Thursday, August 30, 2007

MWF - Voice and Crime Writing

Two excellent sessions today. It does seem that the focus of the festival has changed to a more relaxed approach. In past years, speakers have often delivered papers that have been either theoretical or analytical, but this year I've found most people are working from good notes but also ad libbing more and telling anecdotes and experiences, which is so much more engaging.

The Still, Small Voice
Emily Ballou wondered if it was the "still, small voice" or the "still small voice", given that all of the speakers were women and most of the audience was! In answer to the question: how do you find your voice? she says she can't practise voice - it's a gift or a beautiful visitor. All you can do is write and write, and then search for evidence of it. Is the one true internal voice a myth? She uses different voices for different kinds of writing and feels her fictional voice will shift and grow. She also sees voice as the heartbeat of a novel, rather than a style.
Cate Kennedy says when you sit small and still is when the writing and inspiration come. Voice only works for her when she senses the writer is saying something particular and true, otherwise it's all form and no content (or all hat and no head!)
"I want to give you something to eat ... something you've been hungering for without knowing it." The best reader responses she gets are to the most ordinary, everyday things in her stories. The thing that is most powerful in writing is the metaphor, that you invite the reader into that room with the metaphor and let them find what they want in it. Sound and rhythm is also important, that it should be what the writing floats on but the reader will be hardly aware of it. She also thought that writers move from writing to explore their own emotions to writing to evoke emotions in the reader.
In question time, Emily said that people are reading too much stuff that has no rhythm (in the words and language) - the more you read Dan-Brown-type books, the less you are able to read writers like Cormac McCarthy and Don de Lillo.
The more I hear Cate Kennedy, the more admiration I have for her intelligent and thoughtful commentary on writing and what it is to write fiction and poetry. (Emily Ballou was good too! Dorothy Porter was a no-show for this session.)

This session was about crime writing, with the focus on main characters - the fictional detectives. Quinton Jardine has 26 books published, and writes 2000 words a day. Yes, one of those things does lead to the other!
He wrote his first draft of his first book by hand, and will never do so again - he has terrible handwriting. His first decision was to have a main character who is a DCC, which is a high position in the force. His books are as much about the subordinates Skinner works with as him, and they all work on crimes. Jardine said he thought he was probably writing police soap opera, but that was OK by him!
Leah Giarratano is a new writer (who is a psychologist) and she provided a Powerpoint on her two main characters, profiling them psychologically - their backstory and what makes them tick. She also talked about interrogation and how to work out if someone is lying to you. Everyone was very attentive at that point.
Gabrielle Lord is a very experienced crime writer. I remember interviewing her on 3CR radio years ago and she is such a professional. She talked about her characters, but also about the forensic knowledge and tech knowledge a writer has to have these days. She has studied courses in anatomy, anthrax, SCAN techniques (a science analysis tool) and skull reconstruction. She also does a lot of personal research with experts in their fields. She said, "Most crime is stupid and brutal and unconscious and hateful" and the writer needs to write about crime that is more interesting to the reader. She has two series characters, and knows when she gets a story idea whether it will suit the male or female character by "the feel of it".
And if you want to know one of those lying giveaways? Leah G. called it "the liar's lean", when the person is either leaning back from you, or has one leg stretched out (wanting subconsciously to get away).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

This Meme Thing

I've been meaning to do the Seven Things that Inspire Me meme, but this one came up on Paperback Writer's blog, so here goes:
Four jobs I've had or currently have in my life:
1. Writer
2. Librarian
3. Barmaid
4. Hospital cleaner

Four countries I've been to:
1. Hong Kong
2. USA
3. South Africa
4. Rhodesia (when it was still called that)

Four places I'd rather be right now:
1. Tucson
2. Whangarei (NZ)
3. Hamilton Island
4. Yosemite

Four foods I like to eat:
1. Curry
2. Barramundi (fish)
3. Trifle
4. Grilled cheese on toast

Four books you've read or are currently reading:
1. Chapter by Chapter - Heather Sellars
2. Friend of the Devil - Peter Robinson
3. Athletic Shorts - Chris Crutcher
4. A Good Day to Die - Simon Kernick

Four words or phrases you would like to see used more often:
1. I'm having a good day.
2. Thank you.
3. Yes, I have switched my cell phone off.
4. Yes, I will publish your book.

Four reasons for ending a friendship:
1. Betrayal.
2. Racism.
3. Lying.
4. Using (all the time) and never giving.

Four smells that make you feel good about the world:
1. Fresh-mown hay.
2. Barbecue.
3. Chanel perfume.
4. Baby after a bath.

Four favorite activities you did as a kid:
1. Running away.
2. Quizzes at school (our teacher paid us for right answers!)
3. Fishing.
4. Reading.

MWF - Questions

Over the past few years, festival-goers have come to dread question time after the speakers have finished their part. Often questions are actually statements, designed to show the cleverness of the questioner, that go on and on for about five minutes until someone on the stage manages to bring him/her to a halt. Sometimes questions are actually about "no one will publish my manuscript and I think it's a conspiracy and what are you going to do about it". At a writers' festival which is all about published books? Nothing.
Maybe this is why, for the second year, MWF is running a full-day session on the nuts and bolts of getting published. This is something our students never attend because they learn all that in our course (if they're listening properly!).
It's easy to forget that there are still lots of people out there who write and hope to get published, but don't have much idea at all of how the industry works. Hence the question at a forum I attended - "I have an idea and some pictures I want to draw - how do I get published?" There was an audible intake of breath in the audience, and the authors on stage seemed so taken aback that they floundered and didn't really answer properly - how could you, when the full answer would take hours?
I've noticed in a couple of sessions at the MWF so far that the "boss" of the stage (facilitator, or whatever the current word is) has warned at the start of question time - please ask real questions. But many in the audience would rather contribute to the discussion in some way. The person in the Short Fiction session the other day who told us all about the story readings at the Wattle Cafe was doing us a favour. Where do you draw the line?
Maybe the line is between providing useful input, and self-aggrandising?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

MWF - The Art of Editing

This was a packed session and should have been in a bigger theatre (and some air conditioning would have been nice too - never seen so many people in one place fanning themselves with all available pieces of paper).
First up was Sarah Brenan, who is an editor with Allen & Unwin. She talked about working on two different books - a nf book about schizophrenia (that in its original, submitted form was all pictures) that ended up being a book for adults, and a picture book. It was interesting to see all the changes that were made, especially to the nf book. The text for the pb was written by Margaret Wild who, as she said, is very experienced and willing to keep looking for the right or best words.
In her list of editor's qualities, she included: being first reader/audience and being able to diagnose what's not working, being able to imagine who the audience is, gardening (pruning), having Xray vision to see what's underneath, a policewoman of grammar and syntax, and a negotiator. She also said a good editor "tries to respond in such a way that the author is thrilled by the possibilities of their work."
Bryony Cosgrove has been a fiction editor for 30 years, and added more to Sarah's list. A good editor should read widely and know the market, and should also read an author's backlist before they work on the current manuscript. An editor should be invisible in the final book, should be able to work with the author's voice (she talked about the voice being what makes a work unique, and that you can bend the grammar/punctuation rules if it's necessary for the voice). She also talked about particular aspects - why isn't a character convincing, is the dialogue speeding up or slowing down the narrative, is the time and place/setting convincing, is it shown from the character's POV, has the research been done properly?
Janet McKenzie has written The Editor's Companion and worked for more than 30 years as a freelancer. She talked mostly about editing nonfiction, and pointed out that half of the books published each year are text books, so if you're freelancing there's a good chance that you end up working on one. She also talked about how many nonfiction writers are passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects, but often they are not good writers. Sometimes she ends up being a ghost writer. Another big issue in nf is illustrations, which included diagrams, maps, photos and captions.
She gave a lot of information on what it's like to be a freelancer (a no-collar worker), working from home, and how you need to set limits for both family and clients. These days, with all the overheads and need to maintain equipment etc, an experienced editor needs to charge a minimum of $60 an hour. It's also a danger when you underestimate how long a job might take, and end up working for a pittance. Publishers pay a pittance, and more editors are moving into the corporate world for better money.
She also mentioned a new national professional body for editors - the Institute of Professional Editors - which will mean all the state Societies of Editors will federate. IPED plans to offer professional accreditation and training, and will be working to enhance the work editors do. While there are a few courses where people can get basic editorial training (my course is one), the Grad Diploma at RMIT is only for people already working in the industry, so it's become a chicken-and-egg situation.
This was a session full of great information and advice - I wish it could have been videoed for all of our students.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Melbourne Writers' Festival - Day One

Yesterday, I attended five sessions. Might seem like a lot, but when there are two things at opposite ends of the day you want to see, you tend then to fill in the rest of the time with other bookings. This year, the festival organisers have changed the session times, overlapping them in the various theatres so that there is no longer the sardine can crush that can drive people to distraction. Also they have moved the bookshop out to an outside marquee - having a hundred people in a bookshop on the mezzanine at a time led to elbow jabs, foot stamping and bad tempers. Nothing like a festival goer who can't get a decent look at the books.
They've said that many of the sessions are booked out, but maybe everyone saved their ticket buying for the second weekend. It seemed to me that most things were well-attended but not overflowing.

Session 1 - Jeffrey Deaver
JD was entertaining and had plenty of good advice for aspiring writers, such as "Look at rejection as a speed hump, not a brick wall". Considering his first two novels were so bad he shredded them to destroy all evidence of their existence, the third was rejected by everyone in existence and then the fourth finally made it, he's had some experience of this. He likes to visualise his books, play them in his head like a movie, and says you should get right into the heads of all of your characters, good and bad, so you know how they're thinking and how they will behave.
For each book, he spends eight months outlining (150 page outline!), two months writing and two months rewriting. Rewriting might mean 30 or more drafts. To help the outline process, he uses Post-it notes and cards pinned to the wall, and it allows him to write scenes out of order if he wants to. His favourite philosopher is Clint Eastwood, especially Dirty Harry who said "A wise man knows his limitations." (My favourite CE quote is: I tried being reasonable - I didn't like it.) He also quoted Mickey Spillane, who said "People don't read books to get to the middle, they read to get to the end."
Deaver doesn't put a lot of specific gore in his stories. He believes his job is to entertain, not to repulse readers, and he doesn't write for himself, he writes for the fans. Hence the new book with a new main character, Kathryn Dance - reader response to her appearance in another novel was so great that she now has a series of her own.

Session 2 - Vendela Vida
I had not heard of this writer before, but the program guide said she was going to talk about how a writer edits their own novels (as in, when you get up the next morning and everything you wrote the day before is horrible). This blurb attracted a good audience, but the interviewer didn't seem to realise that was what people were waiting to hear, so there were plenty of questions about that aspect afterwards.
Vida is a co-editor of The Believer magazine, and also a fiction writer. Her first novel was And Now You Can Go, about a girl who is nearly shot by a man in a park one afternoon. This originally started out as 450 pages, but when she re-read it after finishing it, only the first 10 pages were any good, so she threw out the rest and started again. She writes literary fiction, but believes that plot involves consequences; if there are no consequences to characters' actions, there is no story.
She also talked about how, after making such a mess of her first novel, she then joined a writers' group as she realised she needed good feedback to make sure she didn't mess up again. Other points of interest - she wrote a lot more before she had a baby (big surprise!), but since then her and her husband have thrown out their TV, and two months ago they gave up the internet. Both things were consuming reading and writing time, and now they're gone.
She talked about writing 1000 words every day (which means getting up at 4.30am), and it was interesting how many people in the audience were amazed/stunned by this. In question time, three different people came back to the 1000 words thing, but the stark truth is - if you want to write novels, that's what you do. A page or two now and then when you feel like it is not going to get you a novel, not anytime soon at least. (Deaver said if you want to write for a living, you have to produce books regularly, at least one a year.)

Session 3 - Clive James talking about his poetry
This was a wide-ranging session about poetry writing (a poem consists of phrases joined together), influences (AD Hope, Larkin, Yeats), comic poetry (which he says has ruined his chances of being accepted as a serious poet), reviews and criticism (if you live long enough, you'll bury your critics) and melancholy (he suffers from it but stays busy). He also said "If you're not depressed, you don't know what's going on."
There was a lot of reciting of poems he knew by heart, plus more readings from his collected works. However, he did not read "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered", which he says was his breakthrough poem.

Session 4 - J.S. Harry
Harry is a well-known Australian poet, and I like her poetry. Her new book is a series of poems about a rabbit who travels around the world. The poems are accessible and interesting - I haven't read the book yet, although I did buy it.
However, I was sitting to one side in the seating, and Harry faced the other side with her head down for much of the first half of the session, so that all I could see was hair. A bit weird, as if her voice was coming out of somewhere else. She read a lot of poems, and the interviewer didn't seem to have many useful questions to ask. Maybe I was tiring by then, but it was a disappointing session as there was no discussion of poetry much at all, and the question time went off into a whole lot of stuff about Iraq (there is a session on poetry and Iraq on Sunday).

Session 5 - The Death of the Short Story
Everyone must be sick to death of this topic by now! They wheel it out every year, and Cate Kennedy, one of the panellists, said she'd now been asked to speak about it at three different festivals this year. So it was no surprise that no one had anything new to say about it. The first speaker, Rjurik Davidson, seemed unprepared and rambled on about nothing much, and had little to contribute. A pity, as his background is speculative fiction and he could have talked about short fiction in that area and given everyone a good insight into what was happening. Instead he mentioned it briefly and then waffled a bit more. (I get annoyed with panellists who are paid to be there but don't do the work.)
Nam Le's writing of short stories is US-focused, so he talked about the differences between there and here: the MFA programs in the US are geared to short stories through the workshop process and connected journals; they have a strong base of high quality journals as markets (the New Yorker gets a 1000 stories a week); there is a sense in the US that short fiction is a good training ground for new writers and is worth supporting.
Cate Kennedy was great, as always. She played with the metaphor of the short story as "endangered", so we had: space for short fiction these days is "poached" by real life stories; the combination of shrinking markets (in Australia) and more people writing and making publishing more competitive means a "loss of habitat"; we also suffer from "predation by other species" such as TV, internet, etc. She was succinct and funny, but also optimistic that the short story will continue. As always, the big question is how to get people to read more of them.
One person in the audience mentioned a series of readings of short fiction by well-known actors at the Wattle Cafe near Eltham - he said they have been incredibly popular and the actors are going to be taking the show on the road.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Canberra and home

After three terrific days in Canberra, I am home again. I did nine school visits in three days, and in every school the kids were just great. They listened, they barely fidgeted (pretty amazing on a Friday afternoon) and they asked fantastic questions like "Do you like writing in first or third person?" and "What would you want to be if you weren't a writer?" and "What would your publisher say if you stopped sending them stories?" The kids above are from Florey Primary School, my midday Friday visit. I should have taken more photos but I kept forgetting!
One question that came up several times was "Who is your favourite writer?". Now this is a question that I can't answer, because I have dozens, but it did remind me that I've promised several times to put a list of my favourites on my website. That's a job for this week.
While I was away, I read Sarah Dessen's Just Listen - I think she is one of the best YA writers around. She has the uncanny ability to get immense depth into her characters through their thoughts and emotions without being narcissistic or cynical, or even sentimental. Her novels are about relationships, both in families and among teens, and she depicts them so effectively that you can't help but care about the characters and want to know what happens.
I also read another Lisa Gardner crime novel The Third Victim, which deals with school shootings and puts a whole new angle on it. Again, her characters are very real and involving. She is also good at cliffhangers and chapter endings.
Today, I was hardly home (didn't even get the dirty clothes in the washing machine) when I discovered that my first session ticket for the Melbourne Writers' Festival was for 10am, not 12 noon as I'd thought. I raced off to make it in time for a session with Jeffrey Deaver, crime writer, and it was worth it. Notes from all of today's sessions will be coming soon.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Canberra Post

This is my third day in Canberra - second day of school visits. My voice is going OK, but at times I start to feel a bit croaky and have to try to talk with less volume! I hadn't realised how much I had got into the habit of shouting (or projecting, if you want to be nice about it). Most places I have been have had smallish rooms, or groups of kids sitting fairly close to me. In my normal classes, everyone sits miles away from me so I'm shouting across a wide space.
Last night I went to a panel session at the National Library - Bob Graham, Judy Horaceck and Gary Crew talking about "Inspiration and Intuition" - although, as Judy said, often ingenuity has to come into it as well. Once you get an idea, you then have to be quite ingenious as to what you do with it.
Gary mentioned he is currently writing his first adult novel (this is after more than twenty years of writing children's and YA novels) and he is finding it more difficult that he thought, especially in terms of character's voices. He also said that people often go to seminars or talks by writers, wanting to be writers themselves, and expecting that they will be "sprinkled with pixie dust" that will magically enable them to write a successful kid's book.
Oh, if only ... maybe I need to start looking for a pixie dust shop. Or at least a new voice shop.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's not spring in Canberra yet

Up in the bush, the acacias are starting to flower. Most are budding but this one (getting more sun, probably) was in full flower. In my backyard, the clematis is also flowering, and up the street, someone's cherry tree is in blossom. Still, this morning it was down to 4 degrees. The afternoon was almost tropical, but as I am off to Canberra tomorrow for Children's Book Week, I am watching the weather, and Canberra is still veddy veddy cold. So the suitcase is being packed with woolly things.
Or it would be, if I could get my act together. I think it's something to do with not being able to throw oodles of books and stuff into my car and set off for a school, knowing I can always race outside and gather more things. No, I'm going to be flying, so I have to choose. I recently had a lot of sample pages and galley proofs laminated (part of my talk is on how a kid's book gets published) and I hadn't realised how much heavier the pages would be. My special carry folder won't fit in my suitcase, or the overhead locker in the plane, so I have to leave it behind. Curses! I want to take everything, and can't. And despite letters beforehand, only one school has said yes, bring books for our students to buy. So do I take what I have, and risk excess luggage? Or leave half of them behind and wish I'd lugged them with me?
Considering it's me who is going to carry this stuff, I will have to err on the side of my osteopath (who would frown at heavy weights as well as poor lifting techniques).
The best bit is choosing two books off my "to read" pile to take with me. Airports are great places for getting lots of uninterrupted reading done, apart from those uniformed people who want you to get on the plane a.s.a.p. So I've chosen Sarah Dessen's new novel, and an older novel by Lisa Gardner (I'm currently reading her crime novels and doing a lot of thinking about her pacing and chapter breaks - very useful if you want to look at tension and page-turners).
Now, where are my possum fur gloves?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Online learning

Where I work and teach, there has been a push for several years to get us to provide our courses and/or subjects online, particularly so we can offer them to overseas and remote/rural students. While some people shudder at the idea of studying via the computer without the stimulation of the classroom, I actually did most of my degree by off-campus delivery (no online technology in those days!) and recognised then and now that what made it work for me was the terrific study guides and course materials.
In some ways, writing is a great thing to study via the internet. When this push first started, they funded some of us to go online and become students for a while, testing out for ourselves what worked and what didn't. I chose to study the Writer's Digest Advanced Short Story course, and really enjoyed it. Mikki Hayden was the instructor, and as well as a structured series of units, I had access to their online library of articles and resources. What made this course especially memorable for me was that 9/11 happened about four weeks in, and several people ended up dropping out because of different ways in which they were affected by it (family or friends dying, living close by, etc). They did explain this to the rest of us, and then we all took a deep breath and kept going with the course.
So, in creating new materials and writing new content for my units, I keep all of these experiences in mind, plus the knowledge that younger students these days are much more used to using technology and the internet for study and fun. Still, how do you replicate a great classroom discussion about plot and pacing in a historical YA novel, or repetition and irony in a poem by Billy Collins? Or the experience of workshopping a chapter of your novel, or your poem about death that was based on your uncle dying last week? In the classroom, the teacher is able to push the discussion along, or introduce a new idea quickly, or temper someone's comments when they've become less than constructive. How do you do that online when mostly it isn't happening in real time, so a rude comment can be up there for several hours or days?
All good questions, which is why we keep going off and doing more training and talking about these issues and how to resolve them.
But beyond that, I think offering subjects online provides a great resource for any writer who wants to increase their skills, get some unbiased feedback and feel like they're not so alone. Even a writer in the middle of a huge city can feel isolated and depressed about what they're trying to achieve. Who cares? How can I know if I'm on the right track or not? Is this story any good?
When I did my degree, a large part of it was focused on writing - it was the first time I was able to get feedback on my stories and poems from experienced writers/readers who didn't know me from a bar of soap. So their comments were, to me, more valid because they weren't there to pat me on the back - they were there to show me how to improve.
At the moment, I'm working on creating online content for three different subjects - writing picture books, a preparatory unit (like a short "taster" for our professional writing course) and helping another teacher, T, with our fiction subjects. We're about to completely restructure these latter modules and develop a whole new approach that we hope will give students a stronger grounding in the basics of fiction writing. Phew! Hopefully, they'll be ready to run in 2008.
In the meantime, we are still teaching our usual classes on campus, and trying to write when we get the time and headspace. This is usually when that "writing full-time" dream starts to surface, and I start double-checking that I've bought a Lotto ticket this week!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Googling agents

A student asked me yesterday if Miss Snark's blog was still going. Sadly, I had to answer no. When he asked why not (did she die? or was it all a scam?), I explained what Miss Snark had said at the end - she thought she'd answered every possible question about agents and agenting and publishing she possibly could, and it was time to stop.

That doesn't mean to say the blog has gone. More than two year's worth of information, advice and snarkiness is still there, and worth using as a resource. There are other agents who blog too, such as Kristin Nelson. Her blog has just won a Preditors and Editors award for usefulness.
But the question that often comes up about agents is "Is this a good agent? Is he/she worth submitting to? How can you work out if someone is a scammer?"

Writer Beware is a good start, as is this newer one from Reedsy (updated 2018). They will tell you if an agency is a scam, or if it charges reading fees (often also the sign of something dodgy). There are lots of sites out there that will give you information. I recently Googled a small agent (as in one person agency, not a short agent) I'd never heard of before, and the first result on the Google page was a forum at Absolute Write where writers were giving their feedback on said agent.

Someone told me recently that there are around 600 agents operating in the US. Here in Australia there are about 30. These days it's as hard to get an agent as it is to find a publisher for your book, but many larger publishers don't accept unsolicited submissions, so what choice do writers have?

At a session at last year's Writers' Festival in Melbourne, agents complained that publishers were basically pushing the slush pile aside and expecting agents to do all the sifting work. That's probably true! And if so, publishers then can't really complain when agents expect more money for their clients in terms of advances. Writing ... publishing ... agenting ... promotion - I was about to say they're a basket of chickens and eggs, but without the writers, none of the rest of it would happen. Does that make the writer into a hen-pecked rooster?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Why I Love Blogs

Friends often ask me - why do you read blogs? Why do you waste your time? They're boring, aren't they? Well ... no. I loved Miss Snark's blog, and she gave out a heap of relevant, straightforward info on how to get an agent (and not be a nitwit) that couldn't be duplicated anywhere else. I will forever be grateful for her Crapometer and the opportunity to put up a bit of my crime novel for evisceration.
I have about ten blogs that I read regularly. Three of them are by people I know personally, and I find it really interesting to read what they write, simply because they are writing for an (imaginary) audience, so it's different from what they'd tell me on the phone. They are aware of audience, and they are writers, so they write, rather than blather on like raving rabbiters (whom Miss Snark would banish to Rabbitania).
I have other blogs I dip into occasionally, to see what's going on. There are lots of blogs that I read via links from other people (e.g. recently I was reading the Neilsen-Hayden blog - a lit agency in NY - about the current A&R uproar that's going on - it was fascinating, if only because they were talking in NY about an Australian issue, and some of the comments were both insightful and hilarious).
Blogs tell you what's going on. What people in the industry are thinking and saying right now. Writers' blogs are great because they are written by writers. Think that's obvious? Try reading blogs written by people who don't seem to know what the English language was invented for. Yes, those are the time-wasters for me. Don't go there.
Blogs are also great for people who want to have a say about something. Right here, right now. No pussy-footing, no trying to be nice. So I loved the following blog. It tackles that bugbear of children's writers everywhere - the celebrity author who writes crap books and gets paid big bucks for them. Yes, we all know that editors justify this by saying the money the celebrity books make bankrolls unknown writers. I get that. This blog talks about this dilemma from the editor's point of view. Let's face it - what writers need is for book buyers to start asking for good recommendations and stop buying X or Y because Madonna or Billy Crystal wrote it.
The revolution is coming (I have faith!) - I believe this because of the number of people who have commented on how they don't buy books from A&R anymore because of the lack of quality. We live in hope.
If you buy children's and YA books, how do you choose? I look at CBC shortlists (because the books must be there for a reason), but if they don't appeal, I search the shelves for something I do like. I read reviews, and note books that sound interesting. In bookshops, I read blurbs and first pages.
I see and hear people, often grandmothers, in bookshops asking what they should buy for little Jack, and being given "safe options" - classics or prize winners or the latest hot thing. The sign of a good bookshop is staff who read. Readings has tons of shelf recommendations - from staff who've read something and want to tell you about it. But all bookshop staff need to be more adventurous in their reading.
By the way, am I the only person who thought that Neville pulling the Sword of Gryffindor out of the hat was a bit too convenient and doesn't hold up logically in the plot? (this is a HP7 question). Well, I know I'm not the only person because I've checked out some of the discussions! Quite a few people, however, seem happy to glide past that question with comments like "The hat has always provided Gryffindors with what they need in dire times". Huh! I'm not convinced. The curse of the writing teacher ... to pick out plot glitches.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Want to Write a Poem?

yellow mountain watching

azure skies over bush again
fat woman arrives, cleans about
looking rough and raucous
the only cumbersome part--that mountain
watching near silence
where cat awaits

now yellow mountains fade
into azure beginnings
then cat once more

You, too, can write a poem - fill out the word boxes and this site writes the poem for you. I have to say, what came out surprised me!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Publishing View from an Editor

Interesting blog on the Guardian website which talks about book publishing from an editor's point view. Louise Tucker is, as she says, an editor for one of the big four publishers in the UK. They publish 400 books a year. She is defending some of the perennial complaints about publishing - not enough editorial input to books, too many awful celebrity books, etc, and suggests that if people want better publishing of better books, they should buy at full price and not at Tescos (or here it would be KMart/Big W).
As I've read this today, after reading all the stuff about A&R in Australia, I found her arguments were a little bit hollow. But I do think that many editors do the job because they love it, and in spite of the bean counters. I've heard more than one story of an editor fighting to publish a book they love by a new author, and being shot down by either marketing or the bean counters.

Friday, August 10, 2007

The A&R Furore

This week, writers everywhere in Australia have been madly discussing the A&R letter - namely, a letter that booksellers Angus & Robertson have sent to smaller book suppliers/distributors threatening to stop buying their books through them. If you go here, you'll be able to read the Sydney Morning Herald blog, which includes not only the original A&R letter, but a very pithy reply from Tower Books.
One thing that should be made clear (and kind of is in the two letters) is that this letter is from the A&R Head Office that manages most of the stores. However, there are other A&R bookshops that are franchises and presumably not under the HO thumb when it comes to managing their stock, although this was not totally clarified for me.
Last weekend I did a book signing at A&R in Box Hill Centro Shopping Centre, and the couple running that particular A&R couldn't have been nicer or more supportive in what they did with publicity and encouraging people in the shop to buy my books. I suspect that they are franchisees, although I didn't ask. A few years ago, we had a Collins branch at our local shopping centre, and the couple running that were forced out by Collins HO through a series of very shifty moves. We've never had another bookshop there since.
I don't understand what A&R hope to gain from this. If Borders coming into Australia has proven one thing, it's that bookbuyers want choice. We don't want just The Da Vinci Code (well, I never wanted that book!) or the latest Harry Potter (I did buy that, but at the bargain counter at KMart) - we want to be able to browse, find new authors, get what we want, when we want it - or we'll go to Amazon.
The best bookshops in Melbourne for browsing are Readings and (for me) the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. I don't know what it is, but whoever selects books at the Sun is great at choosing things that I cannot resist. But I shop at Borders too because they have the best selection of books about writing, and a great children's section. I never shop at A&R because their shop at Highpoint never has anything I want. They simply don't buy in a stock of decent books for the serious reader, and they always seem to have bargain tables full of the most awful, cheap books that I wanted to put into the mulcher.
For me, this letter thing (and Tower's reply) confirms what I've suspected, and others agree with me, that the A&R buyers and buying division have been doing a very bad job. It's like they're supposed to be buying fresh vegetables and they keep stocking tins of baked beans.
I presume Tower Books (and others) are going to tell A&R to go jump. Judging from the 129 comments (so far) following the blog entry, so are all the bookbuying customers.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Clive James on writing

On the ABC's Talking Heads program tonight, guest Clive James was asked about how he deals with writer's block. His answer: "No, I've never had a long block. And the reason... The way I've actually developed as a writer, over the years, is I've learned not to panic when it won't come. Because when it doesn't come, that's part of the process. That tension of not being able to do it means somewhere in your brain you're sorting out something that's too complex for immediate expression, but it will be when it's sorted itself out. The expression "sleep on it" comes out. Sometimes I work in my sleep - I know I do - because I wake up more capable of expressing what I have to say. But to become a professional writer, it's necessary to reach the stage where you can live with the tension when it's not happening, because that's part of the process."

You can read the transcript of the interview on the ABC site here.

Conquering technology

An old friend of mine, Doris, used to say that inside her computer were two little green men on bicycles, and the harder they pedalled, the better her computer went. When it stopped working, the little green men were on strike.
Whereas for me, having seen many computers go Phhhttt!! or remain black-screened (or even pink-screened, like one of mine years ago), and seen many computer users turn into hysterical wrecks, or at least throw a decent tantrum, when their computers have died, I'm the cynical kind. If it can go wrong, it will. And usually in ways you can't predict. Witness the successful transfer of most of my stuff onto a new computer last week, but before the remaining files and programs could be sorted out, the old computer was accidentally dropped from a height of about two metres. Less said about that, the better.
However, my new tech phobia related to fiddling with my website. I'm happy to update it and add new book covers, but the thing that I kept putting off required me to download code from Paypal, after creating Buy Now buttons, and insert it into my webpages where needed.
I've been avoiding this task for two months. I kept telling myself that when my brain felt more tech-inclined, it would happen. A pathetic excuse.
Finally, I have done it. Last week I spent a bit of time on Dreamweaver, playing with a new site I'm creating - the confidence level increased, and today I thought, Do it now.
So I did. I have four buttons on my site to allow overseas readers to buy some of my books (I am trusting that I have done everything required to make these work!). I can't sell my Penguin books directly to people in Australia though, as I'm not allowed.
And I can't sell my out-of-print picture book as even I don't have copies to spare anymore. My plan to print more in Hong Kong, as I have the rights back, fell in a heap after I discovered that the illustrator does not have the rights back for the illustrations. It's a long story...

Sunday, August 05, 2007

It's a Cat's Life...

No, she's not dead. She's now hogging the big heater in the loungeroom. During the day, if the sun is out, she finds the warmest spot outside to sleep. Our other cat, Roko - large, black male - prefers to find the highest spot, usually the back of the couch when inside, and sleep up there with one eye open to make sure everyone is behaving.

Differing views

In the Review section of the Weekend Australian (4-5 Aug, 07) there is an article about an English writer, Scarlett Thomas, who writes what seems to be spec fiction with an experimental edge. She talks about receiving a letter from Phillip Pullman (of Dark Materials) which questioned why she was writing in the present tense, like "many young novelists".
To quote, Thomas said: "I wrote back and said the problem with narrating in the past tense is that you get a sense of somebody sitting comfortably in a rocking chair at the end of the narrative saying, 'Let me tell you a story'. You know, everyone's fine and they survived. There's a sense of a kind of after narrative, but I wanted a sense that there might not be an after. You're there in the present and everything could crumble at any moment."
Pullman responded again and said: "OK, I take your point about the rocking chair, but the present tense is like having the narrator talk breathlessly into a tape recorder while they're doing everything that they're doing..."
The article doesn't say if they agreed to disagree! But it does show that everyone has different ideas about past or present tense - I guess the main thing is to know why you're using one or the other, and be consistent. I see a lot of student work where the writer slips from past to present and vice versa, and doesn't realise they're doing it. We (as in teachers, two of whom teach editing where I work) talked about this the other day. You can teach how to use verbs, how to form each of the tenses, and practice them in sentences in class, then test correct usage. But that is doing it in isolation - how do you teach someone to recognise "slippage", or even to understand the effects of past or present tense on how the story is told, its tone, style or flow?
I think that, after you've done the classroom stuff, you have to read and see it in action. It always astounds me how few books many of our writing students read, and its one thing I try to weave into the classes throughout the year, especially in areas like children's and YA novels. If you want to write the things, surely you should be reading lots of what is out there at the moment? But also I try to get students to read like writers - to think about language and character and dialogue and all those other things that make up a story - enjoy the story first but then go back and read again to learn.
At the moment, I'm reading a few Jacqueline Wilson books. She has been out here recently for a short tour and I missed seeing her at the Reading Matters conference. She is hugely popular in the UK, and becoming more so overseas, so I thought I would read several books and think about what she is doing. (I read The Illustrated Mum a couple of years ago and didn't like it, but my writer's curiosity has sent me back.) I was quite surprised at the amount of what some editors would label telling. Yesterday I finished The Suitcase Kid, today I'm reading Dustbin Baby, and it's interesting how strongly these two books rely on a narrator to simply tell a story. There is plenty of action, but there is also a lot of the narrator's voice explaining. I'll read on, and think more about this, and how it works.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Writing but not writing

While the 100 words of my YA novel has been sagging (400 on Monday and none since), I have been doing other writing. My writing group is attempting to write a group novel. We have worked out a plot, each taken a character and written about 2000 words so far. It's multi-viewpoint, and each piece is in the first-person voice of the character. This way we avoid any problems with trying to create a consistent style or voice. The big challenge is plotting. Yesterday we ended up creating a timeline, to sort out what is happening when and in what order (e.g. X can't phone Y before 8pm because Z has to talk to W first and provide that piece of information). We also have some minor characters who have to be woven into the story without having voices of their own, so B is in a scene with R, but we still have to work out who B is, what his motivations are and what he is actually doing there, so that the person writing as R can complete the scene with the right information.
Sound complicated?! It is, but as we sit around the table and work it all out, we are having a lot of fun, and we are also writing something that is exciting, challenging and interesting. And for some of the group members who normally don't write much, it's invigorating and satisfying. There - lots of energetic adjectives!
The other writing I have been working on is actually an interview which provided a lot of great background information for a story idea I'm developing. I did vow last year that I would only work on one project at a time, but when other things pop up and the energy is there to follow through on, I'm going with it! It's another way to get over the winter blues - have several projects that excite and interest me, and keep me moving.
Last night I had dinner with two fellow teachers and a friend who was teaching with us and has resigned. Her new life is about writing - that was what she wanted to focus on for the next 18 months (she writes plays) - and she seemed very happy with her decision to forgo a regular wage and some security for the opportunity to write. There's no doubt that her writing will benefit hugely from the focus and concentration. We are all a little bit envious, but then she has no other commitments or dependents, so she is free to make that choice. We wished her lots of luck, and gave her a voucher for Officeworks (all writers need stationery!).