lot more with less words, an essential in short fiction.
There was also discussion about what is the difference between a novella and a YA novel, if they are both of a similar length? Various comments included that a YA novel has a teen protagonist, more plot, plenty of pace, less sophistication, a theme that is more about identity and rite-of-passage. I guess I would agree with most of that - except you can find all of those things in a novella for adults as well. I think most novellas (at least the ones that were discussed last night) are literary fiction, and therefore the author's purpose and audience is different, right from the first word written. That changes language, theme, complexity - everything the writer is trying to achieve. Often people look at the finished book and say it is this or that, based on a judgement of what they see, yet they forget that the writer had to have an intention right from the beginning, so isn't it more useful to ask what that might have been?
Anyway, towards the end Cate talked about all the novellas she read for selecting the final three (plus the competition winner) - her one criteria that stood above the others was "Which stories stayed with me? Which one was I still thinking about in the shower, or the car? Which ones energised or inspired me?"
When asked, she said that too many of them were really novels - that writers had started with concepts or stories that were too big for the word limit, and so there was too much telling, too much trying to cram in a lot of information. Someone asked about cutting words - how do you learn to self-edit like that? Cate's answer - take one of your short stories and cut it by half. Be ruthless and see what you end up with.
Paddy added that you should take off the beginning and the end and see what you are left with in the middle - if there's nothing there, well ...
It was a very good session, with lots of great input from the audience and some useful comments and questions (including from the publisher and sales people from Five Mile Press, who were also there).