Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nearly Cross-eyed

This week is marking week (or grading, if that's what you call it). Giving students a number or a letter for their writing is always a tricky business - after all, I'm not a publisher, so how will my HD or Credit or 15/20 really have any bearing on what a publisher might accept? But it does, somehow. As a professional writing teacher, part of what I am supposed to know is the elements of good writing. I would hope also that I recognise great writing when I read it. The one thing I try not to be is subjective. Therefore, although a horde of really bad vampire novels from students a few years ago completely turned me off the genre, if a current student wants to write a vampire novel, I'll give it my best as a teacher in terms of comments and constructive critiquing. I must say, though, that anyone who still doesn't know how to use commas and fullstops after two years drives me nuts!

One of my favourite quotes is "All the colleges in the world cannot turn a bad writer into a good one. But good teaching can teach you how not to write." Alistair Cooke. I've seen quite a few students over the years who have started out as fairly ordinary writers, but worked hard and eventually found their own voice and style, and then surged ahead in terms of producing very good writing. I've also seen students who have talent and can write terrific pieces, but don't have the persistence and stamina to complete a whole novel, or even rewrite a short story to a publishable standard.

It's as if they thought it would happen like magic - that they'd come into the course, write a few gems that would gain instant acclaim, and then a novel would appear. Without having to actually sit down for hours and days and weeks and write the darned thing, of course, or (heaven forbid) rewrite it several or a dozen times. I've also seen one or two talented poets who have written some great poems that everyone has raved about, they've had a couple published in magazines, and then decided they don't need to rewrite anymore, or even take much notice of comments. And their poetry has started to die on the page and become messy or unfocused.

After a whole year of working with three classes (an average of 40-50 students usually), it's interesting to sit back at the end and think about each student and where they might be heading and what they'll do next. There are some who never surprise me - a couple of years later I meet up with them and they're often doing some job like shop assistant or takeaway cook. Nothing wrong with that, but they're not writing either.

So it's this time of year also where I ask them - how are you going to keep writing after you graduate? Who is going to make you write? No one. No one except you. If you want to be a writer or a poet, now you have to set your own goals and deadlines, practise your craft, read widely, and continue to feed your inner writer with words and images and writing. Self-discipline and perserverance are the hardest skills to acquire and, in the long run, may well be the most valuable. Your writing will continue to improve, forever and ever, if you feed it regularly and write on a regular basis.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


On one of my Yahoo group lists, there are posts at the moment discussing what you can do about awful reviews, apart from jump off a cliff. Some people have suggested extracting one sentence (the most positive one, even if you have to take it out of context) and using it on your website. As in "While the beginning of this novel was heart-stopping, the rest of it put me into a coma" - you take out the "this novel was heart-stopping" and discard the rest.

Another tactic was to make the reviewer a character in your next book and kill him/her off. It's easy to understand why famous writers who get dozens of reviews simply stop reading them. It can become a form of self-torture. Reviewers have all sorts of agendas, hidden and open. Sometimes an editor will select a reviewer because they are known to have differing views on a topic (especially any kind of political book). It might be that in the past, the reviewer has been slighted or insulted in some way by the author, so it's revenge time.

The hardest thing is not to respond. Occasionally people do, especially when a review is patently unfair or biased, or just plain wrong in its assertions. But I've been in the position of being reviewed by someone I'd got on the wrong side of in the past, and when I saw that person's name on the review, my heart plummeted. With good reason. Friends commiserated with me, but to complain would have made me look petty. You have to take it on the chin, and move on.

In this morning's newspapers, there are two reviews of Alice Sebold's new novel The Almost Moon. You would think the reviewers had read two different books. One reviewer called it the worst second novel she'd ever read. She also said "this story is one hell of a sorry mess". Ouch! The other reviewer liked it. She didn't rave over it (so reading between the lines, you could think maybe it wasn't as good as she'd hoped) but she did say "a powerful study in the sadder, madder forms of love". After The Lovely Bones, I imagine any novel Sebold published next was going to suffer in comparison. Let's hope she ignores the reviews - by now she's probably half-way through her next novel, and just as well.

Friday, October 26, 2007


One reason I like competitions is because they have deadlines. Every year, the Age Short Story Competition acts like a carrot for me. Can I write a new story before the closing date? Often it happens simply because I've been thinking about it and the urge gets too much. With poems, I'm writing them on a fairly regular basis but sending them out doesn't happen often enough, so when the MUP competition closing date loomed, it was the impetus to look at what I'd written recently and send it off.

I often talk to students about competitions because they ask questions like, "Why do you have to pay an entry fee?" or "How can you be sure it's genuine?" Good questions. For a reputable competition, the entry fee usually goes towards funding the prize money and paying the judge. (Any competition with a goodly number of entries to read that doesn't pay the judge isn't playing fair.) But you will see some competitions where the first prize is $100 or $200, and the entry fee is $10. Whoa! Someone is making a nice profit. Those are the ones I tell students to avoid - and $10 is a lot for a student anyway.

Some competitions aren't competitions. The International Library of Poetry is one (there are several like this, including one that targets schoolkids) - they often don't charge an entry fee so they look genuine, and the $1000 first prize - sometimes bigger than this - is enticing. But what they do is publish the "winners" in a book. And everyone is a winner. The catch is you have to pay for the book. It's usually around $70+. It's cheaply printed, they cram as many poems in as possible (hundreds and hundreds) and sell it to the people whose poems are in it.

Now for many poets who haven't been published before, and may not even know of the many poetry magazines around, this is a thrill. They will say they don't mind paying the $70. Some buy more than one copy. But if you take a minute to do the sums, you'll see the problem. These books cost around $5 to print overseas somewhere, and even if only 70% of the people in the book buy one copy, that's a $65 profit per book. Sell 500 copies and you just made $32,500. And trust me, from what I've heard from people who've been caught out, this is a conservative estimate.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Hong Kong Prep

Everything is happening at once. I will have tons of marking to do - signalling the end of classes - but at the same time I'm writing course materials for our classes in Hong Kong. I'll be teaching How to Write Picture Books again at the YWCA, plus other sessions on poetry and fiction writing. Then at the Women in Publishing seminars, I'll be talking about websites and marketing, and how to sell your writing internationally. Phew! And spending two whole days at schools, which I'm looking forward to.

My friend T says, "How can you finish a year of teaching in our course and then go off and do two more weeks of it?" But it's different. Short courses are full of energy and enthusiasm. You don't have to plan for 30 weeks, just several hours. You can throw yourself into it and you know that everyone who comes along is truly keen and wants to know every single thing you can tell them. I find in 30 weeks of classes that students struggle, their personal stuff gets in the way, their commitment (in some cases, not all) wanes and they often don't put in 100%. It can get dispiriting as a teacher.

In short courses, everyone does 100% - teachers and students. We all want to make as much great stuff happen in our allotted time as possible. And Hong Kong itself is such an energetic place - people out in the streets, enjoying themselves, eating, talking, walking until after midnight. The lights, the busy-ness, the combination of ancient and modern culture all serve to re-energise us.

This time I am going on a short trip into China (as well as the big shopping trip to Shenzhen!) and also hope to hop on a ferry to Macau for the day. It is such a different place to be, both mentally and physically, that at the end of the school year, it's a total pleasure for us.
Our YWCA classes are here (look for our Write Start! week classes under Language and Communications), and our WiPs sessions are here (our sessions will be up any day under Events). If you're in Hong Kong, come along!
(And the photo is of one of the great skinny trams in Wanchai - complete with Christmas paint!)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

It's the End of the School Year

The end for us in Professional Writing & Editing, that is. Almost the end. The one thing that's left is marking. Tons of it. Truckloads of it. And for me, it all has to be done in a week. Usually I try to stagger it over a couple of weeks but I have two Tuesday classes this year, which means Melbourne Cup Day is not an option for final submissions, although it will be a day spent on marking instead of going to the races!

This time of year is hopeless for writing - usually. But it also coincides with NaNoWriMo, which is the thing you sign up for where you write 50,000 words in a month. For writers in the US, it probably works out fine. For me, with end of year marking, it's not good at all. One year I signed up, and used it to finish the last 40,000 words of a draft. I did try to start something new to reach the big 5-0 but the brain died on me.

This year, I am determined to do something! I feel like I have spent months of my life recently doing nothing but rewriting. Nothing new, nothing exciting (because I love the first draft, this is a terrible state to be in). So my friend K, who has signed up for NaNo, is going to work hard on her new novel, and I'm signing up with her (my personal NaNo - K, do I call you NaNNy?) and I'm going to be trying very hard to work on a new novel of my own. I may not get far, but it might just save my sanity while everything else is crowding in.

The other thing that saves my sanity on a constant basis is our bit of bushland about an hour out of Melbourne. I've been taking hundreds of photos over the past few years, and now we have applied for a Trust for Nature covenant. So I've decided to create a kind of photo record of what I see there. It'll be mostly plants, because I don't have a decent zoom on my camera to catch the birds and butterflies well enough. But one day... In the meantime, if you're interested, my first amateur naturalist post is up.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


I have two different novels that I have been or are currently reworking and editing for publishers. In both cases, I've been asked to rewrite the ending. In one, the ending I have at the moment doesn't work at all. Too "nice", when it's a YA novel that is dark and dangerous. I must have given in to the urge, in the early drafts, to make life happy for everyone by the end. In the second novel, which is for a younger audience, the editor has now asked for an "extended" ending. This is tricky, as a drawn-out "and then and then and then" can ruin what might otherwise be a concise resolution that already works.

How do you write a whole new ending? It's not just a matter of chopping off the last chapter and dolloping in a new surprise. It means re-reading the whole manuscript again, with the idea firmly in your mind that you are now heading for a different kind of resolution, so what might it be? The best way is to chop off the bit that has to go, so when you reach that point, all you have are blank pages, ready for the new words. One of my worries was that it's been a while since I wrote this novel so could I find that character's voice again? Another was that I did still want to leave the characters with an open door, a possibility of good things coming again. We'll see how I go with all that.

The other ending to be rewritten is, to me, more problematic. I do tend to agree with this editor that it needs a bit more, for several reasons. I just don't want to end up with an ending that drags out. Again, all I can do is write a draft and see what happens.

Funnily enough, I opened the latest issue of Writer's Digest and there was an article on endings, but it wasn't much use to me. I wondered if it would be much use to anyone really, as it was mainly about someone who was reluctant to write the ending of their novel. Nothing about endings and what they do and don't do. I find students agonise over endings - they're not easy to write, I agree. But in Short Story, where we do get to workshop a whole piece, often it's not the ending that is the problem. It's the build-up or set-up that's at fault. It's an architectural problem, where you have to look at the whole thing in order to see where you went wrong. Was it Hemingway who rewrote the ending to one of his novels 39 times? I believe that, even if it isn't true!

Friday, October 19, 2007

More Bizarre Spam

I'm starting to wonder if someone is trying to tell me something.
My latest spam email was for survival food (I haven't had any for Viagra or bodily enhancements for ages).

Be prepaired when you need it the most,

The Survival Food Store now offers long term storage food for times of emergency. Stock up now and be ready when man made or natural disasters strike.

They're offering me Military-Style MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Is it possible that Bush is pulling US Forces out of Iraq and is getting rid of extras? Mind you, when you're reading a fantastic book and don't want to stop to cook, they could come in handy...

Spam E-cards

Over the past few months, I've noticed a new kind of spam - greeting cards. Known as e-cards. Once upon a time I used to send an e-card occasionally to people I knew liked them - mostly I used Blue Mountain. But now I'm getting e-cards that I know are spam, so I just delete them.

How do I know? Well, the obvious sign is that they never say who they're from. Genuine e-cards say "You have a received a card from Joe Bloggs", and as this Joe is someone you know, you will go take a look. Spam e-cards never say who they're from. And the one I got today is a real giveaway. Can you tell how I knew it wasn't genuine?
You have recieved A Hallmark E-Card

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Poetry Online


The dull bronze creek water shivers
at the mites and evening flies
that dip and carouse in the sudden
stillness before dusk. A magpie peers
imperiously from the bridge rail.
Green finches snap and bicker
in the weeping willow; its trailing
fingers tremble and pollen drifts
like snuff spilt from a box.
High in the ironbark gum, galahs,
dark grey now, squabble and settle
then launch into the deepening sky
like ash blown onto water.
Ripples spread from under the broken tree
lodged tight against the bank.
A plump water rat, wet-sleeked fur
gleaming in the last light, glides out
and over the small dam of branches
and sodden leaves; his long white-streaked
tail rules a line at the end.

This poem of mine was published last year in Divan, an online poetry journal published by Box Hill TAFE. Not so many years ago, journals and magazines (ezines) were considered "not real publishing" by many writers - after all, if you can't hold the magazine in your hand, show it around to friends etc, what was the point? Direct them to a website? No way. But times have changed, and there are many ezines now with terrific reputations, starting with Slate (as a biggie) and covering a broad range of styles and poetry.

There are haiku journals, online versions of print journals, and even journals where you can hear audio of the poets reading. What has turned the tide, I think, is that poets are realising that with a print journal, you've maybe got an audience of a few hundred at most, whereas with online journals, you have a potential audience of thousands. Also anyone can Google your name and find your poems that way.

Divan 7 has accepted three of my poems, and will be launched early in 2008. I've also had two poems accepted by Mascara. I'm very excited about both. And what is even better, for both journals I was able to email my submissions, thus saving on postage and paper. Now all I have to do is buy a special notebook and when my poems are published, I'll print them out in full colour and paste them into it. Because, really, I still like to hold something in my hand.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Working with Editors

This is a touchy subject. You're not allowed/supposed to criticise your editor out loud (or on a blog) because it's bad manners or bad form or plain bad karma. A well-known romance writer did it a couple of months ago and was criticised roundly for it. If she didn't like the way her publisher and editor were treating her, then she should have talked to them, not whined to the whole world (was the general opinion). There have been occasions where a writer doing this has ended up being dumped by their publisher, but I suspect that the public whinge was only the tip of the iceberg.

On Friday, I attended a day for teachers of Professional Writing & Editing in Victoria (well, actually I organised the darned thing too, which is why I have more grey hairs this week). These days are always wonderful, and we always say "Why don't we do it more often?" but it does take a lot to organise because people are teaching or committed to other work things. This time we had teachers from several hundred kilometres away who made the effort to attend, which was terrific.

Our guest speaker was a supervising editor from Lonely Planet (who, if you haven't heard of them, are one of the largest publishers of travel guides in the world, and they happen to have their head office quite close by). She was a great speaker, and talked all about what they look for in editors, what the application process is - it includes a very hard editing test - and how the company works. She also told us how to become a LP author, which sounded very enticing! But the two skills she emphasised for their editors were project management abilities and being able to have a good working relationship with the authors.

Our students are learning excellent project management skills - this year, they are publishing two collections of writing (Lizard magazine and the student anthology) and in my class, ten of them are creating their own book, magazine or website. They've had to work out a production plan and timeline, and they have deadlines that I give them big nudges about, to check they're up to speed. We're having a multi-launch in 3 weeks.

Working with authors is another skill that we work on with them, but are about to do a lot more in this area. There's a tendency to think the author-editor relationship is adversarial - the editor says Do this and the author has to defend herself. In some cases, it can be exactly like that, which is a great pity, because it often leads to a bad book. A too-defensive author can dig his heels in and become extremely difficult, and foster a reputation for it so that editors actively avoid working with him. On the other hand, an overly-pedantic editor can also be detrimental to a book, forcing changes that might adversely affect voice and style, if nothing else.

The same is true of an agent - many agents these days are expected to act as first editors for their clients, but I've heard of one agent who persuaded a client to rewrite, and then the publisher preferred the original version! It's tricky, there's no doubt about it. As authors, we spend hours and days and weeks and months and years on a book, and having someone pull it apart and tell us which bits aren't working can feel like they're ripping out our guts. But the bottom line is - once it leaves the cosy safety of your home and goes on a journey out into the real world of readers, editors and critics, it has to become the best book it can possibly be before it gets glued irrevocably into a glossy cover, ready for sale. If it's not your best, it won't survive. And maybe neither will you (bad reviews make people want to open veins).

Your editor should be your working buddy, the person who is on your side, the person who wants to help you make your book fantastic, and is probably the best person to see its weak spots. It's very likely you won't be able to! So cultivate your editor, work on the relationship from your side as well, and hopefully it will be constructive and inspiring. And if you have an editor you hate? Don't diss them in public. Don't even diss them to friends unless you trust them. Work on that book, and move on.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


One of the most obvious forms of collaboration is the picture book, where one person writes the text and another illustrates it, although the usual situation is that the two don't meet, and the illustrator takes the text and interprets/illustrates with their own ideas. The editor is the go-between. There are famous collaborations in fiction - Nicci French and P.J. Tracy, for example (NF is a husband/wife team and PJT is a mother/daughter team) - where two people work together to write a novel. It's an interesting question. Who does what? Do they take turns writing chapters? Does one create the plot and the other write the words?

My writing group has been working on a novella together. It started as maybe a long short story, is now sitting on around 33,000 words and will probably end up about 50,000 words, the rate we're going. Or more. We originally thought we'd do it as a different way to create a group anthology (the Victorian FAW has a yearly award for writing group anthology), but the characters and story have kind of taken off, and we are having a load of fun.

First step was to come up with a situation that could involve a number of characters, and put them in conflict with each other. We settled on a family funeral (like weddings and Christmas, these occasions bring out the worst in some people). Each of us writes one of the characters, in first person, and there are some other characters who appear in the story too but don't have their own voices.

The best part is the plotting. We sit around the table and throw ideas around about what might happen next. What will X do? Why is Y behaving like that? What will happen when Z finds out the truth about ...? Having plotted out the next few scenes and decided from whose point of view each scene will be shown, we go away and write, then bring back our bits and read them out. Often our characters will throw in something new (that just came out of nowhere in the writing!) which makes everyone else say, "Wow, that's great, that takes it in another direction. Now, how about ..." And we start the next round of plotting.

Some characters are behaving badly and so the feedback might be, "You need to show why he's doing that", or "Your character has been observing - now she needs to act and stir up trouble". We've introduced an unexpected romance, and someone else who thought they were in love is about to realise they were wrong. Other characters are getting desperate, or looking for reconciliation. It's all inspiring and energising, and feeds into our other writing as well.

What will we do with it? Well, we are over the word limit for the award so we'll rethink that, but probably we'll make it into a book and print enough copies so we can all have one each and some for interested friends and family. We're not expecting it to be published commercially - it's going to be too short, for one thing. But mostly we're going to continue having lots of fun!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hollywood, Why Do You Bother?

I've just been to see The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, and found it very disappointing. It's one of those movies where they've tried really hard but it hasn't worked. The warning signs were in the first few minutes, where we are shown various things to ensure we know this is an American family in the depths of England (this is not in the book) - the flashing around of iPods and mobile phones was weird, and they're not seen again. The main actor has been to the Daniel Radcliffe School of Acting (show all emotion with wide eyes and slightly open mouth), and he's fourteen. In the book, Will is eleven, and that age is significant.

There are other things I won't go into - suffice to say that the movie felt insubstantial, and tried to make up for it with special effects and scary music. Instead of recreating the feel of ancient England's steady encroachment on the present, the movie seems to try to stay in 2007 and then jump suddenly into sets that look like leftovers from a 1950s horror movie. I remember the books as having depth and real creepy suspense. In the book The Dark is Rising, for example, there is another character called the Walker, who appears as a dirty old tramp. He creates tension for Will right from the beginning. He's not in the movie. I'm now going to go back and read the books again - I'd resisted until I'd seen the movie - and am starting with the first one, Over Sea, Under Stone, which has entirely different characters.

It's strange how a book can affect you so strongly, and then the movie is so shallow. I thought the same about The Bridge to Terabithia, that the fantasy element they introduced wasn't necessary. Maybe there are just some books that will never translate to the screen and evoke the same emotion that you have when you read them. It's something I talk about with writer friends now and then - is it better to have read the book first or seen the movie first? Because I hate knowing the ending, I prefer to read the book because then all the anticipation is still there. If I see the movie later, it doesn't bother me so much to know how it ends if the journey is interesting.

I only re-read books when I've forgotten how they end! Or if I am looking at something in particular, such as dialogue or setting. I rarely watch a movie more than once, unless I've forgotten how that ends too. But I know a couple of people who, once they've read the first few chapters of a book, will read the ending before they continue. Maybe that's why I love poetry - it's not about the ending. And I can read a poem many times and see more things in it each time. My husband says that's why he watches movies several times, because he sees new things. Just as we all like different kinds of books and movies, we also seem to get different experiences from them.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

My Block and Your Block

Writers talk a lot about writer's block. How you get it, how you get over it, what it means (deep down), whether it's about fear or laziness or trauma, who's had it the longest, which famous writers have suffered from it... but really, for every writer, their block is their own. No one's is ever like anyone else's. If you really want to write, but you can't, it can be hell. You sit at your desk and nothing happens. Mostly, you don't sit at your desk if you can avoid it, because then you really know nothing is happening, whereas if you are busy doing chores or school work or housework, you don't have to admit you're blocked. You're just very busy.

Writers who are gaily writing pages and pages of stuff heap scorn (even if only privately) on writers who say they are suffering writer's block. "Just write anything" is common advice. "Free writing works" is another, because if you're free writing, even if it's awful, you are at least writing. There's a belief among some people that there is no such thing as writer's block. If you are a writer, then you write. If you have a book due on 31 December, then you write. If you have two articles due next week, then you write. Writer's block? Rubbish!

To some extent, this is true. If you are a writer, then you write. Do you hear of plumbers having plumber's block? "No, I'm sorry, Mrs J, I can't fix your toilet today. I have plumber's block. Can't tell you when I'll get over it. You know how it is." My own theory is that it often has to do with confidence. Writer's block is not about not being able to write - after all, you only need to pick up the pen and start scribbling and technically you are writing. Writer's block is about believing you can't write. And that's a whole different issue.

What does can't mean? It may mean "I can't write anything good so I might as well not try." It may mean "Everyone rejects what I write so I may as well give up." Plus some of these: "I never have any original ideas", "My husband/mother/teacher says I'm not a good writer", "I sit down to write and my mind goes blank", "I try to write but only garbage comes out". None of these are actually about writing, they're about what the writer thinks their writing should be.

It should be (pick one or any): brilliant, publishable, approved of by everyone I know, inspired, full of wonderful language, totally original, perfect, prize-winning, exhilarating. The truth is that none of these things occur in a first draft. On rare occasions, you might get close. Those almost-perfect first drafts are a gift to be treasured, but not to be constantly emulated. It's not possible. The more you expect that your writing will be wonderful and perfect and amazing in the first draft, the more you are setting yourself up for disappointment and disillusionment, and yes, probably a case of block at some point.

The one thing I've learned over the years is to keep writing. It's why I often do the writing exercises that I set for my classes. This year, along with my Poetry 2 students, I've written about 100 poems. Many in class, more outside of class because I'm "in the habit". But I have to admit that over the mid-semester break, apart from poems, I did very little writing. And I realised that the reason was I was waiting to start a new novel. I'm not quite ready yet, so I wrote nothing else, despite the fact that I have other projects to work on, or rewriting to do. I just plain avoided it because I was waiting for the perfect moment to begin.

There is no perfect moment, except for right now.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Put Your Eyes Back

On my friend's blog (Speculating about Fiction - link to the right), she has been talking about a few grammar things that bug her, where people use the wrong words without checking their meaning. I've mentioned some here in the past, such as I thought to myself - unless you're writing about someone with telepathic powers, who else would you think to?

But I have recently noticed a physical tag that is absolutely being done to death. It's in everything I read, not just YA, and it's starting to annoy me big-time. It's the eye rolling thing. OK, it can be hard to show emotion, especially sarcasm or exasperation, rather than telling - it's the rule we have hammered into us, over and over. Show, don't tell. But I'm here to tell you - stop the eye rolling!

I've just finished Kathy Reichs' new book Bones to Ashes, and if Tempe Brennan rolls her eyes one more time, they'll pop right out of her head and disappear under the bone table. Next day, I'm reading a feature article in the weekend newspaper and someone starts eye rolling in that too. Is nothing free of the eye rolling phenomena? Is this a new disease that no one told us about? Or have writers everywhere slipped into using it without realising it's about to become a huge, fat, horrible CLICHE?

Friday, October 05, 2007

What They Said

The other night, on the ABC, there was an interview with Yvonne Kenny, who is a famous Australian opera singer. When asked about her early life, especially when she was first starting out trying to be a singer and win roles in operas, she said the family would often ask her when she was going to get a "proper job". It's only now, after many years of being a professional singer, performing all over the world, that she seems to be able to look back on her accomplishments and laugh, and say, "See? I followed my dream."

I've talked to several writers about what drives us to write. Or more usually, what drives us to write for publication. Anyone can write journals or diaries or poems to amuse themselves, but there comes a point where you step over the line and start sending your work out. For many, the first few rejections are enough to stop them. For some, it proves to them that it was "only a silly idea" and they go off and do something else. I often warn students that once they graduate from the course, they are on their own, and that's a hard thing to come to terms with. No more deadlines, no more feedback or workshopping - quite a few now form their own writing groups.

Sometimes writers say they want to be published to be validated in some way, and it's amazing how much of that "validation" is about family - whether it's mother, father, sister, or someone along the way (often a teacher at school) who has poured scorn on the desire or the dream. Getting published is a great way to say "Now you can go and get ***". Sometimes the validation is simply about self-worth, and with publishing being the way it is these days, that's a rocky path to tread.

Lots of new writers that I meet have trouble with the idea that publishing is a business. They point to people like Raymond Carver, who had an editor who helped to shape his early work, or someone like Frank McCourt, who wrote about his terrible childhood and made a million from it. But Carver and McCourt aren't famous because a publisher thought their book was "worthy". They're famous because they wrote something so good that people would pay money to own a copy and read it.

When I was a kid, I was, of course, extremely well-behaved and quiet (not). My mother's favourite saying, when I got too much for her, was, "Stop creating!". (Mother translation: stop carrying on or you'll get a thick ear.) My mother is no longer around to tell me to stop anything, but she was a voracious reader, and a writer of diaries, and I can't help wondering sometimes if she was still alive, what she'd think of me now. Stop creating? Not likely, Mum.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Final Edits (the hate phase)

Rewriting is vital - we all acknowledge this, even those who resist it. It would be wonderful if every piece of writing came out perfect first time, but that rarely happens, and with a novel, probably never. Some writers revise as they go, working backwards and forwards, not creating the next pages of new words until they're happy with what's already there. Others (like me) prefer to finish the whole draft before beginning the rewrites.

There are some novels that I have completely rewritten two or three times - by this, I mean putting the draft aside and starting again from scratch, without referring to the earlier version at all. Some novels demand this - they demand that you re-vision the whole thing, not just fix bits of it. Usually I am cutting as well as rewriting. I say too much, too obviously. But I'm also adding - deepening character, motivation and description. I hate the idea of padding though, so anything added has to be necessary.

Past all of that, you eventually reach the final editing stage, the nit-picking stage. At this point, I read and re-read, looking for anything that niggles. If it niggles, if it stops me reading, even if I'm not sure why, I mark it and come back later to rework. The nit-picking is important, but it drives me crazy. My own words all start to sound ridiculous, overblown or pathetic. I keep thinking - who is going to want to read this rubbish? But I keep going with it, knowing it only takes one clunky sentence or wrong word to pull the reader out of the story.

Finally, I hate the story with a passion. I never want to see it again. I believe if the editor asks me to change one more thing, I'll run off screaming, never to be seen again (but I don't - I do what is asked, if it's right). Sometimes people ask me if I read my books again after they've been published, and apart from reading them to kids on school visits, the answer is no. Why on earth would I want to do that? But I also avoid it because it's almost inevitable that I'll see something that I missed, that I wish I could change. Too late now!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Give the Eyes a Rest

Today I drove about an hour out of Melbourne to Lancefield (I spent several hours looking at a large range of native plants, including several orchids and lilies - tiny ones - and learning how to identify weeds) and had to take a photo of the canola. Several farmers have planted vast fields of it and at this time of year, when it flowers, the vivid yellow is startling. I love coming upon a paddock of it around a corner, like this one, and being bowled over by the colour.

No writing today. Three hours of trekking through the bush was fun and was fascinating. I came home to look up exactly what a bandicoot looks like! (in case I see a live one) And I did stop off in a local cafe for lunch and sat quietly, working on my current rewrite. And I resisted entering the new local bookshop across the street - but I can recommend it. Red Door Books in Lancefield. Don't miss it if you're up that way! But after staying up until 11pm last night to finish The Off Season, my eyes are stinging and I need an early night.

Besides, I've been invited to a Trivia Night on Friday, where the trivia topic is pirates. I have to get plenty of rest...