Sunday, September 30, 2007

True Beginnings

The mid-semester break is allowing me to wade my way through the pile of books I've been saving, and I'm getting down to some that have been sitting there for several months. I bought quite a few books in Tucson because, well, they were cheap! Something that I'd pay $18 for here in Australia, I could buy in the US for half that price, or less. Writing books are particularly expensive here, and not just because many of them are hardbacks. T and I were looking at one the other day that was $49.95, and many paperbacks are $35-45.

At the moment, I'm writing material for a new unit called Story Structure, and was attempting to create some intelligent, clear thoughts on how to write a good beginning. I remembered a Tucson purchase that I'd skimmed, but hadn't got around to reading properly. Hooked by Les Edgerton, which is all about beginnings. You might ask, how do you write a whole book on beginnings? But Les E. makes a very good point: a story with a great beginning very often signals that the rest of it will be worth reading. If someone doesn't understand how to start a story effectively, then the rest of it hasn't got much hope.

This may sound harsh. I've heard many writers complain about editors who admit they only read the first 2-3 pages. How can you possibly judge how good the novel will be if you only read 3 pages? You can. Totally and absolutely, you can. You may not be able to judge how the character will change and grow, if the plot will work (that's what the synopsis is for) or if the ending pans out, but 3 pages is enough to gauge if a writer has what it takes to write a terrific novel. A competent, pretty good novel doesn't cut it these days.

Les E. also talks about writing courses that teach students how to write in bits (character, setting, dialogue, etc) and yes, we do this. But we also do Story Structure - how to put the whole thing together. How to plot and outline. I make students write an outline or synopsis. It's the most hated assignment in a novel writing class, and the one that I get the most feedback on (in terms of "I didn't want to do it but I am so glad you made me because ...").

But back to beginnings. Les E. says, "A good quality story beginning is a microcosm of the work entire. If you capture the right beginning, you've written a small version of the whole." I'm not sure I agree with that 100%, but I have to say that in two semesters of a novel writing class, 97% of students don't end up writing more than 4-5 chapters. There are many reasons why, including workload in other subjects, and discovering the novel they started isn't the novel they want to spend 3 or more years on. So to approach those first chapters, or even Chapter One, in terms of it being a microcosm for the whole novel ... that's worth thinking more about.

What I won't think any further on, because it was so pathetic, was England's performance in the Rugby World Cup against Tonga. If all they can do is rely on JW's field goals and sneaky tries ... I'll be quiet now.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Writers and Language

In my previous post, I went on quite a bit about writers (or writers aspiring to publication, i.e. our students) and how they need to be able to use the English language properly, including correct punctuation. It's a funny thing, but there are always students who insist, either openly or with quiet mutterings, that punctuation isn't that important, and the "brilliance" of their story and their writing will overcome any silly prejudices that an editor might have about the grammar stuff. And no matter what you say, they don't believe you.

So here it is from the horse's mouth! Henry Rosenbloom from Scribe Publications has a blog on their site, and his latest post talks about unsolicited manuscripts and how they deal with them. This excerpt is part of how they read what comes in:

"Second, once we’ve asked for sample material, we pay careful attention to the covering note and to the quality of the writing of the sample chapters, as well as to the content. Just as individuals notice and respond to body language when meeting somebody for the first time, an editor will immediately register how language is used by a new author. Punctuation, syntax, grammar, and tone all tell a story, for better or worse."

They sure do. Usually, bad punctuation makes a piece of writing simply unreadable. Those commas and fullstops control flow and sense - if I can't understand what a sentence is saying, how can I become truly involved in the story? I recently gave a talk on Plain English to a group of professional credit managers, and what interested me was that clearly some of them had never thought about their "audience" and whether that audience clearly understood what was being conveyed in their letters and notices. In some ways, there's not that much difference between wanting someone to pay their bill, and wanting someone to enjoy your story. You have to tell it to them in a way that is clear and engaging.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Can Creative Writing be Taught?

If I had a dollar for every time someone has asked this question (and $10 for every time there's been a newspaper or magazine/journal article about it) I could retire. Of course, as someone who teaches creative writing myself, in a Diploma level course, I'm going to say Yes, it can be taught. I wouldn't be doing this job if I didn't believe that. But there are always going to be arguments. I have a quote on my desk that says something like "A creative writing course can't teach someone how to write, but it can teach someone how not to write." To me, that's step 1.

We select students for our course. That means we read their folio of writing pieces, we make them sit a grammar and punctuation test (because we've discovered the hard way that someone who has no grasp of how to use the language will fail our course, and we do fail people, especially in the editing subjects, but it affects every subject they do), we make them do more writing after the test, and then we interview them. Does that make it sound hard to get in? It is. We have 25 full-time places, and we get about 120 applicants. So to be offered a full-time place, you have to show some kind of talent, a good grasp of the English language and a commitment to writing and reading.

I say "a good grasp of the English language" because far too many applicants coming out of Year 12 in high school have appalling grammar and punctuation skills. So we can't and don't expect applicants to be perfect in that area - that's why they have to do a whole year of grammar, punctuation and sentence construction, plus some editing. And why a commitment to writing and reading? Because if you want to be a writer and you aren't writing on a regular basis (even a journal) and you don't read, you're not on the right track. Maybe you should be something else.

So if step 1 is teaching people how not to write, what is the rest of it about? Teaching them to read like writers is step 2 for me. Asking 'what is this writer doing? how are they doing it? what can I learn from it?' is a huge, ongoing learning process. I'm still doing it myself after 20 years of writing and publishing, and I expect to be doing it forever. I want my students to do it too. We teachers aren't going to be at their shoulders after the course is finished.

Step 3 is writing. Lots. Not just the novel, or a short story or two, or a picture book or two. Writing every day. Writing many things. Writing in different styles. Writing background material and backstory in order to create a work that has depth and complexity. Writing poetry to increase language skills and appreciation. Writing scripts to improve dialogue (or if you want to write scripts, writing character backstory to improve how your characters speak). Writing to deadlines, because why shouldn't you learn to write under pressure? And editors expect you to meet deadlines in the real world. Creating your own deadlines and making writing contracts with yourself, so that you are writing thousands of words every month.

Step 4 is revision. Not just a little polishing and editing, but re-visioning the whole work, if it needs it. Learning how to 'see' your own work with a critical eye. In the course, we do a lot of workshopping and critiquing. In first year, everyone is more tentative, more fragile, and the teachers are firm but encouraging. In second year, I'm tough, and I expect everyone to toughen up. I'm not mean and nasty (and neither is anyone else allowed to be) but if something is not working, then the writer needs to address it fully and rethink what they're trying to achieve. Fiddling around the edges and changing half a dozen words very often is pointless. I try to teach students to be brave about their rewriting, and also to be tough on themselves. Many stories only truly find their full potential through the re-visioning process.

There are other things we teach - mostly to do with craft and how to write better, how to develop aspects you are weak in, how to outline and plot so your novel doesn't fall in a hole - but what we also teach is the industry. How publishing works, how books get accepted, what happens next, what marketing is all about, how to market yourself, how to be professional at all times. And how to stay motivated and set goals.
And after this long post, I still feel like there are a million more things I could say about what we teach in our course, but I'll stop here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Reading Gluttony

It's mid-semester break, and I admit to several sneaky visits to bookstores and BigW to stock up on holiday reading. The pile grew and I did wonder guiltily if I'd overdone it, then Friday arrived and I grabbed the "most wanted" first - Exit Music by Ian Rankin. Maybe I was suffering from immersal-reading deprivation (also known as "sinking totally into a book and forgetting the real world exists" deprivation) but I thought this was one of the best Rebus books I'd read in a while. It did occur to me that there weren't that many murders, and the story was more strongly character-based so maybe that was why I enjoyed it so much. Not that I'm averse to blood and guts...

It's Rebus's last week on the force, with retirement looming and no idea of how he might fill the years ahead, so he makes plenty of trouble for himself and others in his remaining days. My friend G and I talked about how some characters in crime novels (especially series) don't undergo great change, at least not in the character arc/growth/revelation kind of way. What we enjoy is recognising when they're being themselves in spite of opportunities to change! Who wants Rebus to undergo character rehabilitation at the end? Not me.

The next book I picked up was Lost It, a YA novel by Kristen Tracy. This was a book that I picked up in the US and hadn't got around to reading for a while, so I think I bought it because it seemed to offer a humorous view of a girl losing her virginity. It doesn't really. It does that thing where the big moment (losing it) happens near the beginning of the book, and I think any story that does this has to work really well in other ways to create tension and anticipation in the reader. This didn't quite do it for me, and a lot of the humour fell flat because I think the main character is meant to be naive and also confused about her crazy parents, but often she comes across as just plain stupid. As I loathe Kath and Kim for that very thing (concentrated, incessant stupidity), I guess it was never going to be my kind of book. (Sorry, all you K&K fans, but I'm a Cheers kind of girl!)

So now I've launched into Mark Billingham's new book, and I noticed yesterday that Val McDermid has a new one out... The holidays just won't be long enough.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Black Holes in the Mail Universe

Once upon a time, mail delivery was a ritual. The postman with his bike and whistle, the big red post boxes, the letters that went all the way around the world on a boat... I still can't get over the way postmen in the UK actually push your mail through the letter slot in your front door! (Maybe that doesn't happen any more?)

Then more and more people used mail for other things, like trying to sell you stuff, and advertising things you didn't want, and sending a million Christmas cards. The postal service suffered overload and efficiency went down. Or did it? Maybe we just expected too much. Letters were lost. Parcels went astray. But not always. I still remember a birthday present my grandmother sent to me in Sydney years ago - in the days when I moved around a bit - and I think it went back and forth across the Tasman Sea four times before I finally got it, covered in crossed out addresses and new attempts to find me.

I live in an area that seems to have a sub-post office. This means that if someone in the delivery area is running late (most days), my area has to wait for the next day. I complained. Huh! I've got used to receiving things a day later than everyone else. But my postman has been on the job for years, so wrongly-addressed letters often still get to me. The thing is - letters still go astray, even important letters. A few years ago, I sent 150 pages of a manuscript that I'd edited back to a writer friend. Admittedly, she was in Queensland at the time, but at a legitimate address. She never received it. Recently, an edited manuscript sent to me never arrived. Where on earth do these things go? It's not as if they're in small envelopes!

But woe is you if you think email is any better. By my estimates, at least 3% of my emails either never reach their destination, or I never receive those destined for me. When it's someone asking if I've read a review in the weekend paper, I'm not likely to notice. But there have been significant occasions in the past year where I have not received important emails (telling me something has been accepted for publication, for instance - calamity!), and also where my emails have not reached people at crucial times.

Ticking the Receipt Requested box on my email doesn't work. Most people I know ignore this. The only way to solve it is to ask the person, in my actual email, to send me back a quick Yes to say they received it. And hope they do.
Why am I rabbitting on about this? Simply because a number of US publishers have now decided that they will only respond to your submission if they are interested in reading more or offering publication. Zap!

Now that would be an entirely fair and reasonable way to go about dealing with the slush pile. Except ... how would you know if they received your submission in the first place? Delivery of snail mail or email is not 100% certain. By my calculations, not even 98% certain. It's a quandary indeed. All we writers can do is persevere, and hope Australia Post and the US Postal Service do the same.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

More to POV than 1,2,3

In wrestling with a rewrite this week, I had to think long and hard about why my character behaves the way she does. Because I had to explain it to someone else, and I also think I'm going to write it all down for myself. I know it inside my head, but inevitably writing it out on paper helps to clarify and identify inconsistencies. I've heard many students explain their character actions by saying, "That's just what she's like, that's all!". When that is justification for why a character can be a snivelling wreck one minute and then launch into battle the next, I'm never convinced.

Why does a person hold everyone at arm's length? Why do they hate dogs? Why do they love their grandma but hate their mother? Why can't they drive a car? Why does the scent of roses make them sick? Why do they misbehave in class? Why, why, why? The answers to these questions always lie in their backstory, all the things that happened to them before your story started. The answers also lie within personality. Some people don't drive cars because they are committed greenies, some because they were too lazy to study for a licence and had Mum and Dad to drive them everywhere, some because they were in a bad car accident and are now too afraid to drive. How a person reacts to bad things also will determine future behaviour.

As a writer, concocting this person and trying to make them real, you have to know all of this. It ultimately influences point of view more than anything else. Simple POV is about whether you tell the story in 1st or 3rd person. Real POV is about how your point-of-view character sees the world, the particular attitude they have to themselves and the world around them, and how/why that attitude developed. How does a person become so lazy that they can't even be bothered to get a car licence? What has happened to make a person hate their mother? What makes one man a master at fixing small machines and another a poet?

So this is my task today - to fully explain to myself (first) who my character is at the beginning of my story and how she got that way. What has happened to her in the last 8 years or so to make her the way she is now? What happens in my story will change her too, as it will in any good story. Change and growth in our characters are two key things that will keep readers caring about them and wanting to know what happens next. It's in my head - now it needs to be on paper.

Friday, September 21, 2007

No Child Left Behind

Over the past five years, on my visits to the US (and in between), I've met a lot of people who are either school teachers or have friends or family who are school teachers. So I've heard a lot about No Child Left Behind. And it's all been bad. I've listened to dedicated teachers who say they are no longer allowed to read aloud to kids in the classroom. That reading books is bottom of the list of activities. That inspectors come into classrooms and check up on what the teacher is teaching. That the school curriculum is now designed to train kids to pass tests, so the school can get their funding. That some desperate teachers try to find ways to "fudge" the test results. That lots of great teachers are giving up in despair and finding other jobs.

When our Prime Minister started spouting about bringing in something similar here in Australia, my blood began to boil. If you don't know what NCLB is about, do some research. You think you hated school when you were a kid - try being a poor kid in a poor school coping with NCLB. And if you want to read about a dedicated educator in the US who is doing his damnedest to make a difference (Congress is due to review NCLB soon), then read his blog. I tried to read the comments on his post and had to give up because so many of them were either off the point or downright stupid.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Proof Reading - Perfection (almost) Impossible

Tonight in Poetry 2 we read a long poem from Blue Dog magazine - an interesting poem that I wanted to use as the basis of a writing exercise. I was surprised to note several errors in the poem, and wondered where they came from. Did the editors of the journal use the poet's electronic file and not check it before going to print? Did they typeset it from hard copy and introduce errors? I've never met a poet yet who didn't have either a quiet or very loud hissy fit over typos in their poems. When The Age prints a poem with an error, they republish the whole poem.

As editors of Poetrix, we often come across errors in contributors' poems. No matter how closely poets read their poems before sending them in, errors creep in. We are our own worst proof readers. Sometimes the editorial committee debate about a word - was it an mistake, or did the poet really mean to use this strange word? An example is using gripe when they meant grip. If we're not sure, we try to contact the poet and double-check what they actually meant to say.

We've had the occasional poet who has used terrible punctuation, and insisted on keeping it that way, even when we point out that it detracts from the poem. (To be honest, a really badly punctuated poem usually gets rejected - a poet needs to pay as much attention to punctuation as line breaks, stanza breaks and white space.) We use our style guide for formatting (e.g. we use M rules instead of dashes) and the Macquarie Dictionary for many of our decisions about spelling.

The worst issue was one where we tried to scan the contributors' poems to save typesetting, which introduced so many mistakes that it ended up taking longer to fix everything! We try really hard to produce each issue with NO errors at all, and I think so far we have succeeded. It helps to have five proof readers. I still remember a writer years ago whose children's book came out with a blurb where heroine was spelt heroin. Oh dear. And our guest speaker yesterday (K.S. Nikakis, talking about the publication of her first fantasy novel The Whisper of Leaves) said when she got her first copy of the published book, the very first page she opened it at contained an error. But she wouldn't tell us where it was!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Aha, But Do You Love Your Villains Too?

Good question. If we don't "love" our villains, how can we make them into real people? Fantasy writers are prone to working the good vs evil idea, with the evil being incarnated as evil wizard, evil overlord, evil dwarf, evil something-that-is-only-represented-by-a-picture-like-an-eye, etc. (There's a whole web page devoted to Fantasy/SF Turkeys to avoid.) But character motivation is as important for the villains as it is for your hero. Perhaps even more so, because the whole story arc of a hero/villain scenario is surely that until the last moment, the villain is winning. If not, the story is over. Hero 1, Villain 0. Done and dusted.

Why would someone want to rule the world? Why would someone want all the money, or all the magic, or all the girls, or all the ... whatever? If that desire is not concrete, if it's not understandable, if it's not believable - then you end up with a cardboard villain, and no real conflict in the story.

OK, so I'll use the Deaver example again. Villain is a people smuggler from China, ruthless, with a lot of contacts that he's paid for, either with money or threats. He's also very intelligent, and street-smart. He has that sixth sense about danger. He can think on his feet. He is a strong foe, almost unbeatable. He also has a history - a family of parents and brother who were killed during the Mao revolution - and a driving thirst for revenge. No one gets away with anything with this guy, no matter who they are. He will pursue those he wants to kill with everything he's got. So we have desire, motivation and intelligence. Hard to beat in a villain, really!

This is the other side of putting your most-loved characters in danger - having a villain who is not only ruthless enough to fight to the end (and hey - this is true even when you're writing a YA novel about girls competing for the same guy), but with enough layers and complexity so that the reader understands where that villain is coming from and feels, despite themselves, a little bit of pity or empathy. Now you've got a conflict that's cooking, not just for you, but also for your reader.

When is real life ever one-dimensional? When is it simple? You lie about who took the last piece of chocolate layer cake - it was you. Why do you lie? Not because you're evil (well, your kids might think so!) but because you are on a diet and feeling deprived, because you couldn't stop yourself (even though you've been preaching self-control and sharing), because you were pissed off with them not tidying their rooms like you asked, because you cooked it, and darn it, why shouldn't the last piece be yours? Lots of reasons. That's what everyone in this world is like. Mixed feelings. Mixed motivations, all at once. That's how you start to create believable characters and villains, and then you zero in on that one driving force that overrides everything else. And your story is born.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Loving Your Characters 2

The second biggest problem with loving your characters too much is that you find it hard to make bad things happen to them. I'm forever telling students - raise the stakes! Make your character suffer. Sometimes we do an exercise where I get them to write down the absolute worst thing that could happen to their main character, other than death. They do as I ask, and come up with assault, bankruptcy, betrayal, severe injuries, etc. Then I tell them that they have to try to make that terrible thing happen to the character in their story.

They are usually horrified. And try to find all kinds of reasons why that wouldn't be possible. In fact, for one or two, the catastrophe wouldn't be possible, but for more than 90% it is not only possible but it would give their story the drama and conflict it often needs. I don't force them to do this, of course, but I want to at least raise the idea and let them think about it.

I have the same problem. Many of us do. Our characters cruise too easily through their lives, and the result is low tension levels and a reader who says "so what?" In a middle grade novel I've been rewriting again, one of the things I've struggled with is the knowledge that I don't love my main character. I like her, I like writing about her, but I don't love her. It's caused me problems in terms of moving her close to the reader, and feeling as if I am inside her head (mostly solved by moving into first person), but as it's a suspense/mystery story, I've had no trouble putting her in danger and injuring her!

One of the things I liked in the Deaver novel I read recently (where the main character is Lincoln Rhyme, the paraplegic investigator) was the way in which the other major character, Sachs, was tricked and nearly died as a result. Rhyme's ability to analyse the information in connected crimes saved her. Right up to the last minute, I thought that this time she would die, and this was because the villain seemed invincible. That's the other side of tension - a truly dangerous foe, not a cartoon baddie.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Do You Love Your Characters?

I read an interesting post this morning (while trundling around the net, procrastinating about marking assignments) that talked about "liking" and enjoying your characters, especially your viewpoint/main character, rather than being "in love" with them. The writer said she thought being in love with your character can blind you to how you are writing about them - you might be having a wonderful time, getting them to do all sorts of enjoyable things in the story, but actually end up writing drivel. In other words, fun for you but what about the poor reader?

It's an interesting thought. How often are we told we must love our main character, know them inside out, want to tell their story, etc etc. Writers talk about how the characters "just took over the story and I had no control over them", and that certainly does happen, but I do believe your subconscious comes into play at that point. Your own suspension of disbelief (i.e. these are not real people) allows you to fully engage in what is possible for them. If you hold the characters at arms-length and manipulate them on the page, the "taking over" is not possible.

For me, the idea that being in love with your character can blind you to bad writing rings true. When I know a character well, but am not in love with them, I can see their flaws as well as their good points. I also like writing in order to find out more about them. Sometimes this happens in the novel, but often it happens in the extra writing. If I feel I'm not getting to grips with a character well enough, I'll free write about them, ask them questions, let them answer in their own voice. Free writing unlocks the subconscious element of character creation far better than the actual novel does, because you are not constrained by story. And it's the subconscious part that reveals things about the character that you didn't know you knew.

OK, so all this subconscious stuff sounds weird, or at least a bit suspicious. Try it for yourself. Free write a scene where you sit behind a desk and your character enters the room and sits on the other side. Ask them questions, and then free write their answers. The key is in the free writing - you do it fast, without stopping, without editing, and you keep going for at least twenty minutes. If you've never tried free writing before, make sure you stick to the rules. If you want to know more about it, Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg is a great book.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The End of the Week

It's been a long week. And today, Friday, has been "anxious day". After 3 days in a training course, I now have a long list of things to catch up on, things to do, payments to make, assignments to mark, cats to kick (oops, didn't mean that, but if they don't stop bugging me for food ... grocery shopping is on the catch-up list). I hate feeling like this because what it does, more than anything, is stop me writing. I get so twitchy about THE LIST that writing drops right to the bottom of it. But nevertheless, a major item was a final little polish on a manuscript that I was supposed to email to an editor, so I made it the priority. And it's done. And I feel better now.

I've mentioned Clive James here before - he seems to be the most quotable person around at the moment. His latest quote was about critics. He was actually quoting Miles Davis, who said, "If I don't like what they say, I climb into my Ferrari and drive away." Obviously Mr Davis can afford a Ferrari, as probably can Mr James. I tend to imagine climbing into our old Holden Ute, cranking over the engine a few times, despairing at its failure to fire, finally getting it going and then hitting the gatepost on my way out of the driveway. Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?

A few months ago, I added a couple of new blogs to my regular reading (I had to, since Miss Snark retired), and one is Paperback Writer, aka Lynn Viehl. She has a great blog with lots of extras - in particular, links to useful free software for writers - but she also runs a few competitions. The kind where you can post a comment and be in the hat for a prize. I was lucky to win a book a few weeks ago, and even luckier when she said it was no problem to post it OS to me. I have dipped into several times already, and it's a goodie. "The New Writer's Handbook" edited by Philip Martin (Scarletta Press). It even has poems in it, and the piece on how many writers does it take to change a lightbulb is funny. The book is a combination of how-to-craft and how-to-keep-going articles, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

I also like A Newbie's Guide to Publishing by J.A. Konrath. He's posted some interesting stuff recently (and before that too) about branding and marketing, from the point of view of someone who's tried all kinds of things. His posts are straightforward, no-nonsense, and very informative.

The internet often leads you places you hadn't quite expected to go. I thought I'd see if my old high school in New Zealand has a website, and it does, but it also has a link to one of those sites where you can find old schoolfriends. So I took a look. It was fascinating, because all the people I had expected to be on a site like that, weren't, and a number of people I never would have thought would sign up, had. My school is having a 50 year reunion in 2008. That is a scary thought.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Different Kinds of Learning

At the moment, Tracey and I are doing a 3-day training course on e-learning - all about the basics of constructing online units of study, plus the whizz-bang software that creates the fancy extras. Yesterday we had 6+ hours of "chalk and talk" - where someone stood up the front and talked. And talked. And talked. With Powerpoints instead of chalk and blackboard. We were brain-dead by the time we finished. And then we both had to go and teach classes afterwards, but for me, the opportunity to actually DO something was a great contrast.

If nothing else, yesterday was a good lesson in what not to do, in how awful it is for our students if we talk and talk and give them nothing to do, and funnily enough, it was also a good example of how not to construct an online course (i.e. lots of reading but no interaction or activities).
Today, we have been learning how to use a program called Captivate (I now can see how shaky my hand is on the mouse!) and Photostory. But I think you still have to be careful that you're not creating stuff that is like television - just sit and watch. We all know how much TV puts you to sleep!
It's still all about involvement and engagement.

A bit like a novel really. It's very easy, with all those words, to rabbit on and on, to get carried away with the way your keyboard just keeps on putting those wonderful words on the screen for you. But what about the reader? I've put a heavy emphasis this year on reader engagement, because my students are writing YA novels. Much of writing YA, to me, is about point of view, about being right inside the character's head, feelings, emotions and reasoning. Often writers unintentionally distance the reader because they're still inside their own heads (as authors) rather than the viewpoint character's.

Part of this is voice. We watched a video on Monday about John Marsden, who is still probably Australia's best-known YA writer. He said that no matter how much of the plot he had worked out, how much he'd created with setting and theme, he couldn't start writing the novel until he heard the voice of the viewpoint character/narrator in his head.
For a reader, feeling as if the character is actually talking to you (via the novel) can be totally engaging, when done well.
Maybe I need to create a narrator for my online unit... a persona... a voice...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Book Roundup

Too much reading lately, and not enough writing, but I'm not really complaining. Reading is the best procrastination tool I know!

Kiss & Blog - Alyson Noel: Most definitely a book for teen girls. The familiar story of two girls who want to make it into the "in" group; one does, and drops the other like a hot potato. Dropped friend gets revenge via a blog that reveals the other's embarrassing secrets. Once I got past the constant use of "like" and other current language hiccups, it was a nice read. I am definitely not the target readership for this book! But I can imagine thousands of 13-14 year olds who will love it.

The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner: I'm a recent fan of Lisa G's books, and love to go back and re-read bits to see what she's doing. This book involves a school shooting by a teenage boy, but all is not what it seems. Rainie, the small-town cop who investigates, is aided and annoyed by out-of-town FBI and state police, but she has her own dark past to confront. What I also like about Lisa G's books is the way in which she holds back information to increase tension. Not everything has to be laid out straight away, but the twists in the story are worked in at just the right places.

Twilight - Stephanie Meyer: OK, I'm going to get abuse hurled at me from around the world, but this just didn't grab me. (Meyer's vampire trilogy is famous right now because the third one scored a million-copy print run.) I tried very hard to overcome my dislike of vampire stories - caused by having a number of students a few years ago who were writing really, really bad vampire novels - but by page 90 I was totally over the main character's awe and astonishment at Edward's beauty. In fact, I started itching to grab a red pen and cross out every time she mentioned the words beauty, marble, astonishing, gorgeous, etc. And I thought if she lost her breath one more time (or her breath caught in her throat) at his beauty, she was probably going to keel over and die.
This is a romance. With a vampire. Meyer has rewritten a few of the traditional rules about vampires, which helps to make it a little less predictable. There was only one part where I really felt any sense of tension in the story, but I can't tell you where because it will ruin the book if you plan to read it. And I have the other two books to go yet... But they are still worth reading, if only so I can think about why they are so popular.

Promise Me - Harlan Coben: Coben has a main character who is a little different from most crime investigators. Myron is a rep for sports stars and celebrities, but you see little of this in Promise Me. Myron makes the mistake of giving a friend's daughter a ride home one night, but then the girl goes missing. Another missing girl comes into the equation, and Myron investigates both (he's a suspect for a while). Coben is a good writer, but not a favourite of mine. Somehow Myron never really comes alive for me. He always seems a bit "manufactured". Maybe it's the sports rep thing - I just want a PI or a policeman/woman. Too traditional of me.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Artist as Teacher

This is at the east end of Altona Beach, looking towards the city. A nice place to walk, even when you're feeling lazy. Like today.
In yesterday's Age newspaper, there was a feature on abstract painter, Yvonne Audette, who teaches painting as well as being a recognised artist (her next exhibition is at the Ian Potter Centre here in Melbourne). When asked why she keeps teaching, she says:

"Two things. By teaching the artists, I inspire them. But I also inspire myself. By talking about everything that's important to me, it's like a ball bouncing against a wall, it comes straight back to you. I go away replenished and renewed with ideas. I couldn't paint as well and work as well if I didn't have students to teach. I've only just begun to realise how valuable it is."

It's interesting to hear an artist in another area (painting) talk about what teaching gives back to her. Writing teachers often have these discussions - does teaching enrich you or just drain you of all creativity? I know my friend T was told at a prestigious writing workshop that doing both teaching and writing was impossible and she should give up teaching.

But the reality for many is that teaching pays the bills. The problem that arises really lies in whether you enjoy the teaching or not. If you don't - if you do it just for the money - it probably will kill some of your writing, but which bits? The desire? The creativity? The urge to tell your story? The pleasure of creating and living with your characters?

I like Audette's comment re talking about the skills and the craft to students and how it comes back to you - for me, explaining things such as how to deepen your characters, improve dialogue, add sensory details, examining what is a telling detail, finding excerpts that will show these elements at work ... it all adds to my own writing. I don't think I will ever stop learning how to improve my own stories and poems, and teaching strengthens your own skills as well as the students. If I count my years in community arts, running workshops and classes, as well as the years in Professional Writing & Editing, that's a lot of teaching. And I'm always finding new things to learn and pass on. Like most writing teachers, I don't enjoy grading, but I do like workshopping where you have the opportunity to "open new doors" in terms of the possibilities for a piece of writing.
But I also love the holidays. Write, write, write. Read, read, read.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Human Writer

It was tempting to call this post "The Sub-Human Writer" or "The Normal Writer", but it's only in writers' circles/groups that being a writer is normal - to the rest of the world, especially our families, we are often just weird. As for Sub-Human, I think that's how you feel when you're working two or three jobs and trying to write as well (I think I have taken on Job Number Four now as Building Project Manager, but I don't want to think about that).
So, the Human Writer:
* can stay up until 3am to write that novel every now and then, but suffers for it for days afterwards and tends to fall asleep at dinner time, resulting in a face covered in risotto
* staggers around the library wondering who the hell wrote all these books, and why wasn't it me?
* looks for their own book in the library catalogue, and then finds it on the shelf and puts it on the Great Reads display
* looks for their own book in the bookshops and puts it facing out on the shelf, in front of the latest best-seller
* often gets depressed or down-hearted, often starts wondering about that job advertised at Pizza Hut
* has a ritual fire every now and then and burns rejection letters
* writes short stories occasionally, just as a mental break from novels, and wishes that you could still earn good money from them
* fails to manage other aspects of life and constantly sees writing time shrinking like the woolly top in hot water
* fails to manage family so they constantly infringe on writing time (and are resentful and complain about burnt dinners and piles of books everywhere and housework undone)
* networks with great effort and is prone to putting foot into mouth, but loves getting together with other writers and just talking about writing and books - it's the best!
* truly celebrates the writing successes of friends
* often has one published writer who is a bete noir and causes deep feelings of envy that are well-concealed (because it's a small world)
* recognises rewriting is crucial and is always looking for ways to become a better self-editor
* is a keen reader and gets through as many books as possible, while reading as a writer at the same time (which sometimes mars the enjoyment but is always fruitful)
* writes poems as well and loves the language-stretching that poetry inspires
* is never invited to speak at festivals and conferences because fame hasn't hit yet, and privately is OK about it because public speaking is pretty scary
* loves to celebrate achievements with champagne and wishes there were more, and too bad about the hangover
* suffers from blurry eyesight and RSI on a regular basis, but figures it's worth it, and is also doing stretches and exercises to make sure the extra computer hours don't do too much damage
* has a regular blog and hopes to be connecting with other writers and readers
* is spectacularly unphotogenic so that all author photos look terrible, and hiding behind a pile of books by other people is not an option so one day (when the big book - the break-through one - gets published) promises self a studio portrait that can be flashed anywhere without cringing.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Super-Human Writer:

* can stay up until 3am every night for weeks to finish that novel
* leaps tall library stacks in a single bound
* can find any book in the library catalogue, and then on the shelf
* never gets depressed or down-hearted, never starts wondering about that job advertised at Pizza Hut
* makes paper aeroplanes out of rejection letters and flings them into the air, laughing
* writes short stories regularly, just as a mental break from novels, and gets them published
* manages every other aspect of life so it never infringes on writing time
* manages family so they never infringe on writing time (and are never resentful)
* networks effortlessly and never puts foot into mouth
* loves rewriting and is an excellent self-editor
* is a super-fast reader and gets through 3-4 books a week
* writes poems as well and also gets them published
* is invited to speak at festivals and conferences and has the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter as well as marvelling at the intelligent, inspiring speeches
* loves to celebrate achievements with champagne but never gets a hangover
* never suffers from blurry eyesight
* has a regular blog that is intelligent, witty and often-quoted
* is spectacularly photogenic so that all author photos look glamorous, gorgeous and natural.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

What Matters

I've been re-reading a collection of essays by poet Richard Hugo - The Triggering Town (published by Norton) - and in particular, one called "In Defense of Creative-Writing Classes". He talks about creative writing in academia, the negative attitudes and dismissals of writing as something that can be taught (a familiar line that gets trotted out in the arts sections of newspapers every so often). However, towards the end of the essay, he talks about what is important in a creative writing class, something he first learned 38 years ago in a high school English class:

"... I've seen the world tell us with wars and real estate developments and bad politics and odd court decisions that our lives don't matter ... When we are told in dozens of insidious ways that our lives don't matter, we may be forced to insist, often far too loudly, that they do. A creative-writing class maybe be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters." and "If a lot of people were not already willing to run from their lives, the demand for creative-writing classes would be greater. Disappearing into the hugeness of system is not unattractive ... something pulls us back from that tempting disappearance. Call it the obsessive and irresistible love of being alive, if you can stand the rhetoric. It is born of the certainty we will disappear fast enough. Oblivion needs no help from us."

This has struck home for me, perhaps because I've just been to the Writers' Festival, perhaps because I teach creative writing ... or perhaps because it reminded me forcefully of my sister, who died 7 years ago, of cancer. In the last months, I asked her about her days - I guess I was asking how she kept going - and she said that she took great pleasure in living in the moment. If she was hanging out the washing on a fine day, she would take a few minutes to enjoy the sun and the breeze and the smell of clean clothes and the birds in the trees ... you get the picture.

How many of us do that? How many of us take pleasure in simply having written? In being able to write down how we feel, or record a family story, or create a poem?
When was the last time you quietly sat for a few moments in the spring sunshine, put your face up to the light and breathed? Without thinking about water restrictions or sun screen or weeding the garden or a million other "necessities"? When was the last time you left your mobile phone at home on purpose and felt free rather than stressed about it? When was the last time you gave someone a hug just because it felt good?
How aware are you of truly living in the moment every now and then, and letting the rest of it fall away?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Why Festival... Why Not?

Today in class, I asked who had been to something at the Writers' Festival. Two people. Admittedly I hadn't specifically asked this class to go (but my poetry class was supposed to attend at least one session - won't that be interesting when they all have to admit non-attendance). But then I have to ask - why not? It's on for 10 days - it's not like they've got a full booking sheet for 10 days in a row (and this is not really the time of year for major assignments to be due).
I know that for some it's a money issue, with many tickets costing $12 concession, and for some it's a family issue, with kids to organise. But surely they could manage one session ...?
Maybe it's a matter of perception. One perception is that last year's festival (and the ones before) were boring, with little to offer the new writer, so why should this year be different? That may be true, but I'd say: read the program - there were tons of things to choose from. I'd also say that that perception partly stems from NOT READING - festivals always look boring when there are a lot of writers there you've never heard of. Hello? If you read more widely, not only might you have heard of some of the writers, but you'd also be far more open to listening to writers unknown to you. I'd never heard of Vendela Vida before, but I was interested in her topic - rewriting - and ended up buying one of her books.
Some students have complained in the past that writers spend all their time in the sessions promoting their latest book. True. This year it seemed to have been mostly solved. Writers talked about writing, and left the promos at home (in most cases, but not all, judging by some eavesdropping I did!).
This year, most speakers I heard seemed to have left the academic-type, dry papers at home and talked freely and with energy from their notes. One person tried to wing it, and was a miserable speaker - the others showed him up.
Students have also complained that the festival is impersonal - when around 340,000 tickets are sold, that's a lot of people interested in books and writing milling around. Rather than complain that the writers are "distant" (translate that to "staying out of range"), grab a coffee and sit for a while and people-watch. You'll probably get some good story ideas, especially if you eavesdrop.
While I enjoy going to the festival and meeting up with people, I also like going on my own, choosing my own sessions and just taking up the "sponge position". I wrote a poem at a book launch, got several ideas in different sessions that I wrote down so I wouldn't forget them, and gathered a great collection of quotes. I came away feeling like being a writer was a good thing to be, regardless of how hard the road might seem.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

MWF - Forensics and Furballs

"Send it to Forensics" had three very different writers on the panel. Liz Porter writes true crime, and her book Written on the Skin has just been a co-winner in the Ned Kelly Awards. It's a compilation of interesting cases solved via forensic science, but she was at pains to point out that only a small minority of cases are solved this way. Most often, the forensics back up or confirm what the police already knew, and the backlog of evidence waiting for processing in the labs means police can't wait on it to solve crimes. Things like tyre tracks or teeth or boot marks rarely match 100%, and when they do, it's called a "CSI moment" (it's a joke).
Novel writers are usually much better at getting the details and research right - films and TV take a lot of liberties. Often true crime is too weird to use in fiction!
Georgina Hayden is a forensic linguistic expert - she analyses recordings of voices, either for the police or the defense. A typical job for her is to compare two tapes of voices and analyse vowel sounds, accents and socio-economic features - very tedious but important to get right.
Karin Slaughter said the real facts about forensics are fascinating, but she gets to "make all that crap up". In reality, she spends a huge amount of time researching methods of violence and murder, as well as investigation techniques, probably as much as a real murderer. In fact, she said, she hopes the FBI never gets a look at her research!
She doesn't want her stories and solutions to turn on forensic details - they are more about the realities of investigations, and her characters offer descriptions for the reader (rather than the author stepping in and providing it). The most complaint letters she ever received was when she let a nasty guy get away at the end of a book, proving that readers want to see justice done.

Going Long - this final session I attended felt like it went way too long. I am starting to suspect that when the facilitator encourages the writers to read from their work, it means she/he can't come up with enough decent questions to fill the time.
The session was supposed to be about short story writers who turned to novel writing, and the why and how of this move. We began with a warning from the facilitator, Melanie Ostell, that no one was allowed to ask questions about getting published, only about craft. Hmmmm.
Deborah Robertson and Ewan Morrison vaguely answered wandering questions about writing short fiction compared to novels, but neither offered anything insightful or interesting. Maybe I was suffering from too many sessions? Maybe I was suffering from insight overload from writers such as Cate Kennedy and Jeffrey Deaver, both of whom clearly had thought about their own processes and were able to articulate and explain what it was they thought they were doing. They also had interesting or humorous anecdotes to add to what they were saying.
I guess this is the difference, too, between writers who are used to appearing in public and discussing their writing and the job of being a writer. Less experienced/famous writers haven't yet built up their store of things to say; it's an art to talk about your stories and characters and craft and yet each time to make it sound new and revelatory.
(I also wonder if literary writers are sometimes less articulate about their craft because they are scared of self-analysing the "how" of writing in case it blocks them in some way. Just a thought.)
The other side of that is the writer who has done it way too many times. Years ago, I interviewed Terri McMillan ("Waiting to Exhale") who had obviously done a million interviews and was very bored and irritable at having to do yet another one. It was only when I started asking lots of questions about other stuff (not the standard ten questions everyone asks) that she livened up and became friendly.
Overall, I thought this year's festival was the best in a long time. The staggered sessions meant the foyer crush was avoided, and the wide range of things on offer meant that although many sessions weren't booked out, overall attendance (so they said) was higher. There were also some free sessions for those who couldn't afford to attend a lot of the ticketed things, which usually means students can attend.
Weirdest thing at the festival? Walking around the book tables in the bookshop and feeling the gravel move and crunch under the mats under your feet. Hard to describe, but weird all the same. Worst thing? The lack of fresh air (or any air) in the Tower Room when it got warm.
Best thing? Cate Kennedy.

MWF - John Tranter

I'm feeling a bit festivalled-out, after 12 sessions - yes, I did get a bit carried away when booking, but most sessions have been great, and it would have been hard to judge which ones were going to be the duds. So an 83% success rate was pretty good. And my qualms about parking, which is often an issue in the Sturt Street area, came to nothing, as I found a parking spot relatively easily each day.
So, I might just talk about Session 1 today, and cover the other two in another post.
"Making It New" featured poet John Tranter, and he ranged over a number of interesting topics. He is the editor of the online journal, Jacket, so is not just interested in books but also what online publishing can achieve. He talked first about his life as material, and said his early childhood and growing up years in the country are "ruptured" from his life now - he can't go back. His poems tend to be about urban topics. When asked if he was a magpie in terms of gathering ideas, he said he preferred butcher bird (nice song) or kingfisher (hunter). He often provides notes to his poems, as sometimes you can't know what the reader will see in a poem and he wants to make sure they don't miss anything. Putting poems online allows him to add not just notes but also pictures and images.
He thinks of poems as primarily being on the page - a poet who writes for performance tends to be catering too much for audience approval. A poem that is only heard must give up all of its meaning in one hearing (no chance to go back and read again). He said some poets write too much, and put out too many books.
Putting poetry online or in electronic form solves many of the distribution problems. In ten years, Jacket has had 600,000 hits to its main page. He once, through Sydney University, put a whole book of his online, and it was getting 1500 hits a month, whereas the library copy was only borrowed twice. But he also said time has shown that a book put online will actually generate greater sales for the hard copy version.
He has republished two of his other books via POD, and says it is also a viable form of publishing and keeping books in print.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

MWF - Louis Sachar and John Marsden ...

... and Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, with Lili Wilkinson as "boss". This session was in the program as The Hormone Rush, meaning it was about books for teens. No one seemed very impressed with that title, least of all Agnes.
Her new book is Right Book, Right Time, and is about great books for young readers, mostly YA. She talked about how the book is structured, and also showed examples of books she loves, including those by Meg Rosoff, American Born Chinese (won the Printz Award this year - it's a graphic novel), The Arrival by Shaun Tan and Centre of the World (which I can't find on Google but is translated from German - no author, sorry).
Louis Sachar started writing in 1976, and was told his books couldn't be published overseas because they were too American. Holes changed all that when it won several national awards. He says he writes two hours a day, sometimes less, and doesn't use an outline. While he's writing, he gets lots of ideas and puts them all in, but the first draft is terrible so subsequent drafts are about cutting and getting rid of what doesn't work. By the time he gets to the final draft, it's not that the book is perfect but that he has simply had enough of it.
Every draft is a series of questions - does this work? does this fit? He never talks to anyone about a book while he's writing it - by not talking about it, the energy stays there and forces him to write (this reminded me of things I've heard before - that if you talk about your book, you talk it out of yourself and the urge to write it dies).
John Marsden said he started writing by editing each bit as he went - which was a crippling process. He finally decided to write in a different way, by completing the whole draft before re-reading it. He also decided to write for teenagers at that time. His two "rules" are that he never uses contemporary slang (he tries to use timeless language), and he reinvents the old stories - plots are eternal, and he believes that the themes and ideas that appealed to him when he was young are the same universal things that appeal to kids and teens now.
The current vogue for fun as a principle in everything leaves him cold - fun is nice but there are better things to motivate kids with, such as the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom. Kids of 13 or 14 have many interests other than having fun, and we should cater to all those other interests as well. He looks for integrity in a book.
All of the speakers felt that if you write the best book that you can, it will find an audience. And they also agreed that there is only so much time you can spend physically writing before the words go "stale". Lili finished by quoting Les Murray (poet) from another session: "There is writing, and there is writing down. I write 24 hours a day, but I might only spend half an hour writing down."